Let’s look at stills from three different films. First up, Andrea Arnold’s American Honey:
What creative decisions are noteworthy?
- The angle: Low. Suggests a strong character.
- The colours: Yellow/brown colour scheme. Makes the environment feel piping hot.
- The light: The character is dark against a bright background. This gives her an air of mystery, because she’s slightly hidden. Further, a lens flare adds a feeling of tactility.
- The framing: Minimalistic. The character is (almost) the only thing in the frame, which places all attention on her. The character faces away from the camera, which hides her face. We can’t see what she’s thinking or feeling. This adds more mystery.
Compare the frame to this one, from Luca Guadagnino’s A Bigger Splash:
- The angle: Low. Makes the character look powerful.
- The colours: Blue colour scheme, with hints of yellow. This feels like a breezy, pleasant summer day.
- The light: Shooting straight into the sun gives a rim light which outlines the character, and a sunstar lens flare. The character is dark, but brighter than the woman from American Honey.
- The framing: Sparse. Ralph Fiennes is literary the only thing in shot. His face (and therefore emotions) are plainly visible. We have a good sense of what this character’s state of mind is.
A final frame, from Sam Mendes’ Jarhead:
- The angle: Low, even more so than the previous two frames.
- The colour scheme here is brown, but the most noteworthy thing is how desaturated and colourless the frame is. This makes the world feel lifeless and gloomy.
- The light: The character is brighter than the background. His eyes are slightly covered in shadows, which gives him an ominous presence.
- Framing: The two previous frames show empty sky behind their characters, but the low angle here reveal debris from an explosion. We can clearly see the expression on the actor’s face. He looks scary.
Angle. Framing. Colour. Light. These are the elements I typically hear people discuss. (Camera movement and lenses are also on the hit list.) When we examine a frame, we usually focus on its contents:
But ignore the frame itself:
Did you notice that the three frames above had different shapes? Did you consider how each shape affected the image?
During pre-production the director and cinematographer decide what shape (or “aspect ratio”) the film will unfold in. Their choice later defines every shot in the film. (Some films change aspect ratio throughout, but these are few and far between.) What shape to give the frame is one of the most important creative decisions in filmmaking, yet it is often overlooked. Let’s make up for that.
This essay covers:
- What shapes the frame usually takes, and how to talk about them without sounding dumb.
- A brief history of the frame. How and why it’s changed over the years.
- Case studies that analyze how the choice of aspect ratio influenced various films.
Quick note: Aspect ratios are closely tied to the dimensions of the physical film (or digital sensor) a movie was recorded on. This article, however, avoids everything about film stocks and sensor sizes. That subject warrants its own entire essay.
WHAT ARE ASPECT RATIOS AND WHY DO THEY HAVE WEIRD NUMBERS?
Here’s a perfect square:
Its height and width are equally long. Let’s just say they’re one meter each:
To describe the proportional relationship between this frame’s width and height, first write the width (1), then a colon (:), and then the height (1). Like so: 1:1
Remember when I said the width and height were 1 meter each? We can actually forget about the meter. The sides could be 1 millimetre or 1 kilometre each, and it wouldn’t matter. Why? Because we’re not interested in the size of the frame, only in the proportional lengths of its sides, i.e. how long they are in relation to each other.
Now, let’s look at a frame that’s twice as wide as it is high. That’s described as 2:1
The proper term for this relationship between the width and height of a frame is “aspect ratio*,” because it describes the ratio between the sides. Since we’re just talking proportions and not actual lengths, it would also be correct to describe the above box as 1:0.5, but when discussing aspect ratios the height is always described as 1. One way to think of it is that the first number simply states how many times wider a frame is than it is tall.
*As in: “What aspect ratio is Pulp Fiction?” or, “Damn, I freaking love a narrow aspect ratio!”
If most films were made in aspect ratios 1:1 and 2:1, the numbers would be easy to remember. That’s not the case. Here’s a rundown of most conventional aspect ratios used in film and TV:
Quick note: Some different aspect ratios are so similar their differences are neglectable.
- 1.33:1 was the American standard until sound came around. In order to make room for sound-recordings on the physical film-strip, the image shape was changed slightly to 1.37:1.
