July 15, 2013

Using Aspect Ratios Like a Pro: Why Choose One Ratio Over Another?


We've been talking a lot about aspect ratios lately. Now that everyone has a basic understanding of what aspect ratios are, where they come from, and how to apply them to your own digital footage, you're likely asking yourselves, "What's the big deal with all of this aspect ratio talk?" Well, dear readers, the big deal is this; aspect ratios, and how you choose to frame your subjects within them, are one of the most subtle, yet highly effective, ways to cinematically convey various elements of your story to the audience. What do I mean by that? Hit the jump to find out.

When DPing a film, one of the first decisions that I always make with the director is the aspect ratio of the final product. Deciding this early on is important, because it informs and shapes many of the other stylistic choices that you make down the road.

When choosing a ratio, it's best to ask yourself a few basic questions, such as, "Does the intended style of the piece lend itself to wider or taller ratios, and why? Is mise-en-scène going to be an essential story element or are the characters driving the story through their actions and dialogue? Will negative space in the frame be an important story element?"

Choosing a ratio based on questions such as these can be difficult, and oftentimes the answers will contradict each other. For instance, your story might naturally lend itself to a wider ratio because of the locations that you're using (widescreen can really make a location look its best), but a character or dialogue-driven story might call for a taller ratio to make closeups more naturalistic.

Conversely, you might want a taller frame for closeups, but you also want the additional negative space that comes from a wider ratio. Essentially, it's a matter of determining which ratio will be the best one to aid in the telling of your story.

Here are a few stills from films that I've shot with an explanation of why I chose that aspect ratio for that specific film:

2.35

This is a frame from my thesis film. We chose to use the 2.35 ratio because it afforded us the ability to make a statement about our characters through the use of the additional negative space that the wider frame provided. The story is one of lonely people, so through framing certain characters at the edge of the composition, we were able to accentuate their loneliness and physically alienate them through the emptiness in the rest of the frame.

2.35

Sometimes, a certain place or setting just calls out for the use of the 2.35 (or wider) frame. That was the case with this shot from South Dakota. The vastness of the plains coupled with the insanely wide lens I was using (an 8mm fisheye) called for a frame that would be able to create additional horizontal perspective. Through the use of the framing, the wide lens, and the widescreen aspect ratio, the composition is most effective.

1.78

For this film, a film that was almost entirely dialogue and character-driven, we chose to use the 1.78, or 16:9 frame. With the additional vertical screen real estate, we were able to frame our mediums and closeups in the most naturalistic and organic way possible (without going to 1.66 or taller). The 1.78 frame allowed us to make our actors prominent in the composition without the cramped feel that you get from shooting the human face at 2.35.

1.33

Oftentimes, when we think of 4:3 we think of standard definition video (and it makes us cringe). However, using the 1.33 ratio can also be a stylistic choice. In the case of this shot - since we were adapting a scene from The Seventh Seal - using the original ratio in which the film was shot was a way to not only pay homage, but to recreate the look and feel of the original in a contemporary setting.

However, even though the director and I decided on the 1.33 frame for the final piece, we also wanted the footage to work in a 1.78 composition (for use in our reels). Accordingly, we decided to frame all of our shots for both 1.33 and 1.78, using the 4:3 frame as the primary one for characters and movement and the 16:9 for additional mise-en-scene.

Here's a video from Criterion about how On the Waterfront was successfully shot for different aspect ratios:

And here are two versions of the same shot. The first is framed for the traditional 1.33 ratio, and the second is the looser 1.78.

1.33

1.78

Choosing an aspect ratio for your next project can be as simple or as difficult of a task as you want to make it. You can spend hours and days contemplating various questions about how you want the piece to look and feel. You can deliberate all sorts of various technical and aesthetic considerations until the cows come home. You can even shoot for multiple ratios if you feel so inclined. However, if you pick your aspect ratio based on the needs of the story and what the characters are feeling, you will always hit a home run.

In part 2 of this series, we'll talk about various framing techniques for all of these aspect ratios, and how to use them in the most effective way possible.

What do you guys think? How do you approach the decision of which ratio to use for each project? What are some of the factors and questions that you use to decide? Let us know in the comments!

Your Comment

23 Comments

Nice. Honestly thought it will not be anything I didn't know but this was nice, giving your perspective with examples.

July 15, 2013

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Archie

Common sense!

July 15, 2013

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Fresno Bob

Looking forward to the rest of these articles!

July 15, 2013

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Brian

I'd go with Storraro - 2/1 is a nice catch-all type of a format that does everything a director needs. 4/3 is fine as a stylistic tribute to the black&white era (might as well film it in B&W as well, eh?). The ultra-wide stretch formats were basically a stick measuring contest between the studios anyway.

July 15, 2013

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DLD

Ultra wide is what your eyes view - so the most natural

July 15, 2013

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Fresno Bob

But this, by and large, is a filmmaker's choice, not viewer's and a creative process itself entails should take priority, Let's go with this sequence : an art designer proffers his ideas on how s/he thinks the sets should look; then both the AD, DP and the director ponder the ideas and, after a few violent disagreements and calls to agents, they agree on the format most suitable to the sets and actors/action involved. At which point, the further conversation on this topic is not to be had, the winner is worshiped and the loser is lead to the stake. Or, if you're a one-man band, you flip a coin and accept your meager resources as the limits to your imagination.

