Aspect ratio is a large and potentially confusing subject, but the good news is that there are only a few things you need to know to get by 99% of the time. Today I’ll go over those things, and show you where to look if you want to cover that last 1%.
Put simply, aspect ratio is the ratio of an image’s width to its height. For example, a 1.85:1 image is 1.85 times as wide as it is high.
The diagram above shows four aspect ratios. 4:3 is, more or less, the ratio most movies were shot in until the 1950s and all TV was shot in until the late 1990s, but today it’s virtually obsolete. So let’s look at the other three…
- 16:9 – This is the standard ratio for TV, DVD (sort of), Blu-ray, YouTube and other video sharing and VOD platforms. It is sometimes written as 1.77:1 or 1.78:1. Almost all digital cameras shoot natively in this ratio. In the TV industry, this ratio was often called widescreen to distinguish it from 4:3.
- 1.85:1 – One of two standard ratios for digital cinema projection. It is very similar to 16:9, but slightly wider. In practice, 1.85:1 movies may be shot and framed for 16:9, and delivered in 16:9 for TV, DVD and so on, but cropped very slightly at the top and bottom to achieve the 1.85:1 ratio for cinema projection.
- 2.39:1 – A.k.a. Cinemascope (“Scope” for short) or widescreen (in the film industry), this is the other standard ratio for cinema projection. It is achieved either by cropping a 16:9 frame or by using anamorphic lenses to squeeze the image horizontally. Note that many cameras offer 2.35:1 framing guides rather than 2.39:1, but the difference is negligible, and these two designations are used pretty much interchangeably, as well as 2.40:1. On TV, VOD and so on, 2.39:1 movies are generally letterboxed to fit the ratio onto the 16:9 screen.
There is a temptation to choose 2.39:1 because it looks more “cinematic“, but it’s important to think carefully before selecting your aspect ratio. Here are some reasons to consider:
Some advantages of 2.39:1
- Better for landscapes
- More composition options with group shots and over-the-shoulder shots in terms of horizontal placement and separation of the two characters
- Better for wide sets, or sets lacking height
(See also my article on 2:39:1 composition.)
Some advantages of 1.85:1 or 16:9
- Shows more body language in singles
- Better for shots containing characters of very different heights – e.g. two-shot of an adult and a child
- Better for tall or narrow sets, and car interiors
Although your project will almost certainly be delivered in one of the three ratios listed above, it is of course possible to frame and mask your footage to any aspect ratio you can imagine. This should always be cleared with the producer though, because sales agents may reject films not presented in a standard ratio.
Some recent films using non-standard ratios are:
- The Hateful Eight – 2.76:1 – Tarantino’s latest was lensed in Ultra Panavision 70, an obsolete, super-wide 70mm celluloid format. But unless you were lucky enough to catch one of the much-publicised roadshow screenings, or you own the Blu-ray, you probably saw it cropped to 2.39:1.
- Jurassic World – 2:1 – The filmmakers felt that 1.85:1 was too TV, but 2.39:1 lacked enough height for the dinosaurs, so they used a halfway house. In practice, the movie was delivered to cinemas in 1.85:1 with letterboxing at the top and bottom to achieve the 2:1 ratio. I have a whole post about 2:1 here.
- Ida – 4:3 – Set in a convent, this film symbolises its nuns’ and novices’ thoughts of God and heaven above by using this tall aspect ratio and framing with lots of head room. I have a whole post about 4:3 here.
A surprising number of films use multiple aspect ratios, which we often don’t even notice on a conscious level. Here are just a few examples:
- The Grand Budapest Hotel – Wes Anderson differentiated the three time periods featured in the story by giving each a different aspect ratio: 1.375:1 (“Academy” ratio, similar to 4:3) for the 1930s, 2.35:1 for the 1960s and 1.85:1 for the more contemporary bookends.
- The Dark Knight – Parts of this film, such as the opening bank robbery and aerial city footage, were shot in Imax at 1.44:1, while the rest is in 2.35:1.
- Scott Pilgrim vs. the World – To recall the comic book format of this film’s source material, the aspect ratio changes on a shot-by-shot basis during the fight scenes.
The aspect ratio of a film is agreed by the director, the DP and sometimes the producer, in preproduction. However, it is very easy for a director, producer, editor or colourist to alter the aspect ratio in postproduction. This is far from ideal, and since it changes the composition of every image in the movie, the DP should always be consulted and should ideally work with the post team to ensure that he or she retains authorship of the frame. After all, his or her name is on the film as director of photography.
Regrettably, this doesn’t always happen. I did a short last year which I agreed with the director and producer we would shoot in 4:3, but to my dismay when I saw the finished film it had been reformatted to 2.39:1, a drastically different ratio. To minimise the chances of this happening to you, make sure in preproduction that your director and producer fully understand the consequences of the selected ratio, and make your best effort to attend the grading so you can at least see if any re-framing has occurred before it’s too late.
If you want to know more about aspect ratio, here are a couple of videos you might find useful. The first is a guide I made a few years ago to shooting on celluloid, and it covers (at timecode 2:00) the aspect ratios native to the various gauges of film.
The second is a comprehensive history of aspect ratios in film and TV from Filmmaker IQ.