Aspect Ratio and the Marvel Cinematic Universe

I used to be a casual follower of superhero films, until I was inducted into the Marvel Cinematic Universe via a movie marathon. Despite different directors for each instalment, the MCU has a fairly consistent look and feel, so I was a little surprised when we got to The Avengers to note that it differs visually in one significant way from all of its predecessors. Whereas the five previous films (and indeed most of the subsequent ones) were in the 2.39:1 aspect ratio, The Avengers was presented in the taller 1.85:1 ratio.

This initially struck me as counterintuitive. 2.39:1 was introduced in the 1950s to tempt watchers of the new-fangled TV back into the cinemas, and ever since then it has been associated with the biggest, most epic, most cinematic of movies. It seems like the natural choice for a superhero franchise, so it’s no surprise that the MCU adopted this ratio for most of its instalments. But if wider images mean a more epic movie, then surely The Avengers, the climax of Phase One and the coming-together of a whole team of superheroes, should be, if anything, even wider than its 2.39:1 predecessors?

“The Avengers” (2012, DP: Seamus McGarvey, BSC, ASC)

I’m certainly not the first person to be nonplussed by the choice. A quick google later on threw up plenty of forums where fans complained that The Avengers was “not cinematic enough” because of its aspect ratio. Some linked the choice of ratio to director Joss Whedon’s TV background, claiming he was more comfortable with that shape of frame.

The real reason for Whedon’s decision became clear as the action ramped up into the third act. The battle of New York is not a two-dimensional conflict; Thor and Iron Man are flying around, the Hulk climbs up buildings, the Chitauri ships float above the streets, and Stark Tower plays a key part in the action. The extra frame height of 1.85 was essential to tell that story.

“I wanted to feel the space around us, and use wider lenses,” said Whedon. “That’s why I went 1.85 instead of wider. In IMAX, I wanted it to fill your eyeball completely.”

“Ant-Man” (2015, DP: Russell Carpenter, ASC)

Continuing the movie marathon, the MCU does not return to 1.85 until Ant-Man, and director Peyton Reed initially encountered resistance from the studio when he advocated this ratio. “It’s a big conversation because it affects production design. It affects everything. And it felt to me… that shrinking was a vertical act and it was going to serve the movie even more. And I had to make a case for the fact that it was still going to be epic.”

I wonder if the days of wider aspect ratios being perceived as more epic are numbered. IMAX sequences are becoming more and more common in blockbusters, including the Marvel films. Digital IMAX has an aspect ratio of 1.90:1, very similar to the 1.85 which is so often perceived as the small-scale, poor man’s ratio. (To confuse matters, the 1.90 sequences are often cropped to 2.39 for ordinary cinemas and home entertainment release.) An epic feel is very much what the IMAX brand is selling, so the traditional perception is being turned on its head. Both Avengers: Infinity War and the recent Endgame were shot entirely in Imax 1.90:1, and are sure to be the very definition of epic for a while to come.

Things seem to be going the same way over in the DC universe too. On the social media platform Vevo, director Zak Snyder had this to say about Batman v. Superman and Justice League: “I had so much fun shooting the IMAX sections of my movie (BvS) [that I] sort of fell in love with that giant less rectangular aspect ratio and so that’s why I shot JL 1:85”.

Image size may have something to do with this shifting trend. After all, a larger image is surely more epic than a smaller one. In theory, 2.39 should result in the largest image, with curtains or masks at the sides of a cinema screen opening up for these widescreen presentations. In practice though, many smaller multiplex auditoria mask the top and bottom of their screens for 2.39, making for a smaller overall image than 1.85, just like when you watch 2.39 content at home on your TV or monitor (which is 1.78:1). My local multiplex recently converted its largest auditorium to IMAX, which involved no change to the width of the screen, but an increase in height.

Add to this the fact that 2.39 overtook 1.85 as the most common aspect ratio for top-grossing films over a decade ago, and it’s small wonder that filmmakers seeking to make their work stand out from the crowd are turning to taller frames.

“Avengers: Infinity War” (2018, DP: Trent Opaloch)

However the trend of aspect ratios ends up going, it’s important to remember that there’s no wrong or right. I’ve done jobs where directors have told me, “It’s a movie, it’s got to be 2.39,” or, “It’s a series, it’s got to be 1.78,” but there is always a choice. Are your sets tall or wide? Are your lead characters similar or dissimilar in height? Are landscapes or body language most important to this story? It’s factors like these that should really determine the best ratio for your movie, just as Whedon and Reed both realised.

See also:

Aspect Ratio and the Marvel Cinematic Universe

The 4:3 Aspect Ratio is Not Dead

This summer I shot Exit Eve, a short film from director Charlie Parham dealing with the exhausting and demeaning life of an au pair. We took the unusual decision to shoot it in 4:3, a ratio all but obsolete, but one which felt right for this particular story. Before I look at some of the ratio’s strengths and challenges, let’s remind ourselves of the history behind it.

 

History

William Kennedy Dickson

The 4:3 motion picture aspect ratio, a.k.a. 1.33:1, was created about 120 years ago by William Kennedy Dickson. This Thomas Edison employee was developing a forerunner to the movie projector, and decided that an image height of four perforations on 35mm film gave the ideal shape. In 1909 the ratio was declared the official standard for all US films by the Motion Picture Patent Company.

When the talkies arrived two decades later, room needed to be made on the film prints for the optical soundtrack. The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences responded by determining a new, very slightly wider ratio of 1.37:1, known fittingly enough as the Academy Ratio. It’s so similar to 4:3 that I’m going to lump them together from hereon in.

