Choosing Aspect Ratio: A Guide to Everything You Need to Know
The aspect ratio has a long and storied history. So what does that mean for the modern filmmaker? In this guide, we go over what to keep in mind.
The Academy Ratio. Anamorphic Widescreen. 16:9. The list of aspect ratios available to the modern filmmaker is long, especially now that changing your ratio requires only a few simple clicks in your editing software. A filmmaker choosing an aspect ratio for their next project is the same as a painter choosing the size and shape of their canvas. The aspect ratio is more than just a medium for information — it’s also a means of telling a story. So let’s go over some options:
A Brief Overview of the Aspect Ratio
An “aspect ratio” describes the screen’s width in relation to its height. For instance, today’s standard 16:9 describes a screen that for every 16 units of measurement (inches, feet, pixels) the image is wide, it’ll be 9 units high. So today’s 1920x1080p television sets, or the higher-end 4K sets (3840x2160p), would have a 16:9 aspect ratio, whereas a 1920x817p video would have a 2.35:1 aspect ratio (think back to math class).
For decades, the standard aspect ratio was 1.37:1, or the Academy Ratio. It wasn’t until big production houses had to compete with the commercialization of television sets that they began experimenting with new, exciting aspect ratios to give the audiences something they couldn’t get at home — wider, larger screens that immersed the audience deeper into the film.
Eventually, theater aspect ratios settled between 2.35 and 1.85. Today’s standard 16:9 came about as a compromise between theater aspect ratios and television’s 4:3 format. The 16:9 aspect ratio allowed for the comfortable viewing of both older television programs and blockbuster films, without having to crop and “pan and scan” either format to fit well on the screen.
Aspect Ratio Establishes Mood and Setting
Certain aspect ratios have become so synonymous with cinema, television, home video, etc., that even the lay person, without a full understanding or knowledge of aspect ratios, can recognize the historical significance of each. The classic Academy Ratio can create an “old-timey” feel, whereas the super-wide anamorphic screen creates the sense of blockbusters and epic fantasy or adventure films. Yes, certain color-grading techniques can emphasize these moods, but it starts with the ratio.
Filmmakers can use this to their advantage when they wish to immerse the audience in a certain period or make the mood more dramatic. One of the films to best use this idea of aspect ratio for historical setting is Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. As the film travels through history, the aspect ratio changes to match common ratios at that time.
As for mood, looking at Danny McBride’s high-fantasy parody film Your Highness, we see he shot it in the wide 2.35:1 ratio — the same aspect ratio as Peter Jackson’s truly epic and awe-inspiring The Lord of the Rings adaptations. Had McBride shot Your Highness in 16:9, the film would’ve felt more commercial and less epic, but by matching the aesthetic of the 2.35 ratio, the film achieves this mood.
Aspect Ratio Determines Composition
At the end of the day, regardless of the historical or cultural significance of various aspect ratios, the ratio will determine how the filmmaker composes each and every shot in their film. Expanding or minimizing the field of view will invariably affect one of the first rules of composition: The Rule of Thirds.
The Rule of Thirds helps the filmmaker create visually compelling images that draw the audience’s attention into the whole image, as opposed to just focusing on something in the center. The intersecting lines create reference points for where to place the subjects to create a dynamic, interesting composition.
The more confined the ratio is, the tighter the compositions will be, creating a narrower sense of space. Often, things can start to feel hyper-focused and compressed. This isn’t inherently a flaw; it’s just a result of the tighter ratio, which, again, Wes Anderson uses very well in The Grand Budapest Hotel.
However, you can still achieve depth and dynamic composition, as we see in Casablanca.
Despite the tighter ratio, we’re still seeing The Rule of Thirds in action to create strong angles, and we never become overwhelmed by the wide-open space of the airfield. The camera’s movement helps create a sense of depth, but ultimately, there’s a limit to how many characters and subjects we can layer into a single frame.
We can’t create a long expanse or a panoramic view. But as we expand our ratio, we can increase that sense of depth and scale. Take note of how Steven Spielberg uses the entire expanse of the screen to create a layered and dynamic composition in Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade.
