A Complete History of CinemaScope with Film Historian David Bordwell

cinemascopeWe've talked at length about aspect ratios before, offering not only their history, but the importance and relevance of each one's aesthetics in filmmaking today. But, another great resource for learning about aspect ratios, or anything film related for that matter, is respected film theorist and historian David Bordwell. His books have been a staple in film schools for a long time, and now he offers an almost hour-long lecture on the history of CinemaScope and how technology affects filmmaking.

David Bordwell's commentaries on the history of film have helped many to grasp the complexities and expansiveness of film history, and watching and hearing a lecture only adds to the experience. This video is a slice of film school. While watching it, I took notes like I was in college all over again -- which helps with the post-graduation depression (mass amounts of Otter Pops help that too.)

Bordwell mixes history, theory, and application in his lecture, so not only will you know when CinemaScope and aspect ratios developed, you'll also know why and how to use them in your films today. He explains in the beginning that new technology creates new possibilities for artists to reshape their medium, like with the advent of sound, because techniques and work routines don't fit perfectly.

So, artists will work to fit their art into the new technology, taking advantage of the new possibilities it offers, forming what Bordwell describes as "not just assimilation, but exploration under constraints." One example he draws is CinemaScope -- a new technology that naturally put dimensional constraints on filmmaking, but also gave filmmakers the opportunity to explore their medium in a way they hadn't before.

So, free up an hour out of your day, grab a pen and pad, and check out the lecture below.

In the lecture, Bordwell goes into detail about how CinemaScope divided filmmakers -- some believing that it was "less" and other's "more." CinemaScope's effects and influences on the aesthetic choices of film are surprisingly far-reaching.

The issue of cropping was seen as a real issue when CinemaScope first came on the scene, because some thought that it was an abstraction of the visual field. But many filmmakers, like those of the French New Wave, used this to their advantage. Jean-Luc Godard used CinemaScope's cropping issue of "decapitation" for his aesthetic benefit in Pierrot le fou, solidifying not only his, but all of the French New Wave's signature cinematic style. Which eventually led to other filmmakers taking advantage of the new aspect ratio and cropping for abstraction. However, CinemaScope was just right when it came to getting an extreme close up of eyes.

The Man Who Never Was

Filmmakers were able to get a pretty good amount of depth using it, which gave them an alternative to "clothesline staging" and made their compositions much more complex. It provides more space for moods to breathe -- to allow, say, the silence to linger in the scene Bordwell talks about in The Man Who Never Was.

If you found this helpful, check out Bordwell's website and blog, which is a film school in and of itself, containing tons of information on film history and theory.

What do you think about David Bordwell's lecture? What stuck out most to you? Let us know in the comments.


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Your Comment


Great lecture. Plenty of useful information here.

August 30, 2013 at 4:18PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


To me, this was as much about the composition in general - after all, he was comparing the two most outlying formats 2.35/2.60 and 1.33 - than about the CinemaScope in particular. You figure that, if you can understand the the most squeezed and the most stretched formats, you'd be able to understand the 1.78 or the 2.0 as well.
BTW, "In the mood for love" (2000) was shot in 1.66 and it's known for its use of staircases and narrow corridors. Prior to this video lecture, I did not put the two-and-two together. Now, I am a bit more clued in.

August 30, 2013 at 11:39PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


I kindof feel like the lecture was somewhat limited in its... ehm... scope? Really leaving out the early wide processes and techniques, as well as what happened in the sixties and onwards. I understand that he wanted to keep the focus on the period of the early problematic lenses but that really goes against the title of COMPLETE history...

With a title like that I expected something that would go through the whole history from the earliest military application in tank-periscopes through the split screen montage of abel ganze, to the use of wide gauge film, back down to the 2perf system that was often sharper and less prone to distortion than the "real" cinescope at the time and even up to now as the very parts that lens makers have poured years and millions into to eliminate is now sought after in expensive films... but... then again... I guess that would just be a video version of the WideScreenMuseum... though, I kind of thought that was what was promised by that title..

August 31, 2013 at 3:33PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


And really.. for me, the fifties were mostly a very boring period exactly because of that distant stale framing. It's not really until the sixties and seventies that the more interesting ways of composing came into play. With Leone building a whole style of cutting between sequences of extreme wides to extreme closeups. Again, utilizing the wider choice of lenses that 2perf permitted. And Kubrick walking along pathways with subjects in dead center with wide lenses. Or even the multiscreen effects of The Andromeda Strain or the works of dePalma, and The Woodstock movie.

And not only was the Fox system licensed out, it was downright copied into a myriad of systems. Almost every country in the world owned its own scope-system. And many just ignored the recommendations in favor of storytelling. Churning out exploitation in scope-friendly prints.

August 31, 2013 at 3:53PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


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September 25, 2013 at 9:41PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM