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Old 17-07-2007, 19:30   #1
John Hodson
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The Widescreen Revolution and British Cinema

The American Widescreen Museum is an excellent resource for discovering the history of the widescreen format, its various incarnations, technical aspects, etc.

I'm aware of just how quickly widescreen took hold in the U.S., after various abortive formats. As I understand it, Cinerama fired the public imagination in 1952, and by 1953 wide formats had taken such a grip that even films shot in Academy were being matted down to 1.66:1. By the following year most theatres were equipped to screen films even in the new and very popular Cinemascope.

What I'm not aware of just how quickly widescreen took off in the UK. In Europe, we favoured a 1.66:1 rather than 1.85:1 for years, but did cinemas here take to the new formats as quickly as America?

BTW, what sparked this is the fact that IMDB (and I'm aware that it's hardly the font of all knowledge) shows 1961's A Prize of Arms to have been shot in Academy, and Odeon's recent DVD release apparently reflects this. But I simply can't believe that; or did we, in fact, cling to Academy, at least for some productions, for much longer than the States?

Does anyone know a brief history of UK widescreen, or at least point me at a source where one can be found?
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Old 17-07-2007, 22:14   #2
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The whole 1.66:1/1.77:1 on DVD is a bit confusing. I just watched if.... Criterion a couple of nights ago and it claimed to be in its original 1.66:1 but it filled the whole screen of my LCD TV.

As far as I know, LCDs and plasmas don't really overscan so I would expect to see two vertical black bars on either side to trim in down to 1.66:1.

I know I have other 1.66:1 films which DO have the vertical bars and are correctly displayed in 1.66:1, so I don't understand why Criterion claim that it is in its correct aspect ratio when that doesn't appear to be the case.

Hope I'm not being dumb here
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Old 18-07-2007, 07:16   #3
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1.66:1 is certainly correct for if... as I once projected a 35mm print of it. It was filmed open-matte though - if you show it full-frame you can see rather more than is intended in the shower scene!

I don't have a source I can point to, but I think the UK adopted widescreen fairly quickly. I've seen films from the mid 50s which are in 1.66:1 (and matted into that ratio, at least on TV) - Woman in a Dressing Gown is one that comes to mind. I very much doubt A Prize of Arms is really meant to be in Academy: I suspect the DVD is open matte - though this is speculation as I haven't seen the film.
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Old 18-07-2007, 09:02   #4
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Originally Posted by Gary Couzens View Post
I very much doubt A Prize of Arms is really meant to be in Academy: I suspect the DVD is open matte - though this is speculation as I haven't seen the film.
I'm certain that you are right. However, A Prize of Arms was just the catalyst; it's the speed of uptake I'm looking for; were our cinemas pretty much converted to widescreen by '53/'54, did the British film industry accept it was a done deal as quickly as that?

I'm pretty sure we did, but I'd like confirmation.

BTW Glennza, I have several 1.66:1 anamorphic transfers and the width of the black bars varies in almost every instance (from label to label), from non-existant upwards. Not sure about LCDs not displaying overscan though; I'm sure mine does?
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Old 18-07-2007, 11:48   #5
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George Perry's The Great British Picture Show tells us that the first Cinemascope films shown in the UK were The Robe at the Odeon, Leicester Square closely followed by How to Marry a Millionaire at the Odeon, Marble Arch. These he describes as late in 1953 and the suggestion is that they were initially to be seen only at those flagship venues. Disappointingly, he does not discuss the take-up of the system nationwide.

Interestingly, he says this, "But before these widescreen films made their first appearance in Britain there had already been a movement away from the 1.33:1 ratio in many cinemas. So-called panoramic screens were installed, with the effect that the top and bottom were cut from the projected image, giving a pseudo-widescreen appearance to many films, although until production companies began planning their product so that the pictorial composition allowed for expendable portions of the frames, this aroused constant irritation by the loss of vital parts of the action or titles. The new large screens had aspect ratios varying from 1.66:1 to 1.85:1."

