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The Widescreen Scam

By Guy Wright
These days there is a lot of talk about widescreen. DVDs feature letterboxed or widescreen versions of films, new TV sets on the market feature widscreen (16:9) picture tubes, and new HDTV video cameras shoot video with widescreen aspect ratios. Even some commercials that are intended to be shown on regular, old TV sets (with width-to-height aspect ratios of 4:3) use artificial widescreen framing in order to impart a "classy", "professional" look. But is widescreen really any better than good old 4:3?

It's debatable whether humans actually prefer widescreen over than 4:3 but that's not stopping the industry. When you look into the origins of widescreen films, it turns out that they were originally nothing more than a marketing gimmick dreamt up by Hollywood in the 50s specifically to thwart TV.

Opening Credits

Originally, all movies were made using a 4:3 aspect ratio because they were based on the film used in the Eastman-Walker Roll Holder Camera (patented by George Eastman and William Walker in 1885). In 1889 Eastman introduced 35mm celluloid-based transparent, flexible film for his Roll Holder cameras. The 35mm film frames that Eastman used just happened to be 33% wider than they were tall (usually expressed as 4:3 ratio or sometimes 1.33 to 1).

In 1889 Thomas Edison ordered specially designed rolls of the new transparent, flexible film from the Eastman company for use in his development of a motion-picture camera. Eastman saw a market for movie film and soon started full-scale production.

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