Aspect ratio simply refers to the display dimensions of an image on any screen. True to its name, the metric is identifiable as a ratio. That ratio translates from a fraction which determines how much bigger the image’s width is in reference to its height.
Choosing an aspect ratio is another tool for the filmmaker. Especially for the auteur filmmaker, his or her choice of an aspect ratio can have an impact on how the audience perceives the movie.
Let’s illustrate with an example of a common aspect ratio in film, 4:3. The number on the left of the colon stands for the width. On the opposite side, the number 3 indicates the height. The figure simply means that the image’s width is 4/3, or 1.33, times its height.
Here is 4:3 (or thereabouts) versus the uber popular 16:9 found on YouTube:
A 1:1 aspect ratio would mean that the image’s width and height are equal, which is quite rarely the case. In other words, the aspect ratio is an expression of how much bigger the width of an image is compared to its height. It is not uncommon for the aspect ratio of a film to be expressed as multiplies instead of fractions. For example, 16×9 as opposed to 16:9.
The origin of aspect ratio in film traces back to 19th-century genius, Thomas Edison. He is acclaimed for drawing up plans and inspiring the first generation of movie camera technology. However, the credit of aspect ratio goes to one of his colleagues, William Kennedy Dickson.
After Kodak began mass production of film in the late 1800s, Edison created a new filming device, the Kinetoscope. It didn’t quite work as expected. Dickson, who was Thomas’s lab assistant at the time, helped work on the Kinetoscope, the technology that preceded projected film. The kinetoscope showed motion pictures through a single peephole, which meant only one person could watch the movie at a time.
They eventually had success with the invention. Dickson went with an image that was 4 perforations high, compared to a width of 3, using 35mm film. A host of motion picture companies adopted the aspect ratio as the standard viewing format of films in the US. Granted that most of this was influenced by Thomas Edison’s considerable say in the industry.
For more on the history of filmmaking, check out part 1 of our guide on making movies.
In 1929, with the introduction of sound, the 4:3 was abandoned. The technology at the time introduced sound as a strip that ran alongside the image in the film. With soundtracks claiming extra space, there was the need to make room.
Hence came in the 1.37:1 aspect ratio, popularly branded the “Academy ratio”. Another change was necessary in the 1950s with the introduction of film’s little brother Television. Like new inventions and family members, TV hogged most of the attention.
As the film industry pondered how to make film better than TV, in came the widescreen aspect ratios to give audiences a reason to return to cinemas. There have been other variations since then which we shall be taking a look at shortly
Aspect ratio may not be among the most exciting details of the filmmaking process. Yet, it plays an important role in film that compellingly affects us. For a long time, 1.37:1 was the rule of thumb until the success of TV incited the change to widescreen ratios.
Consequently, the above aspect ratio has grown synonymous with the mid-1950s. Movies that implore this ratio thereby have that nostalgic feel of the old movies of back then. Widescreen proportions meanwhile give off that sense of epic modernity. Although color grading helps set the mood, everything traces back to the aspect ratio. And that illustrates its most important purpose in film: establishing setting and tone.
With strategic aspect ratio selection, filmmakers can recreate believable periods for their movies. Look no further than The Grand Budapest Hotel for the creative use of the fractions to this effect.
Wes Anderson uses three different ratios for each of the three eras he depicts in his movie.
Here is Wes Anderson speaking on his artistic choices for this movie:
For the 1930s, Anderson sets the tone with 1.37:1. He adopts 2:35:1 for the next period, the 1960s. Then finally brings that semi-modern edge with 1.85:1 that recreates the 1980s. The movie travels through time with varying aspect ratios making each period distinct. There’s almost a personality to each era, thanks largely to the strategic use of the ratios.
Like a form of mise en scène,filmmakers also harness aspect ratio as a focus tool, kind of like a spotlight that guides us to a point of interest. More constricted ratios, such as 4:3, for example, provide a smaller viewing area. Every presence in the film is amplified. It is perfect for scenes where you want a character as the center of attention to emphasize power dynamics and give attention to little details.
