Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Why All the Scope Movies?

Movie trends usually come and go within a year or two, but one trend that seems to have remained consistent is the tendency for more and more films to be shot in widescreen "Scope" format -- the 2.35:1 aspect ratio rather than narrower screen formats.

We've most recently seen this with animated movies. For many years, a huge majority of animated films were shot in non-wide formats. Disney experimented with 'Scope in the '50s, but gave up on it pretty quickly. (Which was a very good decision, since TV broadcasts were so important to his movies, and by not using widescreen, he made the films much more TV-friendly.) All the '90s Disney movies and Pixar movies were in non-wide aspect ratios. When Brad Bird made The Iron Giant in Panavision, he was, as with much else about that film, going against the grain. But now, widescreen is common for animated features, and not just Brad Bird features: John Lasseter switched to 2.35:1 for Cars, Andrew Stanton used 'Scope for Wall-E, and over at DreamWorks, Kung Fu Panda is their first 2.35:1 movie.

I keep seeing this all over the place, where movies that a few years ago would definitely not have been widescreen are being done in widescreen. And more filmmakers seem to be switching to the format for their recent pictures; the Coen Brothers almost never used 'Scope unless it was for an epic subject like O Brother, Where Art Thou?, but when they made No Country For Old Men, a crime drama that they would normally have shot in 1.85:1, they shot it in widescreen. Martin Scorsese did most of his movies in 1.85:1 in the '70s and '80s; now almost every movie he makes is in 'Scope. And so on.

In the '70s and '80s there was a trend for moviemakers to switch the other way, from wide to non-wide, as a backlash against the overuse of 'Scope in the '50s and '60s. (Like at Fox where they mandated that every film they made had to be 'Scope, no matter what the subject.) The late Sydney Pollack, as I said in an earlier post, made every movie in 'Scope up to the mid-'80s and then switched. By the '90s, the general rule was that a movie would not be in 'Scope unless it was a big subject -- action movie, epic -- or unless the director preferred 'Scope for some specific reason. (I.e. a director like Blake Edwards who just preferred to compose shots that way.) Now it seems like unless a director specfically prefers 1.85:1, like Sofia Coppola, Judd Apatow, a few others -- the "default" format for a movie is 'Scope.

I can't quite figure out why this has happened. Maybe it has something to do with the increased availability of widescreen TVs; directors want the theatre experience to be different from watching at home, and that's harder to come by if the movie screen is the same shape as a modern TV screen. Another possibility is that modern cinematographers tend to prefer widescreen and unless the director has a strong preference one way or the other, a director will tend to go along with what the cinematographer wants. Bill Clothier, the great photographer of Westerns said in a (surprisingly acerbic) interview that he preferred 2.35:1 because it allowed for more interesting compositions than 1.85:1; he hated that aspect ratio because it was a weak middle ground between the old 1.33:1 shape and the wide screen, and didn't have the advantages of either format. (1.33:1 is a great format for medium close-ups, two-character dances, and stuff like that; 'Scope is good for tighter close-ups and panoramic shots. 1.85:1 is kind of just there.) Other cinematographers like Gordon Willis have said that 2.35:1 is their favorite and that they would have liked to use it more often than they did. Maybe a new generation of cinematographers is just getting its way. That doesn't explain the rise of 2.35:1 in animation, though.

Update: As noted in comments, Pixar did make one widescreen movie in the '90s, A Bug's Life.


Anonymous said...

The move away from 'scope in the '80s was influenced by the rise of home video (and to an extent the commercial free cable venues like hbo) in that pre-letterbox era. When it became clear that more and more of a new film's audience viewed it on their square screen tv set the non scope formats eliminated pan and scan travesties or more severe cropping to the image. The upswing in 'scope is indeed tied to widescreen hardware
and aesthetics--it looks more 'movie-ish', more stylized, though precious few modern filmmakers make use of it as directors did so readily in the 50s and 60s.

J. John Aquino said...

Pixar's first 2.35:1 feature was 1998's A Bug's Life, also their first epic project (its tagline was "An epic of miniature proportions"). I remember that the jump from the more intimate Toy Story's 1.85:1 to 2.35:1 resulted in a lot of astounding and powerful shots. One particular shot--the Kevin Spacey villain character's face and body filling the screen as he threatened the Hayden Panettiere baby sister character--was too powerful for a 3-or-4-year-old girl who was inside the theater where I first saw it. She started bawling and then she shouted at the screen, "Leave the baby alone!," which got the biggest laugh during the screening.

What's interesting about the video release and network TV broadcasts of A Bug's Life is that the CGI allowed Pixar to recompose the shots and move characters closer to each other if they were speaking to each other from opposite ends of the frame, so that panning and scanning was no longer necessary--a practice that they've continued to do for the full-frame versions of their 2.35:1 films.

Anthony Strand said...

The first Disney 'scope movie (other than The Black Cauldron 16 years earlier) was Atlantis: The Lost Empire. It made sense for that movie, as it was a Big Old Fashioned Widescreen Action Epic. Not sure why it started a trend though.

Strangely, Atlantis was also the first Disney animated feature since The Black Cauldron to get a PG rating.

Stephen Rowley said...

I think the obvious answer (the widespread dissemination of first letterboxing with the rise of DVD and then, increasingly, adoption of widescreen TVs) is probably most of the answer.

Also, I think maybe the post should be a bit clearer where it refers to 1.85:1 as "non-wide": eg "All the '90s Disney movies and Pixar movies were in non-wide aspect ratios." I think of 1.85:1 as a widescreen format too - it is, after all, very close to the format of a "widescreen" TV.

As for the formats: I don't really agree with the idea that 1:85 is an unhappy compromise format. While I love 2.35:1 I think 1.85:1 is good for more "intimate" topics while being more interesting compositionally than 1.33:1.

Anonymous said...

The three Disney widescreen films "Sleeping Beauty", "The Black Cauldron" and "Atlantis" share the distinction of massive creative layoffs occuring in the wakes of their disappointing intitial theatrical releases.

Anonymous said...

Brother Bear was another 'scope film produced by Disney. I believe it has the honor of being the first animated film to change ratios during the running time (the film starts of as 1:85:1 before the main character becomes a bear).

Anonymous said...

Scorsese has always preferred widescreen and in one interview he seemed to indicate that he had to shoot his "flat" films that way for one reason or another. Now it's like he wants to make up for lost time by shooting everything in 'scope.

What I don't quite understand are directors who toggle on or off in their use of flat/scope formats. Clint Eastwood, David Lynch and Oliver Stone, to name a few, all seem to prefer widescreen but once in a while randomly throw in a flat feature. Budgetary reasons? Change of pace, perhaps?

What I also find interesting is the widespread use of anamorphic photography in, of all things, music videos and TV commercials -- meant from the get-go to be seen letterboxed on a smaller, squarer TV screen.