Why widescreen feels epic

Why widescreen feels epic


– Molly.
– Yes. Tell me about Truck Night in America. – So, Truck Night in America,
it’s a competition reality show. It’s this crazy obstacle course
where trucks are tested to the limit and they make them go through
these insane physical challenges. They have to drive on top of broken trucks.
It’s called the graveyard. So it’s like making an elephant walk
across an elephant graveyard. It’s kind of satanic. The show culminates in a crazy epic obstacle course. There’s sort of a countdown,
they go three, two, one… And the screen gets wide. It’s that widescreen feeling
like you’re watching something epic– WAIT. Why is that what widescreen feels like? – I don’t know, it’s just a feeling? Is that…not what you want me to say? Nope, Molly’s right. This feels different than this. Widescreen has a feeling. And there’s a story behind that. It’s not a story about trucks,
but it is a story about America. And roller coasters. And Jesus. Today we live in a world
full of magic picture rectangles. I have a magic rectangle on my desk, one in my living room,
and I have a Zelda one, and I have the demon rectangle
that controls my life and gives me Twitter from my pocket. But a hundred years ago,
there was only one kind of magic rectangle. It was called movies.
And it was shaped like this. An almost square rectangle.
A ratio of about four to three. That’s because four to three
was the shape of film. You can thank Thomas Edison for that. And for about 50 years,
that would be the shape of movies, partly because it just looked really good. – It’s beautiful and good for closeups. That’s Scott. He’s a film history professor. – I am a film historian. He was actually my film history professor. – Mainly 30s and 40s is what I’ve written about. Anyway, the main reason that movies
stayed that shape for so long was just that it was really hard to change it. – To change it is huge!
Because then you’re changing the film, you’re changing the camera,
you’re changing the lenses, and you’d have to change all the projectors. But that’s okay, because in the US,
in the early 20th century, The movie industry is doing
extremely very good. – Everybody went to the movies all the time.
Nothing else to do. Here’s a chart. This is how many people
went to the movies weekly in 1925, and 1935, and 45.
And compare that to 2017. Look at that as a percentage
of the US population, and you can see it even better.
Back then we went to the movies a lot. – They were so central to American culture
that I don’t think we get it today. And crucially, we would go to “the movies.”
Which is where that expression comes from. We wouldn’t go to see a particular movie.
It didn’t really matter what was playing. If you wanted entertainment, you just went. And then in the late 1940s, something changes. People stopped going to the movies. And you have to understand why
to understand what happened next. Today, a pretty common misconception
is that television was responsible. That people stopped going to the movies
because they started watching TV. And that sounds right, but chart the fall of movies
against the rise of TV, and you can see that logic is backwards. People didn’t start getting TVs until
after movie attendance was already going down. So it wasn’t TV. But there is a reason that people
stopped going to the movies, and it was something bigger. A shift in the way that Americans
were living their lives. Scott? – There is a myth of the consumerist paradise, that starts… I mean it’s been going… but it gets amped up in the late 1940s. After World War II,
America sees a boom in suburbs, and spending money,
and, crucially, leisure time. And with that comes an explosion of
new ways of spending that leisure time. Simple things that are completely
not noteworthy to us today, but that after the war,
were becoming accessible to millions of people for the first time. Things like amusement parks,
or visiting national parks, or gardening, or grilling. – Expendable income is going to things
that make you American. All these fun things to do
instead of going to movies. Scott is still kind of mad about it. – The worst one was mini golf. Mini golf, that bastard. The B word! – There’s motorboating, there’s…
Sunday drives? This was a disaster! Here’s what happens in the late 1940s. Americans start to lose interest
in entertainment. And they start to be more interested
in recreation. That is the reason that
movie attendance goes down. And there’s no plan to stop it. Newspapers start running ads for a movie
that can’t be shown in movie theaters. It’s called This Is Cinerama. – “This is Cinerama!”. And instead it opens here. At a Broadway theater
called the Broadway Theater. A theater that’s been specially outfitted
with a giant, curved, wide screen. Cinerama uses three separate projectors
to project three separate images. You can kind of see the seams.
