10) What Does It Mean: Scope and Flat?

Very early in the movie making process – during the first hours of conversation between the director and the cinematographer – the choice is made to shoot the movie wide or shoot the movie narrow. The don’t use those terms, of course. Art and Science are never that simple. What the chose from is “Scope” or “Flat”.

From that decision the choose how the scenes will look through the first lens in the movie making process. And, from that decision the choice is made how the scenes will look on the screen that gets its light from the last lens of the movie making process – the lens attached to your projector…the only things in the movie process that you can control.

Maybe you remember those old maps with the ship at the edge near the sign that says: Warning – Here Be Dragons~! Well…Warning — Here Be Maths~! But there will be drawings too, with arrows and bright colors. So, be brave.

Like many of these lessons, the information is useless until there is a problem. Then the boring background information becomes very important. People complain …or maybe they don’t complain. They just feel uncomfortable for some reason, then never come back.

To find the background of this particular problem of screen size and what is call “screen ratio”, we go back to the time when the cinema owner is talking to the architect. They have to decide how wide the auditoriums are, which then determines how wide the screens can be. Or maybe vice-versa. They have to decide how wide the screens will be, which determines how wide the auditoriums should be.

The question is: Do we begin with a Flat dimensions, which show the Flat movies perfectly but show the Scope pictures too small side to side and top to bottom? Or, do we start with the Scope dimensions, which show the Scope movies perfectly but show the Flat movies too small top to bottom?

Let’s imagine a perfect world where there are two different sized screens in two different sized auditoriums. First, the Scope screen which is 2048 units wide by 858 units tall. Below that is the Flat screen which is almost the same width – 1998 units – but it is 222 units taller. 222 units is about 25% taller of the Scope size of 858 units. In numbers it may not seems like a lot. But imagine that your arm was 25% longer. Yeah…Avatar long hands and arms.

View of scope and flat screens with simple gradient imageThere are a few things to notice here. First, the Flat image below is almost as wide as the Scope image. You can believe the numbers across, or you can measure this the next time you are in front of a screen. But what is the unit that you measure with. Because, it is very unlikely that you will measure 2048 inches or centimeters or feet or meters across. Yet, 2048 is a basic size of digital cinema.

To learn this simple trick, we have to get very close to the screen, and magically it will become obvious that there is a set of

If we stand very close to the screen we will see that there is a blue dot and a red dot and a green dot almost on top of each, then another set of the same and another and another. These groups are the basic elements of the picture. Instead of saying “picture elements” all the time, we mix the words together and say ‘pixels’. The Scope picture is 2048 pixels wide and the Flat is 1998 pixels wide.

For comparison, the same is true if you look at a TV screen or computer monitor. Computer monitors don’t have a standard width. But the HDTV standard width is 1920 pixels. Recently though, the stores are selling 4K TVs. Even though they aren’t always 2 times wider, they do have 2 times the number of pixels…3,840. In the movie theater, the 4K projectors have 4,096 pixels.

We’ll continue this in Part 2 of What Does It Mean: Scope and Flat?



and Flat images



are nearly the same. In the digital world we call the measurement units ‘pixels’, which


The green spot in both pictures are the same

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