May 22, 2014

Shooting a Film in a Square 1:1 Aspect Ratio: Xavier Dolan's 'Mommy'

Xavier Dolan MommyWhile the traditional aspect ratio for HD video is 1.78/16:9 (the aspect ratio of your HDTV), most films projected in theaters are in a 1.85 or 2.39 aspect ratio. This hasn't always been the case as your old 4:3 TV can attest to, and in recent years some filmmakers have explored using the older 1.33 aspect ratio for their films. But what about a perfectly square 1:1 ratio? That's what Xavier Dolan and André Turpin decided to use for their new film Mommy, which recently screened at the Cannes Film Festival.

Here is the explanation about the use of the aspect ratio (via Film Statge) from director Xavier Dolan. Mommy was shot on 35mm film:

After having shot a music video in 1:1 last year, it dawned on me that this ratio translated in a somewhat unique emotion and sincerity.

The perfect square in which it consists framed faces with such simplicity, and seemed like the ideal structure for “portrait” shots. No distraction, no affectations are possible in such constricted space. The character is our main subject, inescapably at the center of our attention. Our eyes cannot miss him, her. 1:1 is, besides, the ratio of album covers in the CD industry, and of all of these jackets that have imprinted our imaginaries over time. The Die & Steve Mix 4ever being a leitmotif for us, the use of 1:1 found an additional echo.

It is also, to be frank, my DOP André Turpin’s favorite ratio which he had, apparently, dreamed of using his entire life without ever daring to do so (he’s also a director, and directed the extremely enjoyable Zigrail, Middle-East road trip shot in black and white and featuring some brutal early John Zorn!). After having now spent a year with him busting my balls at about just every shot, regretting our infamous ratio, I’ve learned two things: André loves cinemascope and I, for one, have absolutely no regrets in this.

The music video Dolan was talking about in the quote above:

It's a really fascinating format because of the way it frames people and faces. While it's nothing like how our own vision works, when you're looking at it on a 16:9 monitor, it's a bit like looking at everything through a camera that has been turned on its side to take portraits (if you've ever shot with certain Hasselblad medium format camera models, you'll already be very familiar with this square format). It doesn't give a whole lot of room for framing multiple people in a shot, but it's really interesting to see a decision like this settled on for an entire feature film.

Some other films that have experimented with the older 1.33 aspect ratio in recent years are Kelly Reichardt's Meek's Cutoff and Andrea Arnold's Fish Tank (and I'm sure there are plenty more):

If you're interested in seeing more of his work, here are trailers for some of Dolan's films:

I Killed My Mother from 2009:

Heartbeats from 2010:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=znpU_Aup-Bg

Link: Mommy -- IMDb

[via Film Statge]

Your Comment

43 Comments

While his previous feature film "Tom à la ferme'' was arguably his worst and I would consider it a bad movie in any artistic form, I'm quite excited to see this one. Looks fresh.

May 22, 2014 at 9:46PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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It looks like a gimmick really ... Doyle filmed in 1:66, which gave it a better vertical composition that 1:78 ... and Hitchcock's Vista 1:53 was good enough ...

May 22, 2014 at 9:48PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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DLD

Très bon réalisateur... un peu prétentieux. Cependant, il est imbuvable comme acteur ! Et surtout lorsqu'il se met en scène lui-même comme dans J'ai tué ma mère et La amours imaginaires.

May 22, 2014 at 10:01PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Jeff

Prétentieux et naïf: tout ce qu'il fait n'est pas mieux qu'un film d'étudiant.

(Pretentious and naive: everything he does isn't much better than a student film.

May 23, 2014 at 11:30AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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FabDex

I agree he is pretentious, but not naive. He knows exactly how to drum up publicity.

May 24, 2014 at 1:51AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Mari

I think 1:1 focuses more on the psychology of character and is great for character driven pieces. The wider we go, the more inviting the image is to the world within the story.

May 23, 2014 at 12:03AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Zack Ketz

But there are many ways to do this in anything from 1:33 to 2:0. You can zoom in. You can set up your shot so the 'sides" don't matter (like with walls or curtains), etc.

