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Do we really need widescreen anymore?


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#1 Benson Marks

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Posted 15 December 2008 - 12:10 AM

Sorry if this is the wrong forum to discuss this (and if this sounds a little too tradition-challenging), but I just have to ask myself this: Do we really need widescreen anymore?

Where do I begin? First off, one of the most common problems with widescreen includes the claustrophobic or cramped look of the 1:1.85 spherical format and Super 35 after the image has been matted to widescreen, which may not be good if you want the image to look open instead. The best way to avoid this is probably to matte to 1:1.66, but because that ratio is rarely used, it's better not to do so. That would leave us with anamorphic 1:2.39. Unfortunately for those of us who are just beginners, the format would be too expensive to use.

Second, the primary reason for widescreen was to save our theaters back in the old days because of TV. Now that HDTVs are going widescreen, and now with widescreen dominating almost everything (In fact, my computer is already widescreen), the significance of a rectangular image on a large silver screen is much less so than it was back in the '50's and '60's. On a side note, Stanley Kubrick never wanted a widescreen release of any of his films during the time of VHS (I don't know what he would say about that today, considering he died before HDTV, DVDs, and Blu-Ray Discs became well-known).

Finally, most movies don't really need to be in widescreen. Many of the best movies aren't in widescreen (Citizen Kane, for example), and most of the greatest movies after full-frame are usually in 1:1.85 spherical anyway (Including "The Godfather," "Chariots Of Fire," "Psycho," and many others).

So I ask you again, do we really need widescreen anymore?
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#2 Matt Rosen

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Posted 15 December 2008 - 12:23 AM

We don't need widescreen any more or less than we ever did, but considering that's the dominant format for all film and broadcast media nowadays, it doesn't seem likely the popularity of that aspect ratio is going to change any time soon.
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#3 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 15 December 2008 - 12:28 AM

Yes, we need widescreen. Mainly because I like it. To sit in a big movie theater and have a huge landscape open up to you on a wide screen, that's magic for me. Go see "Lawrence of Arabia" or "2001" in a big theater and tell me that it would have been just as impressive in Academy 1.37.

Anyway, why is a more horizontal frame "cramped" and a more vertical frame "open"? Seems like you could easily make the argument either way. If you've ever staged multiple actors in a small room in 2.40, I think you'd find it liberating to have that wider space for the actors to move around in -- it would feel the opposite of cramped.

Unless 4x3 projection is really huge, like with IMAX, it's hard to not feel that things are being crammed in to fit within the narrow width sometimes. And it's hard not to feel the same thing when you're trying to compose scenes for 4x3 sometimes. One actor fits fine inside 4x3, but three actors in a medium shot? It gets harder...

I'd be more than happy though to have the option of making and showing movies in 4x3 -- one more variation would be fun to play with. But not need widescreen? I don't agree at all. Even the Golden Rectangle of art is widescreen -- 1.61 : 1 I believe.

Do you seriously think there is any worldwide movement in cinema towards squarer screens and movies? Some audience need for square images that is screaming out to be satisfied?

To make movies immersive experiences, the images have to be big and sharp. It was easier to expand movie screens horizontally within the architecture of theaters than to expand them greatly both vertically and horizontally, which is why Fred Waller made Cinerama a wide screen process, compared to the later IMAX process, which required its own theaters to be built to accommodate a 50' tall screen. It's a lot easier to make a 50' or wider screen. Waller knew that to make a movie an immersive experience the image had to be large enough to excite your peripheral vision, and he knew that engaging the horizontal periphery was a priority if he couldn't just make the image much bigger in all dimensions (his early experiments involved five projectors in a sort of pyramid shape before he settled on three projectors side by side.)

Even today, most (not all) theater screens have a fixed vertical height, so scope movies are projected larger horizontally than 1.85 movies.

It's only on home video that scope movies are shorter than 1.85 movies.

In fact, this sort of sentiment wondering if we need widescreen movies anymore seems to me to most likely come from someone who watches movies mostly on a TV set, who hasn't had the same wonderful childhood experiences in movie theaters seeing great widescreen movies in 70mm on a big screen and thrilling when the curtains rolled back, and back.
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#4 Tim Tyler

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Posted 15 December 2008 - 12:56 AM

So I ask you again, do we really need widescreen anymore?