The character isn’t engulfed by the landscape. He hogs all the attention as the most important element in the frame. A narrower ratio additionally sets a certain kind of unique intimacy between audience and character. It, therefore, allows filmmakers to make emotional moments more powerful.
Speaking of emotion, aspect ratios may be used to influence viewers to feel a certain type of way. For example, a constricted ratio such as the 4:3 feels a little boxy. It gives off the feeling of being trapped.
Appropriate aspect ratios can therefore make claustrophobic scenes more relatable. Filmmakers implore these ratios to heighten the tension and place viewers in a character’s shoes.
Wider ratios, on the other hand, tend to be more popular with fantasy and sci-fi movies. For such films, the director intends to create an immersive fictional world that pulls views into it.
The 4:3 is the oldest aspect ratio tracing back to the origin of cinema as we know it. Before the onset of HDTVs, movies of the century were mostly shot on 4:3. Consequently, this aspect ratio today feels like a blast from the past. Filmmakers implore it for purposes of flashbacks, or for period pieces that need to relive a certain era of history.
For example, Disney’s 2021 WandaVision uses 4:3 to recreate the feeling of a 1950s sitcom.
Zack Snyder’s Justice League implores 4:3. A concept that goes against the grain of the superhero genre, which has a fondness for more widescreen alternatives.
Here is a snapshot of the trailer on YouTube. Notice the “squarishness” of the video:
And here is the actual trailer:
That was no doubt influenced partly by the pandemic which has halted cinemas around the world and channeled attention to TV. However, there’s much more purpose to the director’s use of 4:3.
Comic books were popular in the past century before motion pictures grew in popularity. The director goes for that timeless feel as he brings past century superheroes to life in a quest to save the world.
The film is a rollercoaster of emotions. It is set in a depressing world where earth’s mightiest protector, Superman, is dead. It also explores other emotional angles like the tragic origin story of Cyborg, and his life of loneliness and failed dreams, cut off from the rest of the world.
The 4:3 gives the film that personal and intimate touch. It takes us along on a journey of fear, panic, and hope as the human resolve is tested. The man himself says he uses this aspect ratio to realize his unique vision for the film. To put that into perspective, Zack Snyder’s Justice League revises the 2017 release of the same name. He uses this aspect ratio to give the film more attention to detail, as well as to create a unique identity separate from the first iteration.
For 5:3, the width is five times the size of the height. It’s not a common aspect ratio in the current movie climate. In fact, you’ll be hard placed to find any movies shot in the aspect ratio. What would typically happen is a film is first shot in 4:3 which is then cropped to the desired ratio. However, it does serve its purposes.
The aspect ratio was a yardstick for European cinemas of the 20th century. Films targeting that market went with the 1.66 because of the continent’s widescreen format at the time. American cinemas during the period went with the 1.85:1.
Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove was, strangely, shot in 1.66, at a time when the cinemas in the US were all about the 1.85. It is theorized that the extraordinary ratio was intended to garner attention for the film. Dr. Strangelove brought something new to cinema. It questioned society and went down the less trodden path.
The dark comedy covers the events of the Cold War in satirical fashion. It is often hypothesized that the 1.66 meant to set it apart from the movies of the time. Many American releases went with the 1.85 so the 1.66 certainly raised a lot of questions.
And that’s precisely what Stanley Kubrick intended for Dr. Strangelove. He wanted it to be different. He aimed to make people uncomfortable, ask the tough questions, and of course, make the headlines.
The 1.66:1 may also serve to make the background more vivid, or adequality capture a large subject in the frame. This aspect ratio may make a subject appear more threatening or frightening. We look to Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove yet again for an example. Particularly, the B-52 flying scene. The 1.66 does justice to the bomber plane’s massive wingspan and overall build.
1.78 has risen to fame the world over. When people talk about widescreen for computer monitors and television, most of the time what they are referring to is this aspect ratio. 16:9 is today an international standard for digital media and the internet.
