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         The following essay first appeared in the 4th Edition of the Guide, so it was probably written around 1982.  It is one of those pieces of intelligent writing which perfectly sums up a situation, mixing enlightenment and entertainment with a large helping of bemusement at a particularly absurd state of affairs, and becoming increasingly exasperated with the general all-round ‘buffoonery’.
          In one sense it could be argued that the essay is out of date: the premise set out in the opening paragraph is now wrong – but who could have predicted in the early eighties that the shape of television screens would ever change, given how many millions of them were around at the time?  And yet over the last decade or so TVs have gone from ‘academy’ to widescreen in order to accommodate the very processes which LH here descries.


It is a matter of some perplexity to me that film-makers, who presumably care about their art, persist in packaging it in a shape which will be available at the time of cinema release to only a small fraction of the film’s primary audience, and probably to nobody at all in the future.  Whether mass audiences from now on see a film on video, cable, satellite or free television, they will watch it through a set which can present it in an aspect ratio of 4 units across to 3 units down, or 1.33 to 1, which was the standard ratio in cinemas until 1952 and subsequently became known as the ‘academy’ shape.  It is still the shape of the individual frame on the celluloid.  The process of televising actually trims a bit off the edge all round, as can be seen from occasional missing letters on titles, but let’s not quibble about that.
            The purpose of CinemaScope, announced with a flourish of trumpets in 1953, was to show that the movies were bigger than television.  This purpose it accomplished, more or less, by producing a picture shape of 2.35 to 1, or more than seven units across to three units down; and all it needed was a new screen and a new lens in the projector (unlike the nine-days wonder of 3-D which involved the installation of expensive equipment).  The 35mm film strip and its 4 x 3 image shape were retained, but the action was photographed through a prismatic or anamorphic lens which squeezed up the image on the film so that all the people looked tall and narrow; a corresponding lens in the projector then opened up the image sideways to its new screen shape.
            During the fight for CinemaScope licences, which were granted sparingly at first by the copyright holder, in the hope of putting up their value and therefore their price, rivals devised a simpler method of achieving ‘wide screen’ which was quickly adapted by all producers and exhibitors because it required no licence, cost even less than CinemaScope, and looked different from television.  No prismatic lenses were involved: the top and bottom strips of the old 4 x 3 shape were simply not used, and the middle strip was put through a magnifying lens in the cinema, giving a screen shape which varies between 1.66 to 1 and 1.85 to 1.  (VistaVision added to this a deep-focus process, claiming that the central strip of film could even be projected at 2 to 1: the drawback was that all the action had to be gathered into this strip, so that VistaVision films, when projected on television, look very distant and lacking in close-ups.)  Sometimes the picture area not required was left in the frame (which makes such films easily transmittable on TV); more often than not it was masked, which causes black bands at top and bottom of the TV screen.



A Word on Shape



            Alas, any films made before 1952, including all one’s carefully-composed favourites, when put through the new aperture plates, also had their tops and bottoms cut off, thus robbing audiences of actors’ heads and dancers’ feet in a quite alarming way; but there was nothing to be done because cinema managers (a) didn’t care about ruining the composition of old films, and (b) couldn’t afford to have screen masking which moved up and down as well as sideways (to accommodate CinemaScope).
            A confused period followed.  The simple ‘wide screen’ was referred to mainly as such, but sometimes as Metroscope or some other trade name aimed to confuse.  CinemaScope was, according to studio, varied as Megascope, Warnerscope, Camerascope, Tohoscope, Superscope, Hammerscope, Techniscope and Franscope.  There followed also some super wide screen systems such as Todd AO, Camera 65, Cinerama 70, which were shot on 70mm for extra clarity when projected on giant screens, then reduced to 35mm Cinema Scope for general release.  All these anamorphic systems (which eventually came down to one, Panavision*) give trouble on television for an obvious reason.  Only half the picture can be accommodated at any one time, and the transmission controller, unless the work has been done in the lab, must continually pan and scan** in search of the optimum framing for the particular scene.  (The alternative, used in most European countries, is to ‘strip’ the complete CinemaScope image across the centre band of the screen, but this results in a very small, though well-defined, picture.)  Since most fifties and sixties films were shot in poor colour and dim lighting, the wise television buyer avoids them when he can, for they can never look satisfactory on the small screen.  How would you like the Mona Lisa if you could see her only from forehead to chin, or with one ear missing?  The ultimate buffoonery came when MGM made a so-called CinemaScope version of Gone with the Wind by taking the middle strip of each 1.33 to 1 frame and blowing it up to giant screen proportions.  The ugly out-of-focus mess which resulted can be imagined: yet MGM subsequently proposed to sell this version to television companies, who would have had to pan and scan it, thus achieving at any one time the transmission of no more than one third of the original image!
            More and more producers have come to rely on a high-priced television sale as part of the process of paying off overheads.  Yet never is television able to transmit a post-1953 film in the version originally intended.  Cable and satellite channels may transmit the sex, violence and bad language which are prohibited from ‘free’ television, but they can never overcome the shape problem.  With so few real cinemas capable of projecting in the original ratio such monster films as Star Wars and Superman and Raiders of the Lost Ark, don’t the likes of Spielberg and Lucas care that their work will be seen as they intended it by only a tiny fraction of its eventual audience?  What’s wrong with four by three anyway?  It did no harm to Gone with the Wind or Citizen Kane or The Grapes of Wrath or Les Enfants du Paradis.  (Imagine if you can, a CinemaScope version of Laurel and Hardy or Buster Keaton or Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise.)  As Fritz Lang said, CinemaScope is a fine shape if you want to show a snake or a funeral.  Or, one might generously add, somebody lying down or a row of Indians silhouetted on a hilltop.  But for shots of people talking in groups of up to three it never has made sense.  And if you work it out, groups of up to three are what motion pictures are all about.


* Watch out, by the way, for the confusing credit Photographed with Panavision Equipment.  This is not the same as Photographed in Panavision and involves no anamorphic process.



** Did Halliwell coin the term ‘pan and scan’ here, or was it already in common usage amongst those in the TV business?



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