Why do we watch movies in widescreen?

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.

See why the widescreen aspect ratio makes films feel epic:

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.

Sean Berry
Sean Berry
Sean Berry is Videomaker's managing editor.

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