Cinematography Mailing List - CML

TV aspect ratios - 4:3 or 16:9


There is a huge and uniformed debate raging on the home theater and video.dvd Usenet newsgroups about television aspect ratios, film frame size and common practices. Could some informed DP type please briefly address the following?

1. How much of the film frame do 35mm originated episodics and TV movies actually use when shooting for 4:3? What about 16mm or Super 16?

2. If you also have to protect for 16:9 are you then using less of the film frame for the 4:3 portion than you would if you shot strictly for 4:3?

3. What current shows are you aware of that are ""protecting"" for 16:9 even though they are broadcast 4:3?

4. Babylon 5 has been singled out on these newsgroups as an episodic that is supposedly shot ""wide screen"", does anyone know for sure if they are in fact ""composing"" for a wide image? If so, do they pan and scan for 4:3 broadcast?

Thanks for any answers and or comments on these topics. I will pass them on to the afflicted newsgroups without nary a mention of this mailing list so we don't get too many more uniformed subscribers like myself.

Charles Tomaras

(I hope this question passes the God....err...uh... I mean ...Geoff test! <G>)

1)Nearly every drama in the UK is shot 16:9 now, in fact I can't think of any that aren't!

2) if you shoot super 35 centered then you have the same TV image size as normal with the extra neg available on both sides for 16:9 use.

Geoff Boyle

Are these UK dramas being broadcast letterboxed, pan/scan, or side cropped?

Charles Tomaras

Most are shown 14:9, a sorta halfway house that doesn't offend too many people.

How were Cracker, Prime Suspect etc shown there?, they were all 16:9

Geoff Boyle

By now you have probably been deluged with numbers. As a DP, actively involved in shooting both Features and Television Movies (usually 6 per year) here is my bit.

As you already know the whole issue of framing has become incredibly complex with the introduction of home 16:9 receivers and the ""fear"" by many production companies was that their product would not be saleable once HDTV was introduced.

About two years ago everyone started shooting TV Movies in the 16:9 aspect ratio but that calmed down a little after 9 months and now the number of movies actually shooting for the wider format appears to be in the 50%-60% range.

Movies I have shot for MCA/TV have all been 16:9 and others are randomly distributed according to, sadly, whether the Producer understands it or not.

Basically there are two systems.

Conventional formatting in which the image occupies a small percentage of the Full Aperture negative area (for TV somewhere around 35%) and is aligned to the right side of the negative image area against the perfs. The entire negative image area is exposed (unless a hard matte is used) but only the much smaller area is actually used to compose the image. This is not only very wasteful but does not make full use of the possible image area of the negative. When moving to 1.85 and 2.35 images only a minute portion of the usable negative is utilized.

Super 35.

Exposes image information over the entire Full Aperture Area of the negative...resulting, arguably some say, with a much improved image quality.

There are two ways to shoot Super 35. First with the image centered on the center of the negative and each aspect ratio located from that central position OR Second, Super 35 Common Topline.

The common topline is favored amongst DP's shooting for combination TV and European Theatrical release (and by a growing number shooting Theatrical films knowing they will end of on TV).

With this system, again the full aperture area is exposed only here the full area is occupied by the composed image. Also each format (2.35/1.85/1.66/1.33) has a common topline. The usable and composed image area extends perf to perf but the frame topline is a constant for each format.

The reasoning here is that headroom will always stay the same whether the film is seen in a theater at 1.85 or on TV at 1.33 with only the area at the bottom of the frame varying. My feeling is that I compose a frame based solely on the intended original release format because trying to ""protect"" for TV on a 16:9 ratio brings in the added question of information cut-off on the sides of the image.

I have intentionally avoiding using all the measurements as it tends to confuse the picture even more.

The debate is no less heated within the ranks of DP's, Distributor's, TV Executive's and Producer's.