But it’s really wide. And This Is Cinerama has no characters,
and really no story. It’s more like one of those IMAX movies
that you might see at a science museum, but you know, 50 years before that. We start on a roller coaster,
we tour some European cities, some kids sing, there’s water skiing, there’s like 30 minutes of just aerial footage… – If you can put the camera on something
and drive it into something? Then you’re talking Cinerama. It is more of a fairground ride
than anything else. More like a ride than a movie. And that’s because its creator,
this guy, Fred Waller, was onto something. – Waller’s big innovation was,
let’s treat cinema like a big outing event. A recreation event. And that pays off.
This is Cinerama is a huge hit. It makes more money than
any other movie in 1952, even though it only plays
in that one theater. And once it expands outside of New York,
it’s a phenomenon. This is how, in the 50s,
we get all these words that end in -rama. And suddenly, Hollywood has an idea
for how to get people back to the movies. – That woke up the industry. To the fact that, people will go see things bigger. You know, maybe the problem with our movies… is, they’re not big enough. It’s important to say that This Is Cinerama
was not the first widescreen movie ever. In the 20s and 30s, there had been
a few one-off widescreen productions that were just too complicated to do on a big scale. But at the time, for most people,
This Is Cinerama is like nothing they’ve ever seen. It’s clear that wide Cinerama movies
are something people will pay for. The problem is that Cinerama doesn’t scale. You can’t put three projectors
in every movie theater in the country. – Cinerama, too expensive,
and too big a change, for both exhibitors and the studios.
What is the solution? The first movie studio to come up
with an idea here is Paramount Studios. They have a movie called Shane. It’s a Western. It’s not in widescreen.
And Paramount is about to release it. And then they have a crazy idea. They crop off the top and the bottom. And suddenly, Shane is
the first modern widescreen movie. And Shane is, you know, it’s good. Shane is considered one of the great westerns. And technically, it is wide. But you know. It’s no Cinerama. And then, across town
at another studio, 20th Century Fox, Some guys in the engineering department are like, hey. Remember that French guy? Henri Chretien is a French guy. He invents a special French camera lens. His lens can squish a wide picture
onto a regular film. He calls it the Hypergonar. – I always said hyper gonner! But Hypergonar makes much more sense. Anyway, because the lens can
squish wide stuff onto not-wide film, it means that if you have
another Hypergonar lens on your projector, that’ll unsquish the image. Widescreen. In 1929, Chretien tries
to sell the Hypergonar to Hollywood. They don’t want it. But 25 years later, back at Fox,
it’s like, let’s go find that French guy. So Fox’s engineers go to France
and they find the French guy. He’s old now. And he can tell them
how to make the lenses, but it’ll take too much time. So they go back to California
with his original lenses. They take all of them, deliberately,
so no other studio can get them. – We’ve got them all.
We have the Infinity Stones. Back in Hollywood,
Fox starts shooting movies with the squish lenses immediately. And before long, they also come up
with a new name for it. CinemaScope. CinemaScope is really wide.
Almost Cinerama-level wide. In fact, some people called it
the “poor man’s Cinerama.” Cinerama was like Perrier.
But CinemaScope was more like a seltzer. In September 1953,
the first CinemaScope movie is released. A movie about Jesus’s robe, called “The Robe.” It’s fine. Actually it’s not amazing. But it’s a giant hit.
The second biggest movie of 1953, and adjusted for inflation,
still one of the biggest movies of all time. And the Jesusness of The Robe
also does something really important. It means that epicness, and biblical-ness, historical significance,
the promise of being transported… All this stuff was baked into the idea
of “wideness” in movies from the very beginning. Over the next decade,
width comes to be associated with a particular type of story. The Robe in 1953,
The Ten Commandments in 1956, Ben-Hur in ’59,
Lawrence of Arabia, ’62. These are some of the
best-known movies of the era. All these historical, or biblical, epic stories. It would almost miss the point
to call these movies entertainment. They’re experiences. That’s what wide comes to mean. – The studios were very successful
at convincing us that the aesthetic choice
to have an emotional story experience involved a rectangle. Partly because The Robe is such a big hit, by the late 50s,
the entire industry is converted. Almost all movies are now made
in some form of widescreen. And that changes how movies are sold. – The big change in marketing was to say, a movie is not a habit,
a movie is a special event. A movie is a special event.
