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An Epic Lesson in the History of Aspect Ratios from Filmmaker IQ

06.28.13 @ 2:30PM Tags : , , , ,

Screen shot 2013-06-27 at 1.08.50 PMHow often do we think about aspect ratios? Better yet, how often do we think about where all of our aspect ratios came from and the storied cinematic histories from which they were born? It’s an interesting question, not only for the sake of being more informed about the technical history of cinema, but also for having a better understanding of the implications of various aspect ratios on your film’s aesthetic and story. Hit the jump for an extensive video lesson on the history of the aspect ratio.

Filmmaker IQ has produced an awesome and in-depth course called “Everything You Need to Know About Aspect Ratio“. The first lesson from their course is a sprawling 18 minute exposé with all of the aspect ratio history you could ever want. Check it out below.

Aspect ratios are a tremendously powerful tool for cinematographers, and fully understanding their technical and aesthetic implications can take years.  While we won’t get into the ins and outs of framing for different ratios in this lesson (we’ll cover that next time), the perspective provided by the video is invaluable for young filmmakers looking to bolster their knowledge and gain some historical perspective on their craft.

Additionally, even though most of these ratios came to fruition out of various industry and technical dilemmas in the 50′s and 60′s, any and all of these can still be used today with the ease of letterboxing and pillarboxing footage in your NLE. However, at a time when it’s incredibly easy to experiment with aspect ratios, it’s more important than ever to make sure that the ratios you use are using are in support of the content that you’re creating.

What do you guys think? What are your favorite aspect ratios and why? Let us know in the comments!



We’re all here for the same reason: to better ourselves as writers, directors, cinematographers, producers, photographers... whatever our creative pursuit. Criticism is valuable as long as it is constructive, but personal attacks are grounds for deletion; you don't have to agree with us to learn something. We’re all here to help each other, so thank you for adding to the conversation!

Description image 57 COMMENTS

  • Here’s a question I’ve always wondered. Why do most people, including the host of this video, use the verbiage “by” instead of “to” when referring to an aspect *ratio*? In my math classes, it was always “16 to 9″ or “4 to 3″. Likewise, 4×3 represented the math problem 4 times 3 (12).

    Perhaps I just have elementary math ingrained into my room and they are synonymous and no one in the industry really cares.

    • In New Zealand it is common to use ‘by’ and ‘to’ in different situations;

      A sports game – the score was 2 to 3

      Aspect ratio – the ratio is 16 9

      Measurements – the card is 12 by 18

      When we are talking about ratios, we often either use ‘to’ or nothing at all – a ratio isn’t ‘by’ anything, it doesn’t have value that directly relates to the definite physical size of something where as to is more of a comparing word, much like ’16 to 9′ is comparing 16 units across -by- 9 units up.

    • In my experience it’s generally more common to use “by” when talking about a physical dimension (particularly of a rectangle) and “to” when talking about a more abstract relationship. For example, odds get quoted as “Two to one” whereas timber is given as “Two by four”.

    • In respect to ratios, “to” is correct. Saying “by” is just a bad habit.

      • I don’t believe that is correct, but I can’t back myself up.

        • @Travis – The formal mathematical definition is quite clear. In mathematics, a ratio is a relationship between two numbers of the same kind as “a to b” or a:b. Here’s the definition, “We use ratios to make comparisons between two things. When we express ratios in words, we use the word “to” — we say “the ratio of something to something else”. Trying to argue that 16 by 9 means the same thing as 16 to 9 is incorrect, as you’re trying to mix division and ratio interchangeably when they are in fact different. Here’s a video from the World Wide Center of Mathematics to explain the differences in ratio and division – In the video world, mixing “by” into the description of an aspect ratio is just a bad habit based on a lack of understating of how to properly designate a ratio with the word “to”.

      • In the video above they were even writing “16×9″ instead of “16:9″ which is totally wrong.

        To me, it is pretty clear:

        16 x 9 = 144
        16 : 9 = 1.77

        As the ratio is 1.77 and not 144, of course 16×9 is wrong.

    • You are correct in that it is a ratio, and therefore should be 16 to 9. However since it is a fixed ratio the terms can be somewhat interchangeable. Technically, the terms “16 to 9″ and “16 by 9″ can both be correct, since the image dimensions will always be a multiple of their respective numbers – so if ‘x’ represents the multiplier (which does not have to be an integer), the dimensions of a 16:9 image will always equal 16x*9x.