Please, don't even joke about that.

There is a magic in the wider aspect ratios that just doesn't exist in the Academy frame. My personal favorite is 2:1, but you just can't beat the wraparound experience of Cinerama or CinemaScope.
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#5 Benson Marks

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Posted 15 December 2008 - 02:18 AM

Yes, we need widescreen. Mainly because I like it. To sit in a big movie theater and have a huge landscape open up to you on a wide screen, that's magic for me. Go see "Lawrence of Arabia" or "2001" in a big theater and tell me that it would have been just as impressive in Academy 1.37.

Anyway, why is a more horizontal frame "cramped" and a more vertical frame "open"? Seems like you could easily make the argument either way. If you've ever staged multiple actors in a small room in 2.40, I think you'd find it liberating to have that wider space for the actors to move around in -- it would feel the opposite of cramped.

Unless 4x3 projection is really huge, like with IMAX, it's hard to not feel that things are being crammed in to fit within the narrow width sometimes. And it's hard not to feel the same thing when you're trying to compose scenes for 4x3 sometimes. One actor fits fine inside 4x3, but three actors in a medium shot? It gets harder...

I'd be more than happy though to have the option of making and showing movies in 4x3 -- one more variation would be fun to play with. But not need widescreen? I don't agree at all. Even the Golden Rectangle of art is widescreen -- 1.61 : 1 I believe.

Do you seriously think there is any worldwide movement in cinema towards squarer screens and movies? Some audience need for square images that is screaming out to be satisfied?

To make movies immersive experiences, the images have to be big and sharp. It was easier to expand movie screens horizontally within the architecture of theaters than to expand them greatly both vertically and horizontally, which is why Fred Waller made Cinerama a wide screen process, compared to the later IMAX process, which required its own theaters to be built to accommodate a 50' tall screen. It's a lot easier to make a 50' or wider screen. Waller knew that to make a movie an immersive experience the image had to be large enough to excite your peripheral vision, and he knew that engaging the horizontal periphery was a priority if he couldn't just make the image much bigger in all dimensions (his early experiments involved five projectors in a sort of pyramid shape before he settled on three projectors side by side.)

Even today, most (not all) theater screens have a fixed vertical height, so scope movies are projected larger horizontally than 1.85 movies.

It's only on home video that scope movies are shorter than 1.85 movies.

In fact, this sort of sentiment wondering if we need widescreen movies anymore seems to me to most likely come from someone who watches movies mostly on a TV set, who hasn't had the same wonderful childhood experiences in movie theaters seeing great widescreen movies in 70mm on a big screen and thrilling when the curtains rolled back, and back.


Paragraph #1: Sure, I've seen "Lawrence of Arabia" before. Have you seen "Gone With The Wind," of "The Wizard Of Oz?" Those films had some amazing visuals too.

Paragraph #2: I was referring to the spherical lens formats. Usually when you remove the top and bottom of the frame, the image tends to look rather claustrophobic in nature. If you wanted to make your image look more open but were stuck with a spherical lens format, that would be hard to pull off.

Paragraph #3: Back to "The Wizard Of Oz." I can't count the number of shots where all the main characters (Dorothy, Scarecrow, Tin Man, and even the Lion) were all in the same frame, including Toto.

Paragraph #4: With the 1:1.66 format beginning to disappear quickly (The format closest to the golden rectangle), I'm not sure the golden rectangle argument really works.

Paragraph #5: Of course not. Is it just me or are you just jumping to conclusions because I was questioning whether widescreen really is necessary?

Paragraph #6: If the idea that the images have to be big and sharp in order to be immersive were true, we might as well have been shooting everything with 70mm film.

Paragraph #7: No comment.

Paragraph #8: Of course.

Paragraph #9: Again, I think you're jumping to conclusions. I did not say widescreen was bad (In fact, I admit I like it), I'm just saying that because it fulfilled its primary purpose (Keeping people in the seats of theaters everywhere), and that the majority of movies would still look fine no matter what format it was shot in (Nobody really cares what format a movie is in anyhow), I have to ask, "do we really need to use it anymore?" I warned you this question may be tradition-challenging.

