Movie Aspect Ratios Explained

Widescreen, 16:9, 1.85:1 and 2.39:1 – What!?!

Movie aspect ratios seem very confusing! What do they mean and how do you decode them?

In the good old days with 14″ portable TVs which were as deep as they were wide we used to watch TV on a 4:3 (or 1.33:1) picture which looked pretty square – for every 1.33 cm of width you also had 1 cm of height. In recent years widescreen TVs have become the new standard and are much more of a rectangle – for every 1 cm of height you now have 1.78 cm of width. Most people don’t even think about aspect ratios when watching TV unless they are watching a particularly old show which results in either black bars filling the sides of the screen or the picture being zoomed in or stretched to fill the sides.

Movies / Films and Aspect Ratios

How do aspect ratios affect films? As we said above 16:9 (or 1.78:1) is the new widescreen standard and every TV sold today will happily play widescreen content – including films which are streamed or played via BluRay. This is a very straightforward process and for the vast majority of people will be fine and require no more thought. For films though things get a little more complicated – when you watch a film at the cinema you aren’t watching a film in 16:9 – so what are you watching and why?

Alternative Cinema Aspect Ratios and How to Access Them

For some designs of our home cinema rooms it makes sense to offer 2.37:1 screens. These are proper cinematic widescreen as opposed to HD formats.

  • A 16:9 (1.33:1) ratio screen of 4m width will have a height of 2.3m
  • A  2.37:1 ratio screen of 4m width will have a height of 1.7m

The height difference alone sometimes makes specifying 2.37m screens worthwhile – we can either go bigger or simplify the cinema room design (it may not be necessary for tiered seating for example). Once installed though how do you access 2.37:1 content?

For many displays which are 16:9 in order to give clients a full screen image without black bars the “extra” is simply discarded – simply installing a projector which has suitable specification and a compatible screen can be all you need to get a super wide viewing experience – most BluRays have all the information required to enable the wider formats. You can simulate this on a lot of TVs by pressing the aspect ratio button on the remote control or in the menu – toggling between modes will give black bars and show you more film than normal.

Panamorph Aspect Ratios
Panamorph Aspect Ratios

What about non 2.37 content?

Of course the majority of our clients don’t want to be restricted to BluRay films – they may watch sports events via Sky or Freeview too. What happens when viewing 16:9 content? With the addition of an Anamorphic lens and a compatible projector we can transform 16:9 imagery in to 2.37:1 ultrawide – allowing the likes of Sky Q to fully fill the projector screen. Our friends at Panamorph have the below demo theater on their website and it is well worth having a play around with the various formats.

Panamorph Demo Theater
Panamorph Demo Theater – Click to Visit the Panamorph Site!