Aspect ratios are one of the few technical aspects of motion picture storytelling that has a defined and fixed value. You can dedicate an entire article to the history of the aspect ratio, but here I wanted to look at it as a filmmaker’s tool. The quick history lesson is that the square was the original shape of films, then when TV became popular and technology advanced it was decided to introduce the rectangle. This gave cinemas something different to offer than the square of a TV set. The rectangle shape resembled more of the human’s panoramic field of vision and added scope to the image. These days, the square image is all but dead in most scenarios, or unless you’re watching an older TV show or film. I’m of course dumbing this down and giving you the history of aspect ratios as quickly as I can, but all you need to know are that there is the square and there is the rectangle.
There are many different variations such as 1.33:1, 1.66:1, 1.78:1, 1.85:1, 2.39:1. Here is a quick guide. The big 3 for film is the more squarish 1.33:1, which is known as the Academy Standard and is almost never used anymore. Then we have 1.85:1, which is known as “flat”. This most closely resembles your widescreen TV, but it’s not the same. Your HDTV is 1.78:1 (or 16x9). Then you have your 2.39:1, which is known as “scope” or anamorphic. When I was a projectionist in the 35mm days we had only two lenses, a flat lens and a scope lens The appropriate lens would be used for whichever aspect ratio the film was in. If you watch a flat film on your HDTV you will have no letterboxing black bars (unless you are watching on your TV’s “native” setting, which you should be and therefore will see slight black bars). A scope film will have thin letterboxing black bars on an HDTV. Back in the old CRT TV days, fullscreen was the preferred method for VHS as people somehow saw the black bars as removing parts of the image and therefore not using the space of their TV that they paid for; also the black bars were much thicker on a 4x3 TV.
Anyway, in simple terms the scope image is usually used for big epic action and drama. The flat image is normally used by comedies and more character-focused stories. I think that typecasting aspect ratios is kind of boring which is why I wanted to look at a few films that decided to use shifting aspect ratios as a storytelling tool. Some to great effect and some not so much. This article will look at directors and how they utilized a shifting aspect ratio for their film(s) as a storytelling technique. Before we start, here is a visual representation of all the major aspect ratios in film/TV (IMAX not included).
The IMAX Club:
Christopher Nolan: (Inception, The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises, Interstellar)
Why Use A Shifting Aspect Ratio?: Nolan loves IMAX. He wanted to shoot certain scenes in his recent blockbusters in IMAX to help create scope and immersion. He wanted to create the ultimate theatrical experience by utilizing an aspect ratio that opens up to fully immerse your field of vision for key action sequences.
How Does It Tell A Story?: By immersing the audience in an action sequence on an image that grand you are bringing us into the characters’ world. It’s almost as if the film is physically picking you up and bringing you closer so you can see every detail and take the image in. Even though it’s epic in scale, it strangely becomes more intimate in a film like Interstellar or more intense in The Dark Knight Rises.
Does It Work?: At first I don’t think it did. He tested it out on The Dark Knight, but it was new to him and the cameras were so big and cumbersome that it was impossible to shoot all of the film that way (it still is, unless you decide to do ADR for the whole film). He focused on the action sequences for IMAX, but also decided to do it for quick establishing shots. Those quick 3-second shots in IMAX then back to scope were a bit jarring. It ended up taking the audience out of the story on a few occasions. He tried it again with Inception to a better result. With Inception I really think it added a sense of cinematic scope, but it came to full fruition with The Dark Knight Rises and Interstellar. Those two films really made use of the shifting aspect ratio to build sequences and use the framing to tell a story. The infinite reaches of space were very important to Interstellar, and the epic scope of The Dark Knight Rises made great use of the image. Also for these films Nolan rarely had any establishing shots just for the sake of an IMAX image, and it didn't become jarring at all.
(Nolan talks his intent for the IMAX scenes and film for Interstellar)
Michael Bay: (Transformers: Age Of Extinction)
Why Use A Shifting Aspect Ratio?: Bay jumped on the 3D bandwagon after Avatar and decided to shoot the Transformers sequels with 3D cameras. But it was with Age Of Extinction that Bay decided to try the IMAX aspect ratio out. He shot key action scenes with IMAX cameras.
Does It Tell A Story?: It does if you are merely breaking down the action sequences, which is all that Transformers is good for. The IMAX image here is seemingly doing exactly what Nolan did, but really it’s as simple as “explosions?" Let’s do it in IMAX.” It makes the action easier to digest, and the frenetic camera movements aren’t as disorienting.
Does It Work?: You can be a critic of Bay but also accept that the open image helps with his style of action. Seeing giant CGI robots battle it out on the full use of the IMAX frame is quite thrilling no matter how mindless the plot is.