- 1.78:1 is sometimes called 1.77:1, because the ratio is technically 1.777777778:1, and there’s no consensus on wether the second decimal point should be rounded up.
- 2.35:1 (which was popular from 1950s-70s) and 2.39:1 (which has been more normal since), and even 2.40:1 (which was never used but is just a rounded-up way of saying 2.39:1).
Even many who work with film are confused about this. In the minds of most people 1:33:1 and 1.37:1 are synonyms. (Same goes for the two other ratios covered above.) Conclusion: too few people read articles about aspect ratios.
The above numbers look totally random, don’t they? No clean 1:1, 2:1, or 3:1 – everything has two decimal points. Still, the principle from before apply. A 1.85:1 aspect ratio simply means the shape of the image is 1.85 times wider than it is tall.
Fun fact: Remember how all aspect ratios ends with “:1”. Because of this, that part is sometimes excluded. Many simply refer aspect ratios by their relative width. For instance, you can abbreviate 1.85:1 as 1.85. Do this if you want to sound cool.
THE OTHER NAME
To further confuse matters, two of the most common aspect ratios also go by another name. On our multicoloured graphic before, you may have noticed it said 1.33:1 or 4:3 in the red square at the top. That’s because the red shape goes by both names. They mean the same. Mathematically, 4/3=1.33. The proportional relationship (or ratio) between the numbers remain the same.
Another way to think of it: If you split the horizontal bar in 4 , you can put 3 of these bars along the tall side. Hence 4:3
Similarly, 1.78:1 also goes by 16:9.
The point of saying 4:3 instead of 1.33:1 is that there are no decimals. It looks simpler, and is easier to remember. Historically, whole numbers have been used for video, while decimal numbers have been used for film. What’s the difference? Historically, films are projected in cinemas and can take virtually any shape, while video is for TV, and therefore confined to the shapes of TVs. Only 4:3 and 16:9 are normally expressed in whole numbers, because TVs have traditionally only been sold in these two shapes.
THE HISTORY OF THE FRAME
The first ever aspect ratio used in film was 1.33:1 (or 4:3). Why? Because the precursor to film (the kinetoscope, below) used this ratio. When the first films appeared they copied it. (We don’t know why 1.33:1 became the standard for kinetoscopes.)
1.33:1 and 1.37:1 remained the standard aspect ratios for decades. When TVs (shaped 1.33:1) became popular in the 1950s, however, the film industry took a blow. Before, everyone came to the cinema to watch moving pictures. Now they could do so from the comfort of their living rooms. Filmmakers searched for a way to give audiences an experience at the cinema that they couldn’t get a home.
The solution: “Cinerama”.
Cinerama is a technique where films are shot on three adjacent cameras simultaneously:
… And later projected by three separate projectors:
The purpose was to create a twice as wide image (2.65:1), which would motivate audiences to leave their comfy living rooms. The first official Cinerama film (simply titled This Is Cinerama) premiered in 1952. It was a huge success. A similar technique had been used in the 1927 film Napoléon, but that film didn’t influence the aspect ratio of its contemporaries. This Is Cinerama did. In fact, an entire wave of Cinerama films emerged, to great financial success.
Two things restrained Cinerama’s potential.
- It’s terribly expensive, both to record and project.
- It’s creatively limiting, because only one focal length (27mm) can be used.
Cinerama would never spread to the majority of films, but it paved the way for other wide aspect ratios, by proving that audiences were hungry for a wider cinema experience. The following decade saw the invention of countless techniques that made it possible to shoot movies in various wide aspect ratios. All had different benefits and drawbacks, but the only two you need to know are:
- Cinemascope (2.35:1). First premiered in 1953.
- VistaVision (1.85:1). First premiered in 1954.
From the 1960’s onwards, most films were shot in 1.85:1, though quite a lot were also shot in 2.35:1. (Technically, 2.35:1 was replcaced by 2.39:1 in the 1970s. As mentioned above though, the expression 2.35:1 and 2.39:1 are used interchangeably by most.)