When television was invented it naturally adopted the same 4:3 ratio as the big screen. The popularity of TV led to falling cinema attendance in the 1950s, to which the Hollywood studios responded with a range of enticing gimmicks including widescreen aspect ratios. Widescreen stuck, and for the next generation 1.85:1 and 2.39:1 were the ratios of cinema, while the narrower 4:3 was the ratio of TV.

By the time I entered the industry in the late 1990s, 4:3 was much maligned by filmmakers. It seemed boxy and restrictive compared with widescreen, and reminded those of us in the guerrilla world that we didn’t have the budgets and equipment of the Hollywood studios. Meanwhile, the wide compositions of big movies were butchered by pan-and-scan, the practice of cropping during the telecine process to fit the image onto a 4:3 TV without letterboxing. 4:3 was ruining our favourite movies, we felt.

Then, in the 21st century, 16:9 television became the norm, and the 4:3 aspect ratio quietly disappeared, unmourned…. Or did it?

 

Contemporary Cinema

Although they are firmly in a minority, a number of filmmakers have experimented with 4:3 or Academy Ratio in recent years. Some, like Andrea Arnold and the late Éric Rohmer, rarely shot anything else.

Arnold wanted a combination of intimacy and claustrophobia for her Bafta-winning 2009 drama Fish Tank. She carried the ratio over to her next film, an adaptation of Wuthering Heights, despite the prevalence of big landscapes which would have prompted most directors to choose 2.39:1. The Academy Ratio focuses the viewer’s attention much more on the characters and their inner worlds.

“Fish Tank” – DP: Robbie Ryan, BSC

Mark Kermode has this to say about the 1.37:1 work of Arnold and her DP Robbie Ryan: “What’s wonderful about it is the way [Ryan] uses that squarer format not to make the picture seem compressed but to make it seem taller, to make it seem larger, to make it seem oddly more expansive.”

Meek’s Cutoff (2010), a modern western by Kelly Reichardt, recalls the early Academy classics of the genre. As with Wuthering Heights, characters are placed in the landscape without being dominated by it, while the height of the frame produces bigger skies and an airier feel.

“Meek’s Cutoff” – DP: Chris Blauvelt

Pawel Pawlikowski’s 2013 Oscar-winner Ida deliberately goes against the grain, shooting not only in 4:3 but in black and white as well. It’s the perfect format to convey the timeless, spartan existence of the titular Ida and her fellow nuns. The tall frame allows for copious headroom, inspiring thoughts of Heaven and God, beneath which the mortal characters seem small.

The 2017 animated feature Loving Vincent, meanwhile, adopted 4:3 because it was closer to the shape of Van Gogh’s paintings.

David Lowery, director of last year’s A Ghost Story, wanted to trap his deceased title character in the boxy ratio. “It gave me a good opportunity to really hammer home the circumstances this ghost finds himself trapped in, and to dig into and break down the claustrophobia of his life within these four walls… And it was also a way to tap into some degree of nostalgia, because it feels old-fashioned when you see a movie in a square aspect ratio.”

4:3’s nostalgia factor has allowed it to be used very effectively for flashbacks, such as those in the recent Channel 4/Netflix series The End of the F***ing World. Wes Anderson delineated the three time periods of The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) with different aspect ratios, using 1.37:1 for scenes set in 1932, the very same year in which that ratio was standardised by the Academy.

 

“Exit Eve”

Nostalgia, intimacy, claustrophobia, isolation – these are just some of the feelings which cinema’s original aspect ratio can evoke. For Charlie and I on Exit Eve, it was the sense of being trapped which made the ratio really fit our story. 

I’m also a great believer in choosing a ratio that fits the shape of your primary location, and the converted schoolhouse which we were shooting in had very high ceilings. 4:3 allowed us to show the oppressive scale of these rooms, while giving the eponymous Eve little horizontal freedom to move around it. One additional practical consideration was that, when lensing a party scene, the narrower ratio made it easier to fill the frame with supporting artists!

It wasn’t hard to get used to framing in 4:3 again. A lot of Exit Eve was handheld, making for fluid compositions. There were a couple of tripod set-ups where I couldn’t help thinking that the extra width of 1.85:1 would be useful, but for the most part 4:3 worked well. 

We were shooting on an Alexa Plus with a 16:9 sensor, meaning we were cropping the image at the sides, whereas ideally we would have hired a 4:3 model to use the full width of the sensor and a larger proportion of our lenses’ image circles. This would have allowed us to get slightly wider frames in some of the location’s smaller rooms.

Our sound department had to adapt a little. The boom op was used to being able to get in just above the actors’ heads, but with the generous headroom I was often giving, she had to re-learn her instincts.

Classic 4:3 overs in “Star Trek: The Next Generation”

I had forgotten how well dialogue scenes are suited to 4:3. With wider ratios, over-the-shoulder shots can sometimes be tricky; you can end up with a lot of space between the foreground shoulder and the other actor, and the eye-line ends up way off camera. 4:3 perfectly fits a face, along with that ideal L-shape of the foreground shoulder and side of head, while keeping the eye-line tight to camera.

Not every project is right for 4:3, far from it. But I believe that the ratio has served its sentence in the wilderness for its pan-and-scan crimes against cinema, and should now be returned to the fold as a valid and expressive option for filmmakers.

See also:

The 4:3 Aspect Ratio is Not Dead

“The Knowledge”: Shooting a Multi-camera Game Show

Robert Jezek as gameshow host Robert O’Reilly. Photo: Laura Radford

Last week saw the UK premier of The Knowledge, an art installation film, at the FLUX Exhibition hosted by Chelsea College of Arts. Conceived by award-winning, multi-disciplinary artist Ian Wolter, The Knowledge comments on the topical issue of artificial intelligence threatening jobs. It takes the form of a fake game show, pitting a team of traditional London cabbies (schooled in the titular Knowledge) against a team of smart-phoning minicab drivers. Although shot entirely on stage, the film’s central conceit is that the teams are each guiding a driver across London, to see whether technology or human experience will bring its car to the finish line first.

