3D Avatar Vs. 2D Avatar, And The Importance Of Aspect Ratios

Courtesy of an audio recording made by the Marketsaw folk, the vast majority of us who were not lucky enough to attend James Cameron's special appearance at the Santa Monica Aero Theatre can now eavesdrop on all 43 minutes of it. Lots of discussion then, on everything from the film's CG to the Simulcam system that Cameron is using to visualise the film's FX on set, but the key detail was perhaps the rather surprising announcement that the 2D and 3D versions of Avatar will each be released in a different aspect ratio.

The 2D version will play in Cinemascope – as per Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings, say – while the 3D version will fill out a 1.78:1 (or 16:9) widescreen shape – as per most modern TV sets. Here's Cameron's rationale for this, as explained on the night:

For Avatar we're shooting in a 16:9 ratio, we're extracting a cinemascope ratio from that for 2D theatrical exhibition, and for 3D theatrical exhibition we will do, in the theaters that can, we'll be in the 16:9 format and the theaters that can't we'll be in the scope format. Because I actually think that the extra screen height really works well in 3D. It really pulls you through the screen. So I'm actually going back on years of kind of eschewing the kind of 1.85 format, now saying 1.85 – or actually, it's 1.78:1 – actually works really well in 3D. But only in 3D. I still like the scope ratio compositionally for flat projection.

This presents a fascinating challenge for Cameron. Creating images that have the same storytelling value yet have different aspect ratios is a very difficult task. Of course, he doesn't have a reduced toolkit in either case, but rather a different set of tools. For the scope version, Cameron will have the many compositional possibilities inherent in the format  (for example, the scope ratio enhances both the sense of openness in a long shot and the claustrophobia of a close-up). For the 1.78:1 version, he will find it harder to create the same impact with the essential graphic 2D composition, but will have new potentials unlocked with the addition of the stereo imagery. Again, a great sense of expansiveness will be possible by expanding the sense of depth, and a cramped, claustrophobia will be possible through "squeezing the air" out of the z-axis.

I am officially more interested than ever to see this film. Cameron appears to have an ever increasing set of technical and creative hurdles in his path, and watching him vault them or (and I sincerely hope it won't come to this) knock a few over will be very educational.

Cameron also discussed the shift between scope and IMAX in The Dark Knight, calling it "an interesting experiment." He noted that the shift to IMAX created excitement, but the shift back was not so, noting that it gave a "sense of loss." He notes that the effect was better than he expected, simply because of the ripple of excitement. I'm not sure I agree. Like Cameron, I was immediately struck by how bad an idea the format change sounded. Unlike him, I don't think the 'excitement' went anywhere near undercutting all of the negative effects of the change.

Stanley Kubrick always decreed that the majority of his pictures were screened in the 4:3 ratio for TV and home video, avoiding the 'black and white bars' of widescreen presentation on an old academy set. The new DVD and Blu-Ray releases are, of course, in the original theatrical aspect ratio. This is a very sensible correction – the gulf between home and theatrical viewing is narrowing week by week, and TVs are long since up to the task of presenting 1.78, 1.85 or 2.35:1 material well. One film of Kubrick's movies has proven rather more difficult to present on disc however.

Dr. Strangelove features material in both the 4:3 or 1.33:1 ratio and also the wider 1.66:1 format. For decades the film was played in 4:3 on TV, and there was a 4:3 DVD release in the start of the Century. Lately, however, the film has been reformatted on 1.66:1 for its two most recent releases.

Kubrick's intent, however, was for the film to appear in each ratio in turn, in different scenes. Here is a note from the Criterion folk, as regards the Kubrick approved laserdisc of Strangelove that they produced:

We started working from [...] Kubrick's personal print, which had been copied directly from the camera original. [Stanley] noted that he had shot the film in full frame 1.33:1 and camera-matted 1.66:1 aspect ratios. However, due to projection conventions at the time of the film's original theatrical release, Dr. Strangelove appeared in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio; in rare cases, it appeared in the 1.66:1 ratio. Mattes were used to cover up the very top and bottom of the film as it was projected. Kubrick asked us to use the 1.66:1 and 1.33:1 aspect ratios in our transfer. This had been his original vision.

And indeed their disc shifts the ratio accordingly. Is it sacrilege for me to note how niggling I find the transition? Of course, as a purist I wouldn't have the disc any other way. I'm faulting Kubrick here, not the Criterion Collection.

Several other films have used aspect ratio shifts, including the Robert Redford double Sneakers and The Horse Whisperer. Each of those start in a narrower format before opening up, and neither of them changes back again. Interestingly, I've yet to watch The Horse Whisperer with anybody who spotted the change at the moment it happened, and for does who do eventually notice a difference, it seems the penny drops at a different point for just about everyone.

Meddling with aspect ratios is tricky stuff, and I think an ideal film would probably leave well alone of such potentially alienating behaviour. Avatar, of course, will be in a fixed ratio per theatre and the interesting question will be which of the different versions works best and – the billion dollar question – why?