Firstly let’s take a look at aspect ratio: what it is exactly and why it’s important to filmmakers. Aspect ratio is simply the ratio of an image’s width to its height so a 16:9 aspect ratio is something that you will no doubt have seen a lot of on online video: 1280×720 pixels. A common streaming aspect ratio that is represented by 16:9. If you look on instagram, you’ll see examples of 1:1 aspect ratio (among others now) which translates to a square, 1 width by 1 height.
The importance of aspect ratio today is how it’s recognisable across video formats and types of screen: TV, cinema and phone. A lot of what we consume visually each day is presented on a very small screen (our smartphones) so for that reason the content is cropped or filmed within that 16:9 aspect ratio to fit the most popular format, in this instance Youtube. However 16:9 is also a convenient format because it can accommodate other formats by cropping. So the importance of aspect ratio becomes quite evident when we just consider what format we’ll be consuming the content in.
Aspect Ratio and the Viewing Experience
When we sit down in front of the TV, we can already get a sense of the format, either TV or movie just by the aspect ratio. The superwide movies we watch in cinemas are commonly presented in 1.85:1 and 2.39:1 aspect ratios but of course there’s a lot of variety in between depending on the wishes of the director. Think of Wes Anderson who often likes tight crops for his visuals which means that we’re seeing a 4:3 ratio which is more box-like.
Just by comparing the 4:3 boxy ratio to a more conventional superwide we already have a different feeling to what we’re seeing on-screen. The aspect ratio can inform us that we’re in a tight space by making the frame more square or that we’re in a wide open expanse like in the classic westerns that made great use of the long rectangular format. This was also emulated by Quentin Taratino in Hateful Eight where he used 70mm Ultra Panavision. This means that he’s achieving a 2.76:1 aspect ratio which is a throwback to the classic westerns of the 1950s and 60s.
The use of superwide really allows for the scenery to take the spotlight and to provide scale in certain scenes. It’s the same effect in a 4:3 ratio but the intent is the opposite; we might feel tight or confined by the frame. There is less space for everything, quite literally, so a director may use this format for close-ups or detail shots. Likewise the widescreen ratios we get an entire vista to explore, more information to take in. Obviously it depends on the director’s intent as to how the ratio is used to inform the scene from the audience’s perspective.
How Aspect Ratio Informs Composition
If you’ve selected one aspect ratio to film in, this will no doubt inform your compositional choices as you will be looking through the lens and making choices on what size frame you have. This can of course be adjusted digitally and in fact, for IMAX, even though the film was captured in the same format, you get a whole lot more screen real estate (1.90:1) to watch while standard cinemas will project the film in widescreen (1.85:1 usually). Nevertheless what you see through the camera lens will undoubtedly affect your composition.
If we think about the rule of thirds, having this grid applied on a 4:3 frame vs a 16:9 will change how the sequence is filmed and composed. If the ratio is tighter, this will translate to more confined sequences with the subjects in closer proximity. Personally I think about the 4:3 or tighter ratios being shot from fixed positions to keep the action within an obviously confined space.
Then again, IMAX is close to the 4:3 aspect ratio as it’s 1.43:1 which is close to 4:3 (also expressed as 1.33:1). The advantage of filming digitally means that you can crop the frame to fit different aspect ratios of various screens: IMAX, smaller cinemas, TVs and laptops. A recent blockbuster, Dune, is a great example of this – filmed with capabilities of achieving 1.33:1 and the IMAX experience in mind, it can also be easily cropped to fit smaller formats where necessary.
A lot of films and streaming services will still intentionally crop the film with the 2 black bars at the top and bottom of the screen to accommodate the correct film aspect ratio. It’s less apparent these days as most content, film and TV alike, will fill the screen but this was another distinguishing feature of films vs TV as the black borders suggested a cinematic experience.
Andrew Farron works for Fable Studios, a Creative-led boutique video and animation studio that creates tailored brand stories that endure in your audience’s mind. Fable combines your objectives with audience insights and inspired ideas to create unforgettable corporate video productions that tell the unique story of your brand.