26 October 2012
Debating Hammer Aspect Ratios
Hammer’s archivist Robert J.E. Simpson* weighs in on the aspect ratio debate.
*While I work with Hammer, this post should not be viewed as Hammer’s ‘official’ line. Any opinions expressed herein are my own.
In today’s era of home cinema viewing, nothing seems to stir up debate more than aspect ratios, and the choices made for the new Blu-ray of The Curse Of Frankenstein have had some up in arms. I personally think debate is healthy, and any attempt to inform that debate is welcome. Some of the research and supporting evidence that has been presented (mostly on internet forums) has been very interesting, and some persuasively argued, but not conclusively so. And it is the lack of concrete conclusive evidence that is a problem. Any discussion involves a weighing up of evidence and argument, and a decision made as a result. Not everyone will agree with the decisions (and indeed, not everyone working on a project will necessarily agree either), but decisions have to be made on balance of the arguments/evidence and commercial concerns.
Some of the language that has been used has been colourful, passionate and, at times, stubborn. There seems to be an assumption that Hammer have not been paying attention. Hammer has. That it isn't engaging in a tit-for-tat rebuttal/defence/argument over every point raised, shouldn't be surprising.
As an archivist and historian one of my jobs is to look at the extant paperwork for evidence that supports or informs the decisions one makes, and I have to examine the source material that is available (written, visual and verbal) and assess accordingly. The Hammer archive is extensive, but following a number of document purges under previous managements, some important records are missing, and others have yet to be located. Things that weren’t of concern to Hammer/Exclusive in the 1970s or 1990s (which includes physical prints of films in some cases), are now retrospectively vital. Weeding as part of a day-to-day business concern is an important activity, but as an archivist I’m always frustrated by what is discarded – and the same is true for every archive I’ve worked in.
Looking at this purely from a historical research point of view, we have to consider the types of sources available. Primary sources - seen as most reliable, produced directly by those involved (the filmmakers, exhibitors, distributors, and possibly even cinema-goers of the period); and secondary sources - sources written by others based on primary source material and other research. We also have to consider the purpose of the document, the time when it was written (a projectionist's memory some 50 years later might be called into question, unless it is based on a contemporary record he kept, for example), and any other material which may have influenced it. History is always written with an agenda in mind, and source material tends to be chosen in order to further one argument or another.
In the case of the current debate there is nothing concrete in the Hammer archive that confirms The Curse Of Frankenstein aspect ratio one way or another. Where outside materials are available, these will be examined. New information is coming to light on a regular basis regarding Hammer’s heritage, and the company is always open to new documentation, alternative viewpoints etc.
Some of the very vocal voices at the moment are secondary sources who are basing their comments on other secondary sources (who have chosen their primary sources to expound upon).
From the beginning of the project Hammer was under the impression that The Curse Of Frankenstein was released in a ‘widescreen’ ratio in the 1950s. As outlined in an official Hammer blog post, the UK ‘widescreen’ standard was 1.66:1, while the US is 1.85:1 (in fact the situation is a little more complicated than that, with UK producers tending to shoot for 1.75:1 with both the US and UK standards in mind). After viewing the materials repeatedly it was felt that there was a strong case for a 1.37:1 transfer, and that the composition was such that the film was ‘probably’ shot with the academy ratio in mind rather than the widescreen ratio. Most of the studios had turned themselves over to various widescreen formats by the mid 1950s, but were still shooting most of the features with protection for the traditional academy.
I am certainly happy on the balance of the evidence gathered that The Curse Of Frankenstein was exhibited in a widescreen ratio in the UK (there hasn't been any doubt about it being projected in widescreen in the US), but I am not convinced that the film was ‘only’ exhibited in that ratio. While there were a number of chains in operation in the UK and Ireland in the 1950s and 60s, there were also a large number of independents, and they did not always keep up to date with changes in exhibition formats. Some of the cinemas may not have had space to enlarge their auditoria, or the finance to purchase new lenses etc. It is perfectly feasible that individual projectionists might have disregarded the recommendation given by the distributor and not matted appropriately. The 1950s was a period of experimentation and many had been stung investing in the likes of 3D compatibility. Widescreen may have been viewed by some as another gimmick – at least until the majority of cinemas invested in the format. The reality is, we can only speculate here. My own experiences of poor/erroneous projections around the UK would lead me to the assumption that things were no different in the 1950s.
