By Bob Fisher

Four of the motion picture industry’s most respected cinematographers participated in an evocative and engaging discussion about the art and craft of wide-screen movie production during the November meeting of the SMPTE Hollywood section. Some 230 members and guests jammed into the Gene Autry Hollywood Museum Theater to hear John Bailey, ASC, Kees Van Oostrum, ASC, Theo Van de Sande, ASC and John Hora, ASC explain when and why they believe it is appropriate to produce films in either anamorphic or Super 35 format, and how they differentiate between those two mediums. Bev Wood, vice president, technical services for Deluxe labs, and Dave Kenig, director, camera systems for Panavision, also provided insight

The meeting was co-sponsored by the American Society of Cinematographers (ASC) and the International Cinematographers Guild (ICG). SMPTE Hollywood Section Chair Dick May opened the session by explaining that the seminar was an educational initiative designed to enhance communications between the creative and technical communities. He noted that SMPE (no television in those days) was founded in 1916 for the purpose of working with cinematographers and the studios to define the need for and propose technical standards that supported the art form and provided economies of scale.

The audience represented a broad cross-section of the industry, including managers and technicians from various studios, labs and postproduction houses, equipment rental facilities, camera crewmembers and film school faculty and students.

"For me, it is simple," Van de Sande said, illustrating by using both hands to frame the edges of his peripheral vision. "Do you see the frame I have created? It is approximately the same as the 2.4:1 aspect ratio. The wide-screen aspect ratio comes much closer to the way we see and experience life. It also gives filmmakers the freedom to compose close-ups with one or more characters in the foreground and their environment or related action in the background. It’s a richer experience."

Van Oostrum added, "I’ve used anamorphic lenses recently on both a dramatic film and an epic. It gives you so many more options. You don’t have to move the camera to show the audience the background, and you can let the characters move in the frame, which is more unobtrusive…which is sometimes appropriate."

The four cinematographers brought diverse backgrounds and opinions to the discussion, however they  shared common ground in agreeing that both wide-screen formats offer creative flexibility and provide a more engaging and satisfying cinematic experience for audiences. All of them also made it clear that they generally prefer the image rendering qualities of anamorphic lenses.

"Although you get the same wide-screen image size with Super 35, you have more control of depth of field with anamorphic lenses, and more freedom for using selective focus to draw the audience’s attention to people or objects," Bailey said.

A little history: The quest for a wider aspect ratio is almost as old as the motion picture industry. During the mid-1890s, Woodville Lathman developed a camera and projector that he called the Eidolscope, which offered a two-inch wide frame. In 1899, Hopwood’s Living Pictures Magazine published ads listing camera and projector systems providing seven different aspect ratios determined by the size and shape of the frame with the widest format being two-and-three-quarter inches.

Bailey noted that the first anamorphic lens was invented in France during the 1920s. By the end of that decade, every Hollywood studio was experimenting with wide-screen films in proprietary formats. The experiments were put on hold during the 1930s because of the economic depression and need to invest in outfitting theaters for sound.

Various wide-screen formats made a comeback in Hollywood during the early 1950s when the studios were vying with television for audiences. There was a flurry of interest in 3-D films beginning with the release of Bwana Devil in 1952. This is Cinerama also premiered in 1952 and 20th Century-Fox produced and release The Robe and How to Marry a Millionaire in CinemaScope format with a 2.55:1 aspect ratio.

"The original aspect ratio was actually 2.66:1, combined with double system sound," Hora explained, "but by the time the pictures were released, a magnetic track was added to the edge of the frame, making the image area 2.55:1.That was still approximately twice the width and screen size of conventional movies at that time."

Fox licensed the use of its CinemaScope lenses, but most of the other studios opted to develop their own wide-screen formats, including Todd-AO, VistaVision and Technirama. All of these proprietary formats were based on using larger image areas, from 55 to 65 mm wide, as well as wider aspect ratios. During the next 20 or so years, approximately 40 wide-screen "road show" films were produced, including such classics as 2001, Oklahoma, Ryan’s Daughter and Around the World In 80 Days. The common denominators were that they were all epics, mainly with awesome exterior locations.