      • @Brian – Again trying to argue that 16 by 9 means the same thing as 16 to 9 is incorrect, as you’re trying to mix division and ratio interchangeably when they are in fact different. Here’s a video from the World Wide Center of Mathematics to explain the differences in ratio and division

    • I don’t think anyone cares. I’ve been working in feature films for over twenty years and I’ve never heard anyone say ‘to’. It’s always ‘by’, and I think you’d get a strange look if you said otherwise.

  • This host has the best, “Just shut up and listen because I’m better than you” demeanor I’ve seen in a while.

    But seriously, pretty interesting history of AR’s.

  • Wow… this was great!

  • Thanks for posting this lesson guys! We have more stories of the fascinating history and joy of filmmaking coming up!

    • Robert Hardy on 06.28.13 @ 3:20PM

      Hey John, thanks for taking the time to create lessons like these! They’re truly an awesome resource for all of us. Keep up the good work!

      • Nice John! Loved it and also your “tour” on editing along history of film making, Keep the awesome work!


    • Couldn’t stop watching. Brilliantly presented and produced.

    • Anthony Marino on 06.28.13 @ 5:05PM

      One of the best presentations I’ve ever seen, interesting, easy to follow and fun to watch. Brilliant work John, thanks and thanks to RH for a great article.

    • Impeccable presentation, John. Well done and thank you.

  • 2 to 1
    Simple and effective. What were they thinking when creating 16:9…?

    • Robert Hardy on 06.28.13 @ 4:50PM

      16:9 is the median between 4:3 and cinemascope, so it provides a technical middleground which makes it easy to show content of both ratios with simple letterboxing and pillarboxing. It’s more of a technical compromise than anything else.

      • It is interesting to note that 16 x 9 is essentially a 3 perf pulldown on standard 35mm film. Here is the math: There are 8 perfs for 35mm full frame (I am talking still frame here because I started as a still photographer) which measures 24 x 36 mm. Divide 36 by 8 = 4.5. 3 times 4.5 = 13.5. 24 divided by 13.5 = 1.78, same as 16 divided by 9. I think some cameras (Arri maybe) are modified to the 3-perf pulldown to shoot 16 x 9 frames natively on film. In an “extras” video on a film’s DVD I saw some camera mags with pieces of tape on them marked “3 perf” or similar. Any thoughts on this?

        • 3 Perfs is Super35, it uses better the space in the film.

          • Spherical for Scope has a bit of a history…

            All the way back to the old SuperScope (not the SNES gun though), and possibly older, they took 4perf 35 footage and cropped it to 2:1… The original Body Snatchers movie being the first well known adaptation of the format. Though cropping films that were originally shot for Academy Ratio were even done for films like Gone With the Wind during its 70mm re-release (think a reverse pan-scan).

            classic super35 is 4perf and exposes the area otherwise used for printing the sound, which makes for a slightly larger negative-area than standard academy 35. Most blockbusters 80′s-2000′s that weren’t shot on anamorphic used 4 perf super35 in part for the extra image used for VFX and also for reframing for 4:3 releases. Movies like Lord of the Rings essentially wasting nearly half of the runtime in their magazines if it wasn’t for the “full screen” video releases.

            Mucking about with the pulldown in cameras has been done at least since the since the 60′s with technicolors cinemascope-on-a-budget where they had cameras modified for “techniscope” that shot with 2-perf pulldown and then the prints were anamorphized during post to become compatible with the normal cinemascope projectors. According to a lot of advertisement, 2 perf gives the look of 35mm but at the cost of super16. Doubles the runttime of the mags and due to the film running slower through the cameras, they are also quieter… or so they at least say. I don’t know this for myself. 2perf where a big thing in italy during the 60′s for the cheepness of production. Most notably most of Leone’s work was shot in the format.

            Relatively recently there has been a bit of a compromise with 3perf super35. Giving the slight leeway vertically for scope-pictures and almost no waste of film at all for 1.85:1-productions.

            And that’s my long-winded way of saying that 3-perf is sort-of related to your inquiry.

            I love to spend lonely afternoons at the widescreen museum, (like you couldn’t already tell)

  • No love for Abel Gance. Having seen some clips of Napoleon, it was way ahead of it’s time.

  • I had a great time watching this.

