Restoration work at Pinewood Studios on THE PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES and THE REPTILE (both films scanned and restored in 2k then mastered for Blu-ray; both films directed by arguably Hammer’s most underrated director, John Gilling) is now complete, and on May 7th StudioCanal release both features as double-play Blu-ray/DVD editions, enabling fans, at long last, to be able to watch two of Hammer’s finest films in glorious HD, and in the original aspect ratio of 1.66:1. Both releases feature brand new half-hour documentaries directed by official Hammer historian Marcus Hearn, featuring interviews with original cast and crew, critic Jonathan Rigby, broadcaster Mark Gatiss, as well as experts on Bray studios (Wayne Kinsey) and Hammer’s music (Professor David Huckvale). Pre-order them here and here.
Which leads us to the subject of original aspect ratios (OARs) as promised in our first post. To keep it short (one could easily write several thousand words on the subject!) Hammer/Exclusive films (with a few exceptions) were shot and presented in “Academy” ratio (1.37:1) up until The Curse Of Frankenstein in 1956-57, which was shot to be presented at 1.66:1 (and that film will finally be presented 1.66:1 when we release our restored version). In the UK, Hammer’s films were from then on intended to be projected either at 1.66:1, or at 2.35:1 / 2.40:1 (if the film was shot in one of the varieties of scope used by Hammer over the years: “Hammerscope”, Techniscope, CinemaScope or Panavision).
Confusion over aspect ratios often emerges when the ratio of 1.85:1 is described as the “original aspect ratio” of a Hammer film, as it often has been, particularly Stateside. Actually, things are more complicated simply than 1.66:1 being the correct OAR and 1.85:1 being incorrect. This is because, by the mid 60s, and in reaction to the spread of TV, many US cinemas and cinema chains had adopted 1.85:1 as the standard presentation ratio due to its more “cinematic” appearance. For this reason, in 1965 Hammer’s film-makers would have been conscious that their films would be projected at 1.66:1 in the UK and 1.85:1 in the US, and would have taken account of this when framing their shots. Often full-frame prints would be sent out with projectionist’s notes describing how the film should be presented. Sometimes (more often in the US) the InterNegative would be hard matted, meaning that prints were subsequently created at the desired aspect ratio with no masking required in the theatre. So the upshot is that it’s perfectly acceptable to describe the OAR of Hammer’s films from the 1960s onwards as 1.85:1 in the US. In the UK, cinemas took much longer to convert to 1.85:1 projection, meaning that in the UK 1.66:1 was the OAR for the majority of Hammer’s titles other than those shot in scope.
For all our restored films not shot in some flavour of scope, we will be presenting them in the UK OAR of 1.66:1, which is not only both the original shooting ratio and the UK presentation OAR, but also the aspect ratio (other than full-frame “open matte”) which displays the maximum amount of the frame as shot (for many of our films for the very first time).
As an aside, when we were at one of our US restoration partners illuminate (fka HTV) we hung reels of the CinemaScope-shot RASPUTIN and viewed them unmatted. The full frame picture is ~2.55:1 with a marked concave effect at each side. Watching a camera pan unmatted made those in the room feel very queasy indeed, a horizontal motion-sickness if you will. Although it would be most unpleasant to watch the whole film like this, it’s remarkable how much extra information is contained at the left and right of the frame when not matted down to 2.35:1 (the film’s intended presentation ratio). We will however present as an extra a single reel mastered “open frame” so fans can compare the film “as shot” with the final presentation version.
For more on aspect ratios, visit Wikipedia here.