Besides, with the economy the way it's in, it's not like we'll be seeing the next "2001" or "Lawrence Of Arabia" anytime soon.
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#6 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 15 December 2008 - 02:28 AM

When "This is Cinerama" appeared in 1952, it became the highest-grossing film of the year despite being only available to see in a few theaters converted to 3-projector Cinerama. You're talking about an audience who mostly saw 1.37 Academy b&w movies in mono optical sound suddenly seeing a near-IMAX resolution color image on a huge, wide, curved screen with six tracks of mag sound. And the movie itself is basically a lame travelogue (but it is still amazing to watch in Cinerama). The success of that one movie single-handly caused the widescreen revolution of the 1950's. By 1953, you had CinemaScope... 1954, you had VistaVision... 1955, you had 65mm Todd-AO, etc.

I'm trying to imagine the release of a 1.33 movie today single-handedly causing the industry to reject widescreen. I can't imagine it generating much excitement. There has to be a compelling reason to overturn modern widescreen.

Truth is that by 1930 people were chaffing against 1.33 -- almost all the new film formats being proposed (caused by the excitement regarding sound movies) called for a wider aspect ratio, anywhere from 1.66 to 2:1. Most people felt that 1.66-ish was the proper shape to compose images in (though Eisenstein wanted a completely square format.)

1.33 is an interesting aspect ratio and I certainly would like to see it as an option for moviemaking, just to provide a more dramatic contrast with 2.40 (it may be more interesting if movies had to be either 1.33 or 2.40, though I think 1.66 to 1.85 is the more "natural" or classical ratio to compose within.)
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#7 Max Jacoby

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Posted 15 December 2008 - 03:50 AM

Good luck trying to get 1.33 projected properly in a theatre. Most cinemas cannot do that anymore.

Also with televisions moving towards 16/9 (1.78), going back to 1.33 for films does not make much sense. Because all that will end up happening is that people will stretch out your 1.33 image over the complete width of their 16/9 telly as they all did with programs that we broadcast in 4.3.
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#8 James Steven Beverly

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Posted 15 December 2008 - 05:07 AM

Because all that will end up happening is that people will stretch out your 1.33 image over the complete width of their 16/9 telly as they all did with programs that we broadcast in 4.3.


No actress in their right mind would let that happen. :rolleyes:
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#9 Simon Wyss

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Posted 15 December 2008 - 07:06 AM

I believe that the best move movie theatres can do today is bringing back the Academy aspect ratio, but big. At Walt Disney Studios the managers were so afraid of a classic like Bambi becoming cropped that they had it reprinted with the height of the 1.85 aperture. Such 35-mm prints with black spaces on the sides were about as ridiculous as an Academy picture is on a low wide screen. Citizen Kane isn't probably the best film ever. I'd prefer The Third Man. Anyway, the first 50 years of motion pictures were 3:4 screens. It is a dynamic aspect ratio and has a pulling quality to it. Have you ever seen Stagecoach 6 meters high and 8 meters wide?
In favor of the 4-perf. standard, Simon
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#10 Walter Graff

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Posted 15 December 2008 - 07:37 AM

It's an interesting question with an interesting history. Theaters started all sorts of gimmicks in the fifties (Cinerama, etc) because TV was starting to make an impact and theaters needed a 'reason' for folks to come back to the movies. Wide screen was that gimmick. And now with Digital TV wide screen is also the gimmick of choice to get folks to buy new TV sets. It will be funny to see in twenty years when some TV or movie proposition comes around claiming to offer being able to see a movie in a way it is shown best, in 4:3. :)
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#11 K Borowski

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Posted 15 December 2008 - 09:02 AM

I counter with the question:

Do we really need to limit our choices any further?

Sure, widescreen started out as a gimmick. I agree that 16:9 started out as a gimmick too, a gimmick that will probably render a sizeable percentage of movies shown on TV to be stretched, cropped, or distorted by ignorant home viewers.

But with the exception of the few natively-shot IMAX films in the next decade, you won't see a 4:3 Renaissance.