Cinema, contrarily, locks onto 2.39:1. The 1.78 is especially popular with TV shows meant to be viewed on smaller screens at home. It fits perfectly on modern-day TVs, filling up the screen entirely without manipulation. The ratio is therefore handy for creating immersive watching experiences for movie viewing at home.
Movies were never shot in 16:9 before TV. The idea was unheard of until the onset of television. Most of the time, cropping and editing molds it into 1.78 for home viewing. Before modern TVs and the internet, films relied on wider ratios for big cinema screens. Hence the concept was entirely brought about by the arrival of modern television.
Movies aimed to provide a unique wide-screen experience that viewers could only get at the cinema. Making a film in 16:9 that fits TV would work against cinema.
Here is the 2Bridges documentary reel in 16:9 glory:
Beyond the stipulations of today’s digital media, the 16:9 is popular with adventure epics where the set or background is an important part of the mise en scène. It offers a wider and bigger picture that recreates some of that cinematic spark.
Also, it amplifies threats. The Mandalorian, for instance, mostly goes with a wider, cinema-esque aspect ratio to capture its Star Wars universe. That’s until the season 2 showdown battle involving a dragon. Here, the aspect ratio switches to 16:9 to capture the monster’s imposing size. Also, it enhances the vastness of the desert behind the characters.
Modern cinema has a preference for two widescreen aspect ratios. 1.85:1 is one of them. Compared to the TV-fitting 16:9, the 1.85 is a little wider. It is identifiable by the thin black bars on both sides of the screen’s horizontal display on regular monitors. The ratio has proved quite popular with feature films.
However, it’s also not uncommon among TV shows. It provides that cinematic feel for shows that want to tap into that aspect. It offers a balance between 2.35:1, which may be too wide and inconvenient for TV, and 16:9.
This ratio is also synonymous with movies that have plots revolving around taller subjects such as buildings or dinosaurs. It can make not-so-tall buildings appear massive and enhance a subject’s appearance on film.
Steven Spielberg implored the 1.85 for his 1993 hit, Jurassic Park. The result was over a fifth increase in vertical background per frame to keep up wonderfully with the massive beasts. In the wide shots especially, it does justice to the size difference between man and dinosaur.
It also makes the surrounding world seem huge, instead of feeling overpowered by the massive presence in the frame.
Also, it works wonders for movies that feature a lot of dialogue. It has a way of making viewers part of the conversation. The 1.85:1 was especially popular in the latter half of the past century. It was the standard for American cinema back then. Thunder Bay, which came out on May 20, 1953, was the first case of this aspect ratio in film. As the industry began to experiment with widescreen formats, Thunder Bay made a case for 1.85:1.
Other famous movies that have followed in those footsteps include Saving Private Ryan, Back to the Future, and The Shawshank Redemption. Even The Godfather was shot in 1.85. Some modern cinema blockbusters have still taken this route, including 2012s The Avengers. The director of the latter said he went with the aspect ratio to best capture the flying heroes and ground action simultaneously.
The anamorphic widescreen format, as it’s known, is among the most popular widescreen aspect ratios for cinema. It offers a massive movie experience, the sort to have audiences lining up for the movies once more. The ratio was the answer to TV’s growing success. It is particularly popular with movies that need to bring massive landscapes into perspective.
The 2.39 has a way of dramatically portraying large landscapes. Its wide field of view brings the background right into the cinema. If filmmakers have scenic landscapes they’d want the audience to savor, they often go with this aspect ratio.
No Country for Old Men, the 2007 crime-drama that won an Oscar for the Best Motion Picture of the Year, went with the 2.39. The movie was shot in Texas and New Mexico, with the Big Bend National Park providing filming locations for the desert scenes.
It was necessary to capture the huge harshness of the desert and bring that endlessness on set. This aspect ratio does that for the movie. It stretches out the sand and the sky above, and viewers feel like they’re right there battling the elements with the characters. You can almost feel the intense sun on your skin as Llewelyn Moss is desert hunting for pronghorns.
