Brando's ONE-EYED JACKS showed at the Lensic theater here in Santa Fe this past week. It's something of a curiosity, the only picture Brando ever directed, but more to the purpose, it was last major release shot in VistaVision, a widescreen process that lasted about seven years.
First of all, let's explain "aspect ratio." This refers to the shape of a movie's screened image, and for many years, the standard aspect ratio was 1.33 to 1, horizontal to vertical, so the image is a little wider than it is tall. (More or less the size of a television screen, back in the day.) This was the negative size of a 35MM film frame. Widescreen had been used, for example, THE BIG TRAIL, released in 1930, which was shot in 70MM, with an aspect ratio of 2.10:1, and a projection process called Grandeur, but most theaters didn't have the equipment to show it, and there was an alternative 35MM version.
Widescreen didn't really catch on until CinemaScope, and THE ROBE, which came out in 1953. The aspect ratio was 2.20:1. Again, not to try your patience, another technical explantion. Scope is an "anamorphic" process, meaning that the lenses do the work. The image is compressed, when the picture is shot, to squeeze it onto a 35MM frame, and then opened up again when it's projected. Scope lasted well into the 1960's, when it was overtaken by Panavision 70. Now, this too has fallen out of favor, with the introduction of digital, which is a story in itself, but technology eats its own young, and that's where I'm headed.
VistaVision was different because it wasn't
anamorphic. Instead of compressing the image, it opened it up, to fill two frames of film. The nuts-and-bolts, oversimplified, are that the film traveled horizontally through the camera, and exposed twice the image area. The result is a print with finer-grained detail. You increase the depth of field and get far more color saturation.
But the format was doomed. Even as careful and canny a director as Ford or Hitchcock, who shot only and exactly as much as they needed, still had to shoot twice the footage, because of the double-frame. By the time Brando came along, and famously went through a couple of hundred miles of film, it was the kiss of death, and Paramount pulled the plug. The studio never used VistaVision again.
The process had a half-life, though, for another fifty years, primarily for effects work and process shots, and then CGI took over. It's interesting that even on DVD, with a good digital transfer, you can still see why so many directors and cinematographers liked working with it. You got a lot of bang for the buck, particularly when you wanted to make it appear
The technology is never static, and we keep pushing the envelope. There was a time when VistaVision was state of the art, and this post isn't intended to be elegiac, but you get the sense that something is lost. There's a plasticity, a word I've used before, to film, as opposed to digital. Not to be a Luddite. I don't want to go back to using a manual typewriter. We shed our old skins, we reinvent ourselves. Still, among the discards and the hand-me-downs, there might be a few things you decide not to put out at the next yard sale, some talisman or another, a vintage bottled in the past.