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THEATRICAL AR = MAR?

January 2007


As always, December found my plate being far more loaded than I expected. Unfortunately, a DVD project that I had hoped would be finished in the first half of December ended up being finished less than a week before Christmas. The day after Christmas, I started to install the drop/suspended ceiling in my basement in preparation for my inevitable ejection from my current computer room.

Although the ceiling is just about finished, I still need to get clearance from my local borough to do some necessary rewiring including the replacement of some of the 55-year-old, electrical wire. Once all of those are done, I'll be moving my equipment down into my basement, which will then be my new computer room and audio/video studio.

So, those are my lame excuses for not getting a commentary to you in December. Obviously, the Widescreen.Org Movie and Media Podcast (as I've decided to name it) has been pushed off until next month when my studio is expected to be finished.

Theatrical MAR?

One of the mantras that I've always believed is that the theatre is the best place to watch movies. Sure, there are always negatives to the theatre. You might have issues with the prices at the concession stand, but remember that the concession stand is what keeps theatres in business. You might have to deal with rude people, but in my experience those types of people are rare. But the sound system, big screen, and overall experience still help to make the theatres the place to be.

And at least at the theatres we can see the movie in its correct aspect ratio, right? Maybe not.

I received an e-mail from Carrie regarding an experience that she had with her local theatre in Michigan. When she recently went to see "Charlotte's Web", she noticed that the framing seemed to be incredibly tight and the tops of heads were going off the screen. After getting back home and doing a bit of research on her own, she noticed that the aspect ratio on the screen was not what it should have been.

Carrie provided a supplemental document to me to be used with my commentary here. Note that it's a PDF document, so you'll need Adobe Acrobat Reader, FoxIt, or an equivalent PDF reader.

It would seem that the screen is set in such a way as to accommodate both 1.85:1 and 2.35:1 movies possibly by changing the aperture of the projection without changing the dimensions of the screen. "Charlotte's Web" was filmed in spherical 35m for a 1.85:1 aspect ratio. But based on her calculations, the movie was being shown closer to a 2.1:1 or 2.2:1 aspect ratio, resulting in such a vertically cramped presentation that she felt it necessary to write a letter of complaint to theatre owners.

I thought about how this would work and could not come up with an adequate solution, at least with standard 35mm film stock. When I was the assistant manager at a local theatre, I would have to hit a switch in the projection booth that would move the curtains on the sides of the screen to either a 1.85:1 or 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Our projector maintainer was very, very meticulous to get the settings of the "barn doors" and the curtains to be exactly calibrated for 1.85:1 and 2.35:1 movies.

At the risk of sounding like an old fogey -- you young'uns and you fanshy shmanshy digital projection thingys! -- things might be different for digital projection. I left the theatre business when digital was restricted to movie audio, not movie video. Carrie said that this was at her local, digital theatre, so I don't know if this is restricted to her local theatre or digital projection in general. I tend to think the former.

For 35mm film a 1.85:1 movie is generally shown will a full frame and the top and bottom masked out by a combination of black fabric above and below the screen in addition to "barn doors" on the projector that block out the top and bottom to give the expected 1.85:1 aspect ratio. 2.35:1 movies also take up the entire 4:3 aspect ratio of the film frame but are shown with a special lens that expands the visuals horizontally from the 4:3 35mm film stock to the 2.35:1 aspect ratio on the screen. But in either case the vertical height is supposed to be the same. That would mean that to crop the top and bottom of a 1.85:1 movie would also crop the top and bottom a 2.35:1 movie.

Again, this is how things were at my theatre over fifteen years ago. (No, I'm not dating myself with that, am I?) Newer, digital theatres might do things differently. For all that I know, 2.35:1 movies are projected in letterbox thus making the visual part formatted perfectly for the screen. That's the only thing that I can think of that would allow 1.85:1 to be cropped on the top and bottom but not have that happen with 2.35:1 movies unless Carrie went to a theatre with a really bad projectionist.

If any of you are projectionists, I would love to hear your take on this. I'm sure that Carrie would appreciate some information about it as well.

Hmmm... maybe I should talk to the manager of one of the newer theatres in the area. He (or she) might have some information about this, because I'm certainly curious about it. It could also make a good topic for the podcast. ;)

Until next time!