He reminds us that the early 'Scope movies were often shot simultaneously in flat versions for ordinary cinemas.

None of this exactly addresses John's question about the speed of take-up. I can recall my mother saying she had seen The Robe in Scope in Southport during the fifties but how long after 1953 was that? The Robe pioneered Eastman Color, and magnetic tape sound as well as Scope, so required a considerable investment.

I am interested by Perry's reference to "constant irritation" at the premature use of new aspect ratios. Was this expressed in print at the time? I'm afraid it raises more questions. It also recalls earlier comments on this Board about the intended ratios for pictures such as On The Waterfront and Night of the Hunter on the cusp of the widescreen movement. Perhaps we can find earlier cases where DPs framed essentially for the new shape?
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Old 18-07-2007, 16:51   #6
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One that comes to mind is The Big Combo (1955) - which I saw on TV in 4:3 open-matte but which definitely looked composed for 1.85:1 to me.

Incidentally, a checkdisc of the R2 of if... from Paramount has just arrived and it is definitely anamorphic 1.66:1, with black bars at the sides. (For the record, it is dual-encoded for Regions 2 and 4.)
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Old 18-07-2007, 19:15   #7
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There are numerous examples of films from the changeover years, '53 - '55-ish, composed for widescreen that are available on DVD open-matte, and which could conceivably have been projected either way, the examples above and Creature from the Black Lagoon, This Island Earth, The Naked Jungle, to name but three more.

Purely speculation, but with America taking so readily to widescreen, it's likely all of them were projected more often between 1.66:1 and 1.85:1, if our takeup was slower in the UK, and possibly the rest of Europe, they may have been seen more often 'square' than 'wide'. Hence films which were shot in '55/'56 in the US still being composed with a number of ratios in mind?
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Old 19-07-2007, 05:57   #8
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You could say that practice continues to this day, as any film shot open-matte could be shown in 4:3 - and until relatively recently was shown that way on TV, if not in cinemas. See for example, the incessant "debate" as to which ratio is "correct" for the Disney animated features post 1960. There are also a good few films shot with a 1.66:1 hard matte, even though the intended AR is 1.85:1, for which the same principle applies.
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Old 19-07-2007, 15:06   #9
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I was born in 1945. My parents were keen filmgoers and we had family visits to the cinema from when I was at an early age. Early memories are notoriously unreliable and I remember no real details of what films I saw until about 1953, when Cinemascope was introduced. Living in North London, our local cinemas were the Langham (owned by ABPC) in Pinner, the Embassy in North Harrow (another ABPC cinema which later became the ABC), the Granada in Harrow and the Gaumont at Rayners Lane. None of these are now cinemas.

Films I clearly remember seeing in the mid ‘50s included The Dam Busters (there were huge queues for that) (1954), Doctor in the House (1954), 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (which was probably the first Cinemascope film I saw) (1954); The Purple Mask (1955), French Can-Can (1955), Raising a Riot (1955); Doctor at Sea (1955); The Ladykillers (1955), Forbidden Planet (I remember thinking how amazing that was) (1956); Reach for the Sky (1956), Moby Dick (1956), Eyewitness (1956), The Searchers (1956), The Man Who Never Was (1956), The Ten Commandments (reserved seat engagement) (1956) and many others.

From 1954 I don’t ever recall seeing a film projected in the old Academy ratio of 1.33:1. The screen seemed to always be the same size which must have been 1.66:1, other than Cinemascope films. In the early 50s cinemas were doing all they could to counter television so why would they show films in a TV shape of 1.33:1? Even if there were films composed for that ratio I think practically every cinema would have masked them down to widescreen. Mind you, I don’t think there was a great deal of consistency of screen ratio amongst the different cinemas. The Cinemascope screen at the Granada for example, was far wider than the Cinemascope screen at the Langham or ABC North Harrow.

