May 5th is one hundred years since the death of this British film inventor and pioneer. The Kennington Bioscope is streaming a discussion on his life and work by three researcher/historians; Ian Christie: Peter Domankiewicz: Stephen Herbert; ‘Back in focus: The Centenary of William Friese-Greene’. Wednesday May 5th at 7.30 p.m. [BST] and subsequently on line on You Tube. [NB it seems that there is 50 seconds of a blank screen with no sound before the You Tube broadcast kicks in.]
Friese-Greene was one of a number of people in the 1880s experimenting on techniques to produce the illusion of a moving image from projected photographic film. He produced several working cameras between 1888 and 1891 and issued a patent for these. However, like some of the other inventors, he was not successful in projecting these images in a public showing; it was the Lumière Brothers success in this that made their work historic.
Friese-Greene ran a successful photographic portrait studio but his main interests were his experiments and the costs of his work on moving images led to bankruptcy. In the early 1900 he then experimented with early colour film. One of these, Biocolour, was projected successfully but it was eclipsed by other examples; it suffered from heavy flicker and colour fringing. Examples of his early films are available on You Tube, including a refurbished version of ‘The Open Road’, shot by his son Claude using his father’s system.
Friese-Greene‘s last public appearance was attending and speaking at a meeting of members of the British Film industry. Ironically he collapsed at the meeting and died.
He was for a long time a forgotten figure. The film biopic,The Magic Box, produced in 1951 was planned to accompany the Festival of Britain in that year. The film was produced by Festival Film Productions, partly funded by the National Film Finance Corporation with contributions from all the major British production companies either for free or at cost. The script was by Eric Ambler based on a book by Ray Allister and directed by John Boulting. The film was shot in Technicolor, at that time reserved for prestige production in Britain. The technical side and the casting benefited from the varied contributing companies. There is is excellent colour cinematography by Jack Cardiff, fine production design by John Bryan and excellent costume design by Julia Squire. There are a host of cameos by British stars but there is a lack of dramtic effect. The film was a failure at the box office.
The film’s focus is the travails of his career. The sequences showing his experiments are brief. That depicting colour does not give much sense of the technology but that showing his working camera and projector does give a greater sense of its operation. There are some dates, such as the Industry meeting, but others, like the success with projecting his film,or his work on colour film, is curiously undated.
Brian Coe in The History of Movie Photography, Eastview Editions, 1981 is sceptical of the claims put forward in the film. He questions whether the machine described in Friese-Greene’s patents actually projected at the required frame rate of 16; and he reckons that the inventor only used celluloid after its use in the Edison workshops. Friese-Greene’s Biocolour system has more credence but fell foul of a patent suit by Charles Urban for his Kinemacolor. There is more on the Blog William Friese-Greene & me. Happily it also includes posts on another pioneer in Britain, Louis le Prince. The Bioscope presentation will likely shed more light on Friese-Greene and his contribution to cinema history.
Italian popular cinema in the 1960s and 1970s is a thing of wonder and I certainly haven’t seen enough of it. MUBI are currently offering a short season of recent Italian films which are mostly not the kind of Italian films that currently achieve international distribution. I’ve moaned on this blog frequently about Italian films I’ve seen in festivals that should be seen in the UK but they never seem to get here. Life as a B Movie is very welcome as an online offering because it tells a story about a singular figure in Italian media and does so with numerous clips from the films which benefited from his involvement.
The subject of this documentary biopic is Piero Vivarelli (1927-2010) who was perhaps most importantly a writer but also a music promoter and director of a broad range of ‘B’ pictures. His first interest appears to have been music (pop and jazz) and his obsession appears to have been variations of the ‘youth picture’ or as he was more prone to express it, the battle between the young generation and their parents’ generation. We get to see clips from several pop music influenced youth pix, one of which, Howlers of the Dock (1960) has a squadron of Vespa riding youths well before Quadrophenia. Vivarelli co-wrote with many people and seemed to have a real knack of finding talented people to work with including Lucio Fulci who would later become a well-known genre film director. With Fulci and others Vivarelli wrote the song ’24 Mila Baci’ or ‘24,000 Kisses’ which became a No 1 hit in Italy and Spain. This was a period in which Italian pop music became popular across Europe and was even covered in the UK and the US. I was amazed to realise that ’24 Mila Baci’ features on the soundtrack of Pawel Pawlikowski’s film Ida (Poland 2013), set in 1962. We also see an interview with the Serbian director Emir Kusturica who used a performance of the song in an early film.
