Sunday, October 14, 2007

I stand corrected: Kubrick did NOT compose his later films for 1.33

Contrary to what I've been led to believe, Stanley Kubrick did not compose his post-1960 (post-Spartacus) movies for the 1.33 Academy aspect ratio. In fact, it turns out the screenshots I took from Eyes Wide Shut in my earlier post on the topic of HD aspect ratios had been recomposed so a standard 1.66 crop worked in 1.33 for full frame.

So, to give this discussion some technical background, and in an effort to make this blog informative rather than just opinionated, let's diagram what "Academy" looks like on a frame of film.

Academy is a 4:3 film format specified when sound entered the picture, so to speak. Prior to the Talkies, most of the film area of a 35mm film frame was used for a motion picture (threaded vertically, of course, as opposed to horizontally like in your home still camera). If you turn a strip of 35mm film on its side, the size of that frame is the size of 4 of the perforations you see on either side of the film that the sprockets fit into to move the film along.

When Talkies appeared, they needed some way to get the sound matched to the picture in theaters. The obvious way to do this was to put the soundtrack onto the film optically. Until the advent of digital sound in theaters, this was done by printing the sound onto the film to the left of the movie's image (the yellow area in the diagram to the right). The centered 4:3 area to the right of that soundtrack was called "Academy". Most films done before the Widescreen gimmick took off in the 60s were filmed and projected in Academy. Academy 1.33 is the gray area in the diagram you see here. If I recall correctly, Academy lenses are slightly offset to account for the change in perspective.

Most early mainstream widescreen films like Lawrence of Arabia and Spartacus were filmed on 70mm film, which gave a 2.2 aspect ratio. These films could only be distributed on 35mm prints by squeezing the wider aspect into the additional frame area above and below Academy, represented by the bluish tinted rectangle. This distribution format is and was called Anamorphic, Cinemascope, or just 'Scope. It requires using an anamorphic lens on the projector as well to get the full widescreen.

However, shooting on 70mm (or 65mm) is expensive and inconvenient. The last mainstream feature film I know of to do principal photography on 65mm was Far and Away, which was 15 years ago. So directors wanted a way to get that cool 2.2 widescreen while still using 35mm film. Enter Cinemascope (again) -- now Panavision. Anamorphic lenses that allow you to get that same squeeze-into-Academy-width that you can from a 70mm transfer, except during principal photography instead of during a transfer.

The problem? Well... the lenses are kinda wonky. For example, the bokeh on an anamorphic lens makes out of focus circles look like ovals, and a rack focus will horizontally distort subjects. Lens reflections have a distinct "Panavision" look -- fire up Knoll Lens Flare or a copy of Close Encounters on DVD for examples of that.
[Side note: personally, I prefer principal photography with anamorphic lenses because the end result has less film grain and no intermediate printing tricks while still being 2.2 aspect. I've had a much easier time working on films shot anamorphically. Oh, and I grew up on the Panavision look so I guess it's nostalgic.]

That brings us to the pink part of the diagram above: 1.85 academy. With cinematographers out there who don't like anamorphic lenses, you need a way to do widescreen with spherical lenses. So here's what you do: shoot your movie in Academy and have the film house put a 1.85 mask on their projector.

Which brings us, finally, to Mr. Kubrick.

The debate is whether his films were supposed to have that 1.85 mask or not for the "correct" composition of the frame. My understanding was they were not. I believed that actually the theatrical release of films like Eyes Wide Shut was manipulated the other way: to make the 1.33 composition work on a 1.85 or 1.66 screen. And the DVD backs that up.

But today I was watching The Shining on my Xbox 360 and complaining about how Xbox scales full frame DVDs to to the full 16:9 and can't be turned off without changing the whole Xbox config. This made me hyper aware of the composition, and after the movie was done, I flipped my Xbox into a mode where it forced it into 4:3 to feel vindicated. Instead, I wondered if maybe the movie was supposed to be 1.85 after all.

The shot that convinced me was this shot of Scatman Crothers. Here it is in full frame.

Note that there is way too much space above his head. I pondered this for a while, then took a look at some other scenes from the movie.

Again, very suspicious composition for a film that's supposed to be 4:3.

I searched on the internet and found a very interesting storyboard from the movie and thread related to this. Click here and scroll down to "Kubrick Archives".

I just went to the trouble to crop these shots for 1.85, and guess what, they look great:

So there you have it, the master filmmaker did not compose The Shining for 1.33. As others have said if you Google around for this, he actually only requested his films be transferred Full Academy to video. Now that video is becoming a 16:9 format, I guess that means we can start seeing Kubrick's films as they were actually intended to be seen. And I'll have to stop going around saying that 4:3 is the ratio of the gods and that Kubrick used it, yada yada yada.
Only two things confuse me. First off, when I watched Full Metal Jacket in HD, the composition did feel off and I thought that it was because of Kubrick's 1.33 thing. I guess I'll have to watch it again.
Second thing is, did this guy's video ever get to Stanley Kubrick? What did Kubrick think?

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