ASPECT RATIO: As it applies to
"Return of the Living Dead"

There has been considerable debate among the fans of "Return of the Living Dead" regarding the aspect ratio in which the film was shot. This discussion, described to me as a "controversy", could have been put to rest with a simple consultation via email at this site since there's no better source for how a film was composed than the Director of Photography.

The intended aspect ratio is not something that's evident from examining the frames of a movie since visual information outside the area of intended composition is included in the full frame. The desired ratio is indicated on the film cans, however, so that a theater projectionist can insert the correct mask into his projector.

Most theatrical film productions will protect the area for TV since most films will eventually be shown in that format, whether on network TV, cable or VCR, so it's essential that no wrong information is allowed into that space. When you see a microphone, or off the set, or wrong props, for example, you have a case where the camera operator failed to protect the TV area adequately.

There's nothing better than a graphic to convey this concept. Below are tracings of what the camera's viewfinder shows when a couple of the relevant ground glasses are installed as compared to the full frame:

This shows the full frame that is photographed. This entire area is used in anamorphic wide screen formats, usually 2:1 or greater. Here is the 1.85:1 frame against (or, within) the "academy" aperture, which is less than full frame. This is the more typical framing that a theatrical cinematographer uses, showing both 1.85:1 and the TV area. This is the ground glass used in composing "Return of the Living Dead".
Reproduced from the Panavision spec sheet.


Ground glass: a glass that has been frosted on one side to receive the image from the lens in the camera's viewfinder. Ground glasses are furnished by the camera supply house scribed (etched) in many aspect ratios and in various combinations. They are part of a camera equipment order and allows cameramen to control what's in the primary frame as well as within a protection area.

Frame, framing: Though this term might be applied to the full frame, it's more commonly (and correctly) thought of as the intended one, the area in which the cinematographer composes the film. This is not something decided on only by the DP. He or she uses a particular aspect ratio in concurrence with the director's vision and the producers' marketing requirements which, often, have to do with distribution considerations. In the case of my work, 1.85:1 is my preferred compositional ratio and is the one I've used in most of my films as Director of Photography.

DP, Director of Photography, cinematographer, cameraman: These are synonymous terms within the industry. Outside it, however, 'cameraman' often refers to the camera operator and, even, camera assistant. No one's sensitive about what they're called, though, unless it's on screen. A cinematographer's screen credit will almost always say, 'Director of Photography', in U.S. made films.

Protection area: Usually the part of a frame that will be visible when shown in a secondary format, most commonly TV. Since the TV area includes a little above and a little below the theatrical frame (as shown above, right), all false objects or equipment must be kept clear within it. The final responsibility for this falls into the lap (and the eye) of the camera operator.

Wide screen: To my way of thinking, wide screen is 2:1 or wider. This is usually reserved for big sagas with glorious settings and huge budgets and call for splash openings in big theatres. Ultra Panavision is the extreme example (currently) with a 2.33:1 aspect ratio which is accomplished on the 35mm film frame through an optical process known as anamorphosis ("anamorphic lenses"). This squeezes the visual information to fit the full frame and is unsqueezed in projection.

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