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Yellow Layer Failure, Vinegar Syndrome and Miscellaneous Musings by Robert A. Harris

Robert A. Harris - Main Page

Aspect Ratios - Salve for the Soul

Alright folks, here before you sits the motion picture frame.

SMPTE film alignment chart

Not just any motion picture frame, but the basis of every discussion that you've been having on aspect ratios. From top to bottom we have the following:

At .980 x .735 sits the full aperture of the exposable frame or in HTF speak, Super 35.

Just below it at .838 x .700 is the CinemaScope or anamorphic Panavision frame, via which the image would have a 2:1 horizontal squeeze.

Below (or inside, if you prefer) you'll find the classic 1.33 Academy Aperture, used for decades as the standard in production. In this case (and that of all other aspect ratios on this chart) the analogue soundtrack area is seen at the far left.

Let's begin with those aspect ratios that seem to pop up most in HTF discussions.

1.66, followed by 1.75 and finally 1.85:1

1.66 became the standard in the early 50s, with its slight cropping of the Academy frame. But by the mid to late 50s, 1.85 was the norm and remains so to this day. Two sci-fi films from the period make an interesting example of the change.

Universal's It Came from Outer Space, based on a Ray Bradbury story, is correct in its original 1.33 ratio and 3 track stereo audio, while Columbia's 20 Million Miles to Earth*, with effects by Ray Harryhausen, is correct in its 1.85 presentation.

It Came, one of the earliest of the alien encounter films, will have you thinking of scenes to come, both several years and decades later, in both Invasion of the Body Snatchers* and Close Encounters of the Third Kind*, both currently available on DVD.

There was discussion several weeks ago from someone who felt that 20 Million should have been 1.66, and was incorrectly transferred at 1.85. This concept was incorrect and all is well with this release. The European release was even wider.

As a point of reference, the various boxes, grids and lines in the image above show relative resolution for checking focus. The areas that look like odd checkerboard areas are used both for focus, as well as identifying movement within the frame and buckling during test projection.

The reason that I decided to do these columns a couple of months ago, was based upon a posting on HTF from someone who had just purchased a new wide screen monitor and was voicing his displeasure at Warner Bros. because the anamorphic 1.85 disc which he had purchased turned out to be (Oh No!) 1.78:1. What the person seemed to be saying, was that some dastardly peon at Warner had stolen some of their precious video real estate. What had actually occurred was that the frame, matted at 1.85, was simply opened up by a few video lines, giving a bit MORE information rather then less, with no negative affect on the cinematographic design of the film in question.

While the chart will give you a very good idea of how the different ratios fit together, what it does not tell you is that with each different aspect ratio comes a different projection aperture...

And a different lens

In projection, all of the different ratios in 35mm should have the same screen height. Properly projected, each larger aperture should yield a wider image, being projected with a slightly shorter lens. This also means that grain structure of a 1.85 image will be slightly coarser - more enlarged - than that of 1.66.

The one caveat here is that the audience normally will not see the entire chart above as a projected image, but rather, this image reduced around all sides by between 5 and 10%. As an example, a 5% undercut aperture would lose approximately three sequences of checkerboard squares on each side. 10% would lose about 6 squares. So the image generated, but usually also not seen because of overscan on picture tubes, is more accurate on a DVD than on a theatrical screen.

The area marked T.V. Aper. is precisely that: the area, which will be seen on a TV screen, based on the 1.33 area.

1.85 Title Safe is exactly as it sounds. Anything outside of that area may possibly fall outside of the projected 1.85 frame, meaning that all titles must conform to within that area.

I'm hopeful that this chart will help to put all of this into perspective, so that the very small differentials can be seen. Am I suggesting that a film designed for 1.66 projection be projected (or transferred) at 1.85? No. I'm simply suggesting that those of you concerned about differences between 1.85 and 1.78 may be needlessly losing sleep.

Recent and Forthcoming Noteworthy Releases

The following new titles are worth watching out for... and possibly adding to your library.

For those wo are afraid of subtitled films, Amelie* is worth the trouble. It's a delightful little gem with an infectious performance from Audrey Tatou. And it's one of the finest uses of digital photography and effects since their coming of age. With a myriad of extras, this film should be enjoyed on DVD by anyone who is not a total curmudgeon.

While I must admit that I'm not a Trekkie, some of the best Trekkies are my friends. That said, these films are great fun and Paramount is doing a superb job of offering them with extras galore. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan has just made its way to store shelves and is worth a visit. I'm looking forward to an SE of my favorite of the series, The Voyage Home.