What I can’t figure out is when UK cinemas switched from 1.66:1 to 1.85:1 as standard. I don’t recall noticing any sudden change.

More definitive information other than my fallible memory is contained in Allan Eyles book “Odeon Cinemas – 2 From J Arthur Rank to the Multiplex” published by the Cinema Theatre Association and distributed by the BFI. In it Eyles writes that the first wide screen installation was at the Odeon, Leicester Square on 14 May 1953 (just beating the Empire). He says “The newsreel and supporting programme were shown on the regular 1.33:1 screen which was then flown to dramatically reveal a new wide screen of 1.66:1 aspect ratio" He goes on to say “Many of the films that were proudly shown in “panoramic wide screen” had never been photographed with that in mind and therefore suffered badly from being cut off from top and bottom. Which seems to confirms my own memory that 1.33:1 rapidly disappeared.

Eyles goes on to discuss the introduction of Cinemascope in the UK which opened at the Odeon on 30 June 1953. Introduction of Cinemascope throughout the UK seems to have taken a while because at 10 February 1955 the Kine Weekly reported that Rank had equipped 450 cinemas with ‘Scope leaving another 92 to follow.

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Old 19-07-2007, 15:32   #10
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That's very interesting Douglas, and seems to confirm that we more or less followed the American pattern. Thank you.
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Old 19-07-2007, 20:18   #11
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Quote:
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What I can’t figure out is when UK cinemas switched from 1.66:1 to 1.85:1 as standard. I don’t recall noticing any sudden change.
No chapter and verse to quote, just the evidence of my own eyes, but British commercial cinemas seemed to adopt 1.75:1 as their standard non-anamorphic ratio somewhen in the early 1970s. I think it was intended as a compromise between European films which continued to be in 1.66:1 and American ones in 1.85:1. There certainly are quite a few lowish-budget British films in 1.75:1 in the 70s or 80s - though anything with intentions on the mainstream US box office would more likely be in 1.85:1 or Scope. For example, Mona Lisa (an arthouse release in the US, a commercial one here) is 1.75:1. So are many of Mike Leigh's films.

When I joined the Southampton University Film Society in 1984, we had what was by all accounts a fairly standard 35mm cinema set-up - 1.75:1 and Scope, the only difference being that we had 1.37:1 as well. Later we added 1.66:1 and 1.85:1.
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Old 11-04-2013, 14:58   #12
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It's been a while

The latest AR research by the estimable Bob Furmanek and Jack Theakston can be found collated here: The New Era of Screen Dimensions.

Shatters many myths...
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Old 11-04-2013, 19:03   #13
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A more interesting question for me would be, why did it take so long for widescreen TV's to appear. It wasn't until DVD came along that widescreen TV's started to appear
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Old 11-04-2013, 20:04   #14
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The technology hadn't caught up Id imagine. As far as I recall you could only get vhs widescreen with black bars top and bottom. Now if you zoom that to fill a 16.9 screen then it looks pretty horrific! It would have been better if you could get an anamorphic vhs movie in the early days of ws tv.
Laserdisc Im not sure, perhaps someone would like to tell us more about that.

Im sure 16.9 tv's were out before dvd took off tho. But only ch4 were broadcasting in WS on analogue at first, was it called fourplus or something? I remember seeing a few demos of stuff like eastenders stretched out as until digital no other channels were broadcasting ws.
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Old 11-04-2013, 20:18   #15
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The technology hadn't caught up Id imagine. As far as I recall you could only get vhs widescreen with black bars top and bottom. Now if you zoom that to fill a 16.9 screen then it looks pretty horrific! It would have been better if you could get an anamorphic vhs movie in the early days of ws tv.
Laserdisc Im not sure, perhaps someone would like to tell us more about that.