1:37:1 still exists to this day, but making a film in that aspect ratio can be compared to making one in black and white: it’s a rare path that only low-budget, artsy projects take. Other, wider, aspect ratios didn’t die out completely, but they grew rare. Later, we’ll look at Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight – the first film since 1966 to be released in 2.76:1. The main point to remember is that 1.85:1 became the norm and remained so until the early 2000s. To understand why it’s not the norm anymore, we must go back to TV again.
TV manufacturers stuck with making 1.33:1 (or 4:3) shaped TVs for a long time. In the late 1980s, this began to change. 1.77:1 (or 16:9) was proposed as the new standard, because it was a perfect compromise between 1.33:1 and 2.35:1. (Later, YouTube would adopt 1.77:1 as well.)
So when you buy a new TV today, it has this shape:
And if you put on and old 1.37:1 movie (like Casablanca) it’ll look like this, with black bars on the sides:
Meanwhile, a modern 2.39:1 movie like Terminator 2 has black bars above and below the image:
Both movies will fill the same percentage of the screen. 1.77:1 is the mathematical midpoint.
Of course, those who produce TV shows tend to produce it in whatever shape TVs are currently being sold in, so in the early 2000s most new TV shows started being made in 1.77:1. You’d be hard pressed to find any TV shows being made in 1.37:1 today.
Quick Note: Many TV shows made in 4:3 have since been re-released in 16:9. The shows’ creators are often opposed to this, because it means reframing all the shots through a technique called pan and scan, which arguably compromises the artistic intent. (David Simon who created The Wire and Joss Whedon who made Buffy the Vampire Slayer are just two examples of creators who publicly denounced 16:9 versions of their shows. Whedon tweeted: “Buffy was shot 4×3 cuz TVs were shaped that way. Widescreen Buffy is nonsense.” Simon wrote a fascinating blog post.)
Recently, a few shows have started shooting in 2:1. The Crown, Star Trek Discovery, Stranger Things, Fargo (season 3) and The Handmaid’s Tale, for instance. In the same way 1.77:1 was the happy midpoint between 1.37:1 and 2.35:1, 2:1 now sits between 1.77:1 and 2.35:1.
It’s not just TV shows that likes this happy middle ground though. 2:1 was originally proposed in 1998 by the legendary cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, who among other things shot Apocalypse Now, The Last Emperor and Last Tango in Paris. Storaro has shot most of his film in the past twenty years in 2:1, and other notable films to use this aspect ratio includes Jurassic World, Cafe Society, 20th Century Women, The Book of Henry. (To be clear 2:1 are still relatively rare.)
Remember how films originally moved to wider aspect ratios to present a wider image than TV? Well, history’s been repeating itself ever since television manufacturers adopted a 1.77:1. With each passing year, an increasing amount of films now favour 2.39:1 over 1.85:1.
(Quick shout-out: for more cool film statistics like the one above, check out Stephen Follows. Also, notice that this graph says 2.35:1 though 2.39:1 would be more correct. Like I said, they’re one and the same in the minds of most people .)
Predicting the future is a surefire way to make your future self look stupid, but one has to wonder where this will end. There’s no technical limit to how wide an aspect ratio can get. Will TV keep chasing film, thereby pushing film to ever wider aspect ratios? Personally, I don’t think so. While films (and cinemas) only care about the optimal shape of films, TVs have to accommodate a variety of content. Who want to watch football or a cooking show on a TV shaped in 2.39:1? Or use it as a gaming monitor? Only the future will tell – maybe we’ll all be using projectors in a decade.
To sum up, these are the most important years to remember regarding aspect ratios:
And here’s a quick guide to the aspect ratios you’ll most often run into:
1.33:1 & 1.37:1
- Also called 4:3 (pronounced “four by three”).
- Also called “Academy Ratio” (because the academy – the same one that holds the Oscars – made it the official standard in 1932).
- Industry standard from the invention of film (1895) to 1950s.
- The shape of virtually all TVs until the 1990s.
1.77:1 & 1.78:1
- Also called 16:9 (“sixteen by nine”).
- The happy middle between 2.39:1 and 1.37:1
- No content was made in this ratio until TVs adopted it (1990s).
- Today, almost all TV content is produced in this shape.
- Also (but rarely) called VistaVision.