Vivarelli’s own films include an intriguing youth romance set in Berlin at the time of the building of the Berlin Wall in 1962, known as East Zone, West Zone in English and starring Helmut Griem who became an international film star in the 1970s. Perhaps his most prominent role for international audiences was as one (arguably the most significant) of the writers of Django (Italy-Spain 1966) the Western with a host of later ‘sequels’. The documentary includes interviews with Franco Nero, the central character and explores the role of Vivarelli alongside director Sergio Corbuci and co-writer Franco Rossetti, who like Vivarelli came from Siena.
The documentary’s directors offer this statement:
To depict this offbeat, complex, unsung Italian pop culture personality we chose a non-linear narrative style with several intersecting thematic story lines weaved into an only partly chronological tapestry. The key to our narrative is the deep interconnection that we came across between his life and his movies. The title is not a gimmick.
Our intention was to bring to fore the pioneer aspects of the pioneer/provocateur Piero Vivarelli in Italian music and movies, trying to place him not just locally, but within the broader context of the post-war global pop culture explosion. At the same time we tried to provide a sense of a very particular typically Italian post-war vitality that he encapsulates. It’s the particular energy that prompted Tarantino’s passion for the Italian B-movie genre. Last but not least, we tried to recount his extraordinary erotic sensuality, the driving force for everything Piero did.
Fabrizio Laurenti, Niccolò Vivarelli
Niccolò Vivarelli is (according to Cineuropa) Piero Vivarelli’s grandson. This doesn’t mean that the documentary shies away from Vivarelli’s less savoury qualities. He was a determined womaniser and not averse to cheating on wives and lovers with the singers and actresses he met. He was not a good father and he lost a son to drugs, but the many interviewees, including those who might be expected to be hurt, seem prepared to praise him. He was attracted to women of colour and married the Jamaican actor Beryl Cunningham who was a leading player in Il dio serpente (1970). This film was made in Columbia and developed Vivarelli’s interest in erotic movies. It was followed by The Black Decameron (1972), again with Cunningham, but this time made in Senegal. I was amazed to discover that Vivarelli knew Djibril Diop Mambety, who has a role in the film.This seems so unlikely and I can’t find any supporting evidence in, for instance, IMDb but it seems a confident claim. Claims are also made that during the shoot in Senegal, (which had support from President Senghor), Vivarelli was able to meet rebels from Guinea-Bissau, led by Luís Cabral, who were fighting for independence from Portuguese colonialism and we see photographic evidence. Vivarelli does seem to have been an extraordinary man and the documentary’s title seems apt. His life defied any neat description or classification.
Throughout the film the two directors mix and interweave the stories of Vivarelli’s films, his numerous relationships and his political life. As a teenager he had joined a notorious fascist commando troop (a combination of parachutists and navy seals), partly because of his father’s death as an Italian soldier killed by partisans. Soon after the end of the war he switched to join the Italian Communist Party. He seems to have been radical/leftist from then on. His increasing interest in erotic movies meant further films focusing on women of colour with Codice d’amore orientale (1974) an ‘erotic documentary’ filmed in Thailand and involvement as a writer on Joe D’Amato’s Emanuelle in Bangkok (1976) and Emanuelle in America (1977), both with Laura Gemser. Despite the reputations of these films, interviewees assert that Vivarelli was not a colonialist. His final film was La rumbera (Italy 1998) which presented the Cuban revolution via the story of a dancer. The film was made in Cuba and Vivarelli met Castro as seen in the photo above. Im intrigued as to what Fidel is thinking when he looks at Vivarelli.
I’m sure I haven’t done justice to this remarkable film, but it’s on MUBI until April 29 I think. Do check it out if you have a subscription. One last thought. The films Vivarelli and his collaborators made are very difficult to see now, but as one of the interviewees suggests, during the 1960s and 1970s at the height of Italian film production, many of these films sold well in Italy and overseas and they helped pave the way for the more celebrated Italian art films to gain international distribution. Vivarelli was in many ways an innovator. This trailer gives a good sense of the delirium of the documentary.