May 23, 2014 at 11:46AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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DLD

It can potentially work for particular stylistic effects, but it's just not how most humans' vision is like. We see 'horizontally', not vertically or square shaped. A narrow frame is very suffocating and frustrating to most viewers. Every time i watch a vertical video i just feel like tearing the black bars on either side in order to gain a wider perspective. A narrow frame draws a lot of attention to the filmmaking and works against becoming submerged into the narrative, as the viewer does not feel omniscient because of the limiting view. So his or her experience of the story is more subjectively altered. But if used in proper context, i can see a potential for a it being very effective (and irritating!)

May 23, 2014 at 1:03AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Dolan is never sincere, this is some obnoxious hipster bullshit.

May 23, 2014 at 1:03AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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John

Agreed.

May 23, 2014 at 11:31AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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FabDex

Look like he had trouble keeping the subject centered in the parking lot during the close-ups. Another reason why widescreens feels more life-like is that humans scan left to right more often than up and down.

May 23, 2014 at 1:36AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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I doubt that anyone would be able to tell the difference between this and 4:3.

That said, I’m intrigued about using it for film. Being forced to use 1:1 in Instagram, it can be frustrating in its limitations, but it also forces you to think hard about what the central subject of the piece is. It forces you to cut out anything extraneous.

May 23, 2014 at 1:39AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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I think Dolan got to 1:1 this way: "Hey: let's make the aspect ratio square. Just like that. Who knows: some people may think there's was an actual reason to do it. Snort !".

May 23, 2014 at 11:36AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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FabDex

It feels like watching a old photo album which I think is nice if that's what you want.

May 23, 2014 at 2:41AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Jesper

Dolan is like Shia LaBeouf. Stealing his ideas from talented people, and pleasing teenagers and uneducated film critics who apparently never saw all the great movies which were stolen from.

May 23, 2014 at 2:43AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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NicoBim

Seriously! He steals everything. What a pretentious hipster ass he is.

May 24, 2014 at 1:49AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Mari

Perfect for the Instagram hipsters

May 23, 2014 at 6:19AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Tulio

Really? We are actually talking about the theory of a 1:1 aspect ratio?" Forcing us to think about the central subject"? Duh! What happened to filmmaking. The blockbuster is dead, but the Instafilmmaker is alive and well.

May 23, 2014 at 10:14AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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John Wilton

1:1 is a gimmick. Dolan really isn't all that smart. As if a square aspect ratio would fucking change anything. What's next : 5:1 ?

May 23, 2014 at 11:33AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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FabDex

Some folks used anamorphic lenses onto a 2.4/1 to get a really wide screen ... 3.5/1, IIRC ... but it was also a gimmick ...

May 23, 2014 at 11:48AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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DLD

Gimmick? Some of the best films of all time have been made in this aspect ratio, the very language of cinema was defined when this was the only aspect ratio that existed. Get your head out of your ass.

May 23, 2014 at 4:06PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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carlos

4:3 *

May 23, 2014 at 4:08PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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carlos

One could say 4:3 was imposed on filmmakers much like mono-sound and the lack of color. Nobody makes films with mono sound these days just so it can appeal to someone's sense of nostalgia. But since the giants of that pre-war Hollywood learned how to make 4:3 look awesome, the retro look has some value. In reality, anything from 1.53 to 2.0 can work for most films. Wide vistas are probably better off in 2.4; indoor/set based made films in 1.53-1.66.

May 23, 2014 at 10:50PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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DLD

Wes Anderson used 1.33 for parts of Grand Budapest Hotel.
http://filmmakermagazine.com/84877-wes-anderson-on-using-throwback-ratio...

May 23, 2014 at 3:34PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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earnestreply

So many haters on here. Get a life, make your own film and put it up here so everyone can trash talk it. Stop coming to this site if you don't want to be exposed to new ideas. Jesus...

May 23, 2014 at 3:55PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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julian

If you want to express your like of everything, go to Facebook. Commenting and debating is not always a "thumbs up". And if I understand correctly. unless I make a film, I'm only allowed to have positive opinions ? I have met Dolan (worked with him, actually) and he is a pretentious hipster.

BTW: where's YOUR film ?

May 23, 2014 at 7:29PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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FabDex

If there was a debate going on, fair enought, but making personal comments about a young director, probably because he's young and successful, is not debate. Calling people names is just childish. A real, intelligent debate would be interesting, stimulating and even creative. Most of these comments however are simply destructive and have a whiff of jealousy. Very sad.

