Posted on Wednesday, February 20th, 2013 by Russ Fischer
We’re long past the time when the arguments over aspect ratio is among the most loudest parts of the discussion of a home video release. Widescreen TVs have become standard, and the old pan-and-scan transfers that cropped the sides of a film to fit classic televisions without letterboxing are increasingly a thing of the past.*
But for older films, questions of presentation persist. Criterion is taking the relatively unusual step of packing three presentations of On the Waterfront onto the film’s new Blu-ray and DVD release: you can see the movie in 1.33, 1.66, and 1.85 ratios. A new featurette explains not only the reason for that decision, but the relative virtues of each aspect ratio. It’s a great video that compresses some important film info into just a few minutes.
To put some of this in additional context, the films of Stanley Kubrick were most often at the center of aspect ratio arguments, especially as the director’s films moved to DVD. While films like The Shining and Full Metal Jacketwere designed to be projected at either 1.66 or 1.85, they were shot open-matte (with the frame open to the 1.33 Academy Ratio, but meant to be matted during projection) so that, on television, they would not fall victim to the pan-and-scan process.
Other directors, concerned about the possibility of compromise as films migrated between movie screens and TV, preferred similar methods. David Cronenberg shot his early films open-matte, and said at one point that 1.66 was his preferred presentation ratio, though many of his ’80s films were composed for 1.85, and ideally projected in that ratio.
*Widescreen TVs haven’t solved every aspect ratio issue yet. I know a couple people who activate the zoom function on TVs to stretch content so that letterbox bars are eliminated, for one. And then there’s the problem of presenting 1.33 material on a modern TV — often, the content is zoomed or stretched in an unnatural fashion to fill the screen.