A widescreen image is a film, computer or television image with a wider and shorter aspect ratio than the standard Academy frame developed during the classical Hollywood cinema era. Silent film was projected at a ratio of four units wide to three units tall, often expressed as 4:3 or 1.33:1. The addition of sound-on-film soundtracks and a thicker frame line in order to hide physical splices in prints caused the frame dimensions to standardize by 1932 to Academy format, which is actually 1.37 but often erroneously called 1.33.
By 1932, the Depression had forced studios to cut back on needless expense and it wasn't until 1953 that wider aspect ratios were again used in an attempt to stop the fall in attendance due, partially, to the emergence of television in the U.S. However, a few producers and directors, among them Alfred Hitchcock, have been reluctant to use the anamorphic widescreen size featured in such formats as Cinemascope. Hitchcock alternatively used VistaVision, a non-anamorphic widescreen process developed by Paramount Pictures and Technicolor which could be adjusted to present various flat aspect ratios.
Masked, aka flat. Introduced in April of 1953. The negative is shot exposing the Academy Ratio using spherical lenses, but the top and bottom of the picture are hidden or masked off a metal aperture plate, cut to specifications of the theater's screen, in the projector. Alternatively, a hard matte in the printing or shooting stages may be used to mask off those areas while filming for composition purposes, but an aperture plate is still used to block off the appropriate areas in the theater. A detriment is that the film grain size is thus increased because only part of the image is being expanded to full height. Films are designed to be shown in cinemas in masked widescreen format but the full unmasked frame is sometimes used for television. In such an instance, a photographer will compose for widescreen, but "protect" the full image from things such as microphones and other filming equipment.
Common aspect ratios for flat widescreen are 1.85:1 and 1.66:1. Lesser used ratios included 1.75:1 and 2:1. The 2007 35mm short film On a Tuesday, directed by David Scott Smith and shot by Svetlana Cvetko, employed a 3.18:1 aspect ratio, flat-printed with a hard matte.
Anamorphic, aka scope. As introduced to the general public by CinemaScope in September 1953, and utilized by systems such as Panavision and others, anamorphic camera lenses compress the image horizontally so that it fits a standard frame, and anamorphic projection lenses restore the image and spread it over the wide screen. The picture quality is at maximum because this method both uses more of the negative frame than any other traditional 35 mm film process, optically compresses twice the image width, and does not require an intermediate conversion stage.
Super gauges. The full negative frame, including the area traditionally reserved for the sound track, is filmed using a wider gate. The print is then shrunk and/or cropped in order to fit it back onto release prints. The aspect ratio for Super 35, for example, can be set to virtually any projection standard.
Large gauge. A 70 mm film frame is not only twice as wide as a standard frame but also has greater height. Shooting and projecting a film in 70 mm therefore gives more than twice the image area of non-anamorphic 35 mm film with no loss of quality. Few major dramatic narrative films have been filmed entirely on this format since the 1970s; the two most recent are Ron Howard's Far and Away and Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet. For many years, large budget pictures shot anamorphically used reserve stocks of 70mm film for SFX shots involving CGI or blue-screen compositing as the anamorphic format creates problems with said effects. It has also been used to sometimes strike 70 mm blow-up prints for "roadshow" tours in select cities from the 35 mm camera negative in order to capitalize on the extra sound channels provided. The introduction of digital sound systems and diminishing number of installed 70 mm projectors has made a 70 mm release largely obsolete. However, blowups from 35 mm formats to IMAX has recently become popular for a limited number of blockbuster films.
Paramount's VistaVision was a larger gauge precursor to 70 mm film. Introduced in 1954, it ran standard 35 mm film through the camera horizontally to achieve a widescreen effect using greater negative area, in order to create a finer-grained 35 mm prints in an era where standard monopack stock could not produce finer results. Frames were eight perforations wide. Eight-perf photography is sometimes used for shooting special effects in order to produce a finer grained matte that can be used in optical printing without image degradation, and is notable for its use in Lucasfilm's original three Star Wars films, among others.
Multiple cameras/projectors. The Cinerama system originally involved shooting with three synchronized cameras locked together side by side, and projecting the three resulting films on a curved screen with three synchronized projectors. Later Cinerama movies were shot in 70 mm anamorphic (see below), and the resultant widescreen image was divided into three by optical printers to produce the final threefold prints. The technical drawbacks of Cinerama are discussed in its own article. Only two narrative feature films, The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm and How the West Was Won, were filmed in three-camera Cinerama, and several sequences from the latter were actually filmed in Ultra-Panavision. With the exception of a few films created sporadically for use in specialty Cinerama theaters, the format is essentially dead.
