If you ask budding cinematographers what are the ways to contribute visually to the story, many will mention lighting and framing. And maybe even lens choice for perspective and dynamics control. It may not be immediately obvious, but so does the choice of a suitable aspect ratio. The aspect ratio commands the geometrical shape of the picture and thus defines the base for in-frame composition. This makes it one of the important choices for any video production, be it a feature, a short, an ad, or a music video. In the age of digital image acquisition and digital intermediate it is much easier to be independent from the capture medium in aspect ratio choice. This is even more true in the context of digital content distribution online. And there are artistic reasons for a specific aspect ratio choice even more than there are technical reasons.

I wrote here that cinema is usually associated with widescreen aspect ratios. And this is indeed the case for many. In fact, the general expectation and audience conditioning that cinema is widescreen is one reason people automatically shoot videos wide when they want to get the film look. Of course, when theatrical projection is intended, it does put some limits on the aspect ratio due to standard projection equipment and projection gates availability at theaters. Or rather, projection gates unavailability for more exotic aspect ratios. But there are workarounds for this in the digital age. One can simply pad the frame of choice with black bars to fit it in the closest standard ratio. This is much easier to do now when no optical resizing is involved.

Movie aspect ratios

Cinema aspect ratios

So how do you approach film aspect ratio choice from an artistic point of view? It is all connected to composition. The aspect ratio should set the frame which is most appropriate in the context of the film concept; a frame offering compositional opportunities that best serve the story or the idea behind the story. It is really as simple as that, and as difficult as that. Different aspect ratios have different characteristics best suited for different scenarios.

Blade Runner (1982) screenshot

The "haircut" maximizes the onscreen area of the face

Many people associate the grandeur of theatrical viewing with 2.39:1 images (2.35:1), historically called CinemaScope after the anamorphic film process of the same name, and lovingly known simply as Scope. This is also the ratio that most movie theaters are built for nowadays. This aspect ratio is obviously good for putting vistas on display. That’s why it is the typical ratio of choice for epics. Fritz Lang joked about CinemaScope in a Jean-Luc Godard film: “It wasn’t meant for human beings; just for snakes and funerals.” – a possible allusion to a saying by George Stevens that CinemaScope is “a system of photography that pictures a boa constrictor to better advantage than a man”. It really works well with large scenes and groups of people. But giving actors presence can be difficult in such a wide frame. It is apparent when looking at early CinemaScope pictures that cinematographers were struggling with close-ups. Applying the traditional clean framing often looks awkward. So, to maximize the area they occupy on screen, actors in CinemaScope pictures routinely get “haircuts” – with the tops of their heads cut by the frame – sometimes even in medium shots. On the other hand, getting lost in the frame can be used to an advantage for the purpose of isolation. And then there is the option to play with figures separation and opposition. John Boorman actually likes Scope for character drama because the wide ratio allows him to put distance between the characters, to visualize relations by slotting them in the opposite ends of the frame.

The wide frame also increases subject placement possibilities and presents the opportunity to add tension through highly imbalanced compositions. And there is an added sense of freedom and space to widescreen aspect ratio frames. This last bit is partially connected to the fact that the wide frame naturally lends itself to wider lenses, which add air and space to the view. Sergio Leone had the dynamics of the Scope frame under full control. He shot almost exclusively in 2.35:1. He practically invented the super tight shot in wide frames and his movies are masterclass on spreading action and subjects on the entire frame and balancing it. The wide frame, with its long base, can also play well with formal symmetry. Wes Anderson movies stand as perfect examples.

4:3 aspect ratio screenshot from The Artist

Actors easily dominate the 4:3 frame

At the other end of the spectrum are the more squarish aspect ratios 1.33:1 and 1.37:1 (1.375:1), sometimes called open matte because they utilize pretty much the whole negative frame. These classic ratios are rarely used for movie productions today, being associated with TV. They are also the simplest to use from storytelling point of view. Michel Hazanavicius, who recently used the Academy ratio on The Artist, notes that the 4:3 frame forces you to have a single important piece of information in the frame. Which is in contrast with the need to manage the super wide frame when shooting Scope. The taller frame can appear cramped or even claustrophobic, but is also more intimate. It gives presence to actors, mostly in close-ups, but also in medium shots. The actor is always more or less centered in the frame and fills the screen. After all, these are the native ratios of the glamour Hollywood close-up and the glorious romantic two-shot.

4:3 is close to the stills photography ratio of 1.5:1 and also a very popular canvas ratio for paintings. So it is much easier to transfer compositional skills and experience from stills shooting and painting. Stanley Kubrick, who had extensive experience as a photographer, preferred this format. He was very specific about the aspect ratio choice of his films and even wrote letters to theater projectionists with instructions about it. He only ever shot two truly wide movies – Spartacus and 2001: A Space Odyssey – the first in Super Technirama, the second in Cinerama; both intended in 2.20:1. Most of his films were shot with the full frame in mind even though his three last movies were actually projected at 1.66:1 and 1.85:1.

In the middle we have the flat widescreen aspect ratios 1.85:1 and 1.66:1 (long time European flat wide standard), and 1.78:1 (coming from HDTV). These are the go-to formats for character drama. They share lots of the advantages of Scope allowing for some compositional variation. But they are easier to shoot in and more balanced which makes them a good starting point when considering an aspect ratio for a project.

If a ratio doesn’t present itself immediately, it is probably a good idea to see what kind of scenes dominate the story and choose accordingly. It may be difficult to select an aspect ratio for a diverse project where some scenes will work better in one ratio and other scenes in another. This is perhaps best resolved following one’s intuition. A more analytical approach would be going for the wider ratio and then using various tricks to help accommodate character centric scenes. These may include “naturally” occurring frames within frames, various vignettes or even shooting entire sequences in a different ratio.

There are also some lens considerations connected to video aspect ratio choice. Let’s say during a flat shoot we need to frame a close-up with consideration for 1.85:1 and 2.39:1. In widescreen aspect ratios close-ups are almost always restricted by the top and bottom framelines. So in order to achieve the same frame restriction we need to either move the camera back for Scope – and thus alter perspective – or use a wider lens. Loosely speaking, shooting flat for wider frame targets invites the use of wider lenses. Some cinematographers love Scope because they are fond of the various anamorphic artefacts arising in the anamorphic CinemaScope process. More recently, videographers have started to create the look in digital video through anamorphic adaptors on digital cameras, including DSLR cameras. The expanded result is very wide when sourced from HD cameras, usually up to 3.56:1 for 2x anamorphic lenses. Consequently, anamorphic video is virtually always presented in very wide ratios (2.39:1 and wider even after cropped at the sides). In this particular case anamorphic lens aesthetics govern over aspect ratio choice.