You can see a couple of brief promos on Vimeo here. It’s a unique project, and one that I knew would be an interesting challenge as soon as I heard of it from my friend Amanda Stekly, producer and production designer. This week and next I’ll describe the creative and technical decisions that went into photographing the piece, beginning this week with the camera side of things.

Photo: Laura Radford

I had never shot a multi-camera studio production like this before, so my first move was to sit down with my regular 1st AC and steadicam operator Rupert Peddle, and his friend Jack D’Souza-Toulson. Jack has extensive experience operating as part of a multi-camera team for live TV and events. This conversation answered such basic questions as, could the operators each pull their own focus? (yes) and allowed me to form the beginnings of a plan for crew and kit.

At the monitors with Jonnie. Photo: Laura Howard

Ian and Amanda wanted the film to have a dated look, and referenced such eighties quiz shows as 3-2-1 and Blankety Blank. Director Jonnie Howard and I knew that we had to supply the finished film in HD, which ruled out shooting on vintage analogue video cameras. Interlaced recording was rejected for similar reasons, though if memory serves, I did end up shooting at a shutter angle of 360 degrees to produce a more fluid motion suggestive of interlaced material.

I was very keen that the images should NOT look cinematic. Jonnie was able to supply two Canon C100s – which I’ve always thought have a sharp, “video-ish” look – and L-series glass. I set these to 1600 ISO to give us the biggest possible depth of field. For the remaining two cameras, I chose ENG models, a Canon XF-300 (owned by Rupert) and XF-305. In an ideal world, all four cameras would have been ENG models, to ensure huge depth of field and an overall TV look, but some compromise was necessary for budget reasons, and at least they all used Canon sensors. We hired a rack of four matching 9″ monitors so we could ensure a consistent look on set.

Photo: Laura Radford

One Canon C100, with an L-series zoom, was mounted on a pedestal and outfitted with Rupert’s follow focus system, allowing Jack to pull focus from the panning handle. The other C100 would shoot a locked-off wide, and was the first camera to be set up. A 14mm Samyang lens made the set look huge, and I placed it low down to emphasise the map in the foreground, and to make it easy for the other cameras to shoot over it. Once that frame was set, we taped a large V shape on the floor to indicate the edges of the wide shot. As long as the lights and other cameras stayed out of that area, they would be safe.

Jack operates the pedestal-mounted C100. Photo: Laura Radford

Generally Jack’s pedestal-mounted C100 followed the host, Robert Jezek, or captured the interesting moving shots, while Rupert and the third operator, Jimmy Buchanan, cross-shot the two teams on the XF-100 and XF-105. No filtration was used, except for a four-point star filter on one camera when glitter canons are fired at the end of the game. This cheesiness was inspired by the 3-2-1 clips I watched for research, in which star filters were used for the tacky sequences showing the prizes on offer.

Next week I’ll discuss lighting the show. Meanwhile, find out more about Ian’s work at ianwolter.com.

Photo: Laura Radford

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“The Knowledge”: Shooting a Multi-camera Game Show

8 Ways “Barry Lyndon” Emulates Paintings

Stanley Kubrick’s 1975 period epic Barry Lyndon, although indifferently received upon its original release, is considered a masterpiece by many today. This is largely due to its painterly photography with strong, precisely composed frames that leave the viewer feeling more like they’ve wandered through an art gallery than watched a movie. Today I’m going to look at eight methods that Kubrick and his team used to create this feel. It’s an excellent example of how a director with a strong vision can use the many aspects of filmmaking to realise that vision.

 

1. Storytelling

The American Cinematographer article on Barry Lyndon notes that “Kubrick has taken a basically talky novel and magically transformed it into an intensely visual film.” You have only to look at a series of frame-grabs from the movie to see just how much of the story is contained in the images. Just like a painter, Kubrick reveals a wealth of narrative within a single frame. The shot above, for example, while recalling the landscapes of artists like Constable in its background and composition, also clearly tells the story of a courtship threatened by a third party with violent designs.

 

2. Design

Kubrick was keen for Lyndon to feature the type of rich fabrics which are often seen in 18th century art. He referred costume designer Milena Canonero to various painters of the period. “Stanley wanted beautiful materials,” she recalls in the documentary Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures, “because as he quite rightly said, that’s why in those paintings they gave that wonderful light.”

 

3. Aspect ratio

There was much confusion and controversy surrounding Kubrick’s intended ratio for Lyndon. The negative was apparently hard-masked to 1.6:1, with the result that VHS and DVDs used this ratio, while the images were vertically cropped to 1.78:1 for the later Blu-ray release. However, the discovery in 2011 of a letter from Kubrick to cinema projectionists finally proved that 1.66:1 was the ratio he wanted audiences to see the film in.

1.66:1 was a standard ratio in parts of Europe, but unusual in the UK and USA. It’s not far off the golden ratio (1.6180:1) – a mathematically significant ratio which some artists believe to be aesthetically pleasing. There is evidence that Kubrick was not a fan of wide aspect ratios in general, perhaps because of his background as a photographer, but it can be no coincidence that Lyndon distances itself from the cinematic ratios of 1.85 and 2.39, and instead takes a shape closer to that of a typical painting.

(Most of the images in this post come from Evan Richards’ Cinematographers Index, and he in turn grabbed them from the 1.78:1 Blu-ray. The image above is in 1.66:1 but shows the 1.78:1 crop-lines.)

