When I first started out I was shooting for news and current affairs shows in what was the only aspect ratio for international TV which was 4:3 – yes, you’re correct, I am indeed old, although I prefer to think of it as experienced and can still climb stairs two at a time which is my scientifically proven benchmark to youth. Gradually with the jump from Beta to Digibeta came the arrival of 16:9 and boy was I excited. But why was that so exciting? What is it about an aspect ratio that can make you feel different? 4:3 has some great characteristics and recently I’ve watched some terrific new films in that format – ‘Cold War’ for one, if you’ve not seen it stop reading and find it, watch it and come back. It’s tremendous and the 4:3 aspect ratio (or Academy as it’s known) feels absolutely right. It, of course, has its history in cinema as the first format used by film makers but I had grown up on the 1.85:1 ratio which was tantalisingly close to the 1.78:1 that is 16:9. So all of a sudden I was shooting something that looked more like the cinema of the day. For me, it was like being allowed to speak another language – one that I could only listen to previously. And film language is a language – we use frame size, focus, colour, framing and of course aspect ratio to help us tell the visual side of the stories. Audiences know this vocabulary and instinctively use their learned reading of these tools to tap into what we are trying to express. I recently shot a series of films for British Airways (Directed beautifully by Theo Gelernter). These were a series of six films and told the story of 100 years of BA heritage. Between the six films we jumped between 3 different aspect ratios to help tell that story. The aspect ratio helped set each of the films emotionally and we added to that by using 3 sets of lenses of different ages and changing lighting styles.
For us, today, aspect ratio is another part of film language but historically it was decided for you by the shape of the negative. The more of the negative you use the more space there is for the picture information and hence the better the quality. The most negative was used with the aspect ratio of 1.33:1. Don’t forget film stocks were no where near what they are now in terms of resolution and colour so every bit of negative counted.
Anamorphic was then designed to Oscar winning approval giving the longer Cinemascope frame whilst still using the whole negative – albeit with the addition in both origination and projection of squeeze/de-squeeze glass. There were lots of variations of this which included a push to use 65mm negative and this resulted in aspect ratios of anything between 2.2:1 and 2.76:1. We saw a great use of Panavision’s Ultra 70 at 2.76:1 from Robert Richardson in Tarantino’s ‘The Hateful Eight’.
Film stocks improved over time which lead to S35 which just extracted the centre from a standard 35mm negative. This made life easy with equipment being much smaller and, very importantly, cinemas world-wide not needing new projectors or lenses. And weirdly this is the key to the freedom we have today with aspect ratios – Digital projection and the huge gamut of distribution available to us now.
Historically distribution only meant theatre release and that was tied to the projection gates available, not just locally but throughout the whole world. The first film that I shot as second unit DoP was shot on film and originally framed in 1.66:1. This was chosen by the first unit DoP as there were a lot of two-handers which suited the slightly taller frame. It had a theatrical release but nearly all theatres couldn’t project 1.66:1 so the distribution framing became the much commoner ratio of 1.85:1. With the emergence of digital projection we can now distribute in any framing we choose. We even see aspect ratios changing mid-film – especially IMAX where many directors like to shoot set piece scenes in IMAX 65mm cutting back to 35mm for the less dynamic sections.
However distribution is much more than just cinemas nowadays. If it’s a commercial then people will potentially see it in the cinema and television of course, but more likely also on tablets, phones and computers. Within the world of phones we then also have platforms like Facebook which favour the 1:1 and 9:16 formats. Networks such as Netflix also are keen on 2:1 which is thinner than the standard 16:9 TV screen so you get some black bars top and bottom but not as much as the widescreen 2.35:1 format – a nod to the epic cinema format but better value for money as you have less black?!
Personally I am very happy to shoot to whichever aspect ratio works best for the content – the challenge comes when one film needs to meet all aspect ratios. This is not necessarily new – in my youth I saw many a pan and scanned 1.85:1 film on video in 4:3 but the severity of the extraction is greater now. I recently completed, with Joe Shaw directing, a set of films for Tesco Mobile which needed delivery in 16:9,9:16 and 1×1. These were performance led vignettes of family life so could not be shot 3 times with appropriate framing for each delivery. In addition, the location was great as it gave all the options for different spaces needed but there were elements in each room that were not on-brand and so needed to be framed out. We ended up shooting in 6K on a RED Dragon and extracting the 9:16 and 1×1 from the 16:9 frame.
Well that sounds easy, and from a practical level it is, but there are compromises that aren’t immediately obvious. Firstly we will have to use wider lenses or be further away from the subject to achieve the same vertical frame size in 16:9 when compared to shooting in 9:16. If you look at the examples below where the picture on the right was extracted from a 16:9 frame and the one on the left was originated in 9:16. They both used the same lens (35mm on an APSC sensor) and the same stop of T2 for night and T4 for daytime. The difference is the distance to subject which is closer in the 9:16 example. You can see there is a change in depth of field with the drop off of focus being greater in the image on the left which was shot specifically for 9:16. Just look at the detail in the zebra crossing or the awning to see what I mean.
With the current trend of shallow depth of field this is something to be considered when talking with the director. The other main consideration is that the area to light and dress is much bigger. This will add time/lamps/crew/props to the budget which can be vexing for the producer! It’s fine if it is agreed that the only format will be 9:16 as you can just ignore everything outside of that area but I have never been on a shoot where the client has not said that although they don’t think they will use it, they might so can we just make sure…It’s very easy to say but it has a considerable effect on schedule and equipment costs.
It’s a real luxury to have this freedom of aspect ratios and the range of distribution formats means that your films are more likely to be seen by a broader range of people which is great. It can be a double edged sword also though as you can lose control of one of the keys tools a DoP has, that of framing.