Paramount has come along way in the past year or so. They're doing superb transfer work, and prices have come down to a comfortable level. I'm looking forward to seeing Footloose, Grease and especially Flashdance, with its Giorgio Moroder score, which should sound tremendous in 5.1.

Going way off the scale in terms of public awareness are two releases from Image by the extraordinary Italian craftsman Luchino Visconti, who gave us The Leopard (another film in dire need of restoration). His first two films, Ossessione and La Terra Trema have been released in versions that, as far as picture and audio are concerned, are just passable, but at least we now have them as a reference. Interestingly enough, La Terra Trema, which concerns a small fishing village, relates to the opening of It Came from Outer Space.

Also making their appearance in the past month or so is a handful of my favorite films (unfortunately, while others seem to be able to bring their best lists down to a top ten or twenty five, I have a difficult time breaking two hundred).

In an industry in recent years populated more by pretty people, personalities and superstars, the few true actors stand out front and center. And while we do have a handful working today, there is a genuine lack of true star quality talent.

One of the great performances from one of the top actors of our era is on display in Atlantic City*. You won't hear someone in casting say "Get me a Burt Lancaster type," because there aren't any. There was only one. Over a period of 45 years, Mr. Lancaster brought to the screen his highly intelligent and multi-faceted characters and shared them with us. And while his works are beginning to make their way to DVD, we're missing titles such His Majesty O'Keefe and The Crimson Pirate from his early WB period, as well as The Swimmer from Columbia and Tough Guys from Disney, his final pairing with Kirk Douglas.

While we're speaking of Mr. Douglas, another on my favorite list has arrived from the old MGM library via Warner Bros. The transfer for The Bad and the Beautiful* is about as perfect as a black and white transfer can look, with full rich gray scales and perfect shadow detail.

Another black and white film newly released on DVD, with its original color main title back in place, is one of the earliest and best of the giant (fill in the blank), atomic creature films... Them!*

And here are two additional, very noteworthy releases.

The first is The Servant*, directed by Joseph Losey and starring James Fox and Dirk Bogarde. The film was photographed in black and white (offered here in anamorphic 1.66 by Anchor Bay) by Douglas Slocombe. Not to all tastes, this film marks the debut performance of Mr. Fox and the initial collaboration between director Losey and writer Harold Pinter. There are no car chases in this one, but you'll find a deeply satisfying, brilliantly acted drama of role reversal and intrigue between the characters. This is part of the Bogarde boxed set from Anchor Bay and is the best of the bunch.

The other title is one of the great American films of the early 60s, presented in CinemaScope by Fox, and it's a must own. Robert Rossen's The Hustler*, starring Paul Newman, George C. Scott and Jackie Gleason, is nothing short of brilliant filmmaking. The Hustler* looks so good in anamorphic and gritty black and white, that it leads me to hope that Fox will finally do something about The Sound of Music - one of the worst looking major films to hit DVD - possibly with a new transfer, properly done this time. When this does occur, it would seem proper that Fox would include a rebate for those who were suckered into purchasing their original 5 Star Special Edition. The Sound of Music transfer is even more out of line with expectations when one realizes that it was filmed in 65mm.

The tale of The Hustler* continues in its sequel, The Color of Money, directed by Martin Scorsese. It's another great film which, unfortunately, could use a better representation on DVD.

Rounding out the titles for this installment is My Favorite Year* with (speaking of consummate actors) that O'Toole fellow from that desert picture. My Favorite Year* is a joyful film about the reel, and the real, with more than a tip of the hat to the career of Errol Flynn, who is virtually unknown to DVD. It would be wonderful if Warner would consider a boxed set representing Flynn's WB and MGM years.

Lastly, not to jump the promotion gun, but there's a wonderful... (wrong word)... incredibly odd... (no)... unique and interesting film... (not quite there yet)... odd, gritty, trashy... (closer, but still not right)....

How do you describe a film that makes you want to bathe after viewing it? Anyway, the film has just been transferred by Synapse from the original camera negative, and I'm told it looks incredible. It's coming in the near future. It's Street Trash.

While I acknowledge that Leonard's Movie Guide considers this a no star "bomb," it has become a guilty pleasure for many.

One final note - don't forget to buy lemons before you watch Atlantic City*.

Robert Harris


* Designates a film worthy of purchase on DVD.

Don't forget - you can CLICK HERE to discuss this article with Robert and other home theater enthusiasts online right now at The Home Theater Forum. And speaking of that, thanks to the HTF's Ron Epstein for the picture of Robert seen in the column graphic above.

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