Sunday, June 15, 2008

When do movie directors elect to use "Cinemascope"?

I often wonder how directors today decide whether to make their movies in fill 2.35 to 1 anamorphic widescreen or the standard 1.85 : 1 (originally the standard had been 1.37: 1). Theater management colloquially use the terms “scope” and “flat” for the most common formats. In fact, there are many lenses, film sizes, and techniques employed for each format. A good website reference to all of them is perhaps “Film Formats” on DVDaust, link here.

Many “multiplexes” present their “scope” pictures by cropping the height and projecting an image with less area, particularly in the smaller auditoriums. This is done even with the newer “stadium seating” complexes. This, to me, seems to cause loss of apparent definition, even though the full anamorphic image has more visual information more to look at. I prefer to see a full widescreen film in an auditorium where the screen actually widens further. Even so, some theaters crop images skillfully enough that the moviegoer does not notice.

What is also annoying is a couple of the ways previews are presented. Sometimes, the widescreen movies are cropped vertically. Other times, when the feature is itself in anamorphic “scope”, previews are shown to suggest that the previewed movies are in scope when actually they are not. Sometimes older theaters are not careful to fit widescreen pictures properly onto their screens, and do not open curtains wide enough. When I saw “The Good Shepherd” at a Regal Theater in a large auditorium, the curtains would not open fully and were stuck at the 1.85 setting, with some of the image showing on the curtains. Another curious event happened with Robert Redford’s “The Horse Whisperer” in 1998, which started out as 1.85: 1 and switched to 2.35: 1 after about forty minutes. I don’t know why this was done.

How do directors decide whether to use widescreen anamorphic? Alfred Hitchcock said that he did not like Cinemascope because it was not effective with closeups. Paramount, recall, developed a sharper process called VistaVision that used a more standard aspect ratio (in the 50s, 1.66: 1 was sometimes used, and sometimes is used overseas now). M. Night Shyamalan seems to prefer standard 1.85: 1 in films (like “The Happening” and “Signs”) that presumably could use more opening up.

The conventional wisdom is that “scope” should be used for genre action movies (like “Indiana Jones” etc.). Yet, today, many “indie” art films use full 2.35 :1, including the HD video “Bubble” and the curious reflexive drama “Redbelt.”

“Cinemascope” came to the movies in grand style in 1953 with 20th Century Fox and “The Robe.” In the beginning, it was widely used for spectacles, and large-scale musical comedies. Studios like Fox, MGM, Columbia and Warner Brothers developed their own stylized look in big films, partly because then companies used proprietary color processes that had subtle differences. Many other kinds of “scope” were experimented with (as in the link above), as was the three-projector (and later single projector) Cinerama.

Scope could be effective with black and white, as demonstrated with “Hud” (1963) and “The Diary of Anne Frank” (1959), or even "Advise and Consent" (1962).

It seems to me that aspect ratio can be used to demonstrate the “layering” of a film in a non-linear plot. For example, the “real time” story could be filmed 2.35: 1 in current time and full color. Flashbacks could be filmed in black and white, 2.35 : 1 still. But if the film in addition requires embedded “Hamlet plays” (stories made up by the characters than finally affect the main story), pieces of these could be shown on the same screen 1.85: 1 with some convention for framing the borders.

My understanding is that "Dogme 95" films are supposed to be presented 1:33 to 1; yet Lars Von Trier's triology "(including Dogville" and "Mandalay") has been presented 2.35 to 1, were his films "Breaking the Waves" and "Dancing in the Dark."

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