In the UK films tended to play in London first, and gradually make their way out on the circuit, around the regions, meaning a) that films had considerably longer theatrical lives than they do today and b) if you lived in, say Belfast (as I do) you may have to wait a year or two before the film is exhibited locally. This isn’t a hard and fast rule, but it needs to be borne in mind.
At this point, I’d like to look at some of the evidence which is being pushed on the forums, and to look at some of the problems, some additional evidence, and throw in some speculations of my own.
An article [fig. 1] from the trade magazine Kinematograph Weekly dated 13 December 1956 has been posted on the Home Theater Forum (there’s a fascinating thread here -http://www.hometheaterforum.com/t/319469/aspect-ratio-research- and following - which is well worth delving into) which shows, among other things, Exclusive’s slate of releases for 1957.
You can see that both X The Unknown and The Curse Of Frankenstein are listed as ‘standard widescreen’ – so we can infer that a 1.66:1 ratio would be available/intended. At this stage The Curse Of Frankenstein is only a month into production, and it is always possible that things could change (as often did happen during the production of a film – something I’m sure we’ll explore with future releases). One commentator on the most recent blog post suggested that he didn’t know of any non-arthouse company that went back to academy ratio after beginning shooting in widescreen. But you can see from the Kinematograph Weekly document that Hammer/Exclusive was using multiple ratios. The Lyons In Paris and Women Without Men (released as Blonde Bait in the US) are in a standard ratio. Several other films are in scope format (a format beloved by Michael Carreras), and ‘The Creature’ is down as ‘standard widescreen’ and in Eastman colour.
The details for the last title is a good indication as to why we don’t ever rely on any one source in isolation for ‘proof’. By the time shooting commenced at the end of January, The Abominable Snowman (as The Creature became) was being filmed in a scope widescreen (Regalscope aka Hammerscope – approx. 2.35:1) and in black and white – not colour!
It is also clear that Exclusive had produced films for simultaneous exhibition both widescreen and academy ratios. In the gallery below [fig. 2] you can see two UK promotional trade adverts – for Face The Music (aka. The Black Glove) and Murder By Proxy (Blackout), released in 1954 and 55 respectively, and both directed by The Curse Of Frankenstein’s Terence Fisher. There is certainly no reason to think that Fisher and Hammer weren’t still adopting this strategy in 1956 when production commenced on The Curse Of Frankenstein - preparing their features with a view to exhibition in both formats. To my eyes director Terence Fisher and cinematographer Jack Asher lensed The Curse Of Frankenstein for academy: they made sure any important action occurred within the widescreen framing, but the compositions are optimised in the academy frame.
[One commentator on the Home Theater Forum thread (http://www.hometheaterforum.com/t/319469/aspect-ratio-research/870#post_3985011) suggested that “Careful study of camera movement/composition of THE BLACK GLOVE aka FACE THE MUSIC which began filming in late June of 1953, confirms that it is indeed composed for 1.37:1.” And he also says “…more than anything else, look at the film. Watch the camera movement, study the compositions. Once you see what the DP is doing to keep actors in frame, it becomes very easy to spot when a film is composed for widescreen. To ignore what Asher and the camera is doing in a film like CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN makes no sense to me.” According to the argument being posited, in *his* opinion the framing and composition is such that The Curse Of Frankenstein was clearly shot for widescreen, and that Face The Music was clearly shot for the standard academy ratio. And yet we seem to have one of the smoking guns being sought as Face The Music is, as evidenced by Exclusive’s own publicity material, clearly and irrefutably shot for widescreen. I could counter his assertion re. Face The Music with the evidence of Exclusive's own publicity material. It could also be posited that if his aesthetic judgement is in error on that film, why then might it not also be wrong on The Curse Of Frankenstein?]
Picking up again on the Kinematograph Weekly notice that was put forward, I have some of my Kine notes to hand. It quickly becomes evident that we cannot rely on the trade sources as definitive proof of aspect ratio. Look at The Kinematograph Weekly list of renter’s programmes for 1959 on 18 December 1958 - two years later we can see that Hammer are seemingly still working in academy formats as well as widescreen. Page 12 of that issue [fig. 3] has titles released via Columbia. Neither 'Mad Pashernate Love' (later released as The Ugly Duckling) or Yesterday’s Enemy have any widescreen ratio associated (and Yesterday’s Enemy, which went on the floor in January 1959, was released in Megascope – another 2.35:1 ratio). Page 25 includes Ten Seconds To Hell (released via United Artists) and it has no widescreen indicated either. Curiously the British Production Record on page 91 of the same issue lists Up The Creek at New Elstree Studios as being shot in 1.75:1 (and yet it was a released as a Hammerscope production – 2.35:1). Already we're in a position of questioning all our assumptions about the Hammer aspect ratios - or questioning the absolute veracity of the trade adverts.
