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Letterboxed: The Evolution of Widescreen Cinema

Harper Cossar
Copyright Date: 2011
Pages: 304
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    When widescreen technology was introduced to filmmaking in 1953, it changed the visual framework and aesthetic qualities of cinema forever. Before widescreen, a director's vision for capturing beautiful landscapes or city skylines was limited by what could be included in the boxy confines of an Academy Ratio film frame. The introduction and subsequent evolution of widescreen technology has allowed directors to push the boundaries of filmmaking.

    Letterboxed: The Evolution of Widescreen Cinema explores the technological changes of the widescreen technique and how the format has inspired directors and also sparked debates among film critics. Examining early filmmakers such as Buster Keaton and D. W. Griffith and genre pioneers like Nicholas Ray and Douglas Sirk, Harper Cossar explains how directors use wider aspect ratios to enhance their creative visions. Letterboxed tracks the history of stylistic experimentation with the film frame and demonstrates how the expansion of the screen has uncovered myriad creative possibilities for directors.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-2659-3
    Subjects: Technology, Film Studies

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction: “Snakes and Funerals”
    (pp. 1-26)

    In early 1919 D. W. Griffith and Billy Bitzer are shooting scenes for the melodramaBroken Blossoms. The filmmakers wrestle with sequences that feature Lucy (Lillian Gish) in extreme peril and utter loneliness. A wide shot of the seedy London waterfront does not quite portray the hopelessness and abandonment that Griffith and Bitzer feel the scene demands. Griffith pushes Bitzer to arrange a shot that foregrounds Lucy’s isolation. Ultimately the filmmakers narrow Lucy’s vertical world and subsequently accentuate the horizontality of the mise-en-scène she must navigate with a letterbox-like matte.

    During this era of filmmaking, a common and prevalent device...

  5. Chapter 1 D. W. Griffith, Buster Keaton, Abel Gance, and the Precursors of Widescreen Aesthetics
    (pp. 27-60)

    A discussion of wide film aesthetics cannot begin in earnest without at least some acknowledgment of how widescreen aspect ratios in and of themselves are physical ruptures from the established norm of the Academy ratio. How did the Academy ratio become an established norm? Why wasn’t cinema a more horizontal medium from the beginning? Wouldn’t a flexible screen shape be more adaptable to a variety of genres and textual elements?¹ A brief historical survey of aspect ratios is warranted to pinpoint how engineers, filmmakers, and various other practitioners have wrestled with the Academy ratio proportions from cinema’s very beginnings.


  6. Chapter 2 The Big Trail, The Bat Whispers, and the “Invention” of Widescreen Style in 1930
    (pp. 61-94)

    The year 1930 was a watershed for widescreen filmmaking. Fox Film Corporation, MGM, and Warner Bros. were all developing experimental systems for the seemingly imminent switch to a widescreen standard. The uncertainty brought about by such a technical transition made for some difficult decisions among both producers and technicians.Motion Picture Newsreported on May 10, 1930, that “practically all technical lab development was brought to a halt until definite action is agreed upon by all the producers” with regard to the new aspect ratio and film stock standards (27). Eventually, the SMPE decided in 1932 to restore the 1.33:1...

  7. Chapter 3 Emerging Stylistic Norms in CinemaScope: Genre and Authorship in the Films of Otto Preminger, Nicholas Ray, Frank Tashlin, and Douglas Sirk
    (pp. 95-184)

    As suggested by these epigraphs, a variety of experiments with regard to widescreen “norms” occurred after 1953. Obviously, opinions of widescreen’s experimental history are widely contested. What all these accounts (even in their full forms) lack is an exacting typology of what specific stylistic breaks occurred with the “debut” of widescreen and CinemaScope.

    For studio executives like Darryl Zanuck, vice president in charge of production at 20th Century Fox, widescreen presented new exhibition opportunities (and physical norms) and subsequent boosts to the box office in an era when television, urban flight, the baby boom, and a host of other diversions...

  8. Chapter 4 Experiments, 1968, and the Fractured Screen
    (pp. 185-224)

    In the history of film style, ruptures fall away or are normalized when they are no longer transgressive. Techniques such as those detailed in the previous chapter were appropriated and adopted by filmmakers. The new physical norms of widescreen exhibition encouraged the development of new stylistic norms associated with the ’Scope-era auteurs Preminger, Ray, Tashlin, and Sirk. Therefore, as wide film shifted to a physically normative status (exhibition), a history of film style should ask what experiments with the wide frame could reinscribe the novelty of Griffith, Gance, and Edeson? In other words, once the new physical norms of exhibition...

  9. Chapter 5 New Media, Digitextuality, and Widescreen
    (pp. 225-255)

    At the Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference in Atlanta in 2004, I presented an earlier draft of chapter 1. After the presentation, one question from an audience member struck me as simple to the point of being brilliant. To paraphrase the query: why don’t you just look at widescreen films that have been panned and scanned and see what’s missing? Although there are obvious problems with this notion—authorial control, video release, modified aspect ratio—it seems to simplify a central goal of this project: to enumerate and describe the aesthetic differences between widescreen films and Academy ratio...

  10. Conclusion
    (pp. 256-266)

    The goal of this project was twofold: to expand the widescreen literature in useful ways, and to address and enumerate specific aesthetic differences between widescreen and Academy ratio texts. As with any longitudinal and historical project, some answers have emerged, but many more questions have been raised. My goal was not to provide all the answers but rather to discern what questions should be asked about widescreen.

    By focusing on the intersection of aesthetics, auteur, and genre, this project broadens the widescreen literature beyond lens characteristics, film gauge issues, exhibition strategies, and other such foci. Issues of technological development are...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 267-278)
  12. Works Cited
    (pp. 279-286)
  13. Index
    (pp. 287-294)