Widescreen refers to any film screening for which the ratio of the width of the projected image to its height (called the aspect ratio) is greater than 4:3 or 1.33:1 - the standard ratio used in the industry from silent film until the early 1950s, also called the Academy format. During the 1920s there were experiments with several different widescreen systems in Hollywood, such as Magnascope, Fox Grandeur, Vitascope and 70mm Wide Film, but these processes were expensive and did not provide high quality pictures. Meanwhile, in France, Napoléon (1927) was screened using 'Polyvision', whereby three projectors showed a triptych of images across three screens to create a panoramic shot. This process was improved in 1952 when Cinerama (based on Gance's Polyvision) introduced a curved screen, stereophonic sound and three projectors. The screen went beyond the field of vision, which is 160 degrees, giving the illusion that the audience was actually 'in' the film. In the following year, 20th Century Fox brought out The Robe using its cheaper widescreen alternative, Cinemascope, which required only a single camera with a special anamorphic lens (again such lenses had already been made in the nineteenth century) that squeezed an image onto standard 35mm stock, which was then stretched back to its original format during projection. Screens were double the width of the normal screen and slightly curved to give the illusion of depth. CinemaScope was so successful (by 1955 more than 20,000 cinemas around the world had installed it) that foreign companies copied the system, using similar names - Franscope (France), Ultrascope (Italy), Agascope (Sweden), Sovscope (USSR) and Tohoscope (Japan).
Paramount responded by introducing its own process, VistaVision, and this was soon joined by Todd-AO. From 1960 onwards, however, Robert Gottschalk's Panavision gradually superseded all of these widescreen processes, so that it is now almost the only process used in 35mm widescreen filming.
Despite its expense and difficulty of use, the studios were keen to invest in widescreen during the 1950s because audiences, unable to resist the allure of television, were declining: cinema attendance dropped from 90m per week in 1948 to 51m in 1952. It has also been argued that during the post-war period, American audiences had a greater choice of leisure activities and many were now moving to the newly established suburbs, away from city-centre cinemas. As a result, films had to engage their audiences in a more spectacular fashion. The 1950s widescreen, employing a ratio of at least 1.66:1, provided a visual experience that television could not emulate, and this was exploited by film-makers. The new, altered screen formats led to a dramatic change in mise en scène as directors began to use horizontal space much as depth of field was explored during the 1940s. Editing became secondary to shooting long, uninterrupted scenes, as each frame was now wide enough to display a close up, a medium shot and a wide angle simultaneously. The viewer
Film as Text was involved in the space of the film and brought closer to the action with a greater immediacy than ever before. Particular genres, such as historical or epic dramas (The Ten Commandments, 1956) and westerns (The Searchers, 1956) became natural choices for the widescreen format. Indeed, post-studio system Hollywood's taste for the blockbuster was facilitated by the new technology (see Chapter 1 on Hollywood).
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