 

4. Composition

“The actual compositions of our setups were very authentic to the drawings of the period,” says DP John Alcott, BSC in his interview with American Cinematographer. Perhaps the film’s most obvious compositional nod to classical art is the large amount of headroom seen in the wide shots. As this article by Art Adams explains, the concept of placing the subject’s head at the top of the frame is fairly new in the history of image creation. Plenty of traditional art includes lots of headroom, and Lyndon does the same.

 

5. Camera movement

There is little camera movement in Barry Lyndon, but there are 36 zoom shots. Unlike a physical dolly move, in which the parallax effect causes different planes of the image to shrink or enlarge at differing rates, a zoom merely magnifies or reduces the whole image as a single element. This of course only serves to enhance the impression of a two-dimensional piece of art. In fact, the zooms resemble nothing so much as the rostrum camera moves a documentary filmmaker might make across a painting – what today we’d call a Ken Burns effect.

It’s interesting to note that, although Barry Lyndon is famous for its fast lenses – the f/0.7 Zeiss Planar primes – the movie also used a very slow lens, a custom-built T9 24-480mm zoom. From various accounts, other zooms used seem to include a Cooke T3.1 20-100mm and possibly a 25-250mm of some description. Of course, none of the zoom lenses were anywhere near fast enough for the candlelit scenes, so in those instances the filmmakers were forced to use a Planar and pull back physically on a dolly.

 

6. Lighting

“In preparation for Barry Lyndon we studied the lighting effects achieved in the paintings of the Dutch masters,” Alcott says. “In most instances we were trying to create the feeling of natural light within the houses, mostly stately homes, that we used as shooting locations.”  The DP closely observed how natural light would come in through the windows and emulate that using diffused mini-brutes outside. This made it possible to shoot long days during the British winter when natural light was in short supply. Last week I covered in detail the technical innovations which allowed Alcott and Kubrick to shoot night scenes with just genuine candlelight, as 18th century painters would have seen and depicted them.

 

7. Contrast

Film stock in the seventies was quite contrasty, so Alcott employed a few methods to adjust his images to a tonal range more in keeping with 18th century paintings. He used a Tiffen No. 3 Low Contrast Filter at all times, with an additional brown net for the wedding scene “where I wanted to control the highlights on the faces a bit more,” he explains. He also used graduated ND filters (as in the above frame) both outdoors and indoors, if one side of the room was too bright. Most interestingly, he even went so far as to cover white fireplaces and doorways with fine black nets – not on the lens but on the objects themselves.

 

8. Blocking

The blocking in Barry Lyndon is often static. While this is certainly a creative decision by Kubrick, again recalling painted canvases and their frozen figures, it was also technically necessary in the candlelit scenes. Whenever the f/0.7 lenses were in use, the cast were apparently instructed to move as little as possible, to prevent them going out of focus. As one YouTube commenter points out, the stillness imposed by these lenses mirrors the stillness required of a painter’s model.

8 Ways “Barry Lyndon” Emulates Paintings

9 Uses for Central Framing

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post on lead room, the amount of horizontal space the subject is given in front of them in the frame. Commonly the subject is placed to one side or the other, but there can be times when sitting that actor bang in the middle of the screen is most appropriate and effective. Here are some reasons you might want to do it.

 

1. To show immersion in the environment

When you surround a character with equal amounts of the background on both sides, you embed them into that background, creating a strong connection between them and their environment. This can be seen to great effect in the above frames from Road to Perdition and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (DP: Conrad Hall, ASC) and The Revenant (DP: Emmanuel Lubezki, ASC, AMC).

 

2. To create power

Central framing can give a subject tremendous power and dominance, particularly in combination with a low angle, as seen in the above examples from House of Cards (DP: David M. Dunlap) and Django Unchained (DP: Robert Richardson, ASC).

 

3. To suggest formality or rigidity

These scenes from American Beauty (DP: Conrad Hall, ASC) use central framing to emphasise the formality of Lester’s performance review, and the stilted, suffocating nature of his home life.

 

4. To create order

Kubrick used central framing with strong single-point perspective to create worlds of perfect order… so perfect that they would have to come crashing down sooner or later. The above examples are from Full Metal Jacket (DP: Douglas Milsome, BSC, ASC) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (DP: Geoffrey Unsworth, OBE, BSC).

This shot from The Matrix (DP: Bill Pope, ASC) also uses central framing to symbolise order, the calculatingly perfect order of the machines.

 

5. To suggest duality

When you shoot a shot-reverse with both parties centred, the two characters appear to replace each other on screen every time you cut. This can suggest a strong connection between the characters, or a strong conflict as they battle for the same piece of screen. Donnie Darko (DP: Steven B. Poster, ASC, ICG) uses this technique to set up the antagonism of the rabbit, while also suggesting he’s a part of Donnie, a figment of his imagination.

 

6. For humour

Centre framing is of course a huge part of Wes Anderson’s style, as in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and The Grand Budapest Hotel (DP: Robert Yeoman, ASC). But I don’t think it’s stylisation for stylisation’s sake; his movies all have the feeling of tall tales told by ageing relatives with the aid of a scrapbook full of dorky, posed photos. The symmetry helps create the dorkiness, and from thence – as Lee & Herring used to say – the humour arises. The same is true of this classic scene from Garden State (DP: Lawrence Sher, ASC).

 

7. For faster cutting

Mad Max: Fury Road (DP: John Seale, ACS, ASC) was framed centrally in service of the editing. Director George Hill realised that if he put everyone in the same place in frame, the audience wouldn’t need to search the screen for the subject after every cut, allowing him to edit faster without making the action incomprehensible. See this post for more on the cinematography of Fury Road.