And so, starting in the 50s, we no longer just go out to the movies. We start going out to see a particular movie. – We live this today. So the way we feel in America
about movies in the summer, in tentpole season, Is basically a CinemaScope experience. CinemaScope is a hit.
But before long, it’s just one of a lot of
different ways to do widescreen. But there’s no going back.
Movies now have a different shape. And a different role.
By this point television is in people’s homes. And TV takes over the role
that movies used to have: Casual entertainment,
where you watch whatever’s on. And, Hollywood realizes that
TV doesn’t have to be the enemy. – During the 1950s, 60s,
and I think into the 70s, they’re making a lot of money
by taking their old catalogs, and selling them to TV. Okay, but now movies are wide,
and TV is not. So how do you- A widescreen movie airs on TV for the first time: 1953’s “How to Marry a Millionaire.” Problem. Mid-century TV is super low-res. So if you put a wide, or short movie
into a TV, really small image. So, in 1961, we actually get another invention
from the engineers at 20th Century Fox. -They invented this thing
called panning and scanning. Panning and scanning,
or pan and scan, meant using an optical printer to
go through each shot of a widescreen film and decide which part
of each shot gets to go on TV. – People accepted this. Because there was
nothing to call your attention to it, unless you had seen the film and remembered. Pan and scan is essentially
redirecting a movie, shot by shot. And the idea is that if it’s done well,
no one will notice. It didn’t always go well.
Particularly in the very beginning. The 1954 version of A Star Is Born
had a famously shoddy pan-and-scan job the first time it went on TV. A crucial scene looks like this: That was the exception, though. For decades, pan and scan
became a really normal part of how movies got onto TV and, later, VHS. But nerds and directors hated it,
because it adulterated the original. – “We want to see the movie the way
the director originally intended it.” Like this scene, from
Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade, which has all these little non-verbal reactions
from the person who isn’t speaking. Sean Connery bites his lip,
Harrison Ford answers a question by nodding, Connery’s eyes get really wide… In the pan and scan version,
all that stuff is gone. But pan and scan is not
the only way to get a movie on TV. Like, look at this scene from Back To The Future. This is the wide theatrical version. But then, this is the TV version,
which is kind of bigger than the widescreen version. You sort of see more on TV. That’s because what you’re looking at here
is not pan and scan. Instead, it’s a style of making a movie
where you shoot multiple versions of it at once. So, you might shoot the movie
so that it looks good both in widescreen, and in 4:3 for TV. Sometimes this is called Open Matte.
Sometimes it’s called “TV safe”-style shooting. Sometimes it’s called Shoot and Protect.
Sometimes it’s called “shooting it flat.” But the point is just that the wide version of a movie?
It’s not always the original. Sometimes there really is no original. Yes! The first HDTV set is sold in the US. It’s on the news.
But not in HD. HDTV is wide. – “The TVs that people have
at home today are 4×3, and the TVs that people will
have at home in the future are 16×9.” But HDTV doesn’t mean
the end of pan and scan, because it’s actually still
less wide than a lot of movies. And unlike old TV,
which was the same shape as old movies, the exact dimensions of HDTV
are this weird specific shape that almost no movies are actually made in. That means if you see the
theatrical version of a movie on HDTV, it’ll have some black bars. But if not, it means there’s still some
pan-and-scan or open matte situation happening. But still.
TV is now wide. Everything we watch is, finally, wide. Ah. Right.
Phones. This is important. Another huge shift happens
in the way that we spend our time. We start watching stuff on our phones. And specifically, we start watching stuff
as part of vertically scrolling feeds: Platforms that really discourage
turning your phone sideways. And that changes the entire calculation
around the shape of what we watch. Suddenly, a very wide video
shows up in our feeds as very small. Looks very bad. And a less wide video, say a square,
or even a vertical rectangle, looks really good. Vines. Instagram videos.
Movie trailers. News videos. Open Netflix’s app,
and previews play in vertical format. But Netflix keeps its movies
and its shows in regular widescreen. And movies stay wide.
Our shows stay wide. Maybe the shape of what we watch
is related to what we want from it. So there’s the stuff that we use to fill our time, the way we once went to the movies.
The way we once watched whatever was on TV. That stuff, give it to me however. And then there’s the stuff
that we choose to watch. The stuff we expect to take us somewhere. We go to see a movie. We binge watch a show. That stuff? We still want it wide.

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