Film Formats  

This page is meant to describe film formats used for shooting and projecting feature films that are now available on video or DVD. If there is a video or DVD release of a feature film whose original film format is not shown here, let me know. For more comprehensive lists of film formats, see the links at the bottom.

Note: These "Film Formats" refer only to actual physical film dimensions and the dimensions of the portion of the film frame used to hold the image. I also have a table of Video Formats that illustrates the difference between, for example, a movie shown on VHS tape as compared to the same movie shown on DVD.

Negative versus Print, and Audio

To shoot a film, the production company uses negative film that fits in a movie camera. When the negative is developed, the image is has reversed brightness (black/white instead of white/black). Also, for reasons that are largely historical, the audio is recorded separately by separate equipment and stored on a different type of material, like magnetic tape.

For exhibition (projection in theatres) the film needs to be transferred to a positive print, with the audio placed along the edges of the film. The easiest way to transfer the negative to the print is when the two have exactly the same frame size and film width, aspect ratio, etc. — then you can essentially just lay the negative directly against unexposed film and expose with a collimated (parallel) beam of light.

However, there are several reasons why the print usually has a different size from the negative:

- The negative does not need to have "room" for audio, so you can get more space for the image by using the full width of the film.

- Films are made in many different negative formats, but movie houses can't buy many different projectors, so there is a need to have all the prints be the same size regardless of the way the film was originally shot.

- You're always going to need to do extra work to get the audio track on the film, so it isn't that much harder to also adjust the frame size at the same time.