Of the Bray productions detailed in the Production Record [fig. 4], only Further Up The Creek merits a mention of a widescreen ratio (Cinemascope). I’ll put forward the suggestion here that for Hammer, either a film was in scope (scope being a widescreen ratio worthy of singling out), or it was standard ratio. They don’t really believe in that middle ground. So everything that isn’t scope is shot academy, with the final product being exhibited either academy or ‘widescreen’ as required. It’s a working hypothesis at any rate.
Something else to bear in mind about the academy ratio argument is concerns regarding television exhibition in the 50s. TV back then was in a 4x3 format that was very close to the academy ratio (1.33:1 vs 1.37:1), and additional profits were made by selling your product to television. Hammer made a number of deals for their product, and it is almost certain that the un-matted academy prints were used for television screenings. 16mm rental prints (used in smaller venues and clubs, domestic screenings, and elsewhere) and 8mm cut-down versions for the home entertainment market were also full-frame/academy. These films were released initially in the days before repeated viewing and scrutiny from the comfort of our living rooms and computers.
To explore this a little further, we can see below the British Production Record for 1 October 1959 through 30 September 1960 in the Kinematograph Weekly of 15 December 1960 [Fig. 5]. A number of Hammer films are listed, and you can see there’s a wide range of ratios on offer during the period. Several of the Hammer titles are listed simply as “wide screen”. With ratios being posited from 1.65:1 through to 1.85:1 (ignoring scope), what was Hammer’s widescreen? For that we need to look at the Production Facilities listings in the same issue (p117) for the Hammer Film and Theatres Ltd which details standard as 1.33:1, widescreen as 1.66:1 and CinemaScope as 2.35:1 [Fig. 6].
The Curse Of The Werewolf is, incidentally, listed as being available in a ‘standard’ ratio in the Renter’s Programmes in the same issue, as well as being in ‘Wide Screen’ in the British Production Record. Another indication I’d suggest that Hammer continued a policy of shooting in academy/standard, but with a view to also exhibiting in widescreen.
Certainly my personal preference (and this would be a decision that had to be made by the distributors/rights holders on a case by case basis as releases come up - something which Hammer doesn't always have any input in) is that where it looks as if Hammer shot the film with the academy ratios in mind, alongside evidence of a widescreen release, then both versions should probably be included. In the case of say Murder By Proxy, we have conclusive proof (a rare instance!) that the film WAS 100% screened in academy and widescreen.
So, while the debate rages on about whether The Curse Of Frankenstein was widescreen or standard, I’d say it was in all probability exhibited in both, but examination of the compositions throughout rather suggest it was composed for standard. That’s my personal aesthetic judgement - I'm not concerned about the supposed excessive use of 'head room' cited by some, the compositions still work. Unfortunately nobody from the camera crew is left to advise us whether we’re right or wrong. I leave it to you to decide for yourselves.
Following on from that, the rest of the debate is focussed on the correct positioning of the matte on the widescreen version. And this is unfortunately down to subjective personal opinion. There has been acres written about this over the past few months, with a lot of the most vocal comments coming from the US. Irrespective of the American traditions, this is a British film and I'm most interested in UK exhibition policies of the period.
You could take the stance that every scene should be optimally framed, but that would not have been possible in the 1950s and 60s. Certainly I have seen projectionists adjust framing during the credits and just after (usually to ensure the credits are within the matte – and sometimes it has become obvious later in the film that the adjusted framing or ratio is still wrong), but it would be impractical to re-matte a film continuously through its projection. Apart from anything else, a projectionist will not know from scene to scene just where that alignment should be, and it would be very distracting for anyone watching the film. So I think we can agree that repeated adjustment of framing would not be in sympathy with the aim of replicating a 1950s exhibition.
