The Cinematographer's Process: Why Choose One Aspect Ratio Over Another?

The Cinematographer's Process: Why Choose One Aspect Ratio Over Another?

When DPing a film, one of the first decisions that I always make with the director is the aspect ratio of the final product. Deciding this early on is important, because it informs and shapes many of the other stylistic choices that you make down the road.

When choosing a ratio, it's best to ask yourself a few basic questions, such as, "Does the intended style of the piece lend itself to wider or taller ratios, and why? Is mise-en-scène going to be an essential story element or are the characters driving the story through their actions and dialogue? Will negative space in the frame be an important story element?"

Choosing a ratio based on questions such as these can be difficult, and oftentimes the answers will contradict each other. For instance, your story might naturally lend itself to a wider ratio because of the locations that you're using (widescreen can really make a location look its best), but a character or dialogue-driven story might call for a taller ratio to make closeups more naturalistic.

Conversely, you might want a taller frame for closeups, but you also want the additional negative space that comes from a wider ratio. Essentially, it's a matter of determining which ratio will be the best one to aid in the telling of your story.

Here are a few stills from films that I've shot with an explanation of why I chose that aspect ratio for that specific film:

2.35

2.35

This is a frame from my thesis film. We chose to use the 2.35 ratio because it afforded us the ability to make a statement about our characters through the use of the additional negative space that the wider frame provided. The story is one of lonely people, so through framing certain characters at the edge of the composition, we were able to accentuate their loneliness and physically alienate them through the emptiness in the rest of the frame.

2.35

2.35

Sometimes, a certain place or setting just calls out for the use of the 2.35 (or wider) frame. That was the case with this shot from South Dakota. The vastness of the plains coupled with the insanely wide lens I was using (an 8mm fisheye) called for a frame that would be able to create additional horizontal perspective. Through the use of the framing, the wide lens, and the widescreen aspect ratio, the composition is most effective.

1.78

1.78

For this film, a film that was almost entirely dialogue and character-driven, we chose to use the 1.78, or 16:9 frame. With the additional vertical screen real estate, we were able to frame our mediums and closeups in the most naturalistic and organic way possible (without going to 1.66 or taller). The 1.78 frame allowed us to make our actors prominent in the composition without the cramped feel that you get from shooting the human face at 2.35.

1.33

1.33

Oftentimes, when we think of 4:3 we think of standard definition video (and it makes us cringe). However, using the 1.33 ratio can also be a stylistic choice. In the case of this shot - since we were adapting a scene from The Seventh Seal - using the original ratio in which the film was shot was a way to not only pay homage, but to recreate the look and feel of the original in a contemporary setting.

However, even though the director and I decided on the 1.33 frame for the final piece, we also wanted the footage to work in a 1.78 composition (for use in our reels). Accordingly, we decided to frame all of our shots for both 1.33 and 1.78, using the 4:3 frame as the primary one for characters and movement and the 16:9 for additional mise-en-scene.

Here's a video from Criterion about how On the Waterfront was successfully shot for different aspect ratios:

And here are two versions of the same shot. The first is framed for the traditional 1.33 ratio, and the second is the looser 1.78.

1.33

1.33

1.78

1.78

Choosing an aspect ratio for your next project can be as simple or as difficult of a task as you want to make it. You can spend hours and days contemplating various questions about how you want the piece to look and feel. You can deliberate all sorts of various technical and aesthetic considerations until the cows come home. You can even shoot for multiple ratios if you feel so inclined. However, if you pick your aspect ratio based on the needs of the story and what the characters are feeling, you will always hit a home run.

This post first appeared on No Film School in July 2013.


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