Re: Letterbox and aspect ratios

Oksana Dykyj (
Fri, 27 Mar 1998 10:38:12 +0000 (HELP)

Janis McKenzie wrote:
>By some wild coincidence, I just came across this quote from Jean-Luc
>Godard: "The only thing Cinemascope is good for is to film snakes and
>corpses." So there's one director's vision. (Now I guess I should make
>sure our library doesn't have any letterboxed versions of his films!)

Godard was known to say such things and still shoot scope films, as did
other directors. Another variation on this quote uses snakes and funeral
processions, and if memory serves me correctly, this one is attributed to
John Ford. So, in terms of Godard, DO acquire letterboxed versions of his
KNOW ABOUT HER, among others, were shot in scope. You must also remember the
(non-scope) European standard of 1.66:1, used in say, BREATHLESS, also begs
letterboxed versions.

I should also mention that unless a video of a silent film is letterboxed,
there is also image loss. Silent films were shot in 1.33:1, but when sound
came in, part of the frame was used for the optical soundtrack thus changing
the aspect ratio. In the early 1930's when the Academy of Motion Picture
Arts and Sciences established the Academy Ratio of 1.33:1 (or 1.37:1 if
correctly calculated), it no longer utilized the full frame and cut the top
and bottom of the image. When silent films are transfered to video, the
telecine is often not set to full frame but to the sound aspect ratio,
cutting off part of the side, top and bottom of the frame. When you see a
silent video letterboxed at the sides, it is to accomodate for that,
assuming that the print used for the transfer correctly contains all the
image of the original silent frame.

Myles Jaeschke WROTE:
>> Today many movies are filmed in scope which is an aspect ratio of 2.35 to
>> 1. If they are not in scope then they are filmed in "flat". A "flat"
>> films aspect ratio is 1.85 to 1.

Actually the distinction between scope and flat is not in the aspect ratio
but in the use or non use of an anamorphic lens. That effect is nicely
illustrated in the MGM website that Kristine shared with us. Flat films come
in a wide variety of aspect ratios, up to 2.2.:1 for flat 70mm film.

>> What does this all mean to us and videos?? Well if a film transfered to
>> video is not letterboxed, then some of the picture is lost.

Even when a video is letterboxed, there often is some image loss. It's easy
to check by measuring the image on the monitor or screen and calculating the
But, we also don't get the full experience in most theatres where projector
gates are more often than not improperly set and the masking scrim around
the screen is not adjustable. How many times do we see top, bottom and sides
of the image, projected onto black fabric? In the end, we very infrequently
see a film the way it was intended to be seen.

Oksana Dykyj
Head, Visual Media Resources
Instructional & Information Technology Service H-342
Concordia University
1455 de Maisonneuve West Tel: 514-848-3443
Montreal, QC, H3G 1M8 Fax: 514-848-3441