To me, ultra-wide formats look less of an aesthetic choice but more of a temporary race-to-the-width winner. This is not to say that Ben-Hur should have been shot in a narrower format but, then again, not every movie is aiming to be Ben-Hur. At any rate, to me eye, 2/1 looks very suitable for a wide range of films ... especially if it can be watched on a curved 4K OLED screen with a suitable refreshment.

PS. The public's (imposed) choice for home entertainment is 16/9 (1.78/1). If you're going to shoot something for video or a streaming market and the audience's preference is your primary criterion, you should probably stick with 16/9 because we know that the public hates the bleepin' black bars on their TV's.

July 15, 2013

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DLD

We don't really see our periphery with the same sharpness as we do the center of our vision. But also, it's not about how the eyes view, but rather where the mind focuses.

July 18, 2013

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Tw

I like certain aspects of this ratio: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1754367/?ref_=sr_1

just feels more natural

anyone heard about a movie released in 1:1 ratio?

July 15, 2013

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Csapo

The original aspect ratio of Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927) was 1.20:1. Murnau shot at least one of his earlier German films in a almost square aspect ratio. I can't recall any 1:1 films off the top of my head but it wouldn't surprise me if some very early cinema was shot in that ratio.
I like 1.33/1.37 too (I haven't seen PTL yet but Reygadas always makes interesting use of his frames). It's a shame they have become associated with a non-cinematic look. There are so many gorgeous films shot in those ratios that blow a lot of the modern, wider stuff out of the water in terms of cinematic flair.

July 15, 2013

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Mak

It's interesting how subjective our preferred choices for ratios can be.

Articles like this can never be posted too often, because they argue for the need to make a conscious, intelligent choice when choosing ratios, a choice based upon clearly identified aesthetic priorities. Leaving these choices at the mercy of vague, unexamined sentiments about what feels most 'natural' isn't a wise course of action, imho: a ratio shouldn't be a comfort zone.

Additionally, attributing historical (culturally aggregated) meanings to a given ratio, as if these meanings were inherent to the shape of the frame, seems daft to me. Saying that the use of 4:3 inescapably references b&w, studio-system movies is as meaningless as saying that Fulci's use of widescreen in Zombi 2 is a tribute to Man Of The West because they both use a 2.35 ratio.

Such statements don't bear close examination, and only saddles a filmmaker with a load of referential aesthetic baggage they don't need. Whatever your aspect ratio is, use it well, and don't let others tell you what that frame 'means'.

July 15, 2013

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Dolly

The advice I generally give (and I mean generally) is that unless you have some stunning vistas or money for good production design (which is not just LOTS of production design people) then 1.78 is going to serve you well.
Framing for 4:3 inside 1.78 sucks by the way :-) Having shot mountains of 4:3, that's a format I have an unreasonable personal prejudice against.
I'll happily watch anything shot that way if its good though. I also agree strongly with 'Dolly' - don't make frame choices based purely on aesthetic history, unless you're being deliberately nostalgic. And that gets old quick for your audience.

July 15, 2013

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marklondon

I think the wider the ratio the easier to frame and cut left right left right left right middle left right left right left ...

In PTS they used an interesting blurring effect around the frame to focus the attention.

All of this is my personnel feelings and I hope Miss Dolly my new teacher in nofilmschool forgive this to me.

July 15, 2013

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Csapo

Todd-AO ratio = winner hands down

July 15, 2013

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shaun wilson

great issue

July 15, 2013

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arnoldbangkok

I like to shot in a crazy wide 3.50:1 ratio that my 2x anamorphic applies to 16:9 sensor.
Yes it has limited uses but it is lovely to look at.

July 16, 2013

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PhinioxGlade

Solid topic. Thanks for posting! I look forward to the rest!

July 16, 2013

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I would suggest having a look at "Beautiful" by Inaritu, the film very cleverly modifies its aspect ratio from beginning to end, going from 1.33 to 2.35, I remember reading about this in American cinematographer just around when the film came out, the idea was to convey the interior spiritual journey of the main character played by Javier Bardem. It was very tricky choosing exactly when to change ratios and how, for it to be unnoticed, but it works, it wasn't until I watched the film specifically looking for the changes that I noticed them...

July 18, 2013

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Pierre P Blais

1:33 is my favorite ratio for shooting close ups in dialog. An over-the-shoulder in 1:78 always gives me too much shoulder in the frame. There shouldn't be more pixels used on the back of a head and shoulder than on the face of the speaking actor.

I really miss straight 16.

July 18, 2013

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Tw

And now the article on how Netflix craps on ... I mean, crops off images.

http://whatnetflixdoes.tumblr.com/

July 20, 2013

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DLD

I didn't like that the narrator said, "Now, for the first time, viewers can decide for themselves which format fits the film best." What???

That is absolutely the job of the director/cinematographer, not the final viewer.

Would anyone ask The Beatles if they've got some alternate endings to Eleanor Rigby or Let It Be that they might prefer to listen to? Would anyone ask Mailer or Faulkner, or Morrison, or Hughes if they might have some alternative passages hidden in their desk or under their bed, or in the back of their closet that they could forward, just so the reader could "decide for themselves" if that made the book better?

Let me experience something the way the artist intended, and well, let it be. I'll make my own inferences, but I don't need alternate possibilities. In fact, I don't want that at all. It simply dilutes the power of the singular experience.

July 23, 2013

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Brad T

Thanks
Waiting for the next part .

July 23, 2013

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Ummmm why no mention of 1.85:1? most movies are still shot that way...1.77 is only a tv thing...

July 23, 2013

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Jerome (also..b...