Re: Letterbox and aspect ratios

Stan Gilliam (
Fri, 27 Mar 1998 08:21:46 -0800

I remember seeing a newly remastered 16mm print of Keaton's The Generalm
in a college auditorium in the 60's. It was "letterboxed," with some kind of
decorative border at top and bottom, to fit a standard 5:6 (?) 16mm format.

I also remember in 1968 seeing Bergman's Silent Spring on tv with a similar
decorative border.

At 07:39 AM 3/27/98 -0800, you wrote:
>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