June 15, 2020

How Spike Lee Uses Aspect Ratio to Drive Story

Spike Lee used four different aspect ratios for Da 5 Bloods. Find out why. 

Being a storyteller doesn't just mean working on a screenplay. Being a storyteller means using everything around you to tell the best version of the story. As a filmmaker, that involves direction, actors, writers, and shooters. But it's not just camera moves. It also comes down to the way it looks on screen. 

I'm talking about aspect ratio

The new Spike Lee joint plays with aspect ratios and how they relate to storytelling. So I want to examine how he uses the aspect ratio to push his narrative forward and push the audience's understanding of the characters further. But first...

What is Aspect Ratio?

The aspect ratio of an image describes the width and height. It's usually written as two numbers separated by a colon, as in 16:9. It can also be written with an “x” between the numbers. Like 3x4. Make sense? The aspect ratio is how the image looks on screen. 

What Aspect Ratios Did Spike Lee use in Da 5 Bloods

In a recent Slate article, they interviewed veteran cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel, who was the DP on Da 5 Bloods to ask why he and Lee decided to shoot the movie in these four different formats and what effects they hoped to achieve. Let's go over some of the answers they got. 

1. Ultrawide 2.39:1 aspect ratio

Is there anything more beautiful than the world shot ultrawide? Visually, the best part of a movie is scope. When you see it on your huge TV or in a theater it's immersive. And that's what Lee wants from his shots of Present-day cities. He uses digital here as well. We see the world and the "normalcy" on the surface. 

But this movie wants to go deeper. 

Sigel said that Lee “always saw it as a movie about this group, these brothers, and it’s one of the reasons that you don’t have a lot of close-ups. It’s a lot of group shots.” He even said, “I think if Spike had his way, every single shot would have had all of them at the same time.” 

2. 1.33:1 aspect ratio

When it came time to handle the flashbacks to the Vietnam era, Lee went with something a little more boy. Not only is it an homage to older movies but also to be more indicative of memories. Instead of digital, they shoot with 16mm reversal film stock. It's grainy and brutal. The complete opposite of the clean shots we see in the present. 

But it's not like you can process film in the jungle. 

Sigel says, “I loved that idea that we were taking that leap of faith going back to where we all began, where you didn’t know what you had right away, and you had to trust your crew and your experience.”

3. 16:9 aspect ratio

When the gang heads out into the jungle, life gets different. Memory blends with reality. It's so hard to show that on-screen, but using an aspect ratio like the 16:9 kind of helps shifts the tone as the gang heads into the jungle. But they do stay shooting digital. 

Sigel said, "I had the idea that because it’s a Netflix show, what we call the envelope of the show, or the packaging of the show, is basically the 16:9 format. By treating the jungle that way, actually we were opening up the frame. So the frame is letterboxed 2.39:1 when you’re in Ho Chi Minh City, and then it literally opens up to the jungle. The jungle becomes this huge canopy surrounding these guys, enveloping this group."

4. 2.39:1 aspect ratio

Lastly, we get an actual combination with shooting on home movies. It's a memory of a memory. They're shooting with Super 8, letterboxed to fit the wide aspect ratio. The black bars box us in and stress us out. We kind of feel the walls closing in on these people. But they really use it this way to make the transition less jarring than it would have been had there been if there was an abrupt aspect ratio change in the middle of the modern-day sequences. 

So this decision keeps the movie feeling cohesive. 

What were your favorite parts of Da 5 Bloods

Let us know in the comments. 

Up Next: Are Drive-in Theaters Making a Comeback

We all miss going to the theater, but it's hard to know when things will be totally safe again. There have been lots of drawbacks during this time, but the one thing I am loving is the comeback of drive-in movie theaters. Learn more.     

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