- Most popular ratio for films from 1960s-2000.
2.35:1, 2.39:1 & 2.40:1
- Also called Cinemascope (or just “scope”).
- Regularly used since 1960s.
- Most popular ratio for films since early 2000s.
- Considered suitable for epic, large-scale films (more on this later).
Bonus info: All aspect ratios wider than 1.37:1 are collectively referred to as “widescreen.” Anything wider than 2:1 is sometimes called anamorphic (which is techincally incorrect in many cases, for a host of reasons we won’t get into).
All the technical mumbo-jumbo above only matters if the shape of the screen actually makes a difference. It does. To show you why, let’s first go back to the three images that started us off.
Movies are all about emotion, so what matters in creative choices (whether that be choice of colour, lens, or aspect ratio) is how they make us feel.
So. How does the 1.37:1 on the frame above make you feel? Would you have felt differently if it’d been in 1.85:1, like this?
For me, the 1.37:1 feels like the character is in control of her world, but that world feels small, limited. The character appears most powerful in the middle frame (1.85:1), where she feels in control of a large world. In the final (2.39:1) frame, the character now feels less weaker: a small figure dwarfed by a world she can’t shoulder.
Maybe you agree with my interpretation. Maybe you don’t. That’s not important. What I hope we can agree on, is that the three frames feel different. When Picasso entered his blue period, his paintings felt different than they would if they had been red:
The choice of colour may influence each spectator differently, but that does not deny its importance.
Let’s look at the second frame we saw in the beginning.
To me, this 1.85:1 (coupled with the close framing and low angle) conveys a sense of power and energy. This character is so full of life the frame can barely contain him. In a wider 2.39:1, the framing feels too narrow:
On the other hand, a similarly tightly framed shot in a 1.37:1 would have felt claustrophobic, as if the character struggled to break free of his confining life.
The same principle holds for our final opening frame:
This frame (2.39:1) communicates a soldier who is surrounded by war, but feels free. 1.37:1 would rather have shown a solider trapped by war:
Using 1.37:1 to convey claustrophobia is exactly what László Nemes did with 2015’s Son of Saul (which takes place in a concentration camp):
Xavier Dolan took this idea to the extreme in 2014’s Mommy, which uses a square 1:1 to express the characters’ claustrophobia:
Audiences are so used to seeing films in aspects ratios that are wider than they are tall, that to many the above 1:1 ratio feels taller than a perfect square. Throughout Mommy, the characters have a pretty rough time. Watch what happens in this midpoint montage, though, when the characters have an upswing:
How’s that for using the aspect ratio to express characters’ emotions? And more importantly, making the audience feel those emotions themselves. After watching half a film in 1:1, the audience positively breathes a sigh of relief when the frame expands.
Other aspect ratio considerations are less emotional, more cerebral and logical. For instance, Joss Whedon chose 1.85:1 for the first Avengers film, explains cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, because:
“We needed the height in the screen to be able to frame in all the characters like Hulk, Captain America and Black Widow, who is much smaller. We had to give them all precedence and width within the frame. Also, Joss knew the final battle sequence was going to be this extravaganza in Manhattan, so the height and vertical scale of the buildings was going to be really important.”
Watch this clip and notice how different it would’ve been in 2.39:1.
That swirling shot in the end is the most important moment in the film. The ending frame with Captain America in the middle actually works well in 2.39:1:
… But Hulk would look a bit cramped:
And Black Widow would look tiny:
Whedon wanted to communicate that this team belongs together. Chosing an aspect ratio that accommodates every member supports this idea.
WIDE AND WIDER
In the same way a taller aspect ratio is good at capturing tall shapes, broader aspect ratios are great at capturing wide shapes, such as landscapes. (I’m just spitballing here, but maybe 1.33:1 originally became the standard because kinetoscopes and early movies were basically filmed theatre, which foucses more on vertically shaped humans than their wide surroundings?) For this reason, wide aspect ratios are the go-to for epic movies that have a lot of scenery to fit into the frame. This is likely why it was used by…
Dances With Wolves
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
… and a thousand other epics. Indeed, the correlation between epic films and wide aspect ratios is so strong that many simply associate wide aspect ratios themselves with grandeur.