Screen International reports that Tim Richards, CEO of Vue International has written to BAFTA threatening to withdraw support for the industry body if it doesn’t change its eligibility rules re films ‘made for television’. With the prospect of more possible awards for Roma at the Oscars, Vue could be just the first of the major exhibitors to make this kind of threat.
In the UK, Netflix signed an exclusive deal with Curzon to show Roma only in Curzon cinemas in a controlled manner aligned with the film’s launch on Netflix. In the event, Curzon did later allow a handful of independent cinemas a limited number of showings in the UK and Ireland. Even so, as Screen International expressed it, this ‘Curzon ecology’ represents only 0.9% of the UK and Ireland market. The major cinema chains might expect to see a reasonable amount of extra box office from a film that wins a BAFTA. Roma won four BAFTAs including Best Picture.
Vue International operates 215 cinema sites across Europe (with 1 in Taiwan). These are nearly all multiplexes and Vue offers over 1,900 screens in total. Its main business is in the UK and Ireland with 864 screens on 90 sites. As an operation, its cinema business is similar to its two larger UK rivals, Odeon (AMC) and Cineworld.
Odeon operates 360 sites in Europe with over 2,900 screens. Its parent company AMC is the world’s largest cinema exhibitor with nearly 1,000 sites worldwide and nearly 11,000 screens on offer (the majority in North America).
Cineworld currently operates 9,548 screens across 793 sites in the US, UK, Ireland, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania and Israel.
It’s worth reflecting on a number of other similar issues arising from film exhibition/distribution disputes in the last few years. In October 2018 Vue in the UK also had a dispute with Warner Brothers, distributors of A Star is Born. This was said to be about ‘booking conditions’ and was relatively quickly resolved but even so, Vue would have lost the business of the first couple of weeks of a major release. We’ve also seen similar disputes between Disney and Odeon. In 2016 a different dispute saw Tarantino’s film The Hateful 8 get some exclusive screenings in 70mm as stipulated by the director. As a result Cineworld boycotted the film. (See Keith’s review of the film at an independent in Barnsley.)
The issue that underpins all of these disputes has two separate parts. First, modern film exhibition assumes that any film can be shown in any cinema on its first release (what was once called ‘first run’). This is assumed as part of the concept of the multiplex. This wasn’t always the case. In the UK the ‘duopoly’ of Odeon and ABC assumed up until the 1980s that Hollywood films appeared on one circuit or the other except in places where there wasn’t a local competition. Second, the exhibition sector works on the basis of a set ‘window’ during which a film on a cinema release cannot be shown on any other ‘platform’. This window is being gradually closed. It was once two or three years, now it is commonly 14 weeks or less. Netflix wishes to abolish the window completely and this caused the latest problem with Vue. On BBC Radio 4 last night, Tim Richards implied that they could have screened Roma but to do so would have undermined the concept of the window and he wasn’t prepared to do that.
There is a third issue that relates to the above and we saw this a few years ago, again with Curzon at the centre of the dispute. This is the issue of ‘barring’ which was banned in the UK by the regulatory authorities in the pre-multiplex era but occasionally threatens to re-emerge in the specialised cinema sector. When Curzon opened a cinema in Sheffield, it refused to release a film which it was distributing under its own distribution arm to the long-standing specialised cinema in the city, The Showroom. Curzon is now in a powerful ‘gate-keeping’ position as the major distributor of arthouse films in the UK with the a significant number of West End screens. It also has its own streaming service, allowing it to release both in cinemas and online on the same day – making it a good match for Netflix. Curzon’s actions must have an impact of some kind on both Picturehouses (now part of Cineworld) and Everyman. The latter is the fastest growing of the smaller chains at the moment and seems to have focused mainly on comfort and good rather than programming to drive its commercial offer to middle-class audiences. Picturehouses has its own distribution business but doesn’t seem to have responded to Curzon with a joint theatre-online exhibition offer.
On this blog, Nick has emerged as a Netflix fan, or at least a prolific viewer. I think Rona and Des both use Netflix but I suspect Keith is not interested. I’m trying to resist Netflix as well. Having subscribed to MUBI I now have more films to watch than I can handle. I’m trying to judge whether subscribing online is making me less likely to go to the cinema – or whether the poor local offer of foreign language titles and other specialised films is pushing me towards that Apple TV box winking at me from below the TV.
