Chances are very good that if you are a classic film fan (or even a classic television fan) that you know what "aspect ratio" is. For those of you who don't, the aspect ratio of an image is the relation between its width and height. To put it in simpler terms, it is a way of describing the size of an image on a movie or television screen. While aspect ratio might not seem very important to some, for connoisseurs of classic film and television it can be very important. Quite simply, most classic film and television fans want to see motion pictures and TV series shown in their original aspect ratio. Unfortunately, changes in film and television technology have often resulted in many films being shown on television in such a way that much of what was originally on the big screen was lost on the small screen.
The reason for this is that the original standard for television in the United States was an aspect ratio of 4:3. This was very close to the standard of 1.375:1 that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences adopted not long after the advent of the Sound Era and used on most motion pictures made in the Thirties and Forties. When a film shot with an aspect ratio of 1.375:1 is adjusted to a television screen made for an aspect ratio of 4:3 very little of what was originally on the big screen is lost. For much of the Fifties, then, watching films on television was not that big of a problem for anyone who wanted to see them as they were originally shown (well, outside of commercial interruptions anyway...).
That having been said, it was in the Fifties that there would be developments that would make watching many films on television a very painful experience for anyone who wanted to see them as they were originally shown. Quite simply, the Fifties would see the introduction of several widescreen processes, beginning with Cinerama in 1952. The original Cinerama was much larger than the old standard aspect ratio of 1.375:1--it had an aspect ratio of 2.59:1. Other widescreen processes were also much larger than the old standard. 20th Century Fox's CinemaScope was capable of producing an image with an aspect ratio of 2.66:1, nearly twice the size of the old standard. It was because of these widescreen processes that the dominant aspect ratios of film would change. Whereas during the Golden Age of Film 1.375:1 was the standard aspect ratio for films, today 1.85:1 and 2.39:1 are the two most frequently used aspect ratios. Of course, the widescreen films of the Fifties and Sixties, not to mention nearly all movies made since then, were shot with aspect ratios that are very different from the old television standard of 4:3.
Naturally the difference between the aspect ratio of television for much of its history and the widescreen films of the Fifties, Sixties, and beyond created a problem when it came to showing them on film. There was simply little way that, say, a Cinerama film such as How the West was Won, could be made to fit into a television screen in the Sixties and Seventies. The solution to this problem taken by the networks and local television stations was hardly ideal. Quite simply, the image on the screen was severely cropped to fit the television screen. This meant that a good deal of information was lost on the television screen any time such films were shown.
Fortunately a solution to this problem was developed in the form of letterboxing. Letterboxing is a means of preserving a film's original aspect ratio by placing black bars above and below the image. The practice received the name "letterboxing" because the result somewhat resembles the slot of a letter box. The first fully letterboxed release was the RCA videodisc of Amarcord in 1984. In the Eighties and much of the Nineties letterboxing was confined to videodisc releases, although a few VHS tapes would be released in letterboxed format as well. Possibly the first VHS release in letterboxed format was Woody Allen's Manhattan (1979). When the film was released on video in 1985, Mr. Allen insisted that it be letterboxed in order to preserve the film's widescreen cinematography. Turner Classic Movies, launched in 1994, was among the first television outlets to embrace letterboxing. The advent of DVDs in the mid to late Nineties would see letterboxing commonly used in video releases. Unfortunately, some television outlets are still resistant to letterboxing. Despite the fact that many of its TV shows are shot in widescreen format and shown letterboxed, HBO still refuses to show feature films letterboxed.
Of course, the Nineties would see the advent of widescreen television sets. As widescreen television sets grew in popularity during the Naughts, many television shows started shooting in widescreen formats. Eventually this practice became common enough that the standard aspect ratio for television shifted from 4:3 to 16:9, an aspect ratio much closer to that of current feature films. Unfortunately, while widescreen television sets may be ideal for watching feature films made from the Fifties to today, they are not so ideal for watching television shows made before the Naughts, all of which were shot with an aspect ratio of 4:3. To wit, in some cases some more recent shows shot with a 4:3 aspect ratio have been remastered with a 16:0 aspect ratio. The most recent victim of this practice was The Wire, which HBO remastered for High Definition with using a 16:9 aspect ratio instead of its original 4:3.
Fortunately most older shows won't befall the same fate as The Wire. It seems unlikely that Perry Mason or The Monkees will ever be remastered to fit a 16:9 aspect ratio. That doesn't mean watching older shows on a widescreen presents no problem. Left unadjusted a widescreen television set will stretch the images of old TV shows, shot for a 4:3 aspect ratio, to fit a screen with a 16:9 aspect ratio. Fortunately, widescreen television sets do allow one to adjust the aspect ratio of the image on the screen (on Samsung sets it is the P.SIZE button on the remote control). The result is what is known as pillarboxing, in which black bars are placed on either side of the image so it can be viewed in an aspect ratio of 4:3.
While I suspect that the average person doesn't particularly care about the aspect ratio in which movies and TV shows are shown, there are those of us who really prefer that the movies and TV shows we watch appear in as close to their original format as possible. For people like us, then, the many changes in the aspect ratio of films and TV shows, not to mention how various TV outlets handle them, can be a source of constant frustration.