How to Use Aspect Ratio as a Creative Tool; Rediscover the Value of 4:3
The Academy Ratio, or 4:3 aspect ratio was the standard in the early days of cinema and television today we look at why contemporary filmmakers are returning to it today.
For most new filmmakers, aspect ratio isn't something that is given much thought in a creative sense. Typically, one is chosen based on the popular appeal of Hollywood's current standard in hopes of making a film "look more like a film," which is why we're seeing anamorphic and wide screens all over the place.
However, in this video essay, Fandor's Jacob T. Swinney explores the use of the square Academy Ratio (4:3) in some of today's most acclaimed films, including American Honey, Ida, and The Grand Budapest Hotel in hopes of understanding not only why a modern filmmaker would decide to use a seemingly old-fashioned aspect ratio but also why you might want to give your own films' more thought before defaulting to wide.
Despite it losing Hollywood's favor in the 1950s, the 4:3 aspect ratio has experienced its own small renaissance in the last several years, especially in independent film. Titles like American Honey, A Ghost Story, and Jonah Hill's forthcoming coming-of-age film Mid90s all adopt the squared ratio and the reasons behind this stylistic choice are many.
We'll go into the reasons filmmakers choose a 4:3 aspect ratio and look at examples.
What is Aspect Ratio
The aspect ratio of an image describes it's width and height. It's a formula that stay consistent as it describes the relationship between width and height, regardless of the size of the image. Which is to say that the aspect ratio for a specific film would be the same on the "big screen" as it would on your phone. Unless there is cropping, pan and scan, etc.
Here is a useful aspect ration calculator tool, in case you want to play around with it.
Now that we've defined aspect ratio in a basic sense, let's get back to the creative ways filmmakers today have been using the old Hollywood standard 4:3.
Aspect Ratio and Nostalgia
Again, the 4:3 aspect ratio was the standard in Classic Hollywood before television became popular in the 1950s. Once TV sets became common and improvements in broadcasting were introduced after World War II, Hollywood wanted to make its fare stand out from that of television by utilizing wider aspect ratios, like 20th Century Fox's 2.66:1 anamorphic widescreen format "CinemaScope," that allowed them to capture spectacular landscapes and far-reaching action sequences, including the iconic chariot race in Willian Wyler's 1959 religious epic Ben-Hur (that film has a 2.76:1 aspect ratio).
With such a rich cinematic and broadcast history, 4:3 is used by filmmakers to tap into that inherent nostalgia of early cinema and television. While director Michel Hazanavicius and DP Guillaume Schiffman went with this aspect ratio inThe Artist to bring their audience back to the golden age of silent films, Jonah Hill and DP Christopher Blauvelt went with it in Mid90s to remind their audience of the good ol' days of sitting in front of the tube to watch Saturday Morning cartoons.
4:3 Aspect Ration Can Help Focus on Character
Because 4:3 provides a smaller area to fill with visual elements, every single one you place within the frame all of a sudden becomes very, very important. Which is great if you want your protagonists and other subjects to be the absolute center of attention. Widescreen formats naturally allow elements to exist on the furthest edges of the rectangular frame, which, while admittedly beautiful, can take attention away from your subject. Not only that, but widescreen formats often don't allow for detailed wide shots, while 4:3 allows them to be uniquely intimate, allowing you, as the filmmaker, to focus on your characters even while shooting in a wide.
As Swinney says, Andrea Arnold has filmed every single one of her features except for one in the 4:3 format, that includes American Honey (2016), Wuthering Heights (2011), and Fish Tank (2009). She explains her use of the format in an interview with Brandon Harris of Filmmaker Magazine:
I think it’s also a very beautiful frame for one person. It is a portrait frame. My films are generally from the point of view of one person. I think it’s a very respectful frame. I keep using the word respect and I don’t know why I keep saying that, but that’s what it feels like to me when I look at somebody framed in a 4:3 frame. It makes them really important. The landscape doesn’t take it from them. They’re not small in the middle of something. It gives them real respect and importance. It’s a very human frame, I think.
Those 4:3 Aspect Ratio Aesthetics
Canvases of different sizes and shapes are able to communicate differently with those that view them; film is no different. While widescreen formats give filmmakers a chance to supercharge the aesthetics of horizontal lines, 4:3 aspect ratio does the opposite. Instead of capturing sweeping landscapes, the square aspect ratio draws our eyes to verticle lines, characters' bodies, and faces. This allows you to, again, focus on your characters in a narrative sense, but it also allows you to capture the beautiful, evocative landscape of the human face to a degree you don't really achieve with widescreen.
Using Aspect Ratio to Evoke Emotions
If you grew up watching primarily widescreen content, both on the big screen and on TV (and on the internet), then this format can feel...a bit odd. 4:3 aspect ratio is boxy. Many would say it's stifling, claustrophobic, and makes them feel as though they're trapped or confined. This can be used to your benefit when making a film, especially if you want to create more tension because the square frame literally leaves your subject with "nowhere to run."
There isn't an empty right or left third of the frame for them to see an escape route. It's just them, there, filling up the entire frame and unaware of what dangers and horrible things lurk just beyond its borders.
Choose an Aspect Ratio That Will Stand Out
Though the 4:3 aspect ratio has made a resurgence in recent years, it's still relatively rare to see—even in independent films and especially in Hollywood films. So, if you want your film to stand out from the crowd, using 4:3 will definitely help you accomplish that.
The Big Picture on Aspect Ratio
Let's all say this together: there is no such thing as "the perfect aspect ratio." Formats must be chosen based solely on the unique needs of a film, so don't think I'm bashing widescreen while putting 4:3 apect ratio up on a pedestal. I'm totally not. All I'm saying is that there are so many cool things aspect ratios alone can do to make your film an even better experience for your audience, and hopefully, now you have a better idea of what those things are and how you can implement them in your future projects.