This film was screened in Bradford as part of the UK’s ‘China Film Week’. Bradford was the first UNESCO ‘City of Film’ and is now linked to the similar UNESCO City of Film in Qingdao. The screening was introduced by David Wilson, Director Bradford City of Film and then by the film’s writer Li Chunli. I wasn’t sure what to expect but after watching it, I think When a Peking Family Meets an Au Pair was in some ways the right choice, but in other ways an unfortunate choice.
Ms Li told us that this was a ‘family film’. It was advertised as a comedy and it came across as a family melodrama with a strong comedy element. I’m not sure why a film from 2014 should be chosen, but the film’s theme is certainly contemporary and, perhaps surprisingly, it is shared with Jia Zhang-ke’s Mountains May Depart (China-Japan-France 2015) and has a long history going back to Clara Law’s Farewell China (HK 1990) and earlier. I’m referring to the aspiration of many middle-class Chinese families to emigrate to the ‘West’ for various reasons – and in particular to think about taking their children (or more likely ‘child’) with them to receive a ‘good’ education. This desire has been caught by Qin (Xu Fan), who after fifteen years of marriage to Su (Chen Jianbin), decides that she must prepare to get a job abroad and that her small daughter Pipi (Chen Yinuo) would benefit from the presence of an au pair who speaks English – help with Pipi is also needed because both parents work long hours. Interviewing candidates from around the world she selects Natalie (Gianina Arana), a bubbly young woman from Colombia who speaks good English and passable Mandarin. The problems begin soon after Natalie arrives.
Pipi is being brought up like a little ‘princess’ who is only allowed out in taxis, never public transport. She has organic fruit and her soup is filtered to remove fish bones – and so on. Natalie is a free spirit who likes to play with children and to ‘set them free’. Qin is a make-up artist for film and TV. Her husband (who often sides with Natalie) earns less than his wife as a producer of traditional Peking Opera. Together their salaries can barely pay for the extravagant style of Pipi’s upbringing. It gets worse when Qin signs on with an agency that promises to find her a job abroad (for a substantial fee). At one point Qi meets an old friend who is briefly home after migrating and who tells Qin of the stress she suffers.
The comedy comes from the clash between Qin and Natalie and their ideas about how to raise children – and the mayhem that Pipi is capable of creating as a result. Dad remains in the background but the marriage is clearly suffering and this provides the drama alongside some of the dangerous consequences of the au pair situation. As Natalie points out, if Pipi is always wrapped in cotton wool, she won’t be able to survive in the real world outside. Shu does however chide Natalie at times, pointing out that there are reasons why Chinese families do things that she doesn’t understand. Natalie is a ‘typed’ foreign character and mainstream Chinese films suffer from this kind of typing in the same way as Hollywood and European films. It’s useful, I think, that UK audiences are able to reflect on this. As well as the migration issue, the film picks up on other topical issues like the traffic jams in Beijing, but overall this is the tourist view of affluent China which says little about the rest of the country. It also demonstrates how Chinese comedy films exaggerate awkward situations to develop broad comedy potential with forms of slapstick. I didn’t notice any reference to Natalie’s racial difference but she is typed as being materialistic and individualistic in her approach to life – wanting to be the richest and most successful. Qin acts as if she wants to be the same but recognises that this might be unacceptable. There is an interesting set of questions about ideology here.
But while the content of the film may be a useful insight into aspects of the lives of the Beijing middle classes, the presentation of the film might be more of a shock for UK audiences. I’m familiar with DVDs of Chinese and Hong Kong films and the practice of subtitling in English and Simplified Chinese and I’m used to subtitling generally. But in this case, the very rapid cutting between characters speaking quickly was at first difficult to follow. Overall, the editing in the film seemed to struggle to hold the narrative together. This is odd because as far as I can see the film’s editor, Zhou Xinxia, is the only really experienced head of department in a crew working with an inexperienced director and writer. Perhaps it is the use of music which underlines all of this. Every scene is scored to underline the changes of mood from comedy to romance to drama. The non-diegetic music is relentless and the abrupt changes of musical style are jarring. I’m afraid that the film doesn’t represent the high quality of much of the mainstream (and arthouse) cinema produced in China today. Perhaps the industry has just grown too quickly? We were told that the film featured many well-known Chinese star actors. As far as I can see, most of them are in minor roles. The exception is the lead pair Xu Fan and Chen Jianbin as the parents in the family. Xu Fan has a thankless role as the mother but I found the father to be the most interesting character. Chen Jianbin once featured in Jia Zhang-khe’s 24 City (China-Japan-France 2008). When a Peking Family Meets an Au Pair has shown twice now in the UK and I found another screening advertised in Belgium. I’m assuming that the Chinese cultural agencies have sanctioned these screenings for the China Film Office whereas an independent Chinese film would not have been deemed suitable. (Ironically the music recording in the film was listed as being carried out in Singapore and Taiwan.) We might at least have been offered a Feng Xiaogang film (in which Xu Fan has played leading roles in the past) or something from another mainstream director of standing. Still, I’m glad I attended the free screening and I hope for good things from the Bradford-Qingdao partnership.
