Why 16:9? A Tale of Yore

In an age old battle between TV and Hollywood comes a hero. But will this so called hero be able to bring peace to a dark world full of evil aspect ratios? The story of the 16:9 aspect ratio: a hero or a compromise?

When you look at your television, what do you see? Some will see a square 4:3 box that weighs as much as an elephant. These days, most see a slim rectangle in the 16:9 format, but why these aspect ratios? Why did we switch from 4:3 to 16:9? Where did these ratios come from in the first place, and who made these decisions? The story, believe it or not, starts with Thomas Edison in 1892 with the invention of film.

...the physical size of the film area between the sprocket perforations determines the image’s size. The universal standard (established by William Dickson and Thomas Edison in 1892) is a frame that is four perforations high. The film itself is 35 mm wide…leaving the de facto ratio of 4:3. (Wikipedia)

This standard was created because 4:3 mimics the human eye’s field of view (155°h x 120°v).

Then came television, bringing about a new age for film and entertainment. The average family could now stay home and be entertained. With the coming of television came a decline in theatre revenue for Hollywood. To help create a new reason for going to the theatre, the film industry started producing new, wider aspect ratios that wouldn’t look good on a 4:3 television.

When cinema attendance dropped, Hollywood created widescreen aspect ratios (such as the 1.85:1 ratio) in order to differentiate the film industry from TV. (Wikipedia)

This new deviation from the standard aspect ratio created in it’s wake multiple new ratios and new forms of film stock to shoot, in effect negating a standard aspect ratio and making it very difficult for any one ratio to take precedence. Kerns Powers, the hero behind the mask, took it upon himself to bring justice to this chaos of ratios.

Powers cut out rectangles with equal areas, shaped to match each of the popular aspect ratios. When overlapped with their center points aligned, he found that all of those aspect ratio rectangles fit within an outer rectangle with an aspect ratio of 1.77:1…The value found by Powers is exactly the geometric mean of the extreme aspect ratios, 4:3 (1.33:1) and 2.35:1, which is coincidentally close to 16:9 (1.77:1). (Wikipedia)

Aspect ratios overlapping
This is where we get the now standard aspect ratio of 16:9. It’s not because it’s the best, nor because it mimics our eye’s field of view; the only reason is that it is a peace treaty between all other ratios. We needed a standard to live by, and 16:9 had the virtues we were looking for, a common size that all ratios could live in.

But what does this mean for the rest of the aspect ratios out there? Does it mean we are forever stuck living in this rectangular ratio of a world? What do you think? Let us know below.


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Since 4:3 is pretty much history, a modern approach to this is the 2.05:1 ratio, which both 2.35:1 and 1.78:1 ratios can live in.

Dr Seymor Dotz Posted on: Aug 21, 2012 at 07:58 AM

Nifty history. I believe humans actually see in widescreen though, which is why widescreen formats are more pleasing. I would be willing to believe that the area of focus of human vision is similar to 4:3, but our peripheral vision, as hunters, gives us a pretty wide field of view. You can easily demonstrate this to yourself empirically.

Adam Elliott Posted on: Aug 21, 2012 at 02:34 PM

Great points both Dr. Seymor and Adam.

I agree with you Seymor that we should have a new standard ratio to live in. The issue, I believe, lies with the television industry still catering to the 4:3 audience (which is now the minority of TV viewers) and so center cut all widescreen video. Because of this, they drive the aspect ratios for household Televisions.

Adam you’re right that we tend to focus on the world in a more horizontal viewing plane than a square plane. The human vision is an impressive lens to say the least. What your eyes are actually able to see though is closer to 4:3. We as humans tend to narrow that field of vision to the horizontal plane, though, and ignore the extra space on top and bottom until we need it. This is why just about everyone would agree that they would rather view video in 16:9 than in 4:3….it just feels right :)

Rob Burke Posted on: Aug 22, 2012 at 11:43 AM

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