 

8. For impact

When used judiciously, central framing can have a big impact, giving a character their moment in the spotlight, putting them centre stage. It can underline a key character or story beat. The examples above are from Hugo (DP: Robert Richardson, ASC), Rogue One (DP: Greig Fraser, ACS, ASC) and American Beauty again.

 

9. To Break the fourth wall

And finally, if your subject is looking into the lens, addressing the audience, then central framing is the natural composition. It’s not the only composition though; often the subject will be framed to one side so we can see the action continuing in the background even as it is narrated to us. But if the shot is just about the narrator, often central framing will be the most effective, as in the above shots from Amélie (DP: Bruno Delbonnel, AFC, ASC) and A Series of Unfortunate Events (DP: Bernard Couture).

9 Uses for Central Framing

The 2:1 Aspect Ratio

Last autumn I wrote a post about aspect ratio, covering the three main ratios in use today: 16:9, 1.85:1 and 2.39:1. The post briefly mentioned a few non-standard ratios, including 2:1. Since then, I’ve noticed this ratio popping up all over the place. Could it be on its way to becoming a standard?

Today I’ll give you a little background on this ratio, followed by a gallery of frame grabs from 2:1 productions. The aim is simply to raise awareness of this new(ish) tool in the aspect ratio toolkit. As ever, it’s up to the director and DP to decide whether their particular project is right for this, or any other, ratio. However, I would caution low-budget filmmakers against picking what is still not a common ratio without considering that smaller distribution companies may crop your work to a more standard ratio either because of convenience or negligence.

Woody Allen and Vittorio Storaro shooting Café Society

Vittorio Storaro, ASC, AIC – the highly-regarded cinematographer of Last Tango in Paris and Apocalypse Now amongst many others – began championing the 2:1 ratio around the turn of the millennium. It was one of the most complicated times in the history of aspect ratios. The horror of pan-and-scan (butchering a movie to fit its 1.85:1 or 2.39:1 ratio into 4:3 without bars) was starting to recede with the introduction of DVD, which was in fact still 4:3 but could contain squeezed 16:9 content. Widescreen television sets were starting to build in popularity, but some programmes and films were being broadcast in the middle-ground ratio of 14:9 so as not to offend the majority of viewers who still had 4:3 sets. And Storaro recognised that HD would soon supplant celluloid as the primary capture and exhibition method for cinema, likely bringing with it fresh aspect ratio nightmares.

Storaro proposed “Univisium”, a 2:1 aspect ratio that fell between the two cinema standards of 1.85:1 and 2.39:1. It was a compromise, designed to make everyone’s life easier, to produce images that would need only minor letterboxing no matter where or how they were screened. However, the industry did not share his vision, and until recently 2:1 productions were relatively rare, most of them lensed by Storaro himself, such as Frank Herbert’s Dune, Exorcist: The Beginning and Storaro’s first digital picture, Café Society.

John Schwartzman shooting Jurassic World

Perhaps the biggest 2:1 movie to date is Jurassic World. DP John Schwartzman, ASC wanted to shoot anamorphic 2.39:1, while Steven Spielberg, exec producing, advocated 1.85:1 (like his original Jurassic Park) to provide more height for the dinosaurs. 2:1 was arrived at, again, as a compromise.

And compromise is likely what has driven the recent explosion in 2:1 material – not in the cinema, but online. Recent shows produced in this ratio include The Crown, A Series of Unfortunate Events, Stranger Things and House of Cards on Netflix, and Transparent on Amazon. I expect the producers of these series were looking to give their audience a more cinematic experience without putting off those who dislike big black bars on their screen, not unlike the reasoning behind the 14:9 broadcasts in the noughties.

2:1 may be a ratio born out of compromise, but then so was 16:9 (invented by SMPTE in the early eighties as a halfway house between 2.35:1 and  4:3). It certainly doesn’t mean that shooting in 2:1 isn’t a valid creative choice. Perhaps its most interesting attribute is its lack of baggage; 16:9 is sometimes seen as “the TV ratio” and 2.39:1 as “the big movie ratio”, but 2:1 has no such associations. One day perhaps it may be thought of as “the streaming ratio”, but for now it is simply something other.

Anyway, enough of the history and theory. Here are some examples of the cinematography that can be achieved in 2:1.

 

Cafe Society

DP: Vittorio Storaro, ASC, AIC

 

Jurassic World

DP: John Schwartzman, ASC

 

House of Cards

Season 5 DP: David M. Dunlap

 

Stranger Things

Season 1 DP: Tim Ives

 

The Crown

Season 1 DPs: Adriano Goldman, ASC, ABC & Ole Bratt Birkeland

 

Broadchurch

Season 3 DP: Carlos Catalan

 

A Series of Unfortunate Events

Season 1 DP: Bernard Couture

The 2:1 Aspect Ratio

Lead Room, Nose Room or Looking Space

Like headroom, last week’s topic, lead room is one of the first concepts we are introduced to when we begin learning camera operation. And like headroom, it’s a rule that’s made to be broken. If a character is looking screen-left, certainly it’s most common to place them on the right of frame – giving them lead room (a.k.a. nose room or looking space) on the left, but that is not the only option. In certain situations it’s more appropriate, or simply more aesthetically pleasing, to place them on the left, or in the centre. And although The Rule of Thirds suggests how far to the left or right they will commonly be placed (a third, or two-thirds of the way across the frame) it is, again, far from the only option.

Below I’ve compiled a spectrum of lead room: a series of examples showing the whole range of horizontal positions within a frame where a subject could be placed. (Note: I’ve flopped some of the images to maintain the screen direction.) All of these examples are from 1.78:1 or 1.85:1 productions, but of course with the 2.39:1 Cinemascope format there is an even greater range of options. On the righthand side, to aid comparison, I’ve placed different crops of the same photo (by Richard Unger).

