Cinematography tips - Aspect Ratios

(An excerpt from my forthcoming film book, "Making Your First Blockbuster" coming 2019)

Aspect ratio refers to the height and width of the frame. It is presently numerically with two numbers separated by a colon. We have 1.33:1 (or 4:3), 1.77:1 (or 16:9), 1.85:1, and 2.39:1. The first number gives you the width of the image and the second gives you the height.

What ratio you shoot your blockbuster in is a decision the director, director of photography, and producer arrive at after taking into account the script, aesthetics, location, and budget. 16:9 is the universal format for digital video and some filmmakers choose to shoot in this format, or choose this ratio but frame and later crop later in post-production for 2.39:1. Whatever frame size you chose, it must enhance and benefit the story being told. The widescreen ratio of 2.39:1 can be used by shooting a 16:9 frame and masking in post-production, or by using a 4:3 sensor and using 2x anamorphic lenses to fill the whole width and height of the image. Anamorphic lenses squeeze the image vertically during recording and it is later un-squeezed when being displayed or projected, thus using the entire frame rather than masking parts in post-production. The advantage of anamorphic is that is uses all of the image sensor or film negative rather than cropping it to arrive at the ratio of choice. There is also a slight decrease in depth of field due to the amount of glass in the lenses.

Traditionally, a ratio of 1.85:1 or 1.77:1 or 16:9 are used for the more drama-based stories, and a larger frame of 2.39:1 is used when you’re shooting epic landscapes, or more spectacular films of a wider scope. 2.39:1 is not the be all and end all of blockbuster cinema, though. It is used by a lot of the films of a spectacular nature but depending on the subject matter and location, some films have opted for the taller frame to necessitate the story. The original Star Wars trilogy (1977, 1980, 1983) used the 2:39.1 ratio, as the stories featured long spaceships and epic battles as seen below in The Empire Strikes Back (1980).

Jurassic Park (1993) had tall dinosaurs, so Spielberg and his DP, Dean Cundey, ASC, chose the taller 1.85:1 format.

Blockbusters Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991) and Predator (1987) are both action films with lots of tall trees featured in the story so the filmmakers also framed in 1.85:1. Titanic (1997) featured a long ship out on the ocean so 2.39:1 was chosen by James Cameron and DP Russell Carpenter ASC.

However, times are changing; 2.39:1 is now being used for other genres like romantic comedies, or period drama stories. Consider this quote from American Cinematographer magazine:

“In 1990, 80 percent of theatrical wide releases in the U.S. were in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio. In 2010, only 29 percent were 1.85:1. In those two decades there was a clear straight-line decline in 1.85:1 movies and an equal straight-line increase in 2.39:1 movies [ . . . ] In 2016, 71 percent of theatrical releases in the U.S. were 2.39:1, 20 percent were 1.85:1, and 9 percent were “other” aspect ratios, including 1.78:1 and even the traditional Academy aspect ratio of 1.37:1.”

Perhaps the most interesting example around aspect ratios comes from the Lethal Weapon series. Director Richard Donner and DP Stephen Goldblatt, ASC, BSC, chose to shoot the first film in 1.85:1 as the story was intimate and a more character based movie. When the sequel came along in 1989, with bigger characters and more action, it lost the intimacy of the first film and they changed ratios choosing to shoot in the wider 2.39:1 frame to reflect that.

Some filmmakers chose to shoot 2.39:1 for no other reasons than simply because it is commonly associated with more expensive-looking productions. The story and content of the film are not considered. Every filmmaker has their reasons, but when choosing your aspect ratio, first look at the story, the location, and most importantly, ask what feels right for the film that you’re making.

Look at these other examples of aspect ratios in action:

Robobcop (1987) framed for 1.85:1.

Then we have Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), and Wonder Woman (2017) all 2.35:1.

"Making Your First Blockbuster" is due to be released early 2019 from Michael Wiese Productions.

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