The wider aspect ratio allows Spielberg and his DP, Douglas Slocombe, to carefully and aesthetically layer in an abundance of subjects and information without overwhelming the audience or crowding any single frame.
Wide Aspect Ratio: Less to Hide
The filmmaker must keep in mind that choosing a wider aspect ratio doesn’t just allow for wider, deeper compositions; it also poses the challenge of revealing more of the filming location. This is one reason why wider ratios are popular with fantasy and adventure films. The filmmaker wants to immerse you in the detailed world they’ve created. The wider you go, the less you can hide. Check out the classic showdown between Luke and Darth Vader from Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back.
Not only does the 2.35:1 ratio allow for deeper and wider compositions, it also immerses the audience in the fictional world in nearly every shot. But, if you don’t have locations or sets worth showing, or the ability to light much wider shots without revealing the tools of the trade, then you risk creating shots that are visually uninteresting (if you’re not a master of working with negative space).
Primary Aspect Ratios
Let’s dive a little deeper into three aspect ratios and look at some more examples of how they affect the image and how they compel the subjects’ movement.
The Academy Ratio, 1.33:1, and 4:3
As I said above, the Academy Ratio can create a tighter feeling. Synonymous with the Academy Ratio is 1.33:1 and 4:3, with only slight variations in proportion but all containing the same unique qualities. Due to its limited size, there’s only so much information we can put into the frame without overwhelming and crowding the image. However, we can overcome this a bit by using a wider lens to create more depth. See this clip from The Grand Budapest Hotel below.
However, even with this focal length giving the subjects more room to move about on the Z Axis (towards and away from the camera), it still doesn’t give them much room to move laterally without the use of panning (as you can see in the Grand Budapest clip above). This creates a tunnel effect, compelling the movement of our subjects. Filmmaking is more than just static shots of static people; we need action and movement! This tunnel effect compels our subjects to move one of two directions (more often than not), if we want to create uninhibited motion. If they do move laterally, the camera must pan to keep them in frame, and as a result, the subject almost appears to be still, while the background moves instead.
Note how in this scene from Citizen Kane the subjects, to avoid simply disappearing out of frame, enter, exit, and move primarily along the Z Axis.
This ratio is personally my favorite, and it’s the one I always shoot in for my personal projects.
Note how much we can now move laterally in the frame! Compare this to the examples of the Academy Ratio above. This pairing of wider lenses with the wide aspect ratio lends itself back to revealing the environment to your audience, figuratively immersing them. Because the subjects have a great amount of freedom, and the camera captures this in a single, relatively static shot, you can capture this quantity of movement and action beautifully. The camera doesn’t have to whip around to take in all the chaos and movement. It’s very liberating.
I like using wide-angle lenses, 35mm and below — preferably the 24mm focal length. Wide-angle lenses will help reveal more of the background of the subject, creating a deeper sense of space and environment in the image. I find this helps to create sharper, more dynamic angles in the composition between the subject and the setting. These angles compel the viewer’s eye-line, whether it’s across the frame or focusing them into the center.
My biggest influence in this regard is, no doubt, Steven Spielberg and Douglas Slocombe’s work on The Last Crusade. The wider focal lengths in most of the scenes create this marvelous sense of depth — an almost 3D-like quality. Combine this with the wider aspect ratio of 2.35:1, and your subjects can travel deep into and all around the frame in a single shot. (Definitely rewatch the Last Crusade clip earlier in the article.)
The 2.35’s ability to seamlessly marry wide coverage of the action with strong dynamic angles is why I believe it’s been the go-to for action and epic films.
As I mentioned before, 16:9 was born as a compromise between the Academy Ratio and 2.35 so that both could play comfortably on the same screen. Naturally, newer television series and broadcasts would want to take advantage of all this space. This aspect ratio has become the standard in today’s digital media. The ratio isn’t nearly as confined as the Academy Ratio — and not nearly as extreme and dramatic as 2.35. It offers a pleasant balance. Because of this, we get a lot of commercial films and comedies in 16:9.
