Display Aspect Ratios Explained

The proportions, or aspect ratio, of the displays we use so much today in our HD televisions, smartphones and tablets may seem arbitrary.  How did the widely used aspect ratios of 16:9 and 4:3 also known as 1.77:1 and 1.33:1, respectively, come in to use?  As one might imagine, these aspect ratios have come about over an extended period of time going back to the beginnings of the cinema industry.  For example, the 4:3 aspect ratio arose in the laboratory of Thomas Edison during his development of the Kinetoscope (illustration below) in the 1890’s.
kinetoscope
From this early beginning in the film industry, the 4:3 aspect ratio was adopted in 1909 as a standard of the US film industry by the Motion Picture Patent Company.  Much later in the 1950’s televisions began to penetrate US homes.  Following the lead of the film industry, television programming was delivered in the 4:3 aspect ratio.  As competition for viewers with television emptied theater seats, film producers sought a means to insure the continued success of theater exhibited films.  In 1952 the film industry rolled out Cinerama, a wide screen format for producing and viewing films with an aspect ratio of 2.59:1.  There quickly followed a wide range of theatrical film aspect ratios.  Among these were Cinemascope (2.35:1), and Vistavision (1.85), and many others.

I recall doing some prior research into the various cinema form factors when I came away realizing that wide screen formats were evolving rapidly in the 1950’s and 60’s, and that there was no general standard for wide screen display.  I recently viewed a video (embedded below) that provides a brief (18 min.) but comprehensive history of the evolution of display aspect ratios from the 1890’s to the present era of the 16:9 high definition television standard.  If like me you would like to better understand the history and reasoning behind display aspect ratios, I strongly recommend viewing this well made and informative video by John Hess.

The Changing Shape of Cinema: The History of Aspect Ratio from FilmmakerIQ.com on Vimeo.

About Phillip Wright