(Bay talks his intent for the IMAX scenes)
J.J. Abrams: (Star Trek: Into Darkness)
Why Use A Shifting Aspect Ratio?: JJ is a huge detractor of 3D, he simply cant stand the format very much like Nolan. However, Paramount played hardball and said that they would not allow Abrams to make Star Trek: Into Darkness unless he agreed to release the movie in 3D. Abrams took this opportunity to shoot a minimal amount of scenes with IMAX film. The movie was converted to 3D in post, but the kicker here was that there were no IMAX theaters showing Into Darkness in 2D, which was Abrams’ preferred method to see it in. So to have seen the IMAX footage with shifting ratios meant you had to cough up for 3D. Not until home video would people get to see the IMAX scenes with the wider aspect ratio.
Does It Tell A Story? Sadly, the same mentality that Bay had for IMAX in Transformers is the same here. Except that Star Trek: Into Darkness is a really great sci-fi movie. The shifting aspect ratios were used merely to add scope to action, and it doesn’t necessarily change the way we take in the film or connect to characters. Since Transformers is already kind of a gimmick in itself. Lazily using the IMAX image here felt unnecessary to the story at all.
Does It Work? Not really. Abrams went with the “let’s try it out” mentality since the movie was being forced into 3D, this was more of a gimmick. If you saw the film in 2D with the scope aspect ratio then you saw what he intended for you to see. Sure, the scenes with the wider ratio are visually great, but in terms of storytelling it doesn’t do much. Set photos confirm Abrams is using IMAX film for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Unfortunately that too will be a 3D release. Let's see if the IMAX ratio works better there.
(Abrams talks his intent for the IMAX scenes)
Brad Bird: (Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol)
Why Use A Shifting Aspect Ratio?: Say what you will about Tom Cruise, but the man is probably the best action star the industry has ever seen. The man is dedicated to the art of action mainly because he does all his own stunts. The man knows that if we don't see his face when he's hanging off the tallest building in the world, then we won't believe it. So he actually goes out and hangs from the tallest building in the world. In order to capture that stomach dropping scope, director Brad Bird opted to shoot his first live-action film with IMAX cameras for the big action scenes.
Does It Tell A Story?: Mission Impossible films are great old-fashioned action films done with as much practical effects as possible. IMAX was born for this. The Burj Khalifa sequence had so much more weight to it because of the open frame. Bird made sure the scope added that vertigo effect and used depth of field perfectly. The few other instances of IMAX were a bit jarring, but shooting the entire Dubai sequence including the sandstorm in IMAX added that much more greatness.
Does It Work?: It works on the big screen. Seeing this film on an IMAX screen was a real treat. However, Brad Bird realizes that the effect doesn't translate over that well to home video. Which is why the Blu-ray release didn't contain the shifting aspect ratios. Still, an IMAX shot image has a much higher resolution than a scope 35mm frame even if you can't replicate the image at home as you saw it in a theater. It would have been nice to have at home, but I understand why Brad Bird opted for the standard scope-framed feature for Blu-ray.
(Bird talks his intent for the IMAX scenes)
Joseph Kosinski (TRON: Legacy)
Why Use A Shifting Aspect Ratio?: TRON was a film made for IMAX. Firstly it was conceived in 3D, and the open aspect ratio really helps with 3D action. The film's production design and art direction also lends itself to that immersive image. Kosinski decided on shooting a handful of sequences with IMAX cameras.
Does It Tell A Story?: When you enter the electronic world of TRON it visually engulfs you. The sharpness of the digital photography and color palette is an amazing tool when the image opens up. The whole film is about entering the electronic universe, so in a way it takes the audience from the real world to the immersive digital world.
Does It Work?: Since the film is darkly shot to begin with, you barely even notice the aspect ratio change, but it does add a sense of moving into a new space for the audience. Kosinski decided to keep the aspect ratio change for home video too, which means it was his intended effect. That's the opposite of Oblivion, which was not shot in IMAX and converted digitally to a wider aspect ratio for entire duration of the film (no shifting ratios). Here's another fun thing Kosinski did too. He used shifting 3D as well. When the story is in the real world, it's 2D. Only in the TRON world is it 3D and at a larger aspect ratio. An experiment that truly works.
(Kosinski talks his intent for the IMAX scenes)
There a few other notable shapeshifters out there when it comes to IMAX, but I decided to focus on the ones that had select scenes shot on IMAX cameras and were intended that way from conception. I left off Guardians Of The Galaxy because Marvel decided to modify the aspect ratio in post production. The films were not shot in IMAX, but they re-framed shots digitally to make them fit the IMAX screen. Films like The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and Lucy also shot selected scenes with IMAX, but they mostly fall under the "spectacle" category.
