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What is the 'Real' Aspect Ratio of 'On The Waterfront?' Plus, Restoring a Warped Hitchcock Classic

The aspect ratio is one of the fundamentals determining your compositions. Even though we live in a time where displaying any aspect ratio is incredibly easy, films are still being shown incorrectly in many mediums in an attempt to make them fill the entire screen (even if that’s not the intention of the filmmaker). Interestingly enough, cinema history has actually been plagued by these kinds of issues related to aspect ratio. A visual essay by Criterion Collection illustrates how the intended aspect ratio of On The Waterfront is still in question to this day, and we also get a demonstration of the impressive restoration to Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much from a heavily warped and damaged print.


There are plenty of artistic or quality control concerns a digital cinematographer must take into consideration, which may become a sort of balancing act. Budgetary concerns regarding storage or workflow may mean you must forego camera RAW or a higher-quality compression ratio, just as 16mm (or a less expensive film lab) may save a production in costs. That said, shooting a frame that works for up to three aspect ratios — all within the same negative frame, at the same time — goes beyond what many modern shooters might concern themselves with. Check out this look at the exemplary work of Boris Kaufman, ASC from Criterion:

It’s a compromise that covers ‘all the bases,’ but at the same time doesn’t actually compromise or sacrifice the integrity of a shot — in meaning or message. Of course, the skill with which this three-way tight-rope was traversed in On The Waterfront means the case of ‘the proper aspect ratio’ for the film is still not closed — we encourage you guys to weigh with your comments and let us know your thoughts on this question.

As you might expect, this is not the only technical question Criterion’s re-distribution crusade has encountered. In the case of Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much, however, the issue was a bit more, well… warped:

While the debate about archiving in digital formats or traditional celluloid still rages on, it’s remarkable what can be done to save a physical film print even after all hope seems lost.

What do you guys think, is there any one ‘correct’ aspect ratio of On The Waterfront? If so, which one — and why? What have your experiences been in terms of shooting with multiple framing guidelines (aside from ‘TV safe’)? What other impressive film restorations have you seen, and what were some of the issues the restorers faced?

Link: Criterion Collection — YouTube

COMMENT POLICY

We’re all here for the same reason: to better ourselves as writers, directors, cinematographers, producers, photographers... whatever our creative pursuit. Criticism is valuable as long as it is constructive, but personal attacks are grounds for deletion; you don't have to agree with us to learn something. We’re all here to help each other, so thank you for adding to the conversation!

Description image 15 COMMENTS

  • Cosmin Gurau on 02.23.13 @ 5:28PM

    They COULD leave it in the 1.85 format, and REFRAME, perhaps even sometimes dynamically, one shot at a time. Big friggin’ deal.

    • Dynamically reframe? As in tilt & scan? You must be nuts; what are you doing on a filmmakering website?

      The film looks poor in 1.85, anyway–there wouldn’t even be room to reframe. More importantly, It was originally framed for 1.37:1, and it looks pretty darn good in 1.67:1, as well (which is the disc 1 format in the new criterion release). I personally prefer the picture in full aperture…but unfortunately we don’t have televisions in 1920×1440 (as they should be).

      • well not full aperture, but you know. it’s available in 1.33:1 on dvd and blu-ray, so i call it full aperture even though it was probably shot sound aperture 1.37:1. and filmmakering is a typo.

        • Cosmin Gurau on 02.23.13 @ 10:39PM

          Jonathan, kiss my filmmaking ass. Even Fincher reframes in post, and so do I. Maybe 1.85 is pushing it, but the point is, it can be REFRAMED, instead of just being letterboxed. And working with the high res film scans, you can reframe the hell out of that movie. Oh, and besides, what are YOU doing on a :)) “filmmakering website” ? (I read that with an Indian accent for some reason)

          • If it’s your film, you can do whatever you want to do with the framing. Fincher can too. I don’t think it’s good practice or in good taste, but that’s just my opinion. And reframing can change where the optical center of the lens lies in a frame–so it’s not without technical drawbacks, as well.

            But it would be an absolute crime to tamper with or reframe the work of another filmmaker, especially dead filmmakers as well regarded as Elia Kazan and Boris Kaufman. And even moreso: an historically important picture such as On the Waterfront.

            I get the feeling that you may be trolling, here, however.

          • Daniel Mimura on 03.6.13 @ 3:56AM

            I don’t think you get how Fintcher was reframing…this is entirely different from what this post is about. 1) it was the filmmaker himself who was making the excision, 2) he didn’t reframe to change the aspect ratio…he chose 2.39:1 (for almost all of his movies) and stuck to that and 3) he always planned to reframe when he shot it, intentionally shooting approximately 20% wider than the final frame…mostly for image stabilization.

            And what’s with the xenophobia? Maybe English isn’t his 1st language…or maybe he’s typing on an annoying iPad (like I am right now) that makes all kinds of weird typpos. You’re an idiot, filmmaker or not.

          • Daniel Mimura on 03.6.13 @ 3:58AM

            That last comment was for Cosmin Gurau, not Jonathan, btw…

        • Cosmin Gurau on 02.23.13 @ 10:40PM

          Ah, you edited it. Damn, damn. :))

  • I am a huge lover of “original aspect ratio”. And I always cringe heavily when movies are shown incorrectly to fill up a frame, loosing valuable area. (Gone With The Wind is a famous example when they re-released it in a cropped 70mm version)

    That said. I’m not a fan of the cover-all-bases aproach either. Because most of the time you’ll end up with something that works adequately for all, but isn’t tailored for either. I say, Pick one and stick to it. And if you want to mix inside the movie, that’s another discussion (the practice of splicing in 4:3 IMAX material in 2.39:1 movie for example.)

    And as for examples of impressive restorations I really recommend the Kino restauration of the classic Metropolis. Just look at what they had to do to ressurect the scene where they turn the robot into a humanoid…

  • As for the aspect ratio, I think Criterion handled that correctly; it was shot to be printed in a number of ratios, so, give the viewer the chance to see each. This is not a case of forcing a foreign aspect ratio onto a production that was never intended to be seen that way, as is so often seen today in shoddy restorations or re-releases. However, it irritates me to no end that the narrator says “pan down”; there is NO PAN DOWN, use the proper terminology; TILT down! Come on!

    You don’t call your drinking glass a toilet do you? Toilet? Glass? What ever! (I can hear it already)

    In the second video, the announcer says, “wet gate printing nitrate in WATER”? What the HELL is going on here? Dunk a reel of nitrate in water and and if there is even a tiny bit of deterioration, watch the emulsion float away! Totally ruins the credibility of the presentation and is dangerously incorrect. The fluid being used is “perchlorethylene”; the same stuff used in the original dry cleaning process.

    What passes for knowledge now days is bunk…

  • Having an opinion differing from yours = Trolling ?

  • A little irrelevant but perhaps humorous trivia about the above scene with Brando. I once saw an interview with someone in the film. I think it was Brando or maybe Steiger. He was laughing as he told the story.

    He said they had the car in a building or some place like that and you could see all this unwanted inappropriate stuff through the rear window and they couldn’t figure out what to do about it. Finally, someone saw some Venetian blinds on a window and went over and got them and just plopped them over the outside of the rear window and they shot the scene. If you look very closely, the blinds look a little funny and don’t quite look right for the car( at least to me).

    Of course, I’m sure nobody noticed or cared.