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What do Jurassic World, Stranger Things and The Handmaid’s Tale have in common? With the arrival of Star Trek: Discovery, we examine the new aspect ratio boldly taking over our screens.
Discontent with merely changing the world of cinematography, legendary director of photography Vittorio Storaro set his sights on changing the very frame of cinema. He proposed a new, uniform aspect ratio: 2:1. His grand plan never really caught on in the cinema, but has become something of a standard for streaming services. Now, the format is about to hit warp speed with the arrival of Star Trek: Discovery.
The year was 1998. George Lucas was still 12 months away from releasing The Phantom Menace with footage shot on high definition digital cameras, but Storaro already had his eye on the possibilities of digital cinematography. He saw the impending practical upheaval as the perfect opportunity to streamline cinematic visuals. His proposal: to introduce a one-size-fits-all aspect ratio (the ratio of image width to height).
Storaro is something of an avant-garde when it comes to anticipating the “unstoppable” effects of the digital revolution in cinema. In ‘98, he wrote a manifesto that argued that, in the future, as HD video projectors replace ageing 35mm projectors, most films would be photographed in digital video to suit their destined theatrical presentation. But, while the new format may suit smaller, more intimate projects, event films would continue to require being shot and projected on 70mm film. That sounds remarkably familiar to the differentiations Christopher Nolan is now championing: keep digital cinematography and presentation for TV and smaller scale theatrical fare, and use film technology (particularly 70mm IMAX) for big screen epics.
Storaro’s maths was that 2:1 (the image being twice as wide as it is high) was “a perfect balance between” 1.78:1 HD video and 2.21:1 (native) 70mm film. He was frustrated with having to shoot films with a mind for their “much longer life on an electronic screen“. He saw 2:1 as a format that would feel natural when presented on either cinema screen or television set, without having to alter the composition or framing in any way. Despite being a visual artist who defends audiences’ “right to see a picture as it was conceived”, Storaro was so dedicated to “Univisium” (originally known as “Univision”) that he had his masterpiece Apocalypse Now reframed from 2.39:1 to 2:1 for home video formats.
Storaro’s grand plan failed to make much of an impact in the theatrical world. Most of the economic justifications he made became irrelevant, as digital cinematography spread across the industry – the introduction of yet another aspect ratio was always going to be a hard sell. It wasn’t for his lack of trying, though. Every film he’s shot over the past 20 years has been captured and presented in 2:1, from the likes of Exorcist: The Beginning all the way through to Woody Allen’s sumptuous Café Society. There have also been a few seemingly unlinked examples, including The Girl with All the Gifts and 20th Century Women.
The one outlier in the limited selection of films that use Univisium is Jurassic World, the $1.6 billion-grossing behemoth. The story goes that Spielberg, who has executive produced every Jurassic film after directing the first two, wanted the fourth instalment to be shot and released in 1.85:1 (the cinematic standard closest to 1.78:1 modern television screens). That’s how he shot Jurassic Park, which was something of a surprise for a blockbuster at the time. Back in 1993, Spielberg wanted something different to the action spectacular 2.35:1 that audiences were used to. Most importantly, he wanted to be able to fit humans and dinosaurs in the frame together, so he decided to use the height offered by 1.85.
Spielberg was so pleased with the results that he kept the aspect ratio for The Lost World: Jurassic Park and Joe Johnston picked up the mantle with Jurassic Park III. So the stage was set for Colin Trevorrow to follow suit with Jurassic World, but he wanted to shoot his first blockbuster in 2.35. The compromise? 2:1 – a format that maintained some degree of consistency with the previous films, but with the widescreen scope Trevorrow desired. Yet even the fourth highest grossing film of all time worldwide didn’t change the fledgling aspect ratio’s fortunes. On the big screen, at least.
Meanwhile, Netflix had launched its slate of Netflix Originals with House of Cards in (you guessed it) 2:1. The general feeling is that Univisium adds a widescreen cinematic quality to television without throwing off audiences with a heavily letterboxed image (the black bars at the top and bottom or either side of the screen). Since then, hugely popular Netflix shows such as Stranger Things, The Crown, A Series of Unfortunate Events and Ozark have all been released in 2:1, as has Amazon’s most lauded offering, Transparent.
Take a look at Netflix’s Production and Post-Production Requirements and you’ll find that the streaming giant will happily release in 2:1 aspect ratio, no questions asked, but anything wider than that “must be evaluated and discussed […] for approval”. So it seems that Netflix now considers 2:1 to be a second TV standard. With Netflix’s ever-increasing awards success, other streaming services and networks have started to cotton on to this new prestige format of presentation. Emmy Award-winning The Handmaid’s Tale uses the format on US streaming service Hulu and FX’s Fargo made the jump to 2:1 in its third season. Univisium has even hit terrestrial networks in the UK, with Broadchurch also making the switch for Season 3. More recently still, both Liar on ITV and Channel 4’s Back have debuted using the format.
But, with the release of Star Trek: Discovery, the sixth Star Trek TV series and the first in 12 years, 2:1 is about to reach a new level of exposure. While the show is airing weekly in the US on subscription streaming service CBS All Access and on Netflix internationally, the pilot episode, The Vulcan Hello, premiered on regular CBS. The broadcast was the most simultaneous eyeballs the 2:1 format has ever had. It’s a perfect partnership of show and format, and Guillermo Navarro, the Oscar-winning cinematographer (Pan’s Labyrinth) who shot the pilot, will be hoping to do Storaro proud and make Univisium sing.
Looking back at Storaro’s manifesto for Univisium marks his dream out as prophetic, but there’s one industry-changer he couldn’t possibly have accounted for: streaming. As a new starship and crew prepare to explore the universe, take a moment to honour the visual master who boldly went where no filmmaker had gone before. The petition for USS Storaro starts here.
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