It sounds more like he wants everything to go to 1.85:1 though and throw out 2.39:1 to me though, and partially because it is too expensive for beginners. IDK about that.
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#12 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 15 December 2008 - 12:10 PM

It all depends on if you see a wide image as merely a gimmick or having an artistic value. If it's merely a gimmick to you, then of course you are going to be cynical about the whole process. If it is artistically interesting to you, if you feel it serves the nature of what you are shooting, then it won't seem like a useless gimmick to you.

Sure, you can frame group shots in a square frame, it's just that you have to frame looser to do it. Look at how many master shots in small rooms in old movies play out head-to-toe. Now that can be an advantage if you've got some interesting architecture above their heads, etc.

But in regular meat-and-potatoes filmmaking of people talking in small rooms, I always found it easier to stage and compose them for 1.85 versus 1.33. Two people sitting at a dinner table, for example -- often to hold the two of them in frame, you back up in 4x3 and end up seeing a lot of the tabletop and even their laps below the table, and often you find yourself looking for the tiniest table you can get away with to push them closer together, so you can get the tightest two-shot possible and be able to use that for cutting more often than singles. As the frame gets wider, it is possible to hold multiple people in one frame and stay tighter on them.

Now of course I can also come up with scenarios where a squarer frame is more applicable, or more aesthetically pleasing, but for the most part, I find both 1.37 Academy and 2.40 anamorphic to be more "stylized" aspect ratios that require you deal with an awkward shape (too square or too wide) in an aesthetically interesting manner, whereas with 16x9 (1.78) or 1.85, it seems easier to stage and compose ordinary scenes in a subtle manner. It's an easy shape to compose within, though 1.85 is borderline too wide in that respect -- 1.66 to 1.78 is a little more natural-looking to create a balanced "classical" frame.

The advantage of more extreme frames like 1.33 or 2.40 is that the awkwardness lends itself to interesting compositions, but they are harder to achieve, take more work to be effective.

But I certainly don't think of 16x9 in video as a gimmick, more like something that was a long overdue!

Truth is that rather than 4x3 making a comeback theatrically, I see the greater likelihood of 4x3 disappearing from television.

But for people who spent their whole careers shooting in 4x3, I can certainly understand why now composing for 4x3 would seem natural to them. I came more out of still photography in college (1.5 : 1) and features out of film school (mostly 1.85 : 1), and love shooting 2.40 anamorphic, so I haven't done much 4x3 framing in my lifetime, though I love old 1.37 Academy movies.

Certainly some of the most beautiful compositions in cinema history were from the 1.37 Academy days, I grant you that. But that was partly because that was the only aspect ratio being used -- I'm sure if 1.85 were the only option for filmmakers shooting from 1900 to 1950, there would have been some lovely 1.85 compositions being made. It was the nature of the times -- those people were great craftsmen.
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#13 Benson Marks

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Posted 15 December 2008 - 01:41 PM

It all depends on if you see a wide image as merely a gimmick or having an artistic value. If it's merely a gimmick to you, then of course you are going to be cynical about the whole process. If it is artistically interesting to you, if you feel it serves the nature of what you are shooting, then it won't seem like a useless gimmick to you.

Sure, you can frame group shots in a square frame, it's just that you have to frame looser to do it. Look at how many master shots in small rooms in old movies play out head-to-toe. Now that can be an advantage if you've got some interesting architecture above their heads, etc.

But in regular meat-and-potatoes filmmaking of people talking in small rooms, I always found it easier to stage and compose them for 1.85 versus 1.33. Two people sitting at a dinner table, for example -- often to hold the two of them in frame, you back up in 4x3 and end up seeing a lot of the tabletop and even their laps below the table, and often you find yourself looking for the tiniest table you can get away with to push them closer together, so you can get the tightest two-shot possible and be able to use that for cutting more often than singles. As the frame gets wider, it is possible to hold multiple people in one frame and stay tighter on them.