May 31, 2014 at 7:23AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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what a waste of film... 1:1 ratio... some shameful shit right there.

May 23, 2014 at 6:06PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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k0bayashi

WOW.... I'd love to see the works of the ones who spit so easily on others.......

May 30, 2014 at 7:38PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Jean Demers

Perfect for Instagrook

May 24, 2014 at 12:28PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Natt

Well I dont mind Dolans work and I rather watch it before making a judgement call. Its already hard enough for someone to get the courage to attempt something, do we really need to be so critical? How about just focusing on the work of the artist and not solely his personality and just critic the way we would like to be criticed. This comment section on thise site use to be more welcoming, what happened?

May 24, 2014 at 8:47PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Steeven K

the guy is already a star!! bravo... achieved so much.. so quick... !! superb

May 26, 2014 at 8:52AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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suchita b

I just returned from the Cannes Film Festival and had the pleasure to see MOMMY at the premier and I quite enjoyed it. The aspect ratio put me off at 1st and I even question if something was wrong with the projection but quickly dismissing that thought when I see how well each shot was framed...Like a series of portraits, very intimate and it definitely drew you into the picture and held my attention. I also felt a bit claustrophobic and anxious at times but the story involved an out of control boy suffering from hyperactive disorders and outburst (same actor in B&W music video clip) so in that sense it contributed to the atmosphere. I dont want to spoil the picture but I will say the aspect ratio changes through out the movie and varies on what you see and or feel throughout. Bravo Dolan, F&*(ing good movie and I was hoping it took the Palme d'Or or at least the grand jury prize which MOMMY was better then the film that did. I am sure I will see him back at Cannes next year and I look forward to it. 25 years old and made 5 features since he was 18... many of which he writes, stars, directs, and edits, films that are competing and winning at Festival De Cannes...not too shabby if you ask me, quite inspiring. Keep up the good work.

May 29, 2014 at 11:21AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Well said.

May 30, 2014 at 2:29PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Danny Nowak

I'm really glad people are interested in formats tat are more vertical. I prefer 4x3 to 16x9 because it's better suited for singles — heads and shoulders. When we shoot an OTS in 16x9, there's often too much shoulder and too much back of head. Feels like a waste of screen real estate to me.

May 30, 2014 at 2:07PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Tw

There is also "Post Tenebras Lux" from Carlos Reygadas, which also has a square ratio

May 30, 2014 at 2:16PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Antônio

Yes, it really emphasizes the psychological intensity of a guy spinning around with a shopping trolley for a minute for no reason.
Good thing film festivals love this hipster wank-product.

May 30, 2014 at 3:38PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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GraemeH

Its so nice to see that people like him have the balls to release a Movie in a square format.
I am tired of seeing this pseudo widescreen work. If you ask me, its a lot more hipster to film every short music video in "widescreen". at the end its an artistic choice. hoewever, I´m excited to see "mommy" on the big screen.

May 31, 2014 at 12:52PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Chris

Square looks shit.

May 31, 2014 at 10:28PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Geoff

Your even-handed and insightful comments on the cinematic process are awe inspiring.

June 1, 2014 at 12:10AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Coty

Thanks dude.I am honored to have received a reply from someone of your standing in the industry.

June 9, 2014 at 6:31AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Geoff Longford

Wow so much hate in this article. Why can people just appreciate a different style, they all just want the same things over and over again. Besides you are all criticizing the guy as an individual too, which is such a shame.

October 6, 2014 at 11:28PM, Edited October 6, 11:28PM

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Enrique Godinez
Director/Producer/Actor
418

Wow...
Seriously guys, do not allow yourselves to become blinded by jealousy.
I've seen it 3 days ago and I was wondering if there was some stuff written about it in such a great community like Nofilmschool... What a disappointment when I read the comments...
This is SERIOUSLY one of the best film of 2014, even if Dolan only represents a pathetic hipster for you, please watch this movie before judging it.
This film has been made by a very talented director.
So much more than a guy like Nolan (who is overrated around here It seems...)
I've just seen Interstellar, and seriously, It isn't at Mommy's level in terms of feelings, It isn't AT ALL...
A movie like Mommy is so encouraging for a community like this one.

November 10, 2014 at 7:26PM

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