No composition is fixed in motion picture production. Actors move around, miss their marks; it’s difficult for a DP to be precise about where the subject appears in the shot, so reading a particular intention into an individual frame is dangerous. But if, within a film, there is a trend of characters, or a specific character, being placed in one particular part of the frame, then it’s fair to assume that the filmmakers were deliberately trying to create a particular effect.

With that in mind, the thoughts below are not intended to analyse why that specific shot in that specific production was composed the way it was, but rather to consider in general terms what meanings and emotions that kind of composition might convey.

 

“Carol” (DP: Edward Lachman)

This is the maximum lead room you can give an actor in 1.85:1 without cutting off part of their head (which you may want to do in certain extreme circumstances, but that’s a subject for another post). This is someone backed into a corner, isolated. They have full cognisance of their situation – they can see it all in front of them. What you choose to place on the other side of frame is very important with an extreme composition like this. Negative space, as in the above example, creates an unbalanced frame, suggesting someone in a precarious situation, whereas another person or object would appear to dominate the subject.

 

“Atonement” (DP: Seamus McGarvey)

This is widely considered to be the ideal framing, with the subject placed according to The Rule of Thirds. Assuming that Keira is looking at another actor here, and that that actor’s single is framed with him in the left half of frame, the brain can comfortably merge the two shots into one, creating – subconsciously – a split-screen like a phone conversation in an old sitcom. The shot-reverse will be pleasingly balanced, and no tension will be created – at least not by the lead room.

 

“Fargo” (DP: Roger Deakins)

On more than one occasion I’ve tried to frame a shot like this, only to be told by the director that the subject is “too close to the centre”, it’s “wrong” and the subject must be placed on a third. What I should have done is shown them this frame, said, “If it’s good enough for Roger Deakins….” and then coughed in a way that sounded suspiciously like “thirteen Oscar nominations”. What’s interesting about this composition is the visual tension it creates when edited with the reverse. If the other actor is similarly close to the centre, their images start to overlap, almost like they’re duking it out, and if the other actor is placed further from the centre, they will seem trapped by their interlocutor. Or maybe composing the shot this way sometimes just allows for the best range of movement from the actor and the most pleasing frame.

 

“Lost in Translation” (DP: Lance Acord)

Placing someone in the centre of frame can be very powerful. It suggests someone in control, balanced, dominant. Now of course, that is not at all an accurate description of Bill Murray’s character in Lost in Translation. But notice that big, bright practical light so close to his head; it completely unbalances the composition. This just goes to show that the subject’s   position relative to background elements can be of equal or greater importance to their position within the frame. I aim to do a whole post about centre-framing in the near future.

 

“Hugo” (DP: Robert Richardson)

Although short-sided, the boy still has some lead room, in fact an amount of lead room that would be perfectly normal in a 4:3 composition. Personally, I would be comfortable with this composition for purely aesthetic reasons, but it could also be used to create some visual tension, suggesting things unknown behind the subject, waiting to creep up on them figuratively or literally. It could also suggest the character is weak, particularly if intercut with another character who is more traditionally framed.

 

“Les Miserables” (DP: Danny Cohen)

Now we are into territory that many will find uncomfortable. A character short-sided like this may seem unbalanced, lost, trapped, wrong-footed or isolated. Or they might simply be deep in thought;  you can easily imagine another character entering in the background of the above frame, breaking Crowe’s reverie, restoring the compositional balance and turning it into a deep two-shot.

 

“Mr. Robot” (DP: Tod Campbell)

Imagine someone walking into a room and standing right up against the wall, facing it. You would think them strange, disturbed. You might wonder if they were looking at something imaginary. This is the effect created by extreme short-siding. It also serves to make the subject look completely alone, even though they might be speaking to someone just inches in front of them. Mr. Robot is the only place I’ve ever seen composition this unusual, though I’m sure there are other examples out there.

 

Next time you watch a film or a TV show, pay attention to the lead room. You may be surprised to find that non-standard compositions are employed more often than you thought.

Thanks again to evanrichards.com, where I found most of the frame grabs.

Lead Room, Nose Room or Looking Space

Headroom

One of the first things that amateur photographers and cinematographers are taught is  “correct” headroom. Don’t put people’s heads in the middle of the frame, we’re told, but at the top. Rules are made to be broken though, and here are three examples of beautiful cinematography which do just that.

 

Broadchurch

“A town wrapped in secrets” is the tag-line of this critically-acclaimed ITV detective serial. In classic murder mystery fashion, every character is hiding something, causing suspicion to rest on each of them for a little while until the the person hiding the right secret is found.

David Tennant’s DI Alec Hardy complains of the small coastal town’s “endless sky”, an observation which could equally apply to the cinematography, framing the action as it often does with expansive headroom. While this may be partly an attempt to emphasise the isolation of the titular town, where people are small in the face of nature, its primary effect is to evoke the secrecy so integral to the storyline. Just as the police – and viewers – are figuratively misdirected by the suspects’ lies, so the camera is literally misdirected. The message from Matt Gray, BSC’s cinematography is: look at the beautiful sky and the paintings high up on the wall, because if you look too hard at what’s in front of you, you’ll see that the surface perfection of the bucket-and-spade idyll is built on foundations of sand.

 

Utopia

This stylish, stunningly-photographed thriller ran for two seasons on Channel 4 in 2013 and 2014. It featured a group of disparate characters following clues in a cult graphic novel to uncover a chilling conspiracy. It was the first TV show I’d ever seen in 2.39:1, it had a garish, digitally-manipulated palette, and its composition broke all the rules.