Here’s the Chinese trailer (no English subs):
Netflix and Amazon don’t interest me as subscription services – except that not being a subscriber means that it isn’t possible for me to fully understand what they mean for other cinephiles because I don’t know the full extent of what they show. I have used both iTunes and Curzon World to watch films, paying a fee each time, but MUBI represents something different. After 30 days of free viewing with a promotional voucher I’m now a subscriber at £1 per month for three months. They are certainly prepared to give me a long taster before charging me the standard £7.99 a month. At this point I do feel I’ve got a reasonable idea of how the service works and whether I would recommend it.
The MUBI model is to offer a new film (i.e. added to the current slate) each day. Once added that film is then available for the next 30 days. These titles are free to watch and re-watch over the 30 days for all subscribers. In addition, MUBI offers a rental section which is much more select than the big providers – just 128 films are currently available. These titles are available for rent for as little as £2.49 with a handful of current films costing £4.49. The rental period is standard – once you’ve paid you have 30 days to organise a viewing which must be completed in 48 hours once you start viewing. What kinds of films are on offer as rentals and as selected ‘film of the day’? On the whole these are definitely cinephile offerings. Many are ‘festival films’ – films which you are unlikely to find easily on a cinema release or even on DVD or Blu-ray in the UK. MUBI operates in several territories and has deals which enable it to put films in front of UK subscribers that could not otherwise be seen. I’ve already blogged on films by Thomas Arslan and Angela Schanelec that certainly fall into that category. All of the titles are ‘curated’ in some way, selected in accordance with various criteria according to auteur status, avant-garde, documentary etc. There are American independents and Hollywood auteurs such as the melodramas of Douglas Sirk at Universal or Jacques Tourneur’s Technicolor Western Canyon Passage. There are films from Europe, Latin America and Asia with a couple from Africa, but nothing so far that I’ve noticed from India. There is a small selection of films that MUBI has distributed itself – to cinemas and online. What else does MUBI offer? Curation means that you can dig quite deep into MUBI’s archives to find pieces written for its ‘Notebook’ on a wide range of films and topics. These pieces by writers, some of whom are familiar to me, are of varying lengths and complexity/access. MUBI’s sense of community is also fostered by its Twitter feed (and subscribers receive email alerts). One feature that is both useful and annoying is the provision of pages on lots of films that have been available in the past, may be available on other MUBI sites in different territories – and may return to the UK site. To give an example, there are eight films for rental from Walerian Borowczyk, but all 40 of his films have a page on the MUBI site. On these pages are cast lists and user reviews as well as links to appropriate Notebook articles.
I’ve actually been registered with MUBI since 2010 (it was previously known as The Auteurs), but have not subscribed up until now. I always understood that the idea behind MUBI was to generate a ‘conversation’ about films that was properly global, something this blog is obviously going to support. For a long time though I thought that I could be satisfied by the films on offer in my local cinemas. Alas I’m increasingly beginning to despair at what’s on offer and to worry that as I become more decrepit I won’t want to travel so far to watch films in cinemas. I haven’t actually reached that point yet, but it is comforting to know that there is a service out there. In the last thirty days I have watched around eight films on MUBI and dipped into a few more without as yet finishing them. The service is clearly worth £7.99 per month. My home broadband signal (very fast by UK standards produces a very efficient streaming service and I’ve no complaints about the quality of the image. I want to watch around a third of the films on offer, perhaps another third I’ve already seen and the rest don’t interest me that much, though I’m game to try some of them. The problem remains that watching on my TV doesn’t equate to seeing the films in the cinema – but the possibility of re-watching them is very appealing. Overall, I’d say that it is a worthwhile service that I look forward to exploring further.