To conclude this essay, however, I want to look at a film that uses an even wider shape (2.76:1) for a film that’s mostly about people talking indoors: The Hateful Eight.
To put things in perspective, here’s how wide. 2.76:1 is compared to the 1.33:1 cinema was born with:
You can fit two1.33:1s in there, with room to spare. That’s wide. If you’re watching The Hateful Eight on your new TV, it’ll look like this:
And God help you if your TV is 1.33:1
Why did Tarantino shoot this small-scale, interior movie in 2.76:1? Let’s hear it from the man himself:
“One of the tricks that I had thought about was the intimacy that it provides you, in close-ups. I’ve shot a lot of close-ups of [Samuel L. Jackson], but I’ve never shot them as beautiful as I did in this movie. I think you find yourself taking backstrokes in his eyes. It’s just the way it is. I remember when it was reported that I was going to do the film in this format, people were actually speculating, and I guess I understand it. They were like, “Yeah, okay, that all sounds really great, but why would he do it for a thing that’s so set bound?” That’s not very profound thinking when it comes to 65mm. It’s not just for shooting travelogues, mountain scenery and nature.
I actually found that, especially bringing it into Minnie’s Haberdashery, the film isn’t a suspenseful. It’s not the press cooker situation of what’s going on in the movie. With the threat of violence and the pressure cooker situation, if the temperature isn’t always getting upped a notch in every scene or so, then the movie is going to be boring and it’s not going to work. I actually felt that the big format would put you in Minnie’s Haberdashery. You are in that place. You are amongst those characters. And I thought it would make it more intimate when I got in close with them.
The other thing that I thought would be very, very important is that, once you’re in Minnie’s, in particular, there are two plays going on, at all times. There are the characters that are in the foreground of any given scene, and then there are the characters in the background.”
To sum up, three reasons:
- To get more intimate close-ups.
- To place the audience in the main location (Minnie’s Haberdashery).
- To stage important background action.
We can group #2 and #3 together, since they both come down to giving the audience additional visual information in the interior locations by extending the edges of the frame.
Let’s see how that went. First, the close-ups:
Personally, I love the framing, colour and light in all these shots, but I can’t see how the wide aspect ratio makes them more intimate. It’s worth noting, however, that with a frame this wide the shots benefit greatly from being displayed on a BIG screen, and similarly work less well on tiny laptops/phones. Also, the Tarantino quote above was in answer to the question: “Using 70mm is epic in scale, in terms of using the frame, but what does it give your actors, in terms of intimacy?”. There’s a chance Tarantino brought up the close-ups to comment specifically on the potential intimacy of the aspect ratio, not because that was his main reason for choosing it.
In any case, even on our small, mortal screens, it’s easy to see how the background action and sense of geography benefits from the 2.76:1 ratio (I’ve brightened the following frames considerably, to make their contents clearer).
The ultrawide frame allows Tarantino to capture much space and several characters in his wide shots. This gives the audience a good sense of how the room is laid out, and where everybody is in relation to each other. It also allows for different actions to happen in the foreground and background. (To see the full effect of this, you need to actually watch the film though.)
Tarantino also use the wide frame effectively in other ways. In the opening, he uses it to establish the severity of the snowstorm. Since the plot hinges on the characters being unable to leave the hut, this is a crucial point to get across:
After seeing these shots you understand why the characters are trapped inside. The frame’s width helps communicate this idea, becase it shows that no matter how far to each side you look, there’s just more raw nature. Look how much of the landscape a 1.33:1 ratio would’ve excluded:
Finally, Tarantino also uses the width of the frame to show that people are adversaries, by accentuating the space between them:
You don’t need the context of the film to understand these characters don’t like each other. The staging, lighting, and the very shape of the frame makes this abundantly clear. That’s elegant, visual storytelling.
The right aspect ratio won’t make a film great. Neither will an Alexa camera, Zeiss lenses, or a special effects budget the size of Australia. At the end of the day, characters, plot and emotions is what hooks or bores an audience. But the language of film matter, because by commanding it well filmmakers can present said characters and plot in the best ways. It’s time we gave the frame that these films unfold within the attention it deserves.