In 1954, an aspiring filmmaker named Robert Gottshalk organized Panavision for the purpose of designing a lens, which could be used to project wide-screen images. The Panatar lens was less costly and more flexible than the special lenses required for CinemaScope, because a variable prism could be adjusted for aspect ratios as wide as 2.66:1. Panavision ultimately sold some 15,000 Panatar lenses to exhibitors.

Two years later, Panavision introduced the company’s first anamorphic camera lenses, which optically "squeezed" the images recorded on the negative into a wide-screen aspect ratio, initially 2.35:1, which was later adjusted to 2.4:1.

"It wasn’t just for epic films," Bailey commented. "When I was a student, Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut and other New Wave filmmakers in France were shooting Breathless, Four Hundred Blows and Shoot the Piano Player and other films made on minimalist budgets in wide-screen aspect ratios. I also remember seeing films from Japan in a theater on the corner of LaBrea and 9th Street (in Los Angeles) in a format called Tohoscope. I think it was 2.55:1."

Bailey also described his experiences shooting a black-and-white 16 mm student film in anamorphic format some 40 years ago. He used a spherical lens with an anamorphic attachment held in place with gaffer tape. Bailey said he had to be careful when he followed focus so the anamorphic element didn’t swivel.

Van de Sande related similar experiences at the dawn of his career, shooting short films in 35 mm two-perf Technoscope format using the Technicolor dye transfer process to produce what he described as very satisfactory prints. He lamented that when the lab closed the dye transfer plant, the format withered because the prints were too grainy.

Kenig illustrated the evolution of wide-screen format with a series of PowerPoint slides comparing the different wide-screen formats.

"There is a general misconception today, mainly by financial people at the studios who believe that anamorphic movies are more expensive to produce because they require more lighting or you need to build bigger sets," Hora observed.

Bailey interjected that he had recently completed shooting a small comedy for Paramount Studios. Both he and the director felt that they could enhance the story by composing it in anamorphic format, but they hit a solid wall of resistance at the studio where management insisted that they compose the film 1.85:1 format.

"I’ve heard that the same thing has happened on several other films," he said, "but I’ve never been able to find out why—whether they thought it was going to cost more, or maybe they had a bad experience with critical focus on an anamorphic movie. Is there anyone in the audience from Paramount who can answer that question?"

There were no volunteers.

Van Oostrum recounted a similar experience when he and a director he was working with failed to convince a production executive that he would not have to invest in building 50 percent larger sets if they framed a film in anamorphic format.

When the audience laughed, he said, "It’s actually not funny. It is both sad and unfortunate that the industry doesn’t do a better job of educating people who are making these decisions without really understanding the possibilities of modern technology."

Later, Bailey screened a scene from his film Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, which he lensed in anamorphic format last year. Bailey described how he used the 2.4:1 aspect ratio as part of the silent visual language of the story to create a feeling of intimacy.

Hora explained that both the Super 35 and anamorphic formats share a common 2.4:1 width-to-height aspect ratio, compared to the Academy Aperture 1.85:1 used for almost all other narrative films produced for cinema screens and television in the United States. The biggest technical differences are that anamorphic lenses optically "squeeze" images into a 2.4:1 aspect ratio directly onto the negative film, while Super 35 films use the same spherical lenses typically employed for Academy Aperture movies produced in 1.85:1 aspect ratio. The Super 35 films are "squeezed" into the wide-screen aspect ratio during an optical process at a film lab or during a digital mastering session.

There was a time years ago, when anamorphic lenses were slower and more cumbersome than spherical lenses, however Kenig pointed out that this is a different age. He noted that Panavision Primo anamorphic lenses are now on a par with spherical lenses in terms of speed and size, and various other manufacturers offer the same option.