Hope this helps,


Rob Draper,ACS

Nearly all 35mm television being shot today in L.A. uses a variation on Super 35. This would include all material from Warners, Fox, Universal, Disney, Columbia-TriStar, and assorted independents. The format used is a ""shoot and protect"" system in which a 1.33 extraction is taken from the optical center of a 1.77 framing. Because NTSC safe action is protected, the image area in this format for current broadcast is significantly smaller than that of Academy aperture 35. In fact, the image area is almost identical to that of 3 perf, which is one reason that I can't understand why we're still using 4 perf (except, by and large, on multicamera sitcoms, which are primarily on 3 perf already). Super 35 is itself simply a designation for full aperture setup, in which the Academy track area is ignored and used for picture. There are many variations on this format in use for theatrical releases, most of which revolve around location of the topline and width of the intended release format. But for television, it's pretty standardized, at least in Hollywood.

Mike Most, Encore Video, L.A.

A Viacom TV series (now cancelled) ""Diagnosis Murder"" was shot 24 fps in three perf 35mm (Panaflex cameras). With the TV 1:33 extracted from the Academy aperture. The rest of the frame was blacked out (no attempt to save the rest of the frame). The TV image area was much smaller as a result. The only reason I heard was to save money.

I wonder how much difference in quality there is between 3 perf 35mm and 16 mm for TV? One of the biggest problems was that the post house would only use one of the older Ranks set aside for the 3 perf transfers. I would guess because of tube burn patch being so different. A bad transfer can kill any material and the chances of getting a bad transfer increases with the use of ""oddball"" formats (and awarding work on price alone). The transfer of the show I assisted on looked great but some of the other episodes were awful (low contrast).

Don Hayashi

I don't know whether you're referring to daily transfer or the final product. The post house that you're referring to intentionally transfers their dailies very flat, leading many cameramen to complain about the look of their dailies. This is allegedly all addressed in the tape to tape final color correction, where the look of the final product is determined.

The same post house is now using primarily Philips Quadra telecines, which has improved the situation of which you speak considerably.

Mike Most, Encore Video, L.A.

The quality difference between 3 perf 35 and 16mm is exactly the same as 4 perf vs. 16mm. The image area in 3 perf does not change. Look at the appropriate section of your American Cinematographer Manual for diagrams and a detailed explanation.

The reason for the old Rank is that three perf requires a modified movement and having an old Rank set up for it was easier, and probably less expensive, for the Post facility than changing one of their newer machines. Mike Most might elaborate on this.

Why 3 perf? It's 25% cheaper with no loss of image quality. Like it or not.....this is a business and contrary to popular belief even a small saving on film stock is considered worthwhile.

The DP's job is as much filmstock management as it is lighting,

composition, etc

Rob Draper,ACS

and... cameras are quieter; less magazine changes, less short ends, less film rolls to carry.

A BTS Spirit telecine can go from 4 to 3perf at the flip of a switch as well as a Cintel Ursa equipped with a Meta-Speed gate.


This is true provided that you're comparing 3 perf and Super 35 1.77:1.

The image area in 3 perf is smaller than Academy 1.33, however. Under any circumstances, 3 perf is at least 4 times the image area of 16mm.

Sure. Early use of 3 perf on Mk. III telecines required creation of a 12 tooth sprocket for a custom 3 perf gate, as well as a servo modification. This is what Lorimar used when they began using the 3 perf format for Max Headroom, followed by their other shows, in 1986.

When the Ursa was released, the gates could identify themselves, automatically triggering the alternate servo settings. MetaSpeed eliminates the need for a custom gate entirely, as it allows use of the standard 4 perf gate for 3 perf work. Until MetaSpeed, the tube burns were indeed a big problem, which led some facilities to use a separate tube for 3 perf work, and led others to simply change tubes far more frequently (and suffer some burn patterning on 4 perf work).

This is not commonly done on Ursas or Ursa Golds that use Metaspeed. The CCD machines, such as the Philips Quadra and Spirit, do not have any of these problems and can transfer 3 perf at the flick of a switch (and a new FPN setting).

That was my point as well. If we are going to continue to shoot for 1.77:1, using 4 perf is quite simply wasteful. Now don't get me wrong, I like having additional image area for flexibility in re-framing when necessary, and I do like having a wider frame line to protect against stray hairs in the gate, but as you said, this is a business.

Mike Most, Encore Video, L.A.

I was speaking of the broadcast quality. The episode I worked on had a lot of contrast. Not very detailed in the shadows or the highlights but much more dramatic than the other episodes of the same series. It could have been a one shot decision to increase the contrast for that one episode because of the script.

Don Hayashi


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