Amongst Utopia‘s visual hallmarks was the use of plentiful headroom. Characters were frequently crushed into the lower half of the frame, a symbol of the powerful conspiracy looming over them. The overall look crafted by director Marc Munden and DP Ole Bratt Birkeland placed the viewer completely outside of the comfort zone of TV’s visual conventions, into a world where you couldn’t trust or rely on anything. (The Amazon series Mr. Robot uses similar techniques for similar reasons.)

Both seasons of Utopia can be viewed free at channel4.com

 

IDA

The makers of the Oscar-winning Polish indie feature Ida also chose an unusual aspect ratio; 4:3 had not been commonly used in features for decades. It was director Pawel Pawlikowski who wanted to try framing his subjects low down within the boxy ratio, leaving lots of headroom.

DP Lukasz Zal, PSC embraced the idea. “We saw that [the odd framing] created the feeling of loss, isolation and that it wasn’t just a strange mannerism but it conveyed so much more,” he told The LA Times.

Many interpretations have been placed on the meaning of the extra headroom in this tale of a young novitiate nun who comes to question her lifestyle. Most commonly it is seen as implying heaven above and therefore the nuns’ thoughts of the divine. To me it also conveys a sense of helplessness, of free will being overcome by larger forces above and around Ida.

Read this post on the ASC website for more on the cinematography of Ida.

If you want to delve deeper into the topic of headroom, I highly recommend this article by Art Adams: A Short History of Headroom, and How to Use It.

I’ll leave you with Pawel Pawlikowski’s thoughts on the ambiguity of his framing in Ida

Some audiences have said the sky was crushing them. When you do something that’s formally strong, it elicits all kinds of responses. When you make these decisions, they’re kind of intuitive. You don’t intellectualize what it means; it feels right.

Headroom

Composing a Shot-Reverse

Ah, the shot-reverse, that staple of film and television, that standard for dialogue scenes everywhere. Sooner or later, two characters are going to stand three feet apart, facing each other, and have a chat. (You know, like real people do all the time.) And the required coverage will be a wide or two-shot, followed by a pair of singles known as a shot-reverse.

The singles can be dirty (including the other character’s shoulder or back of head in the frame) or clean (not showing the other character). Except for tight close-ups, dirty singles – often called over-the-shoulder shots for obvious reasons – are most common, and it’s these that I’ll focus on in this post.

 

The Unwritten rules. Which I shall now write.

Conventional wisdom on shot-reverses says that the two shots should

  • be the same size,
  • use the same lens,
  • match the height of the respective eye-lines,
  • allow “looking space”, and
  • frame the two characters on opposite sides of the screen.

Here is a shot-reverse from Hugo (DP: Robert Richardson) which obeys all of these rules…

And here is a shot-reverse from Alien (DP: Derek Vanlint) which obeys none of them…

Ultimately, like all framing decisions, it’s subjective. Directors often have strong ideas about what they do and don’t like in shot-reverses. And no two DPs will agree exactly on the subject. And of course the actors will move around at least slightly during the scene, messing with any strict composition you’ve established.

 

Using the width of the frame

Traditional television, driven as it was by dialogue scenes usually covered in over-the-shoulder shots, was perfectly suited to the old 4:3 ratio. The subject and foreground characters neatly filled the frame.

But with today’s wider aspect ratios – particularly 2.39:1- we have a choice to make about how to use the extra horizontal space. If we want to place the characters on either side of the frame, we have to shift the camera out, away from the eyeline…

This has the disadvantage of showing some of the foreground character’s face, and starting to look a little like a two-shot. But it may be very effective symbolically if the characters have a strained or distant relationship in the story.

If you don’t like all that space between the characters, you can return the camera closer to the eyeline, keeping the subject on the “correct” side of frame, the side that gives them the most looking space

However, the foreground character cuts off the looking space, and the composition can end up looking unbalanced. It may feel like the subject is trapped, squashed into the side of frame by the foreground character. But again, this may be the effect you want to create.

You can frame the characters more centrally, or you can go to the other extreme, placing the foreground character enclosing the side of frame, cradling the rest of the composition…

This creates a nice sense of depth, making the screen resemble a window. The foreground character on the edge of frame continues the perspective of the physical frame itself (be it the plastic surround of a TV set, the curtains of a cinema or whatever) into the frame.

(I can’t understand why the cinema’s empty. This looks like an awesome movie.)

Here’s a similar composition from Die Hard (DP: Jan de Bont), where the perspective is continued even further into the image, to a statue in the deep background…

 

Oscar-winning shot-reverses

Looking through Evan Richards’ Cinematography Index at recent movies to bag the Best Cinematography Oscar, I saw a wide variety of styles in the shot-reverses. Here are just a few that stood out to me as interesting.

Here’s an example from The Revenant (DP: Emmanuel Lubezki) which uses the foreground character as a framing element on the right…

This next example from Inception (DP: Wally Pfister) has great perspective, helped by the line of the table, and the wineglass on the left which almost feels like a vanishing point for the eye-line…

This clean shot-reverse from Sicario (DP: Roger Deakins) is interesting because the camera height is not on the eye-line….

The men at the table are shot from just below their head height, giving them more power and permitting the inclusion of the great perspective lines of ceiling lights in the background. The characters are framed quite centrally, which is also true of this final example, from Memoirs of a Geisha (DP: Dion Beebe)…

In the first shot, the distant window on frame right anchors and balances the composition, while the lantern on frame left serves the same function in the second shot.