    It must have been a terrific experience to go to a theater and witness Cinerama or cinemascope for the first time in the 50′s and 60′s…
    Also, the excerpts they show makes it easier to understand why 50 years later in this digital age we are still trying so hard to replicate that so called Filmic look ;)

  • The irony of the current situation on many HD “movie” channels is that while 16:9 may have been designed as a perfect compromise between 2.35 and 1.33, many movies shot in 2.35/2.39 today still have the sides of their frames cropped off to 16:9. I just watched Looper not too long ago on one such channel (I think one of the Showtime ones) and noticed a bunch of animorphic-like artifacts (lens flare, bokeh compression, etc.). Later I looked up online that the movie was shot in 2.39 and realized that the channel had cut off the sides when showing it (it was obvious at the time, since virtually no one shoots blockbusters in 16:9, but I just wanted to make sure).
    I had hoped we could move past the old “pan and scan” days of TV cropping with the move to 16:9 and HD resolution, especially on a dedicated “movie” channel, but I guess I was wrong. I’ve even seen channels cropping out the small difference between 1.85 and 16:9.
    On that note, with such a small difference between the two, I’ve always thought that 16:9 may have ended up to be too perfect of a compromise — why couldn’t they have just bumped it to 1.85 and perfectly matched S35 framing? But I digress…

    • Robert Hardy on 06.28.13 @ 11:06PM

      Yeah, unfortunately pan ‘n scan is as alive as ever. I’ve noticed that my cable provider presents just about everything in 2.35, even ridiculous stuff like sporting events and reality shows. It feels entirely unnatural, especially with big budget content that’s shot for the 16:9 ratio like The Newsroom and Boardwalk Empire.

    • Donald Denis on 08.12.14 @ 11:25AM

      It bugs me that the Blu-Ray releases of 1.37 films like The Wizard of Oz and Gone With The Wind are presented in 1.33 for no good reason. The extra width for the whole uncropped frame is right there! Use it!

  • PhinioxGlade on 06.29.13 @ 11:06AM

    Great video explaining the history of accept ratios.
    My favourite lens is a 2x Sankor 16c Anamorphic projector lens, creates a crazy wide 3.55:1 when used with a 16:9 base image

    • Sorry, I did not get that, you mount it on your camera? what kind of adapter you need for your PL , EF , C or whatever you are using.?

    • I have a 2x Kiptar for sale in Belgium or the Netherlands. Agni, you film through the projectorlens and focus with a taking lens, I use a 70mm. Downsides: you need to build a rig, it’s heavy and you need to keep distance or use diopters to get close.

  • I had an amazing time shooting 2.35 on my feature. The film is about two journalists working together on a story (think All the President’s Men). After a short conversation with my DOP, I immediately opted for 2.35 because the extra horizontal reel-estate (pun intended) gave us a lot of room for great two-shots. It even allowed us to fit a tight close-up of both of them side-by-side in a single frame… lovely!

    An interesting aspect ratio story from a feature that another of my DOP buddies worked on : he really wanted to shoot 2.35, but the art department won out in the end, opting for 1.85, because it was a period piece and they didn’t want to have to dress all that extra width. Darn those people, working hard enough as it is, can’t they work harder!! ;-)

    Fantastic work John, brilliantly presented and very informative. I watched the composition lesson right after just out of curiosity, and loved the presentation there too. :-)

    Thanks for sharing Robert!

  • A few years ago, there was a Philips TV (LCD, as I recall) that was in 2.40/1, made specifically for movie lovers who loathed pan&scan. Naturally, it was a failure and is no longer produced.

    • There are still some 21:9 (1:2.33) computer monitors for example by LG and Dell.
      A lot of gamers like to play in ultra wide screen. If the 21:9 monitor is large enough, it is also a good replacement for a normal two monitor setup, I guess we are going to see more of these monitors in the future.

  • I’d always thought that 16:9 was 4:3 squared and that 2.35 was 4:3 (or 1.33) cubed

  • They’re all welding helmet windows, in landscape of course. Most humans see stereo circular, ( try it with one eye closed ), along with the distance that the eyes are apart the two are processed into a single elliptical field of vision including the eyebrows nose and upper lip; though it is usual practice to mediate the body parts ( and spectacle frames ) out of the processed image. So a more “natural” screen shape might be part of the interior surface of a certain ellipsoid.

    In some landscapes with strong vertical elements there may be a tendency to concentrate on that which is directly in front up and down: a portrait aspect might be more appropriate for some scenes, perhaps a swivel screen or something…. an elastic morphing screen….

    Now for movies for fish; spiders; insects….. Just the aspect ratios mind you, not delving into the electromagnetic spectrum; story line or soundtrack….

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  • When and why did 2.35 end up being closer to 2.39 or 2.40?

  • Interesting but incomplete. At 12.50 he breezes over “other” formats such as Superscope, Technirama, Cinemiracle, and Vistarama. It would’ve been nice to know exactly what the differences were. IMAX is also given lip service when it really deserves as much attention as Cinerama.

  • well explained .. thanks