THE WIZARD OF OZ is playing at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood tonight. Not exactly a nationwide news event, I know, but it's enough to prompt some thoughts inspired by the last time I saw the film, which was during the theatrical re-release the film received in 1998, just before coming out on DVD.
At that time, the prints of the film were carefully restored to their original Technicolor and Sepia tone glory (from the 1950s through the 1980s, the Kansas scenes were shown in black-and-white, not tinted in sepia), and -- theoretically at least -- they were shown in the films' original aspect ratio of 1:1.33. That may have been true if you saw the film in a premium theatre in Hollywood, but if you went to your local multiplex, you probably saw the film cropped in a manner to simulate the more modern "widescreen" look of films, with an aspect ration of 1:1.85.
If you're not a film buff or techno-geek, you may be wondering what "aspect ratio" means. It is the ratio of the height of the movie screen to its width. Thus, for a film in the 1.33 aspect ratio, if the screen were ten feet high, its width would be 13.3 feet. A film in the 1.85 aspect ratio would be ten feet high and 18.5 feet wide. The 1.33 ratio was standard in the early decades of film; after the 1950s, it shifted to 1.85.
Why the change? Blame television. Hollywood saw television as a threat to ticket sales in the 1950s, so the major studios started inventing ways to lure audiences away from their TV sets. One way to get viewers into theatres was to offer up a bigger, better picture, and several process were created to achived this.
Among them were formats like Cinemascope and Cinerama. Cinemascope used a special "anamorphic" lens on the camera to squeeze a wider image onto a standard piece of 35mm film; then a similar lens on the projecter unsqueezed the image onto the screen. The result was an apsect ratio of 2.66 -- double the width of a normal film image. Cinerama went a step further, using three interlocked cameras filming simulataneously to create a moving image three times the width of older films.
Neither process was popular for very long, but new ones (like Panavision) replaced them, creating a similar widescreen look with fewer technical headaches. Along the way, the old 1.33 aspect ratio started to look outdated, and it was abandoned, even though the majority of films are not shot in a special wide screen process.
How was this achieved? Simple. You may have noticed that lenses on cameras and projectors are round, but the image is rectangular. A small piece of metal behind the lens, called a "matte" (meaning "cover"), has a rectancular shape cut out that conforms to the rectangular shape of the image. Today, most films are still shot in 1.33, because that makes it easier to show them on television (whose screen appoximates the aspect ratio of early motion pictures). But when they are projected in theatres, a 1.85 matte is placed behind the projector lens, cutting off the top and bottom of the image to create a "widescreen" look.
This technique works fine today, because cinematographers know that their work will be seen both in movie theatres and on television sets, so they frame the important visual information in a way that little if anything will be lost when the image is matted. Sometimes, in fact, they rely on the matte too much, expecting it to block out boom microphones -- which are invisible in theatres but then visible when the film is shown on TV. (A good example of this is the famous opening aerial shots in Stanley Kubrick's THE SHINING: on television, you can see the whirring helicopter blades at the top of the screen).
However, the technique does not work so well on older films, which were never intended to be shown matted into a widescreen look. Films like THE WIZARD OF OZ (and GONE WITH THE WIND, too) have been re-released in psuedo-widescreen, with the top and bottom of the image blacked out, forcing projectionists to show the films in the 1.85 ratio. The results can be horrendous, particularly in close-ups: chins get cut off while people are talking; foreheads and sometimes even eyes disappear above the top of the screen.
During the 1998 re-release of WIZARD, the film was restored to its original aspect 1.33 ratio -- if you were lucky enough to see it in a theatre where the projectionist went to the trouble of removing the 1.85 matte used for other films and replaced it with the 1.33 matte.
But here's the problem: how many theatres today employ conscientious projectionists? Over the course of the last twenty years, there has been a trend toward replacing old-fashioned movie projectors with flat "platter" projectors that don't require reel changes every twenty minutes.
The result has been that most local multiplex theatres do not have an experienced professional in every projectionist booth. The theatre owners expect the local high school kid working the concession stand to pop into the both every two hours and flip the On switch, then hurry back downstairs to sell more popcorn. Most of them have never even heard of a matte, so don't expect them to know how to change one.
Consequently, the last time WIZARD OF OZ made it to the big screen, the image still suffered from the same artificial "widescreen" look in most venues -- the same problem that had plagued the film during most of its theatrical screenings since the 1950s.
I'm sure that won't be a problem tonight at the Egyptian Theatre, which is owned and operated by the American Cinematheque. The Cinematheque people love movies and know how to project them correctly. It's always nice to see a beloved classic one more time on the big screen with an appreciative audience (parents who saw the film on television years ago, now sharing it with their own children). But it's especially nice when the theatre goes to the trouble of showing the film the way it was meant to be seen.