I blame JJ Abrams. Back when he did his Star Trek movies, not only did they go full-on widescreen, they were a fiesta of horizontal flares, one of the hallmarks of the ‘anamorphic look’. So much so that it was sometimes hard to make out the action behind them. He has since apologised, repeatedly and at length.
Some seem to have missed out on the apology. Even today, eight years after Abrams begged forgiveness, there are hundreds of YouTube videos greeting the arrival of every new cheap anamorphic lens; others explaining how to fake the look in-camera, with add-on oval filters to change the shape of the blurred highlights (or bokeh as we’re obliged to call it) and produce the inevitable streaky flares.
I don’t get it. Maybe people think it makes their footage look classy, because it harks back to the great era of Cinemascope. You went to the cinema, and there was a palpable excitement as the black side-banners slowly crept outwards to reveal the whole screen. This was the epitome of the big screen. It delivered the widest of wide experiences: ‘scope was very absorbing, and it filled our eyes. And yet, and yet. We’re mostly not making big cinema films. Some of our screens are a few inches across, the biggest in our homes maybe 50 inches or so. Using the so-called ‘cinema aspect ratio’ simply clips off some pixels and gives us black bands across the top and bottom of the screen. Our field of vision is not filled at all.
I’ve heard it argued that these aspect ratios are good for consuming media on our phones. Maybe, but watching a phone is not what I’d call a cinematic experience. Vertical images are also good on our phones, but would we want to watch anything longer than maybe 2 minutes like that?
A recent piece in Redshark News suggests that cinema aspect ratio makes people think that the imagery they’re watching is higher quality than it actually is. There may be something in that. Or are the makers of these videos just fancying themselves as the Stanley Kubrick de nos jours? To me, on small screens, it just feels claustrophobic. Just as the old TV 4:3 proportions thrust everyone on the screen unnaturally close together, so in these over-wide formats there’s not enough headroom. It’s as if you’re in a room where the ceiling is too low. If you get something in proportion in the image, chances are there are acres to fill elsewhere. For me, 16:9 is a very natural-feeling format for smaller screens, with plenty of space horizontally and vertically. It fills our eyes better.
So I say, let’s keep cinema aspect ratio for the cinema, and use nice, roomy 16:9 for all our other screens. And please, just give up with those flares!