 

And now the conclusion

If there’s one single piece of advice to take from this somewhat disjointed post, it’s that it’s more important to frame a shot-reverse in a way that feels right aesthetically, for the characters, and for the story, than to follow any rules, because…

See also: Composing a Wide Shot and 2.39:1 Composition

Composing a Shot-Reverse

Composing a Wide Shot

I have wanted to write a blog post about composition for ages, but I’ve procrastinated. Framing is such an instinctive and subjective thing; could I ever articulate how to do it? I’m still not sure, but at last I’m taking a deep breath and giving it a go. To help me, I’m using frame grabs from Best Cinematography Oscar-winning films of the last ten years or so, taken from the brilliant and handy website Cinematographer’s Index. Check it out and donate a few bucks if you can.

 

the rule of thirds

The Rule of Thirds is well known to most filmmakers. It suggests that you imagine the frame divided vertically and horizontally into thirds, then place the subject on one of the intersections of these lines.

However, composing images using The Rule of Thirds is like riding a bike using stabilisers. It’s something that you use before you’ve developed your own eye for composition.

Here are just a few examples of cinematography which completely ignore the rule, yet won Oscars. Guillermo Navarro puts his subject bang in the centre, in this scene from Pan’s Labyrinth

While Dion Beebe goes for an extreme off-set in Memoirs of a Geisha

In this scene from Life of Pi, Claudio Miranda places the two least important elements in the frame – the lifeboat and the sun – roughly on the thirds, but puts Pi himself right in the centre, and the distant ship off to the right…

 

ENclosing one SIDE

So, if we’re not using The Rule of Thirds, where do we start? I like to start with the edges of the frame, rather than some arbitrary points within in. I look for something to give me a reason to put the edge of the frame in a particular place.

As I touched on in my previous post, about Turner, it’s aesthetically pleasing to create a frame within a frame, but unless you’re shooting through a window you can’t always enclose the image on all four sides. Often the ground/horizon gives you a free framing along the bottom edge. So if you can frame just one more side, you’ve got an L-shaped frame (though the ‘L’ may be backwards) and you’re doing pretty well.

This is probably the most common compositional technique you’ll see in wide shots: a tree, wall or other vertical element enclosing the frame on one side. Pan’s Labyrinth again…

Here’s one from The Revenant (DP: Emmanuel Lubezki)…

It’s great when these enclosing elements are in the foreground, because they also serve to add depth to the image. But they can be in the background too, like the righthand skyscraper in this frame from Slumdog Millionaire (DP: Anthony Dod Mantle)…

Or in this one from Pan’s Labyrinth, where the mill wheel defines the height of the image as well as framing it on the left…

Sometimes, with flatter compositions, you can find an element on the same plane as the subject with which to frame the shot on one side, like the streetlamp on the left of this shot from Life of Pi. Note that the edge of the pond also provides strong framing along the bottom of the image…

 

ENCLOSING TWO SIDES

Placing enclosing elements on both sides of the frame, as well as being even more aesthetically pleasing than enclosing a single side, can suggest a situation from which the characters cannot escape. Consider these frames from, respectively, Inception (DP: Wally Pfister) and Road to Perdition (DP: Conrad Hall)…

 

Other frames within frames

In this shot from Hugo (DP: Robert Richardson), the architecture frames the image along the top and righthand side, while leaving it open in the bottom left, the direction towards which the subject is moving…

This shot from Life of Pi contains an interesting choice. The obvious – and far more dominant place – to put the subject would have been leaning against the foreground pillar on the right. Instead, Miranda makes the audience search for him in the frame…

Here, in Road to Perdition, the foreground character, the desk, the phone and the doorway all cradle and enclose the subject…

 

Pinning a corner

Sometimes it is impossible to enclose the image on any of its sides. In these cases I will at least try to pin a corner – to find an element that I can place just within a corner of the frame to anchor the composition. This frame from Hugo uses the lamp in the top right for this purpose…

Mantle uses the foreground tyre here in Slumdog Millionaire…

Navarro uses a chair in the bottom left of this Pan’s Labyrinth shot. Notice how the subject is placed on the imaginary line connecting the chair to the circular window in the background, which balances it out…

In this scene from Road to Perdition, Hall pins the top lefthand corner with the light fixture, then balances it beautifully with the shadows in the bottom right…

Indeed, the corner-pinning technique seems most effective when the diagonally opposite corner is opposite in other ways too – dark vs. light, close vs. far, warm vs. cold, etc.

 

Vanishing points

Vanishing points are a concept familiar to artists and technical drafters. You extend the image’s straight lines in perspective to the point where they vanish into the distance. Placing the subject of your image on a vanishing point will lead the viewer’s eyes right to them. Check out these examples from, respectively, Memoirs of a Geisha and Road to Perdition…

This shot from Slumdog Millionaire is a little more subtle, but follow the lines of the table and chair and you’ll end up right at the children…

And just to prove that rules are meant to be broken, here’s a Slumdog shot where the subjects are nowhere the vanishing point…

 

LEADING LINES

It’s not just vanishing points that provide satisfying spots to place your subject. Leading lines of any kind can draw the eye. In this shot from Inception, the vanishing point (the tip of the plane’s nose) would be somewhere in the extreme top-left corner of frame. Di Caprio isn’t on that vanishing point, but the rows of seats still lead our eyes to him…

In this shot from Sicario, Roger Deakins places both subjects over the corners of the house, where the buildings’ lines lead us to…

In The Revenant, this frame places the subjects at the point of the V formed by the sloping mounds…

 

Symmetry

I’ve touched on the concept of balance throughout this post, and I’ll probably need to write a whole other post to really get into it, but for now, here are some beautiful examples of the simplest way of giving a composition balance: symmetry…

 

So those are a few basic ways of approaching the composition of a wide shot. More composition posts to come, but meanwhile, you might like to check out my existing post on 2.39:1 composition.

Composing a Wide Shot