October 11, 2015

How Recent Films Have Utilized Older or Non-Standard Aspect Ratios to Their Advantage

Still from Xavier Dolan - Mommy - Trailer
You may be familiar with the standard aspect ratios typically found on the web or in theaters, but filmmakers have a long history of experimenting with their frames.

We wrote previously about Xavier Dolan utilizing a square 1:1 aspect ratio for Mommy, but a number of other examples are explored in this terrific video from De Filmkrant:

Aspect ratios have a long strange history as far as filmmaking is concerned, something that photography, another visual medium, hasn't had as much trouble with. While you may find some of these examples distracting in the context of watching the actual films, the one thing they all share in common is an attempt to expand beyond the confines of arbitrary standards to better suit the narrative.

Considering how important composition is to a film, it's still kind of amazing how easily it can be disregarded on cable networks who would rather fill a 16:9 screen than show a movie as it was originally intended. An exciting development we've seen with the internet is that even though most screens are 16:9 (or 16:10), and most video players online are 16:9, we can choose to fill that box any way we desire. This is especially important if we're using anamorphic adapters not necessarily designed for the aspect ratio of the sensor we're shooting with, but don't want to crop to something more standard.

The biggest takeaway here is that we shouldn't be afraid to push the boundaries of what is typically done as long as it serves a purpose within our story and strives to change the way it makes our audience feel about what is being composed inside the frame.       

Your Comment

10 Comments

Just an opition, but to me it feels a bit gimicky. I get why you would want to pick a frame size that best fits your story, but changing the borders mid-scene, that seems a little bit too much. Do you really need to triple underline the character's emotions like that? I'd rather just feel what the character is feeling through his actions than seeing the frame expand and think "ah, that means the characters world is expanding."

October 12, 2015 at 2:35AM

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I agree that it's a gimmick, especially in Dolan's film. At one point, he even has the main character clumsily pushing the edges of the frame to make it widescreen. And that brings nothing to the story. Sad hipster gimmick.

October 12, 2015 at 12:35PM

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The kind of "sad hipster gimmick" that gets you to Cannes.

October 12, 2015 at 4:06PM

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Pierre-Etienne Bordeleau
Director of photography
81

Definitely hear what you're saying, though anytime a character or device breaks the fourth wall it can be considered a gimmick. How many times have characters talked to the audience or looked at the audience?

I think all of these tools have their place in the right context and this art form needs this kind of experimentation.

October 12, 2015 at 7:08PM, Edited October 12, 7:08PM

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Joe Marine
Camera Department

I agree. It's frustrating when it seems that anytime a director does something outside of the box (pun intended) there is always a backlash from people who want to call it a "gimmick". Why would we not experiment? Are filmmakers not artists? Any artist that made any breakthrough got there by experimenting with the medium. The people who stamp anything that plays with form as a "sad hipster gimmick" get us nowhere new.

October 12, 2015 at 7:34PM, Edited October 12, 7:35PM

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Adam Wright
Filmmaker
99

I really liked the way it was done in The Grand Budapest Hotel. No mid-scene changes, just a nice tweak of the aspect ratio depending on which of the timelines you were watching. The 1.37:1 fit wonderfully with the quirky, magical, diorama-esque feel of the 1930s segments, which made for great contrast with the more down-to-earth, cinematic realism of the more modern scenes in 2.35:1.

October 16, 2015 at 1:26AM

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Sean Parker
writer/director/editor
153

I just think that there are a LOT of stuff you can do before changing aspect ratio.
Generally, just because you CAN do it doesn't mean you SHOULD do it...

It's interesting to analyse this, and I like the way it is used in "Mommy"... but it is something that calls attention to itself, so you better have a pretty good reason to use it so that you're not distracting the viewer. And thats the same for art, framing, lighting, movement, acting etc.

October 13, 2015 at 7:01PM

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Thales Banzai
Director; Screenwriter
335

I agree with you that you should have a good reason. I also agree that distracting the viewer can be a negative thing. However, I did a short film that experimented with various aspect ratios and interestingly, most people said that after awhile they didn't notice them.

October 15, 2015 at 8:40AM

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Adam Wright
Filmmaker
99

Great!

October 15, 2015 at 3:41PM, Edited October 15, 3:41PM

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Thales Banzai
Director; Screenwriter
335

Samurai Jack anyone ? Changing aspect ratios used well.
https://vimeo.com/44184875

or Son of Saul for a good cinematic example. 4:3 aspect used.
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt3808342/

October 16, 2015 at 8:14AM, Edited October 16, 8:23AM

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