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

Book Review: “Motion Studies” by Rebecca Solnit

A modern animation created from photographs from Muybridge’s “Animal Locomotion”, 1887

This is a book that caught my eye following my recent photography project, Stasis. In that project I made some limited explorations of the relationship between time, space and light, so Motion Studies: Time, Space and Eadweard Muybridge, to give it its full title, seemed like it would be on my current wavelength.

Like me a few weeks ago, you might be vaguely aware of Muybridge as the man who first photographed a trotting horse sharply enough to prove that all four of its legs left the ground simultaneously. You may have heard him called “The Father of Cinema”, because he was the first person to shoot a rapid sequence of images of a moving body, and the first person to reanimate those images on a screen.

Born in Kingston-on-Thames in 1830, Muybridge emigrated to San Francisco in the 1850s where, following a stint as a book seller and a near-fatal accident in a runaway carriage, he took up landscape photography. He shot spectacular views of Yosemite National Park and huge panoramas of his adopted city. In 1872 he was commissioned by the railroad tycoon Leland Stanford to photograph his racehorse Occident in motion. This developed into a vast project for Muybridge over the next decade or so, ultimately encompassing over 100,000 photos of humans and other animals in motion.

Muybridge’s set-up for his early motion studies, 1881. The cameras are in the shed on the left.

Much of his early work was accomplished on mammoth wet plates, 2ft wide, that had to be coated with emulsion just before exposure and developed quickly afterwards, necessitating a travelling darkroom tent. To achieve the quick exposures he needed to show the limbs of a   trotting horse without motion blur, he had to develop new chemistry and – with John Isaacs – a new electromagnetic shutter. The results were so different to anything that had been photographed before, that they were initially met with disbelief in some quarters, particularly amongst painters, who were eventually forced to recognise that they had been incorrectly portraying horse’s legs. Artists still use Muybridge’s motion studies today as references for dynamic anatomy.

“Boys Playing Leapfrog”, 1887

To “track” with the animals in motion, Muybridge used a battery of regularly-spaced cameras, each triggered by the feet of the subject pulling on a wire or thread as they passed. Sometimes he would surround a subject with cameras and trigger them all simultaneously, to get multiple angles on the same moment in time. Does that sound familiar? Yes, Muybridge invented Bullet Time over a century before The Matrix.

Muybridge was not the first person to project images in rapid succession to create the illusion of movement, but he was the first person to display photographed (rather than drawn) images in a such a way, to deconstruct motion and reassemble it elsewhere like a Star Trek transporter. In 1888 Muybridge met with Thomas Edison and discussed collaborating on a system to combine motion pictures with wax cylinder audio recordings, but nothing came of this idea which was decades ahead of its time. The same year, French inventor Louis Le Prince shot Roundhay Garden Scene, the oldest known film. A few years later, Edison patented his movie camera, and the Lumière brothers screened their world-changing Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory. The age of cinema had begun.

From “Animal Locomotion”, 1887

Although Muybridge is the centre of Solnit’s book, there is a huge amount of context. The author’s thesis is that Muybridge represents a turning point, a divider between the world he was born into – a world in which people and information could only travel as fast as they or a horse could walk or run, a world where every town kept its own time, where communities were close-knit and relatively isolated – and the world which innovations like his helped to create – the world of speed, of illusions, of instantaneous global communication, where physical distance is no barrier. Solnit draws a direct line from Muybridge’s dissection of time and Stanford’s dissection of space to the global multimedia village we live in today. Because of all this context, the book feels a little slow to get going, but as the story continues and the threads draw together, the value of it becomes clear, elucidating the meaning and significance of Muybridge’s work.

“Muybridge and Athlete”, circa 1887

I can’t claim to have ever been especially interested in history, but I found the book a fascinating lesson on the American West of the late nineteenth century, as well as a thoughtful analysis of the impact photography and cinematography have had on human culture and society. As usual, I’m reviewing this book a little late (it was first published in 2003!), but I heartily recommend checking it out if you’re at all interested in experimental photography or the origins of cinema.

Book Review: “Motion Studies” by Rebecca Solnit