MUBI was founded in 2007 by Turkish engineer and entrepreneur Efe Çakarel. It has had partnerships with several film-related organisations over the last eight years and is now available in several parts of the world via Mac and PCs, iOS and Samsung Smart TVs. In 2015 it was reported to have a global subscriber base of over 7 million.
Roy commented in his review of ‘Jackie’ about the aspect ratios:
“The opening frames of the film set me trying to calculate the aspect ratio. In our local cinema that is usually proud of its presentation procedures, the image was not properly masked. Eventually I realised that it was set as 1.66:1, that odd ratio favoured by some European and British producers for many years after the development of widescreen processes in the 1950s. It was only later that the lack of masking reminded me of a similar problem with Pablo Larrain’s earlier film No (Chile-US-France-Mexico 2011). The way cinema projection boxes are set up for DCPs now means that the projected image is set to 1.85:1 with the smaller 1.66:1 framing inside it. When the image is bright and the film frame is not masked, the letterboxing at the sides is always visible as dark grey and I found it distracting.”
Added to this the film recreates the famous CBS ‘tour’ of the White House with the First Lady and in a television ratio of 4:3: consequently even larger black bars.
I am not sure where Roy saw the feature, I watched it in Pictureville at the National Media Museum. This had masking but set to 1.85:1, which rather surprised me as I have seen the ratio properly masked at other screenings. The reason apparently is the much reduced projection team now that the film programming is provided by Picturehouse. Some screenings rely on the automated process where the DCP sends ‘signals’ that operate functions such as masking. It seems the cinema has not yet been able to include .1.66:1 masking in this process.
Like Roy I find this aspect of digital annoying., The black bars that surround the frame are not of the same density as masking and are clearly visible. In fact, they do not absorb light as effectively and can be more noticeable when the image is in high-key: whilst with low-key images it is often difficult to discern the edges of the frame.
Currently around West Yorkshire Picture House at the National Media Museum, The Cottage Road Cinema and the Hyde Park Picture House all provide masking for screenings. I think some of the other cinemas in the Morris chain do so and Hebden Bridge Picture House also has masking. The multiplexes almost uniformly do not. Frustratingly the Vue in The Light has [or certainly had] masking from 2.35:1 frame on its screens, [which apparently are 16:9 rather than 1.85:1] but does not use this anymore. The Bradford Odeon is better for some titles as it has masking by drapes for 1.85:1 and the screens are 2.35:1 so full widescreen is also masked.
Even with masking digital offers problems. Roy referred to Larrain’s earlier film No. Because the film was recreating events and television filming it was in a ratio of 1.40:1. But this was placed in a digital frame of 1.85:1. Bizarrely the British release, [I am uncertain about other territories] had yellow subtitles which ran the full width of the frame, so the screening had to be masked [if at all] to 1.85:1, with the problematic black bars on either side.
There are also problems in the descriptions provided by distributors, exhibitors and reviewers. One is the anamorphic ratio of 2.39:1: though everybody continues to use the 2.35:1 term. This ratio appeared in the 1970s, a slight change from the existing 2.35:1. The specification was standardised in the early 1990s. The rationale was to deal with splices in the film. It continues to be used in the contemporary DCP format, though these does not have splices? It is unclear just how consistent the usage is? Most of the time the difference is not discernible but some films are apparently in 2.39:1 and some in 2.35:1. It complicates matters. I believe that both Pictureville and the Hyde Park have masking for 2.35:1. And of course, a whole host of films were shot in 2.35:1, but sometimes they are ‘stretched’ into 2.39:1. It is not really apparent though I sometimes notice a tiny edge under the drapes.
The lack of attention to specifics becomes more of a problem with greater differences in ratios. Take a film like 20th Century Women (USA 2016) which the Sight & Sound lists as 2.35:1 but which IMDB correctly describes as 2:1. It has to be projected in 1.85:1 with narrow [almost] black bars at the top and bottom of the frame. I assume this is intended by the filmmakers, but why?
