I’ve always been fascinated by the history of Cinema, and I saw an interesting video today about Aspect Ratios and thought I’d share it. If you want to understand where our aspect ratios come from, enjoy!
As a Cinematographer, one of the first technical discussions I have with the Director (and Producer) is about deciding on an aspect ratio. Some projects require more than one delivery ratio, so it’s important to plan for these down the road. Commercials, for instance, often frame for 16×9 and protect for 4×3, even though they haven’t made a 4×3 television set in many years now.
Some projects can be more interesting in Widescreen (2.35:1), while others are better suited for 1.85:1. I remember the first time I read about a movie that made an important artistic decision based on Aspect Ratio. It was the movie ‘Wind’ shot by John Toll. At first he considered shooting in Widescreen, but then realized they were going to shoot sailboats, so it would frame much better in 1.85 because they’re so tall.
With online video, I’ve shot projects in both 16×9 and 2.35, and even used 2:1, which is an odd format that David Fincher seems to like and used on the Netflix series ‘House of Cards’. These days, many projects I shoot are open to most any ratio, especially in music videos. Commercials, Television and Features sometimes have contractual obligations to delivering in certain formats, or multiple formats. With projects that have more than one deliverable, I always concentrate on making the ‘medium of highest impact’ look the best it can, and let other formats fall where they may. I’m less concerned about how my movie will be framed in 4×3 in Taiwan when most people will still get to see it in 2.35:1.
I like to frame in 2.35:1 and enjoy the ability to really use the width of the frame to explore stronger compositions. I even miss framing for 4×3, which I find a very interesting shape to work with.
I find that I sometimes need wider lenses when shooting in cropped-2.35 or more space to move the camera back. The reason for this is that since we’re cropping the top and bottom of the 16×9 image, in order to get a Cowboy or a Full shot, we need to show more of the sides and pull back than if we were shooting in 1.85.
Aspect ratios seem like a simple decision but they can definitely impact the cinematography. I have a collection of frame grabs from different movies, and one thing I enjoy looking at is the different compositions that DP’s use when they frame in the two main formats. For instance, it’s interesting to see Roger Deakins shoot a movie in 1.85:1, and then do a movie in 2.35:1. I personally find the 2.35:1 compositions more dramatic and powerful, though I’ve also seen very strong composition in 1.85.