As most of you know, the aspect ratio of a film is the relationship between the length and height of its rectangular frame. The standard in Hollywood is 1.85:1, which means the length of the frame is 1.85 times longer than its height:
A scene from Sixteen Candles (1984), directed by John Hughes.
And, prior to the 1950s, the standard was 1.37:1:
However, in the early 1950s the affordability and convenience of television threatened to keep movie-goers at home, so Hollywood fought back with epic films in wider formats like 2.20:1 and up:
A scene from Lawrence of Arabia (1962), directed by David Lean.
As a result, 1.37 is virtually extinct now. In an email, film historian and author David Bordwell explained to me that most modern movie theatres no longer have the technology to project 1.37 films. In fact, Steven Soderbergh wanted to utilize 1.37 for his film The Good German (2006), but did not since most movie theatres would be unable to screen it.
So what about high-definition video and television? Its default aspect ratio is 1.78:1, more commonly known as 16x9:
A scene from First Light (2008), directed by Christopher J. Boghosian.
Aspect ratio is not simply an issue for filmmakers alone. Painters have chosen the aspect ratio of their canvases for centuries:
Mona Lisa by Leonardo Da Vinci (c. 1503-1506)
Odalisque by Jules Joseph Lefebvre (1874)
No doubt the master painters above specifically chose an aspect ratio for their painting based on the content itself. Can you imagine the Mona Lisa on Lefebvre’s canvas or vice versa? I seriously doubt Da Vinci simply went with the most popular or readily available canvas size.
Filmmakers are no different; the choice must be intentional. The content of a film and the director’s vision must determine aspect ratio. Most digital filmmakers go with 16x9 (1:78) by default. Why? Because they believe it’s more “film-like,” i.e., it emulates the look of a movie because it’s rectangular. That is not intelligent filmmaking; it’s nonsense.
Due to its flexibility, digital video allows us to make and project 1.37 films again. It’s a beautiful format, lending itself to portraiture and close-ups. The dimensions of a frame determine where the viewers’ eyes go. The wider the frame, the more the eyes can wander about. However, in a more square frame, a close-up fills the screen, forcing the viewer’s eyes to connect with the characters’ eyes (note Betty Davis above).
Additionally, in his incredible book, The Visual Story, Bruce Block points out that the film frame can be divided, blocked off and manipulated to direct the viewers’ eyes. This can be done mechanically, like the classic split screen effect, or better yet, with the use of objects in the scene itself.
A scene from Vertigo (1958), directed by Alfred Hitchcock
A scene from Rosemary's Baby ( 1968), directed by Roman Polanski.
So even after choosing the aspect ratio, the filmmaker is not stuck and can convert the frame size within the frame itself!
As far as the feature film I’m currently developing, I’m still undecided about which aspect ratio I will choose. Something rectangular is certainly tempting because of it’s “cinematic” quality; however, if I approach my film like a portraiture artist, I will strongly consider a more square format, like 1.37.
-Christopher J. Boghosian
Christopher J. Boghosian is an independent filmmaker in Los Angeles, California. He regularly contributes Production Notes regarding the making of his feature film, which you can keep track of at FollowMyFilm.com.