Now of course I can also come up with scenarios where a squarer frame is more applicable, or more aesthetically pleasing, but for the most part, I find both 1.37 Academy and 2.40 anamorphic to be more "stylized" aspect ratios that require you deal with an awkward shape (too square or too wide) in an aesthetically interesting manner, whereas with 16x9 (1.78) or 1.85, it seems easier to stage and compose ordinary scenes in a subtle manner. It's an easy shape to compose within, though 1.85 is borderline too wide in that respect -- 1.66 to 1.78 is a little more natural-looking to create a balanced "classical" frame.

The advantage of more extreme frames like 1.33 or 2.40 is that the awkwardness lends itself to interesting compositions, but they are harder to achieve, take more work to be effective.

But I certainly don't think of 16x9 in video as a gimmick, more like something that was a long overdue!

Truth is that rather than 4x3 making a comeback theatrically, I see the greater likelihood of 4x3 disappearing from television.

But for people who spent their whole careers shooting in 4x3, I can certainly understand why now composing for 4x3 would seem natural to them. I came more out of still photography in college (1.5 : 1) and features out of film school (mostly 1.85 : 1), and love shooting 2.40 anamorphic, so I haven't done much 4x3 framing in my lifetime, though I love old 1.37 Academy movies.

Certainly some of the most beautiful compositions in cinema history were from the 1.37 Academy days, I grant you that. But that was partly because that was the only aspect ratio being used -- I'm sure if 1.85 were the only option for filmmakers shooting from 1900 to 1950, there would have been some lovely 1.85 compositions being made. It was the nature of the times -- those people were great craftsmen.


Good points, David.

The last paragraph is especially interesting. It makes me wonder: If you just stuck with one aspect ratio (For example, let's say you only shot 2.40 anamorphic for the rest of your life), could you possibly create some amazing imagery (With some time and experience) as well, or were those guys in the old days just so good at what they were doing that everybody today would just make poor compositions? It is something that leaves me curious.

I, too, think 16:9 has a good opportunity to be artistic as well. It's just that the way things are right now, it looks like a gimmick. If I were to make a prediction, though, I'd say 16:9 will eventually become the new full-frame, considering how commonly it's used with television and newer TVs (And I don't mean that it will replace the other two widescreen formats, it's just by television standards). But if it creates an opportunity to be artistic, who knows how great the format will be?
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#14 Stuart Brereton

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Posted 15 December 2008 - 02:13 PM

I, too, think 16:9 has a good opportunity to be artistic as well. It's just that the way things are right now, it looks like a gimmick.


I've been shooting 16:9 video for nearly ten years now. That's quite a long time for something that's only a gimmick. It's the de facto standard in British TV, and I would guess the US. It's easily compatible with both 1.66 and 1.85 ARs, and most importantly for me, it's much closer to how my eyes perceive the world.
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#15 Max Jacoby

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Posted 15 December 2008 - 04:41 PM

An aspect ratio has no meaning by itself, it is what you make of it. If you have an eye for composition it does not matter whether you shoot in 1.33, 1.85 or 2.39, your images will look good. If they don't the fault lies not with the aspect ratio but with yourself.
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#16 Walter Graff

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Posted 15 December 2008 - 04:47 PM

An aspect ratio has no meaning by itself, it is what you make of it. If you have an eye for composition it does not matter whether you shoot in 1.33, 1.85 or 2.39, your images will look good. If they don't the fault lies not with the aspect ratio but with yourself.



Thank You! Someone understands this. Good to see!
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#17 Dominic Case

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Posted 16 December 2008 - 01:38 AM

If you have an eye for composition it does not matter whether you shoot in 1.33, 1.85 or 2.39, your images will look good.

Hmm. Yes and no. Agreed, there is nothing fundamentally "better" about any particular aspect ratio. While the golden mean is an appealing classical argument, it's no use if the picture isn't composed well inside the frame. And while Lawrence of Arabia - in 70mm, on a BIG wide screen - is unsurpassed in its use of the width of the screen, I suspect that if 2.35:1 hadn't been available, then Freddie Young would have coped without it. It would be a different film, probably less impressive, but it wouldn't have simply been the same images squashed together a bit.

But since it WAS available, the picture soared to the heights of excellence.