name aspect
ratio
(real aspect
times anamorphic)
year example(s) description
Edison Kinetograph 1.33:1 1.33 x 1 1889 Original silent 35-mm film size with 4 sprocket holes per frame. It is the basis of all the 35-mm sizes to follow (all will fit in the same projectors) although many variations on frame size and placement were made.
Pathé 28 1.33:1 1.33 x 1 1912 The first "safety film", so-called because it was not flammable, was 28-mm wide and had 3 sprocket-holes per frame. It was deliberately made a different size to deter using older flammable film in the projector. This format was popular for a while because of the importance of avoiding projection-booth fires (one had killed 124 people in 1897).
Kodak 16-mm 1.37:1 1.37 x 1 1923 This is the 16-mm format with sprocket-holes down both sides that (if you're old enough) you might remember being used at your school. Used for TV, press and documentary projects; less popular today because of Super 16. The image is about 10-mm wide, one sprocket-hole per frame. Many feature films were printed onto Kodak 16; if you're an avid film fan and want to buy a projector to show movies in your home, Kodak 16 is probably your only affordable choice.
(many others) There were many other early film sizes, not mentioned because they did not last.
Movietone 1.16:1 1.16 x 1 1930 Added sound track, reducing image width (later the sound track became two narrow tracks for stereo and surround-encoded stereo)
(original) Academy 1.37:1 1.37 x 1 1932 Industry agreed to crop image vertically — using only part of the full height of the frame, and filling the remaining "strips" along the top and bottom with black — to get a wider image aspect ratio
Cinerama 2.64:1 0.88 x 3 1952 This Is Cinerama (1952), How the West Was Won (MGM, 1962) 3 side-by-side frames, each frame has 0.88:1 aspect ratio (silent 35-mm film, but 6 perfs high instead of 4), with audio on a separate magnetic film. The film was shown in three projectors on a huge curved screen, the only use of a curved screen until OMNIMAX in 1973. It had several problems including visible seams between the three pieces of the image and frequent out-of-sync errors when one projector or another goes a little too fast/slow. Despite its problems it was highly regarded for its image quality, which was not surpassed until IMAX in 1971. This unwieldy format actually had as many as 120 theatres in the US in 1962.
Fox CinemaScope 2.35:1 1.17 x 2.0 1953 The Robe (1953) Image is the Movietone frame (35-mm @ 4 perfs high) with 2:1 anamorpic lenses to achieve twice the picture width on screen. This is the same technique used by many later imitators or competitors, including the now-standard Panavision ("Scope"). In prints, this format has 1 optical and 4 magnetic audio tracks.
Paramount Academy 1.66:1 1.66 x 1 1953 Like original Academy, but with more vertical cropping (bigger black strips along top and bottom), and adopted by Paramount.
MGM/Disney Academy 1.75:1 1.75 x 1 1953 Like original Academy, but with more vertical cropping (bigger black strips along top and bottom), and adopted by MGM & Disney.
Univ/Columb Academy 1.85:1 1.85 x 1 1953 Like original Academy, but with more vertical cropping (bigger black strips along top and bottom), and adopted by Universal & Columbia. Of the three 1953 cropped Academy formats, this is the one that became most popular over time.
Fox Cinemascope 55 2.35:1 1.17 x 2.0 195x Same aspect ratios as Fox Cinemascope but using 55.625-mm wide film, 6 perfs high (I'm not sure how they did the audio)
VistaVision 1.66:1 1.66 x 1 1954 Vertigo (1954) The 1.66:1 frame is achieved with 35-mm film turned sideways (to run horizontally through the camera and projector) and 8 perforations per frame. The film also has the standard Movietone audio track. This would be a 1.71:1 frame, but it was cropped on the sides to make it 1.66:1
VistaVision 1.85:1 1.85 x 1 1954 White Christmas (1954) Same sideways format, but cropped along top and bottom to get 1.85:1 aspect ratio.
VistaVision 1.96:1 1.96 x 1 1954 To Catch A Thief (1954) Same sideways format, but cropped along top and bottom to get 1.96:1 aspect ratio.
RKO Superscope 2.00:1 1.00 x 2 1954 Vera Cruz (1954) The 1.00:1 frame is on 35-mm @ 4 perfs high, but cropped on the sides; then 2:1 anamorphic lenses are used to get a 2:1 image size.
Todd-AO 65 (original Todd-AO) 2.20:1 2.20 x 1 1955 Oklahoma! (1955) The 2.20:1 frame is on 65-mm film at 5 perfs high. The Todd-AO 65 print format is wider: 70-mm wide, with 6 audio tracks, 4 of which are placed outside the sprocket holes. This allows the negative to be transferred to the print directly, but also allows the full width of the negative to be used for shooting footage. Because of this and its large frame size, Todd-AO and its 1959 Panavision 70 derivatives (see below) are widely recognized as the highest-quality formats prior to IMAX.
Rank VistaVision 1.75:1 1.17 x 1.5 1957 A standard Movietone frame, with 1.5:1 anamorphic lenses.
Technirama 2.40:1 1.61 x 1.5 1957 Night Passage (1957) Same format as VistaVision, but cropped a little differently and with 1.5:1 anamorphic lenses.
Panavision (Scope) 2.35:1 1.17 x 2.0 1959 Identical to Fox CinemaScope. The current 35-mm anamorphic standard. (Yes, Fox Cinemascope came first, but we call it Panavision because the Panavision company was successful.)
Super Technirama 2.40:1 1.61 x 1.5 1959 Sleeping Beauty (1959) Same as Technirama
Ultra Panavision 70 2.76:1 2.21 x 1.25 1959 Ben Hur (1959) The same frame as Todd-AO 65 but with 1.25:1 anamorphic lenses.
Super Panavision 70 2.20:1 2.20 x 1 1959 The Big Fisherman (1959), West Wide Story (1961), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Tron (1982), Hamlet (1997) Same as Todd-AO 65
Super 35 1.33:1 variable x 1 195x Titanic (1997) Also sometimes called "Super Panavision 35". A non-anamorphic 35-mm format, same as original Edison Kinetograph. TV episodes and films made for TV are shot this way. The negative does not leave room for the sound track (as with all movie film formats, the sound is recorded by separate equipment). Super-35 is transferred to video or an intermediate digital format, then in some cases transferred back to a projector-compatible film format for distribution to exhibitors. Many movies are filmed this way, and the director composes the shots with the knowledge that the film will be cropped two different ways during transfer to cinema and video formats (a sort of double soft-matting) An excellent example of this is Cameron's Titanic (1997).
Super 16 1.65:1 1.65 x 1 1971 An improved version of Kodak 16-mm and used only in cameras (not projectors). It has sprocket holes on only one side and no space is left for a sound track, allowing for a much wider image. Footage shot in super 16 is sometimes transferred to a larger format print.
Todd-AO 35 2.35:1 1.17 x 2.0 1971 Identical to Fox CinemaScope. Still seen today, because Todd-AO and Panavision are both still in business making the anamorphic lenses.
IMAX 1.43:1 1.43 x 1 1971 North Of Superior (1971) The 1.43:1 frame is sideways 70mm at 15 perfs per frame. The first format with higher resolution than Cinerama, the first to surpass the quality of Todd-AO 65, and the highest-resolution film format to date. IMAX also has up to 6 audio tracks delivered by a separate synchronized system (magnetic film like OMNIMAX, or a CD 1)
OMNIMAX elliptical 1.43 elliptical 1.43 1973 Chronos (1985) OMNIMAX uses a fisheye lens covering 150 degrees vertical, 180 horizontal, and projected onto a dome with the projector at the center, and with the dome tilted so that it covers almost your entire field of view if you face forward and don't turn your head. The image on film is a roughly elliptical area within the IMAX frame. Normal IMAX films can also be shown in OMNIMAX domes, but the edges are distorted. For audio, OMNIMAX uses a separate 35-mm film bearing magnetic tracks.
Techniscope 2.35:1 ? ? Standard academy format but only 2 perforations high. Allows 1:2.35 photography with standard lenses of any kind. In printing, it is stretched to 4 perf. height, the print can then be treated as a Panavision (Scope) print. 1

Links

Here are a couple of the pages I found while I was gathering this data:

Michael Rogge's brief history of film formats
Mark Baldock's table of film formats
A good article about cropping and framing issues
Cinerama 2000
(dead link: American Widescreen Museum)
(dead link: Scott Marshall's Wide Gauge Film and Video Monthly

Also, feel free to email me if you have questions or corrections.

See Also

I wrote this page about digital video compression, which also has a bit about digital video formats.




Footnotes

1 : Paul Samuels, private communication


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