The film also borrows old town locations around the southwestern US deserts. At a time when towns were devoid of tall buildings and were mostly slim settlements, the aspect ratio stretches out the cityscape while still appreciating the massive scenery.
Generally, the 2.39 charms audiences with its engagement. Viewers keep scanning the frame for the subject who is a small piece of the puzzle. This continuous interaction keeps the audience alert to whatever’s going on on the screen.
Another reason this aspect ratio is popular with the movies is that cinemas have already conformed to the ratio as a default viewing format for their screens. So new releases generally strive to tore the line to make the most of cinema displays.
In 1950, Ben-Hur rose to stardom and influenced a new generation of filmmaking. The movie used 70 mm film, or 65 mm from the MGM Camera 65 to be precise, to provide a gigantic aspect ratio of 2.75. It inspired a number of films that would follow down the same path. Ben-Hur won Best Picture that year and was considered a huge win for cinema when TV was beginning to steal attention.
The standard 35 mm film however grew in popularity and stifled the progress of the 70 mm. It became common courtesy that the 1.85:1 was the standard aspect ratio for cinema, which was later on overshadowed by the 2.39:1 that persisted till today.
The 2.75 was a big part of the success of Ben-Hur. One scene that benefits a lot from the aspect ratio is the chariot race scene that features multiple characters, including several horses, sharing the frames in a huge race.
It’s especially impressive how two chariots can line up together without crowding out the frame. The background still feels like it’s part of the action despite the entirety of what’s going on. Generally, the 2.75 wonderfully captures the old Roman Empire, its impressive architecture, and the beauty of the landscapes of 26 AD.
The 2.75 remains alive and kicking in modern cinema. Hollywood is today tapping into the appeal of the ultra-big screen, as it did back in 1950, to shepherd audiences back into cinema. Talented directors such as Quentin Tarantino and Christopher Nolan have brought back the ratio in style to provide the biggest movie experience known to man.
Shooting in this aspect ratio is usually more expensive, and requires special cameras and screens, such as those by IMAX, to fittingly capture the boundaries. Hence why these tickets tend to be more expensive.
A 4:1 aspect ratio, where the width betters the height four times, is not something you see every day. It is an extraordinarily wide ratio that really stretches out a frame quite comprehensively.
We’ll have to journey down memory lane to the 1927 silent French epic, Napoléon for the only example of the 4:1. It was a product of a new system called the polyvision.
The filmmakers achieved the ratio by stacking together three reels of 1.33 each. They didn’t pull it off as smoothly as intended. Audiences could clearly see the two vertical seams and the individual parts of the triptych. Consequently, Polyvision never really took off after that.
Abel Gance, the director of Napoléon went with the 4:1 for the final sequence in a bid to bring something new to the scene. He toys with the boundaries to make a widescreen epic, that really stretches the concept. Abel was depicting the events of the French revolution.
The ultra-wide aspect ratio in the final moments was meant to bring out the immenseness and climax of the conflict. The armies looked large and overwhelming, as did the background. The most powerful effect of the ratio is evident in the scene where Napoleon looks out over the battlefield.
Napoleon is a bystander in the panoramic shot, as he paves way for the massive background that the 4:1 compounds. It achieves a towering and expansive effect that captures the gravity of the situation. It captures this single man’s campaign to wage war on a society bent on stopping him at all costs.
Save for that last chapter, most of the film however goes for the traditional 4:3 aspect ratio.
A movie comprises 24 photographs per second. It gets shown on a flat screen, or in today’s streaming world, gets viewed on a handheld tablet or smartphone.
Think of these things as windows to your brave new world as a filmmaker. Thus, your choice of aspect ratio matters.
For online video, it’s safe to choose the 16:9 version so the viewer doesn’t get thrown off and focuses only on the actual content.
But perhaps you want to be different. You want to jar the viewing experience for an artistic purpose. Then go for the classical 4:3 ratio or even flip the 16:9 to 9:16.
Whatever you choose, choose wisely as aspect ratios are just as important as character development, plot structure and choosing the right director. The choice of aspect ratio impacts how the viewer perceives the film as a whole.
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