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It's a common trait of older movies to be shot in 4:3 aspect ratio. Found a list of 4:3 movies, they're all very old (like, before 1960s).

Eventually, it became common for 16:9 ratios to be found. From the wiki:

Since 2009 it has become the most common aspect ratio for televisions and computer monitors, and is also the international standard format of HDTV, Full HD, non-HD digital television and analog widescreen television. It is also used universally (16:9) as the ratio for mobile phone screens. This has replaced the old 4:3 aspect ratio.

More recently, movies and series have become even wider, using ratios of 2.4:1. Here's a small list, for example, including Lord of the Rings, Pirates of the Caribbean, American Beauty, etc.

What motivated this change to wider formats?

Is it based on camera hardware, is it based on human perception (i.e., because we have eyes side by side, a wide image is better for us), is it budget related, or what?

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    Interestingly enough, I stumbled upon this question while searching for the "correct" aspect ratio of American Beauty. I've watched it many, many times, since long, but always on the old encoding with the ratio of 16:9 (1280x720), but then recently I downloaded another version encoded in x265 HEVC (just to see difference in quality), and I noticed something quite...strange, then I realized the ratio was 2.35:1 (1920x818). IMDb says the ratio is 2.35:1, anyway the 16:9 version I've got got more images at the top and bottom of the frame. – Jim Raynor Apr 1 '18 at 12:13
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The initial motivation was to compete with television, after that it was more like an arms race

The original aspect ratio for film was based on an arbitrary choice in the very early days of cinema based on the standard 35mm film used. The resulted in several decades where 1.33 (4:3) was the standard modified (almost imperceptibly) to the academy ratio of 1.37 to accommodate optical recording of sound on part of the film.

Things stayed with this until television became popular. This worried the cinema industry as TV was taking their audience. So they decided to fight back by doing something TV could not do: offer "bigger" images in a different aspect ratio. The first way to do this was Cinerama (first used in 1952) which produced a ratio of 2.59 by using three conventional cameras both to film and to project. This was successful but expensive. The fact that it was a success spurred an explosion of innovation driven by the desire for "bigger" pictures (or wider ratios than TV) but constrained by the cost of the various systems. This was effectively an arms race of new technology constrained by cost.

Paramount first responded (in 1953) by releasing movies in 1.66 ratio by cropping academy shot film and projecting on a bigger screen (but this compromised image quality to get a wider picture). In 1953 an old invention, the anamorphic lens, was used to shoot wide screen on conventional film. This was CinemaScope which had a ratio of 2.35. This was followed by other innovations like VistaVsion in 1954 which gave a 1.85 ratio.

Innovation didn't stop there. in 1954 some studios started to use 70mm film to give ratios of 2.2 and even 2.76 with anamorphic lenses (as used for the MGM 65 process in Ben Hur).

Since then innovation has continued in an attempt to balance the cost with the desire to have non-TV ratios.

When TV started to catch up in the 1980s with new video standards a new compromise ratio was developed for video production that would minimise the empty space on screens when movie ratios were shown on TV (and eventually DVD and higher definition broadcasts such as HDTV). This was a ratio of 1.78 (16:9) and this is what most small screens and digital video formats such as 4K are now based on.

The proliferation of formats was initially driven by the need to do better than TV but became an arms race of new formats driven by the need to trade off the technology and production cost of new formats with the benefits of non-TV ratios.

Most of the facts here are derived from this excellent video by FilmMakerIQ.com which is well worth watching for more detail.

 

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    Note that on the TV side, it would have been extremely wasteful to build a CRT display with a high aspect ration because physically there is a limit to how far from cylindrical a tube can reasonably be made, so bezels masked out 1.33 and widescreen movies were "letterboxed". The upshot being that flat panel display technology (plasma, LED, LCD) opened up the possibility of high aspect ratio content that didn't have a lot of wasted "letterbox" screen space. – Todd Wilcox Jul 1 '17 at 19:07
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    @ToddWilcox - The Sony GDM-FW900 Trinitron 24 inch widescreen CRT monitor has a 16:9 ratio. Some LCD computer monitors are 16:10, specifically 1920x1200, which allows for 4:3 display at 1600x1200, useful for older games. – rcgldr Jul 1 '17 at 19:47
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    A lot of this discussion seems to assume that the further away from a square that you get the bigger and better the image will be. But surely if the ratio keeps getting more and more rectangular, it must eventually have gone too far. Is there such a thing as an ideal ratio? – kasperd Jul 1 '17 at 22:10
  • @kasperd I don't think there is an ideal ratio (though 4:3 might be close). The reason why ratios differ is because movie companies wanted to be different. Being better wasn't the issue, they just wanted to do things TV could not do. And that was enough. Of course, filmmakers can use different aspect ratios to do interesting cinematographic things so some ratios can be good for a particular purpose. – matt_black Jul 2 '17 at 23:44
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4:3 is the "Philo Farnsworth" (the guy who invented/patented the Television set) screen aspect ratio. This aspect ratio was copied over by RCA who mass produced televisions after Farnsworth's patent right expired shortly after WWII, and is primarily based on how many lines of data could be packed and transmitted over the airwaves--for FREE. Sent in either VHF (Very High Frequency) - then predominantly Black and White TV broadcasts, to a later even more lines of data at UHF (Ultra High Frequency) - used to send color images to televisions sets from towers all over America from the 1960s to present day.

A later Cable television meant even 1000s of times more lines of data could be sent to a television "if" the television could read those additional lines "and" you paid for your TV programming vs. get it off the airwaves for free. The public wasn't quick to jump to paying for something 2 generations got earlier for free; but, from 1996 on, HD televisions starting at 420p started "cabling" television into homes "widening" the aspect ratio to a cinematic similiarity of 16:9 which closely resembled what you could see in a movie theater already like "Ben Hur" or "The Ten Commandments" from the 1950s onward - Panavision. Cinerama as another poster already mentions really fell short--not because of the technology,which is superior to Panavision, but because movie theaters and distributors at the time simply wouldn't fork out the costs to "modify" their movie houses to accomodate the screen ratio change. Today this can be done simply by "compressing the 2:5 image to a longer wider image or simply making a TV with a 25:9 aspect. Again though, TV manufacturers are still wrestling with HD to UHD(4K) to SUHD(8K) and leaving the 16:9 aspect ratio static.

This "home entertainment" system ratio we have today, meant you could watch any movie filmed specifically for a cinema on your HDTV and it would be just like what you saw as if you went to the cinema to see it. Higher definition, better (Dolby) sound quality -- Cable companies sprouted up all over the country--many simply could provide it over a household telephone wire; but with 720p and above, optical cable to fiber optic with Internet was required. 1080p at 16:9 became a defacto standard for all televisions manufactured after 2010. There have been "experiments" with 4D TV /4D cinema that add smell, vibrations in seat sound, etc. or what cinemas did in slightly curving the screen from 1970s on so even more screen data beyond the 16:9 ratio could be seen..but 3D and curved screen TV's have fallen flat on a consumer public.

To go further one has to examine from the 1950s onward what was going on in cinema and the film making industry..Panavision, CinemaScope, etc, much like the 1980s onward CD format wars with Blu-Ray..or VCR vs.VHS.. or 8 track vs. cassette tape...Panavision at 16:9 filmed on both 35MM or 110MM film plate became kind of the film industry standard. It could be shown in a cinema theater that gave a much more lifelike/realistic rectangular appeal than what someone could get in their home watching their black/white or color 4:3 ratio or square "box" TV. Presently 16:9 has simply won out the other formats. That's it.

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