Paranoid Park’s aspect ratio conundrum
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Paranoid Park’s aspect ratio conundrum

I worked for years as a projectionist in archival screening venues that handle films of all kinds from all eras. These venues, the Walker counted among them, are typically equipped to handle just about anything that comes in the door, often via the octagonal shipping cans like those pictured on the left. As most projectionists can attest, it is not uncommon to receive a print that is not marked with the film’s proper aspect ratio. This typically isn’t an issue, especially with a modern film produced in the US. 99.9% of the time, these films will be one of two aspect ratios: 1.85:1(often referred to as ‘flat’) or 2.35:1 (referred to as ‘scope’). A quick look at the image on the print will quickly determine which of these a particular film is.

Paranoid Park arrived, unmarked, and a quick look determined that it should, being a modern film produced in the US, be projected in the 1.85 aspect ratio. A few sources on the net confirm this. In the hours preceeding the screening, I glanced at the film’s press kit and noticed that an aspect ratio of 1.33 was noted. 1.33 (often referred to as ‘academy’, and more accurately 1.37:1) is basically the aspect ratio from the earliest days of silent cinema, and the predominent aspect ratio of the first five or six decades of film history. It also matches the aspect ratio of a standard 4:3 television. Outside of some video production (most of that has shifted to a 16:9 aspect ratio) and standard 16mm production, that format is very rarely used these days. We were a little puzzled. Was it possible that Paranoid Park was actually intended to be presented in the 1:37 ratio?

A little more in-depth research found that to indeed be true. What cemented that for me was the lead-in to an interview with Gus Van Sant on the excellent film blog Twitch. It describes a conversation between Van Sant and Andrew Bailey at the Letterman Digital Center:

“Van Sant mentioned that–because the Letterman Digital Center is one of the few places equipped to do so–Paranoid Park was going to be projected in its original aspect ratio, 1.37–“so it’s a big square.” He explained that he’s been shooting his last few movies in this format, partly because they were commissioned as HBO television projects, allowing for the square format. Likewise, when he was a film student in school, he used to shoot in 16mm so he’s continued to do so. Though 1.37 is Paranoid Parks original aspect/ratio, it’s sometimes shown in different formats due to the limitations of in-house projection systems. When it comes out in theaters it will most likely be shown in 1.66 [the predominant ‘flat’ format in European cinemas] or 1.85. The rare opportunity to screen in the Letterman Digital Center allows the film to be projected as it was meant to be seen. Andrew offered the keen insight regarding using aspect ratio as character development, with which Van Sant fully concurred.”

So we proceeded with the plan to present the film in the 1.37 aspect ratio, but decided, thanks to the never-ending patience of our projectionist, Aaron, to run some tests to compare the 1.37 presentation with a 1.85 presentation. This was an interesting experiment, and it demonstrated how different a film can ‘feel’ with a different aspect ratio. The images below aren’t directly from the print, but you can get a sense of the difference. On the left is an image from the film in the 1.37 aspect ratio. On the right is the same image with the top and bottom blacked out, mimicking the presentation the film would have in a theater that can only show the film in the 1.85 aspect ratio.

pp137.jpg pp185.jpg

With the film presented in 1.85, the top and bottom of the frame is cut off. It’s clear that though Christopher Doyle and Rain Kathy Li shot the film with the images composed for the 1.37 frame, they were very cognizant of the fact that the image would likely be presented in theaters that needed to eliminate the top and bottom of the image. Audiences seeing the cropped image won’t miss any details important to the plot, but they will, in my opinion, have a very different viewing experience. The cinemtography on this film is absolutely stunning and I can’t recommend more highly that you see the film projected from a 35mm print. If you missed the screening at the Walker last night, you can catch it locally at the Lagoon Cinema starting this Friday, March 21.

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