Now let’s move into the more traditional world of film. IMAX is more of a spectacle thing, although directors like Nolan found a unique way to add his shifting ratio to add context to the story. The following films use a shifting aspect ratio in more unique and special ways.
Ang Lee: (Life Of Pi)
Why Use A Shifting Aspect Ratio?: Life Of Pi was shot in 3D. The entire film is in 1.85:1, except for two scenes (or even shots). There is a sequence with a whale shark and a shot of some flying fish. Lee said he changed the aspect ratio for the flying fish to enhance the 3D effect. The shot of a whale shark swimming under the boat was shot in 1.33:1 to show us the full length of the whale shark as well as to mimic the book’s cover.
Does It Tell A Story?: Absolutely not. This is one example of playing with aspect ratio that I feel truly fails on all levels. It fails because it uses the aspect ratio change as a pure gimmick that also breaks the fourth wall. For the flying fish scene, he had the fish fly over the letterbox bars when the film shifted to a scope ratio. So even when the film is not being viewed in 3D, it has the effect of the fish flying off the screen. Lee broke the barriers of the frame therefore reminding you that you are watching a film. Is the film existing in some weird box? Did the fish just fly out of the weird box that hold the universe the film is existing in? It makes no sense other than a visual gimmick that yanks you out of the story. The 1.33:1 shot is literally also one shot, therefore adding no value other than to be jarring. It’s the only 4x3 shot in the film, and only lasts a few seconds there making no sense to use. Different framing of the shot would have been just as effective.
Does It Work?: It doesn’t merely because both shots aren’t used as a storytelling device but rather a visual gimmick in very brief one-time instances. The worst offense of the two is actually switching to scope and having the film spill onto the letterbox bars. It immediately feels like a theme park ride instead of a narrative. The two shots almost feel like editing mistakes since the techniques are not used anywhere else in the film.
(The single 1.33:1 framed shot in the entire film)
(Flying fish scene in 2.35:1 aspect ratio. The fish cross over the letterboxing therefore breaking the 4th wall)
Sam Raimi: (Oz The Great & Powerful)
Why Use A Shifting Aspect Ratio?: The opening of the film takes place in black and white and in the 4:3 aspect ratio to signify the time and place. When our main character finally travels into the world of Oz the image opens up to a 2.35:1 aspect ratio and in full color
Does It Tell A Story?: In this case it was a very clever aesthetic choice to take our character from his time period into the magical world of Oz. It plays more as a sight gag for the audience, but in any case works on a fundamental level. This is more of a choice based on style versus a choice based on context. In A Serious Man (discussed further below) you will see how Deakins' similar approach was simply used to separate the prologue from the main narrative.
Does It Work?: It works merely as a signifying of change of place and time. It brings the character into a new world along with the audience. It also allows for some creative production design differences within the two differently framed worlds. At the end it's clever on the outside, but not a game-changing use of the shifting aspect ratio.
Lauren MacMullan: (Get A Horse)
Why Use A Shifting Aspect Ratio?: Now, after that Life Of Pi debacle let’s look at a film that breaks the frame of the image for the story. Get A Horse is a fantastic short film from Disney that played in front of Frozen in theaters. This short really is meant to be seen in 3D, but it works just as well in 2D. It breaks the aspect ratio as well as the frame of the image to suggest the characters we see on screen are in their own world. The characters break out of the screen, go from black and white to color, and Mickey physically widens the aspect ratio by pulling back the curtains to get a better sense of the action.
Does It Tell A Story?: It’s absolutely essential to the story. We start off in 1.33:1, we zoom out to realize the fourth wall has literally been broken, and Mickey then changes the frame to 1.78:1. However, the entire short is still taking place in a scope image of 2.35:1. Notice when the wall of water comes spilling out, it never crosses the black bars like the fish did in Life Of Pi. This is how you tell a clever story by breaking the boundaries of planes and aspect ratios.
Does It Work?: It works surprisingly well because of how great the short is executed. The short film format is perfect for this clever piece. By playing with color, aspect ratio and framing we have an animated short that is tons of fun in the spirit of the classic Disney shorts with a modern twist.
(Mickey jumps out of the 1.33:1 frame and pulls it to 1.78:1 all still within a 2.35:1 frame)
(Water respects the 2.35:1 framing therefore not breaking the 4th wall)
(Full Short Film)
The Coen Brothers: (A Serious Man)
Why Use A Shifting Aspect Ratio?: The prologue of A Serious Man is something that is essential to the film’s narrative, but exists separate from the modern day narrative. Cinematographer Roger Deakins shot the prologue in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio as to differentiate it from the rest of the film. Very simple.