A non-Cinerama, three-projector process was famously pioneered for the final reel of Abel Gance's epic film Napoléon (1927). The process, called Polyvision by Gance, consisted of three 1.33 images side by side, so that the total aspect ratio of the image is 4:1. The technical difficulties in mounting a full screening of the film, however, make most theaters unwilling or unable to show it in this format.
Between 1956 and 1957 the Soviets developed Kinopanorama, which is identical in most respects to the original three-camera Cinerama.
Anamorphic 70 mm. 70 mm with anamorphic lenses, popularly known as "Ultra Panavision" or "MGM Camera 65", creates an even wider high-quality picture. This camera process was most famously used in the 1959 version of Ben-Hur, resulting in an aspect ratio of 2.76:1, one of the widest projected images ever used for a feature film. 70 mm anamorphic was not commonly used, due to the very high production costs, although it was favored for epic films such as Ben-Hur in order to capture wide panoramic landscapes and high-budget scenes with thousands of extras and enormous sets. This system is obsolete, despite its ease in setting up.
Historically, consumer TVs have been 4:3, and since many U.S. TV viewers seem to prefer to see a TV screen completely filled with image, U.S. television networks often show widescreen movies with the sides truncated, using a technique called pan and scan. Part of the image is concealed because of this truncation. While many film viewers consider this a great loss, this has not always been the case. The original standard aspect ratio for films was 4:3 (1.33:1), and the introduction of the Academy format in 1932 brought a slight change to a 1.37 aspect ratio. This is why U.S. television sets were originally built to that specification, and the switch to a wider format was met with some resistance within the film industry. Today, however, it is solidly the norm.
In Europe, the PAL TV format with its higher number of visible screen lines (576 vs. 480 for the U.S. NTSC standard introduced in March 1941) means that the low vertical resolution associated with showing uncropped widescreen movies on TV is not as bad, which has resulted in most European television networks showing widescreen movies uncropped, and in the general unavailability of cropped "fullscreen" DVDs of widescreen movies in the European DVD market. There is even an extension to PAL, called PALplus, which allows specially equipped receivers to receive a PAL picture as true 16:9 with full 576 lines of vertical resolution, provided the stations employ the same system. Standard PAL receivers will receive such a broadcast as a 16:9 image letterboxed to 4:3, with a small amount of color noise in the black bars; this "noise" is actually the additional lines which are hidden inside the color signal. This system has no equivalent in analog, NTSC broadcasting. Despite the existence of PALplus and support for widescreen in the DVB-based digital satellite, terrestrial and cable broadcasts in use across Europe, only Belgium, Ireland, the Netherlands, Austria, Germany, Scandinavia and the UK have taken up widescreen at any great rate, with over half of all Widescreen channels available by satellite in Europe targeting those areas.
The past two years have seen a rapid growth in the number of 16:9 TV monitors. These are typically used in conjunction with digital, high-definition television (HDTV) receivers, or standard-definition (SD) DVD players and other digital television sources. Digital material is provided to widescreen TVs either in high-definition format, which is natively 16:9 (1.78:1), or as an anamorphically compressed standard-definition picture. Typically, devices decoding digital standard-definition pictures can be programmed to provide anamorphic widescreen formatting, for 16:9 sets, or letterbox and pan-and-scan formatting for 4:3 sets; however the pan-and-scan mode can only be used if the producers of the material have included the necessary panning data. If this data is absent, letterboxing or centre cut-out will be used instead.
HD DVD and Blu-ray disc players entered the U.S. market in 2006. Toshiba ceased production of HD DVD players in early 2008 after key defections from the HD DVD camp damaged the viability of the format. It still remains to be seen whether Blu-ray will stimulate the sales of HD pre-recorded films on disc, and more HD monitors and tuners. Consumer camcorders are also available on HD-video format at fairly low prices. These developments will result in more options for viewing widescreen images on television monitors.
"Widescreen" can also refer to computer displays, which can be used to view widescreen movies, among other things. Widescreen computer displays are typically of the 1.6 (8:5, typically written as 16:10) aspect ratio. "True" widescreen (16:9) monitors can be found in resolutions of 1280x720 and 1920x1080.
A 16:10 monitor with the same diagonal size as a 4:3 monitor has 6.8% less area. A 16:9 monitor with the same diagonal size has 12.3% less area than a 4:3 monitor.
There are both advantages and disadvantages to wide screen computer displays:
For example to have the same vertical height as a 4:3 19" monitor, a 16:10 widescreen monitor would need to be (19" x 1.173 ) = 22.285".