Go to an art gallery. Does anyone tell painters that one shape is better than another? Sure, it's easier to hang differnt shapes on a wall than it is to screen different ones, but technology is there to be used and pushed, not to constrain what we do. I've even seen a vertical format used very impressively. The screen was about the shape of a cinema "insert card" poster (the old-style tall narrow posters), in an exhibition of Art Deco, and the subject was silent film footage of Josephine Baker dancing. Worked perfectly!
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#18 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 16 December 2008 - 02:06 AM

Why aren't modern movies as well composed as classic ones? It's partly a style thing -- many times on movie shoots, I've composed something I thought was very good, only to have the director deliberately "mess it up" by having me slightly miscompose it, or mess it up in post by slightly cropping it... under the believe that a perfect composition was inherently stagey and old-fashioned.

It sort of drives me nuts sometimes, maybe because I am somewhat old-fashioned (I call it classical) when it comes to framing.

I mean, this started way back in film school -- I remember setting up a nice deep-focus shot in 16mm of a phone in the foreground, a person in the deep background, and the director said it needed to be messed up a bit so he had me frame half a phone and screw up the headroom as well. I never got a straight answer why the sloppier composition was better in that case, but sometimes it strikes me as what was all those years of studying art for when some director asks you for a frame that any beginner could have created without even trying?

That doesn't mean I like boring, safe compositions either, I just want the framing to serve some purpose and direct the eye to what's important.

But some directors that I work with don't share my love for old movies -- many haven't seen anything made before 1980.
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#19 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 16 December 2008 - 02:12 AM

Why aren't modern movies as well composed as classic ones? It's partly a style thing -- many times on movie shoots, I've composed something I thought was very good, only to have the director deliberately "mess it up" by having me slightly miscompose it, or mess it up in post by slightly cropping it... under the believe that a perfect composition was inherently stagey and old-fashioned.

It sort of drives me nuts sometimes, maybe because I am somewhat old-fashioned (I call it classical) when it comes to framing.

I mean, this started way back in film school -- I remember setting up a nice deep-focus shot in 16mm of a phone in the foreground, a person in the deep background, and the director said it needed to be messed up a bit so he had me frame half a phone and screw up the headroom as well. I never got a straight answer why the sloppier composition was better in that case, but sometimes it strikes me as what was all those years of studying art for when some director asks you for a frame that any beginner could have created without even trying?

That doesn't mean I like boring, safe compositions either, I just want the framing to serve some purpose and direct the eye to what's important.

But some directors that I work with don't share my love for old movies -- many haven't seen anything made before 1980.

I love the widescreen framing in many late 50's, 60's movies because these directors came out of Academy and worked very hard to use 2.35 effectively. Look at Kurosawa's movies -- he jumped from 1.37 Academy to 2.35 CinemaScope, without passing through something inbetween like 1.85, not until the 1970's. I mean, look at his last two 1.37 movies, "Throne of Blood" and "Lower Depths" and then look at the framing in the CinemaScope movies that followed: "Hidden Fortress", "The Bad Sleep Well", "Yojimbo", "Sanjuro" -- they are all amazing, compositionally. They are really the height of widescreen composition, and that was forty years ago!
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#20 Matthew Buick

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Posted 16 December 2008 - 07:54 AM

Why aren't modern movies as well composed as classic ones? It's partly a style thing -- many times on movie shoots, I've composed something I thought was very good, only to have the director deliberately "mess it up" by having me slightly miscompose it, or mess it up in post by slightly cropping it... under the believe that a perfect composition was inherently stagey and old-fashioned.


That has got to feel pretty lousy. :(

I think as Max Jacoby said that the talent of the image-taker should come long before the aspect ratio of the image it self, I think all too many people don't realise this.

I also think each ratio has it's own strength, as various people have mentioned 2:35 is terrific for epic rolling vistas. It's a bit of a pain however for shot of cramped locations, indoors etc, it's also not a very intimate ratio to my eye. 1:66 would be much more suitable, I'm my opinion, in not at all keen on 1:33. As Stuart Brereton mentioned 1:76 and 1:85 are very well accepted, they're also a pretty good compromise between all the ratios.


Just my two pence, which sadly aren't doing so well at the moment. :(

Edited by Matthew Buick, 16 December 2008 - 07:56 AM.

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