Wood noted that there was also a time when cinematographers felt that the additional optical step in the lab required by the Super 35 format exacted an unacceptable loss of image quality. She said that concern has been partially offset by advances in motion picture technology, including the development of finer grain negative and intermediate stocks and, more recently, the evolution of digital film mastering technology. With the latter, the edited negative is scanned and converted to digital files for color timing and image manipulation by the cinematographer.

"If you shot in Super 35 format, you can ‘squeeze’ the images into a 2.4:1 aspect ratio in the digital domain and record directly onto the intermediate film in wide-screen format," Wood explain. "You are eliminating that extra optical step in the lab."

The results were demonstrated by screening a scene from Panic Room, which was filmed in Super 35 format by cinematographer Conrad W. Hall, and digitally timed at Technique, which is operated in Los Angeles by Technicolor Labs.

Van de Sande noted that if costs are an issue, it is feasible to shoot in three-perf 35 mm or even Super 16 format and still get acceptable image quality by going through a digital mastering process to produce a color intermediate in wide-screen format.

Wood observed that she has been with the lab for 20 years, and the number of cinematographers who are interested in shooting movies in anamorphic format is at an all-time peak, though many lament shortages in the choice of lens, particularly zooms.

Bailey interjected that perhaps the worst part of Panavision’s venture into developing lenses for Sony’s 24P high-definition camera was that it distracted the company from investing in developing a wider choice and bigger inventory of anamorphic film lenses. He pointed out that Panavision’s Phil Radin estimated that almost 300 films were produced in anamorphic format during the past three years.

At one point, a television engineer in the audience asked the cinematographers if moviegoers really care about these issues? That evoked perhaps the strongest emotional response of the evening from the panel.

"I don’t have any trouble answering that question," Van de Sande said. "It doesn’t matter if the audience doesn’t realize why they like or dislike a picture, because that should always be transparent to them. What counts is that if you check out the top 50 films at the boxoffice, or the films that win the most awards, a very high percentage are wide-screen, and most of those are anamorphic. That’s always my argument when I want to shoot in anamorphic format. How can you argue with that?"

The discussion took various other unexpected turns. For instance, Van de Sande lamented the pressure applied by some studios to replace film dailies with video.

"If you are shooting an anamorphic movie with a new director, and all he is seeing in 4:3 video dailies the next day, chances are that he or she is missing important details in long and wider shots," he said. "Video dailies don’t remotely resemble what they would see on film."

Van de Sande explained that makes it much more difficult for cinematographers to prod young or new directors, such as writers who are at the helm for the first time, to be more adventurous in leveraging the possibilities of the wide-screen formats. The other cinematographers were vigorously nodding in agreement with Van de Sande as he spoke.

A query from the audience turned out to be a pitch by an executive from a television postproduction house which is selling HD video dailies to the studios and other producers as a lower cost alternative to film dailies. The suggestion didn’t resonate with any of the cinematographers on the panel. Hora replied that nuances are inevitably lost when the images are translated from film to digital, even in high-definition format.

Hora explained why it is important for cinematographers and directors to see dailies projected on film on a big screen to judge whether the emotional content is coming across the way they intended, which can be determined by slight nuances in colors, contrast or textures, such as a gleam in someone’s eyes or a sparkle in their hair.

"These issues are very difficult to explain in words alone," Bailey said. "Years ago, I did a big exterior Western called Silverado in Super Technoscope, which preceded Super 35. The story called for extreme depth of field and ultra-wide angle lenses. My first anamorphic movie was The Accidental Tourist, where we used the format and lenses to create a feeling of intimacy with the characters, and also to isolate them by using longer lenses to create that emotion. It’s something you feel."

Time ran out long before the dialogue between the panelists and audience had run its course. It was apparent this discussion is still unfinished business. It was even more apparent that there is a great need for more frequent dialogues between the creative and technology communities. Bailey concluded, "What’s at stake is the future of the industry."