Im sure 16.9 tv's were out before dvd took off tho. But only ch4 were broadcasting in WS on analogue at first, was it called fourplus or something? I remember seeing a few demos of stuff like eastenders stretched out as until digital no other channels were broadcasting ws.
It took TV a while to show films in W/S,I think it was the Steve McQueen film Tom Horn shown on BBC2 was the first one maybe or the Moviedrome season of films ?
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Old 11-04-2013, 20:25   #16
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A more interesting question for me would be, why did it take so long for widescreen TV's to appear. It wasn't until DVD came along that widescreen TV's started to appear
Because they were more expensive to make, and given that most broadcast material wasn't in widescreen (and of course, no legacy TV shows were at all), for a lot of the time you would have ended up with an expensive set that spent a lot of it's time showing a considerably smaller 4:3 image with black bars on each side. The black bars were just in themselves a major hurdle.

When these sets first started coming in, even 32" was considered large, and that was the diagonal on a widescreen set, so for "standard" TV shows you actually ended up with the the equivalent of a much smaller standard set.

As you point out, widescreen set sales were helped enormously by DVD starting to present films on their proper OAR - the two were synergistic

But yes, widescreen TV's were certainly out before DVD really took off. A number of earlier DVD releases had the dreaded "this presentation has been reformatted to fit your TV screen" on them. Likewise, quite a number of VHS releases were in proper widescreen. I had the VHS boxset of the Star Trek films - the first five since that comprised all of them at the time, and they were widescreen. But of course, not anamorphic, and you certainly wouldn't have wanted them on a big screen as VHS resolution wasn't good enough - just as DVD doesn;t really stand up on a really big TV or projector.

I had a rented 32" widescreen TV for years, it was an absolute monstrosity!

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Old 11-04-2013, 20:57   #17
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I had a widescreen TV a long time before DVDs came out - the primary source was widescreen VHS, and I think there were a couple of widescreen SKY channels when they went digital?
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Old 11-04-2013, 21:13   #18
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Great stuff, & welcome back Mr. Hodson! I used to think it was all 4x3 untill the early sixties, but I was well wrong. I think it's becouse in the days of DVD a lot of late 50's early 60's British films were released on DVD in 4x3, but I wouldn't be surprised if the were using old TV masters for a lot of them. I did post at hometheaterforum a while back about a letter I saw in a late 50's edition of Films & Filming. It was from a working projectionist, saying that his cinema was set up for 'scope & 1:85 only, I wonder how many cinemas were like that. A couple of weeks ago there was two old St. Trinian's films on ITV3, obviously new transfers & looked very good (but far to much DVNR). The Pure Hell Of St. Trinian's '61 (a favorite, I remember seeing it at the pictures) was 1:66 & looked good, but I think 16:9 would have looked as good. The earlier Blue Murder At St. Trinian's '57 was 4x3, but so obviously wrong, there was a ton of headroom, again 16:9 would be fine. I have a lot of DVD's from this period & they're all 4x3 & I think they're all wrong.
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Old 11-04-2013, 21:30   #19
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I had a widescreen TV a long time before DVDs came out - the primary source was widescreen VHS
You can watch widescreen movies on working tv's anyway
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Old 11-04-2013, 21:31   #20
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I had a widescreen TV a long time before DVDs came out - the primary source was widescreen VHS, and I think there were a couple of widescreen SKY channels when they went digital?
They weren't very common until about 1995, I think. My mate had one who worked for Sony, at 32" it seemed massive. Too big. Never catch on.

I remember seeing them on Tomorrow's World in the early 80s. One of the things they got right, as I recall.

Took ages to catch on in America. I remember serious arguments in the letters pages of various magazines claiming that, actually, a P&S VHS on a 4:3 large screen had a higher resolution than a widescreen DVD on the same size screen but in widescreen (32" square vs 32" wide). (it was one of the reasons DVD wouldn't catch on and remain an enthusiasts format. This must be circa 1998?)

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