There does seem to be a sloppy approach to ratio amongst some filmmakers. Digital cameras such as the Arri Alexa offer the filmmaker a variety of aspect ratios in-camera. I am not sure how carefully these are always checked or set. I have seen a number of foreign language films in 1.85:1 where there is a problem fitting the English subtitles on the screen; in at least some cases this seems to be because the frame ratio is not exactly 1.85:1. There are definitely filmmakers who use 1.78:1 for their films, despite this not being a cinematic ratio but a television ratio [16:9]. Presumably it is the influence of the latter that accounts for this.
And in parallel silent films were mostly 1.33:1: early sound was usually 1.20:1; and then the frame ratio was standardised in the Academy ratio of 1.37:1; but most masking appears to be set at 1.37:1 with a consequent overlap at the edge of the frame for 1.33:1.
A recent parallel was La La land (USA 2016), which, in paying homage to the classic Hollywood musical, used the early scope ratio of 2.55:1. However as the film was distributed on DCPs there were more black bars unless the cinema had appropriate masking. At least one projectionist was caught out, not having noticed the unusual ratio.
Distributors contribute to this sort of error. I have at least twice seen 35mm films in the wrong ratio, one was a 1.66:1 print screened in 1.85:1 and one was a 1.37:1 print screened in 1.85:1. In both cases the projectionist advised me that the print had come in cans marked 1.85:1, hence the mistake. In a different context the Hebden Bridge Picture House do not/did not have the appropriate lens on their old projector for 1.66:1. so I have seen a film there screened in 1.85:1 rather than its proper 1.66:1. The latter seems less of a problem than the black bars of digital.
Then we have filmmakers who take advantage of digital to play with ratios. The Grand Budapest Hotel (USA, Germany, UK 2014) used 1.37:1, 1.85:1 and 2.35:1. There was a rationale for this in the treatment of the periods in the film so I did not find this a serious problem. Xavier Dolan used 1:1 in his Mommy (Canada 2014). Here also I felt the treatment justified the technique and the film offered a magnificent moment when the ratios changed. Most recently The Assassin (Taiwan, China, Hong Kong, France 2015) was screened in 1.37:1 but had two short sequences in 1.85:1. Some screenings involved the said black bars: and at one cinema with masking the projectionists decided to mask it to 1.37:1 all the way through: I doubt that the director Hsiao-Hsien Hou would have approved.
The current release Hidden Figures (USA 2016) uses footage from the 1960s, apparently from NASA, newsreels and television. There is black and white footage in 2.35:1; colour film of J. F. K. in 1.37:1, with black bars and colour film of John Glenn in 2.35:1. The rationale, like some of the mathematics, escaped me. 20th Century Women has a clip from Casablanca, apparently slightly stretched and slightly cropped, full in the 2:1 frame. But a little later the film is watched on a television set in 4:3 [almost the correct ratio].
This type of playing with ratios is extremely suspect. The way the format handles ratios would seem to be a factor in the increased tendency to crop or stretched archival footage used in contemporary films. Serious filmmakers like Ken Loach, Andrej Wajda, Magarethe von Trotta and John Akomfrah have all made films for cinematic exhibition where the older footage is so treated: a lack of respect for fellow artists and craft people that I abhor.
There is some hope for the future, at least regarding the black bars. A friend has viewed a laser projection at an Imax venue. He said that the colour spectrum was definitely superior to current digital projection. In particular the black borders on a digital package were as dense as the masking for 35mm and were not noticeable. It seems that there are current discussion in the industry to agree specifications and standards for laser projection. The hardware is a lot more expensive than existing projection for digital and larger, but the running costs are lower, partly because the lamps do not need replacing. Torkell Saetervadet [FIAF] notes that:
“projectors based on lasers rather than xenon light bulbs a light source have the potential toapproximate the human colour range better.” (FIAF Digital projection Guide, 210).
Commentators also suggest that the contrast is equivalent to that of 35mm.
This improvement will still be dependent on the digital source material which [in the UK] is extremely variable. The ‘boxes’ in which DCPs arrive range in digital size [and therefore quality] from 150 to 300 gigabytes: quite a large variation. But it seems that some UK DCPs are as low as 90 gigabytes. Lasers will improve matters including offering a proper masking for the cinematic frame; but they will not solve all the problems.
Wikipedia has a detailed page on aspect ratios for film and used on television and video.