So, between zooming in, and repositioning vertically, there must be an optimum framing. The Warner DVD of a few years ago repositioned the matte throughout (and if memory serves me correct, the DVD of The Mummy has its own issues – I’ll be examining this in the next couple of months). Many of the more vocal posters online have suggested top-line framing was in use (i.e. move the matte so most of the material obscured is at the bottom of the frame), but in spite of some very ardent opinions, this cannot be proved. Tests using top-line framing, particularly with regards to the credits, would tend to disprove that The Curse Of Frankenstein used this. The new 1.66:1 on the Blu-ray has a centrally placed matte, which seems to make sense. It’s pretty clear that the credits would need to be centrally matted in order to be displayed fully, and after that I very much doubt a projectionist would have bothered to adjust the framing (except if a bad join between reels set off the alignment noticeably - these days projectionists seldom stay in the booth throughout the screening). Circumstantial evidence (again supported by postings on other forums including the British Horror Film Board - http://britishhorrorfilms.co.uk/board/) suggests that central masking is exactly what projectionists of the period would do. Certainly I still see it done that way – next time you’re at the cinema (especially an art house or classic venue) watch to see just how much image is projecting off the screen onto the surrounds above and below.
Recalling that the films were also screened on 16mm in certain venues, a central matte is probable there too. My own 16mm projector has an inbuilt matte which I use on rare occasion, but it is centrally applied, and I certainly don’t want to spend the screening adjusting the frame when I could just watch the film! The centrally-applied 1.66:1 matte is, on balance of probability, the most authentic representation of the original theatrical experience on first release in the UK that can be provided. Yes, continual adjustments could be made, but that wouldn’t be ‘authentic’.
I've also seen a few people complaining about the loss of a couple of percent of the image compared to the full frame visible on the negative or print. Today's digital monitors have rather spoilt us, as many are capable of showing the full image. When it comes to photography and film projection, the gate used will usually crop a tiny amount of the image during projection. Its something that used to always annoy me when I worked on my own photographic prints in the dark room, but also something that I have come to accept.
For modern homes, with the rise of digital projectors and enhanced large-screen televisions, there is at least the option to play the standard ratio of The Curse Of Frankenstein, and then frame and matte it to your own personal preference. No two projections are ever going to be quite the same, and if you ask me, that is as close a representation of 1950s cinema you can get. Although you do miss out on the smell of stale popcorn, clouds of cigarette smoke, dirt on the print (no cinema experience of The Curse Of Frankenstein ever looked so clean!), and if you’re in certain regions – additional censor cuts!
Unless someone can turn up contemporary footage of a screening, perhaps via a newsreel, in front of an audience, any suggestions regarding framing are down to personal preference and opinion. The closest I’ve been able to find comes in Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 film Lolita (shot at Elstree Studios). For those that aren’t aware, the protagonists go to a drive-in movie theatre to watch (a redubbed) The Curse Of Frankenstein. We don’t see the scene being projected unfortunately, but it is clearly an older, dirtier print (an extract which is also notably softer than the rest of Lolita's image, perhaps lending support to the claims that the 2004 DVD of The Curse Of Frankenstein received a lot of image enhancement). This is presented below (in a 1.66:1 ratio, taken from the DVD)[Fig. 7], alongside the same image from the Warner Bros [Fig. 8], and Icon releases of The Curse Of Frankenstein [Fig. 9 and 10]. It still doesn’t prove the ratio or framing, and is presented merely to continue the debate.
Before I finish, some questions pertaining to future potential releases which raise concerns about ‘authentic’ presentations (not limited to debates about aspect ratio):
1) The Japanese Dracula footage was not included on the original UK run of Dracula, so should it be included in the main feature? The BFI restoration in 2007 was a hybrid, combining material cut separately from the US and UK market, so this isn’t an ‘original’ print as such either.
2) The Old Dark House was originally released in the US in black and white, and colour only in the UK. Why does nobody in the US complain that the film is never screened in black and white these days?
3) The Man Who Could Cheat Death included a nude scene of Hazel Court in European prints. Should that be edited into the film or simply as an extra?
4) The widely available restoration of X The Unknown is based on a US print from Warner Brothers (previously available via Anchor Bay and DDHE among others). But the original UK print had an Exclusive logo, and does away with James Bernard’s score in the opening titles. Surely the UK print would be the ‘authentic’ one to use?
5) The Mystery Of The Mary Celeste is currently thought to only exist in a cut-down US print under the title Phantom Ship. Would it be appropriate to release that in the UK?
6) Which is the 'authentic' version of Women Without Men or When Dinosaurs Ruled The Earth?
Robert J.E. Simpson
Robert is a film historian and publisher, and is currently researching the pre-horror history of Hammer. He can be contacted via his website - www.avalard.co.uk.
His essay on the origins of Hammer's Frankenstein can be found as a PDF on the second DVD of The Curse Of Frankenstein Blu-ray from Lions Gate, available now.