Telling A Story With Aspect Ratio


You’ve probably heard the term aspect ratio thrown around a lot whenever anyone is talking about videos and movies. You may be wondering what it even means and what effect does it have on the moviemaking process. 

The definition of this term is “The aspect ratio of an image describes the proportional relationship between its width and its height.” The image that you see on screen is the finished product with a set aspect ratio, which is the height and width of it. 

If you have seen a movie recently, then you might have noticed the black bars on the upper and lower regions of the video. Or if you only see movies from the previous century, then the bars on the right and left of the video are being shown. These black bars are basically the representation of the aspect ratio that the film was shot in. 

The History

If you look back in time, you’ll see the old age televisions with square screens, showing square films. The concept behind the almost square screens is that the cameras that recorded the movies had to be fed the film which was square. So to fit the image being recorded, on the square films, the aspect ratio in videos of that time was 4.3. This creates a boxed kind of image that has black bars on its sides. 

However, the boxed 4.3 aspect ratio, isn’t that great for viewing as it gives a kind of claustrophobic viewing experience, almost as if you’re looking in through a little window. As the innovators of cinema gave thought to the advancement of the industry, they came to the conclusion that films weren’t that immersive for the audience, as their view point was fairly restricted. The human eye does not have boxed vision it has a wider more expansive field of sight. Thus, they came to the conclusion that it was time to change the aspect ratio of the movies. 

The first movie to try and apply this idea was “Shane” in 1953. The director had the upper and lower parts of the film cut so that it gave a “feeling” of being wide screen but it wasn’t really. Even though it wasn’t a widescreen film, it still received a great response from the audience. 

The next step was the invention of the anamorphic lens. The concept of the anamorphic lens is that it distorts the image, stretching it across the 4.3 film roll, so that it can be later returned to normal. However, this makes the final cut a wider image than the 4.3 aspect ratio, thus resulting in the conception of widescreen cinema. The first film to utilize this was “Robe” that also came out in 1953. 

Films like “Ben Hur” used ratios like “2.76:1” which gave a very wide image. After that many different aspect ratios have been utilized over the years. Like “2.59:1”, “1.85:1”, “2.20” and Imax “1.43:1” and other such examples. The aspect ratios create an atmosphere for your film that can tell a part of the story. 

About The Story

Aspect ratios can make you feel tight and forced, or free and magnificent depending on how they are used. In the film “ A Ghost Story” the director uses a 4.3 aspect ratio with the edges rounded off, this creates a feeling of closeness and forces the viewer to feel the same way as the character on screen is. This kind of immersion in the film is coordinated with the story and promotes the message of the film further. 

In the film “The Hateful Eight” Quintin Tarintino uses the aspect ratio of “2.76:1” that gives the film an old, campy, and closed feeling that sits well with the story of the film. Looking at how the film is shot we can see that it is set in an older time period. This is another method how an aspect ratio influences the story.

Some directors also change the aspect ratio of the video in between the movie. This can play an important part in explaining chronological sequences. As was done in “The Grand Budapest Hotel” where the different time periods of 1930s, 1960s and 1980s, all had different aspect ratios. 

Another way aspect ratio can be used is shown in “Oz The Great and The Powerful”, as it starts off with a boxed 4.3 ratio and slowly as the main character enters into Oz the aspect ratio widens as well the screen becomes colored. The combined effect of this kind of blows you away, leaving you feeling inspired by the grandiose change. 

Sometimes when a director has to show a subtle change in the story or plot of the film, the aspect ratio is changed. This change may not be very obvious, as is the case with “The Dark Knight Rises”, where Christopher Nolan changes the aspect ratio when Batman and Bane are about to have their first fight. Even before Bane appears, you seem to expect that something big is going to happen. This is exactly how subtle hints increase the depth of your film. 

A good example of how the subtle change in aspect ratio is in “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire”, where in the scenes before the big fight the aspect ratio is shot in “2.35:1” which gives you a kind of intimacy and closeness with the characters, however as Katniss ascends into the arena, the ratio changes to Imax, this makes you feel immersed and overwhelmed as to the drastic change that has happened in the plot. 

These detailed examples just go on to show that aspect ratios play a great part in making your film special. However, if the changes in aspect ratio are done without proper discretion, you could get a film that does not give a good feeling. An example of this is “Transformers: The Last Knight” where in literally every change in shot comes with a change in aspect ratio, even if it’s the same conversation. This throwing of different aspect ratios can give the movie a bad image. 

So if you know how to properly adjust the aspect ratio to your storytelling, then you’ll get a great combination of the two. Making your film better and more immersive than it could be. 

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