When it’s Not Hip to be Square: Aspect Ratio Madness

It’s everywhere, and it causes me physical pain.  Yes, Projectionists around the globe are being tortured every day by being exposed to incorrectly formatted aspect ratios.

Sports bars are the worst for this.  Many broadcasts are not meant to be viewed in widescreen format, but the widescreen TVs stretch the program to fit its dimensions.

Absolutely terrible.

A brief warning: if you continue reading this, you too will see the atrocities being committed in plain sight on TVs around the globe.  You might not be able to unsee.  However, I feel like if enough people know about this, we might be able to change it, and get all TVs displaying programs in the intended aspect ratio.

That out of the way, let me begin by sharing one of my favourite frames from a film.

This is from Fight Club, and it depicts Tyler Durden, the most famous Projectionist, pointing up at a “cigarette burn”.  These are markings on the film that tell the Projectionist when to ‘changeover’ and switch between the projectors that are showing the film.  They are at the beginning and end of every reel of film.

Now, let me show you the image as it is printed on the actual piece of film running through the projector:

Notice that, while it’s width is still the same, the height is greater?  Notice that the previously squashed and oblong cigarette burn is now (almost) a perfect circle?  Notice how Tyler Durden’s anatomy is grotesquely deformed and stretched?

I am Jack’s bursting aneurism.

See, film comes in two formats (mostly- there are others, but odds are, if you’re at a regular theatre, you’re seeing one of these two): flat, with an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 (for every 1 unit tall, it’s 1.33 wide), and scope, with an aspect ratio of 2.39:1 (often called ‘widescreen’).

Projectors have two lenses.  The flat lens shows the film as is, no stretching or distorting. The scope lens stretches is to the proper widescreen aspect ratio.  The images above would represent scope film; the first image as seen projected through the correct scope lens, the second image projected through the incorrect flat lens.

Right!  A few more fun examples before I move on now:
        

The image on the left is how the film actually looks in real life.  The image on the right is adjusted to show how the lens would stretch it, creating the correct widescreen aspect ratio.

Huge difference, right?

Right.  So, back to TVs.  Seems there’s quite a mix of formats being programed.  TV used to be filmed in 1.33:1, the aspect ratio of old cathode ray tube television sets.  Almost a perfect box, right?  A little wider than it is tall, but not by much.

But now, programming is being filmed in widescreen to take advantage of the successor, the widescreen television.  This is great!  Widescreen presentations shown on widescreen televisions are wonderful!  Widescreen TVs are 16:9, or 1.77:1.

The problem comes in when non-widescreen programming is presented on a modern widescreen TV.  Then you get things like this:

        It’s not so bad, right?  WRONG!

The original image looks like this:

As you can see, the ‘stretched’ version grotesquely deforms the actors in the frame, squashing them down, distorting everything.  Check them out side by side:

Booooo!

In most cases, the solution is as simple as pressing a single button: the “zoom” or “wide” button on the remote is the one you’ll need.  Press it, and it will cycle the TV to display another format.  Keep pressing it, and it will take you through all the aspect ratios the TV can display.  Many TVs have this set to widescreen, and what they should be displaying is auto.

TVs know what to display things in; let them do their damn job.

This way, 1.33 content won’t get squashed.  It’ll have black borders on the left and right.  2.39 content will get black bars on the top and bottom, because widescreen TVs are 16:9, an aspect ratio of 1.77, not quite as widescreen as scope films in the 2.39 format.

Oh gosh, this seems like a lot.  Basically: hit the zoom/wide button until people don’t look squashed.  You will be doing all viewers a favour.  If anyone protests, please step on their face.  Aw, that seems a little mean now that I’ve said it.  Perhaps whip out a pen an paper and illustrate what you just learned?

Nope, stepping on their face is easier.

You made it to the end!  Bonus pics for you, and you, and YOUUUUUU!

Note: no film prints were harmed in the making of this blog post; I used my collection of trailers.

PSA Image! (Large version here.)

Thanks for reading.

Heidi out.

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About H.G. Bells

H.G. Bells writes around the intersections of sci-fi, fantasy, and horror. She has several short stories in print, and is repped by Beth Campbell for her novel Sleep Over, coming soon from Skyhorse Publishing.
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