The way we watch movies changed forever on April 14, 1956. That was the day Charles Anderson of the Ampex Corporation introduced the VRX-1000 video recording machine to the world. It was the progenitor of the home video cassette recorders that would be introduced in the mid-1970’s and find wild popularity around the globe in the 1980’s. It seems funny to read it now, but the film studios, which would eventually reap billions of dollars in profits from the sales and rentals in the extended life of their theatrical releases on home players, were dead set against the introduction of this technology. Jack Valenti, the legendary President of the Motion Picture Association of America, testified before Congress in 1982 about the scourge of the VCR with this incendiary quote: “I say to you that the VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston strangler is to the woman home alone.”
The technological shift, once embraced and harnessed by the studios, paid off handsomely for the bottom line of the producers. Yet one group of the unintended victims in this shift was cinematographers. As the popularity of home videos picked up steam and the studios recognized the importance of the home video market, increased importance was placed on filming in a way that would work when the film was transferred to video and viewed at home. This represented quite an impediment to their craft. From the advent of 35mm motion picture film in the late 19th century, until the 1970s, cinematographers were constantly trying to push the expanse of their images wider, larger and more detailed with bigger scenes and exotic formats like CinemaScope and IMAX. Suddenly, cinematographers were expected to reel in their borders and shoot in a way that would fit in the standard, boxy 4:3 aspect ratio of the average American television set.
I was far too young to have seen Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece ‘The Godfather’ in a movie theatre when it was released in 1972. I would experience the film the first half a dozen times either on VHS tape or cable television at home during the 1980’s and it wasn’t until the mid-90’s that I was finally able to watch the movie as it was intended to be seen – on the big screen – thanks to the American Museum of the Moving Image. It struck me upon leaving the theatre that it was an entirely different movie when presented in its full cinematic glory. The spatial relationship of the characters to each other and their environment is every bit as important in the art of cinema as the story itself. To watch a film crafted for the big screen on a smaller screen of the wrong dimensions is sort of like cutting off the bottom half of the legs of a dinner table. It is still a table, to be sure, but it is a table that does not look or function as the master carpenter had intended.