Does It Tell A Story?: You betcha, yeah. It establishes the prologue as being from a different time period, makes it feel older and it separates itself from the rest of the film which is in 1.85:1.
Does It Work?: You betcha again. The prologue is a great opening. It sets the stage by giving us some information and then sets us on our way for the rest of the film. The audience completely understands the intent of the prologue and its function merely because of its aspect ratio. If the prologue were not in a different aspect ratio, you can bet there would be way more confusion going on.
(A Serious Man's Prologue shot in 1.33:1)
Steven Soderbergh: (Che)
Why Use A Shifting Aspect Ratio?: Che was initially intended to be one film, which is why I am including this here. For distribution’s sake, the film was separated into two parts but it’s meant to be one fluid narrative. Part 1 of the film is shot in scope, while Part 2 is shot flat. Soderbergh intended Part 1 to be a “Hollywood” movie shot with the scope aspect ratio, while Part 2 was in flat since he wanted more of a realistic documentary feel. Part 1 had lots of steadicam and tracking shots. Part 2 was all handheld.
Does It Tell A Story?: Absolutely. This brilliant use of aspect ratio tells us two chapters of Che’s life. We get the biopic and more epic feel in Part 1. The scope aspect ratio is built for more fluid camera movements. Part 2 is Che amongst the wilderness and in the elements. There is a rough and gritty feel to Part 2, which is why the more open aspect ratio lends itself better for a more intimate feel as well as t he handheld camera.
Does It Work?: It works very successfully. The different aspect ratios and camera styles affect the audience’s emotional connection to the material. Part 1 we feel as if we are witnessing, Part 2 we feel more connected and immersed. The framing definitely adds value to how we consume this film.
(Che: Part 1 in scope)
(Che: Part 2 in flat)
Wes Anderson: (The Grand Budapest Hotel)
Why Use A Shifting Aspect Ratio?: Anderson uses 3 different ratios here, 1.33:1, 1.85:1 and 2.35:1. He uses them simply as a way to establish time and place. Beyond that, the framing of the 1.33:1 ratio lends itself to the storybook feel of the main narrative.
Does It Tell A Story?: The film opens in 1985 with the author talking to the audience about his visit to the Grand Budapest Hotel in the 60’s. These scenes are in 1.85:1. We then flashback to a young author meeting an old Zero in the 1960’s, these scenes are in 2.35:1. Then the old Zero tells the entire story of the film that takes place in 1932, the majority of the film exists in this time period and is shown at 1.33:1 (1.37 to be exact). This is one of the best examples of aspect ratio as a storytelling device. It’s a wonderful structure to this perfect film.
Does It Work?: Not only does it give us visual cues as an audience, but it brings us closer and completely changes how the film is framed for each timeline. The squarish image for the majority of the film makes it feel like an image from a book or a painting (and a painting is a central plot point). It supports the color palette, the production design, the camera movements and so much more. The 1.85:1 aspect ratio for the “present” timeline works great, because currently we see everything in that ratio on TV, the internet and our phones. So it speaks “present day”. The 2.35:1 framing for the 1960’s makes sense because it shows us the hotel past the main events of the film’s central story. When we go back to the 1930’s, not only was the 1.33:1 ratio the standard of the time but it lends itself very well to how the story unfolds to us. It’s a fantastic example of how to use aspect ratio for storytelling.
(1985 Timeline [Present/Starting Point]: Author speaks to audience about his story = 1.85:1)
(1960's Timeline: Author is staying at the hotel and meets an older Zero who tells his story = 2.35:1)
(1930's Timeline: Story from Zero's point of view as a young Lobby Boy at the hotel = 1.37:1)
Outside of IMAX there are very rare instances of films toying with aspect ratios. This list contain ones I found to be notable examples (good or bad) and show that working within the boundaries of your frame can open a world of creative possibilities. I specifically left off split-screen sequences as that's not really playing with the ratio. One could argue Get A Horse falls into that split-screen style of working within the frame, but I think the fact that it has all 3 major aspect ratios as a sight gag for the comedy pushes it to be on this list.
Cinematography is more than just how the shot is framed, the lighting, or the camera's movements. Aspect ratios are a fascinating part of our visual storytelling. They were created as a way to create a mainstream standard for exhibition and have changed as technology has changed over time. However, when filmmakers see an aspect ratio's potential beyond being just a technical aspect, it really is a fascinating thing.
Appendix: For The Aspect Ratio-Curious.
(Great look at the history of motion picture aspect ratios)