What About 1.33:1, 4:3, 1.78:1, and 1.85:1?
There are so many ratios in use today. You may see 2.39, 1.78, and so on. However, most of these ratios are nearly identical, with a difference of only a few pixels. For instance, there’s only about a two-pixel difference between 16:9 and 1.78:1 (in relation to a width of 1920 pixels). And 1.85:1 only has about 72 more pixels on the X axis, giving the cinematographer just a little more room to work with — only really noticeable when overlaying the two ratios, or by the very small black bars on the top and bottom of your 16:9 high-definition television set.
The same goes with the ratios surrounding the Academy Ratio. For all intents and purposes, 1.33 and 4:3 are the same. Once again, there’s only a difference of a few pixels horizontally between the two. The difference between the Academy Ratio and 1.33/4:3 is equivalent to the differences between 16:9 and 1.85:1, with the Academy Ratio offering just a little more room. The widest ratio family consists of 2.35, 2.37, and 2.39:1. There’s only about 15 pixels between 2.35 and 2.39, with 2.37 somewhere in-between.
Undoubtedly, these differences can create slight variations in aesthetic and composition; however, these differences are finely minute. I would honestly think of them more as groups of ratios than each one being purely unique — at least in regards to how the ratios affect composition and blocking. If you shot for 2.35:1, but in the edit feel like 2.39 would suit you better, I feel you’d be fine in making that change. On the other hand, trying to change a shot composed for the 2.35/2.39 ratio into a 1.37/4:3 shot wouldn’t work, as you’d be cutting off huge sections of the image, and the blocking would be all wrong.
There are more aspect ratios when you look back far enough. You have the Cinerama aspect ratio 2.59:1, which was originally shot on three 35mm cameras and needed three projectors to show. The studios tried their hand at 1.66 for a bit (often by just cropping off the top and bottom of 1.37:1 films), before actually just shooting in 1.85 and 2.35.
Achieving Different Aspect Ratios in Post
Traditionally, filmmakers shoot 2.35 films with anamorphic lenses, which actually brings in more light horizontally captured on the full 35mm frame. Later, it gets condensed down to its proper proportions. What this does is allow each frame to capture more information. However, if you’re simply shooting on a DSLR and don’t have access to anamorphic lenses, you can still achieve this framing.
During production, it definitely helps to have reference guides on your monitor to make sure you take out the guesswork when composing your shots. Certain cameras come equipped with this feature; others may need third-party programs like Magic Bullet. Either way, the final image will still be in 16:9. What needs to happen is changing the ratio in post.
There are two ways to do this. You can either change your sequence settings, or you can get or make an alpha layer PNG to overlay on your footage. Personally, I prefer changing the sequence setting.
However, if you plan on manipulating the aspect ratio throughout the film (as in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World), I recommend the PNG layer so you have an easier time controlling it.
To change your sequence settings, you’ll want to use a ratio calculator like this one.
To get a wider aspect ratio (like 2.35), you’ll want to put the width of the shot footage into C.
But, if you’re changing for a narrower aspect ratio, like the Academy Ratio, you’ll need to use the shot footage’s height (since you can’t expand the height of the shot footage).
Choosing Your Aspect Ratio
Choosing your aspect ratio is a key element in determining your film’s composition and mood. Can you compose and light wider shots? Do you want to focus the audience’s attention on certain details? Do you want to immerse them in the film’s lavish or fantastical environments? Or do you want to confine their field of view to avoid emptier, flatter settings?
Choose your aspect ratio before shooting. Changing it in post, even from 16:9 to 2.35:1, can mess up the composition. Compose various shots in different ratios ahead of time, before sticking to one during production. See what locations are available and how far you can stretch your budget to create or dress the sets. But above all, see which composition styles best help tell your story.
This post was originally published in October, 2018. It has been updated to share additional information.
Cover image via The Grand Budapest Hotel (Fox Searchlight).
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