It turns out we were taught to think widescreen is cinematic
It turns out we were taught to think widescreen is cinematic

Movies shot in widescreen feel more cinematic. The aspect ratio seems has the power to immediately make scenes feel more epic and intense. But why? According to one theory, we were taught to feel this way.

Widescreen movies feel more cinematic thanks to human convention. In fact, we have to be sold on the idea of widescreen films. Quartz’s Adam Freelander takes an in-depth look back into movie history. He covers every period from Thomas Edison to Cinerama and Pan-and-Scan to “TV Safe” shooting all the way to smartphones.

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Films first screened in an almost square 4 by 3 ratio

A hundred years ago, films shown in theaters were played in a 4 by 3 ratio rather than the widescreen ratio we are now used to. The reason is that this was the actual shape of the film strip used to capture these images.

For 50 years, this was the ratio that all films used, partly because it just looked good. (Many directors felt it was great for close-ups.) The main reason, however, was that it was hard to change. You would have to change all the film, the camera, the lenses and the projectors, industry-wide. Plus, cinema attendance was high — much higher than today — so there was no motivation to change things. But that changed in the late 1940s.

People stopped going to the movies in the late 1940s

The was a dramatic decline in theater attendance around the late 1940s. Many blame television for the decline, but a shift in American’s desire for leisure time over entertainment as factored in.

The film industry’s solution

The movie industry responded by making movies an experience. They began in 1952 with a movie that could be played in theaters called “This is Cinerama.” It was a movie played in a Broadway theater fitted with a very special giant, curved wide screen. It used three separate projectors to pull off the experience. You could see the seams where the projectors met, but it worked! The movie had no plot or real characters, but it attracted people because it was marketed as an event they couldn’t miss.

That success led the industry to make their movies bigger. It was clear that bigger movies did better. However, the vast majority of theaters could not accommodate three projectors in their theaters. To get around this, cinematographers began shooting with special lenses that could squish wide shots onto square film. Later, if you were to play back using a projector with the appropriate lens, it would unsquish film to give it a wider aspect ratio. This format was at first called CinemaScope, later evolving into widescreen.

The first movie to be played in CinemaScope is the biblical epic “The Robe.” With this film, the notion of wide films being huge epic stories was baked into society’s mind very early on. Widescreen soon became something to be experienced rather than simply entertainment. By the late 50s, almost all movies were shot in widescreen and films were beginning to be marketed as special events, rather than entertainment. People went to see particular films, and TV, with its square format, took over the casual entertainment side of motion pictures.

"The Robe" was instrumental in establishing widescreen with an epic feeling
“The Robe” was instrumental in establishing widescreen with an epic feeling

Widescreen now

Now, widescreen TVs are commonplace and TV shows are more cinematic than ever. On the other hand, as the Quartz video points out, social media videos, like Facebook videos, look better in the square or vertical format. However, when we want to watch a film on our phone, we still turn it sideways. We watch it wide. Why? Because we’ve been taught that that’s the format we should view movies in if we want to have an experience, rather than to simply watch.


  1. I don’t know… I think everything is widescreen because that’s how our world is. Our eyes our set to see a panoramic view. I’m not a fan of watching vertical videos. It strips out a huge amount of the action. I am personally always amazed that people hold their phones vertically to shoot video. I can understand holding a beer vertically but then you still have to tilt it if you want to fully enjoy its contents. 😉

  2. I would argue that the reason that many movies are shot in widescreen 2:39:1 and it’s percieved better by audiences has less to do with being “trained” as the article asserts and more to do with it more closely matching the 114 degree FOV that human vision has…

  3. Widescreen is what our natural field of vision sees. Hold your hands to the left and right side of your eyes and compare that to your field of vision when you hold your hands above and below your eyes.

    We are used to seeing our world in widescreen.

    This link gives you a glimpse of what Cinerama looked like using the “Smile” aspect ratio. Watch it on a large screen and you can get the feeling of Cinerama with it’s 148 degrees field of vision.

  4. Being one who adopted widescreen formats as early as the mid 1970’s, using anamorphic lenses when they became available, (I bought a Cinemascope lens from a camera store, with what a staff member thought was a ‘fault’, and so got it for a song), I have almost ‘always’ used widescreen. There was fierce resistance to it from some of my fellow club-members at the time, and when I finally quit membership of its successor, a video club, just five or so years ago, I was the only member using the now-standard 16:9 aspect ratio. Everyone else was still using ‘Standard’ 720 x 576 video and the old ‘Edison’s’ apect ratio. Unbelieveable.

    My switch to widescreen did produce some odd moments, especially away back in the 1970’s. Seeking a suitable subject for widescreen, I went on a Saturday morning to our local harbourside with a view to filming, (on 8mm Kodachrome film), the unloading of a ship which had been carrying long lengths of structural steel, by overhead crane. Having set up my tripod carefully and being absorbed in what I was doing, I had not realised that I had ‘company’, which turned out to be three burly watersiders (stevedores
    possibly to you), ranged up on three sides of me, leaving as the only alternative, the waters of the harbour.
    Some fancy footwork in the explanations department finally convinced them that I was not there filming for the benefit of the local harbour authority by recording their work practices, which by most standards were pretty lethargic. Once they had been convinced that what I was doing had a serious purpose, (at least one of them took a look through my camera’s view-finder as proof), they could not have been more helpful.
    The upshot was a visit to the bridge, where I was introduced to the captain, and allowed a free reign to film the steel sections being loaded from down in the ship’s hold then swept upward to above the level of the deck and finally my camera level, before being gently deposited by the crane operator on the wharf. How I would love a repetition of that experience, using the gear I use now in 16:9 widescreen, High Definition, and edited using an ‘intra’ format to secure the required quality. Paradoxically, although my camera, (a Lumix GH5) and editing facilities are all up-to-the-minute progress-wise; my lenses, manually focussed, are almost all from the same era as the experience, Tamrons from the mid 1970’s to late 80’s. Why? Because I know of none better which wouldn’t have long ago bankrupted me.

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