The term widescreen is used to describe a variety of forms of film projection in which the aspect ratio (width-to-height proportion) of the picture is greater than the 4:3 format adopted as standard in the early days of cinema.
Since 1952 various types of so-called wide screen systems have come to dominate entertainment cinema theatre usage both in the United States and in Europe, although the earlier format continues to be extensively used in the smaller film gauges, and in film for television. The presentation of these processes is often associated with cinema theatre screens of large dimensions, and it was not by accident that the appearance of wide screen coincided with the brief boom in stereoscopic (3-D) movies.One object of the ultra-large screen was to stimulate peripheral vision and thus give an illusion of 3-D which the smaller screen lacked. However, the term wide screen should be regarded as referring to the proportions of the picture rather to any actual size of projected image.
The many variations in general commercial use may be divided into three main groups:
1. Systems using anamorphic lens projection in which the image on the film is optically compressed (squeezed) in the horizontal sense and expanded to correct proportions by projection with lenses giving greater magnification laterally than vertically. (generally referred to as cinemascope)
2. Systems using normal projection lenses in which the projector aperture is masked to give the required aspect ratio. The image on the film used in this way is not optically compressed and copies and copies of this type are often referred to as flat prints. For both the foregoing groups, film stock of a larger size than the standard 35mm width may be employed.
3. Multi-film systems where two, three or more projectors with separate prints are used simultaneously to build up the projected picture by a series of images, generally side by side (generally referred to as Cinerama) 1
The apparatus required for cinemascope was often beyond the means of some theatres, and to provide them with a picture of greater aspect ratio than the 1:1.33, producers made films which had the same width on the film, but with a height less than that of the academy frame, thus giving a picture with a higher aspect ratio but actually a smaller frame area on the film. This was projected in the theatre onto a screen which had the same height as before but was wider. This was sold to the public as ‘the new wide screen’.
Three different aspect ratios were used in this ‘Wide Screen’ viz. – 1:1.86, 1:1.75, 1:1.66. The aspect ratio 1:1.75 has virtually fallen into disuse. American producers tend to use 1:1.86, while Europeans tend to use 1:1.66.
A lot of films intended to be shown in theatres as wide screen are actually shot through the academy aperture. This is so that they can be also be shown on television and fit the normal TV screen without any black border at top and bottom, or with cropping at the sides 2.
1 1969, The Focal Encyclopedia of Film and Television Techniques, Focal Press, London, New York
2 Brown, H., 1985, Basic Film Handling, in FIAF Technical Manual First Edition, FIAF Preservation Commission, Federation Internationale des Archives du Film, Brussels, Belgium