Long ago, when all television screens and computer monitors looked alike, they shared the same aspect ratio of 4 by 3. It dominated the way early cinema and television looked, but it was not meant to last. In the 21st century, new and emerging technology has resulted in more aspect ratios, like 16:9, leaving 4:3 as somewhat of a relic. But what is 4:3 aspect ratio, how did it get started, and why has it started popping up again in some movies?
4x3 Aspect Ratio
Defining the 4:3 aspect ratio
It may be clear to some, but it’s still important to properly define what the 4 by 3 aspect ratio is. A big reason for giving the 4:3 ratio a proper definition is because it has become a catch-all term referring to a “square frame” and that is not always correct.
What is 4:3 aspect ratio?
The 4:3 aspect ratio is used in film and TV to denote the width and height of images that are 4 units wide by 3 units tall. This term is usually pronounced Four-Three, Four-to-Three, or Four-by-Three, and also known as 1.33:1. It was a default aspect ratio in 35mm celluloid film and remained so for many years in professional and amateur productions. It was the first aspect ratio for television sets, as well as computer monitors. Thus granting it the other official name of fullscreen, as the 4:3 aspect ratio would fit the entire screen of a standard TV set or monitor at the time. For the most part, 4:3 aspect ratio resolutions specifically refer to TV screens and monitors, as the more technical 1.33:1 specifically refers to celluloid and film/TV productions.
Characteristics of 4:3
- Mostly square and box-like.
- The default (and original) aspect ratio for 35mm.
- Modified and formatted to fit your (4:3) screen.
4:3 Aspect Ratio Resolutions
The history of 4:3
In the beginning of cinema, 1.33:1 was the default aspect ratio for everything. It was not a creative choice, but merely what was being offered with the technology at the time. And remember, back in cinema’s earliest days (1890s), just seeing a few seconds of people leaving work or two people kissing was a spectacle. If you want some more info on cinema’s aspect ratio history from then to now, take a look at the video below.
1.33 kept going and going all throughout the 1910s and ‘20s, but it wasn’t always consistent. Even though 1.33 was very much the default ratio used by most, not everyone actually abided by it (including movie theaters). In fact, some films had aspect ratios ranging from 1.19:1 to 1.33:1, which meant uncommon ratios like 1.29:1 and anything else in-between.
While these other ratios were close enough to 1.33, a more strict standard was deemed necessary, and in 1932, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences created the 1.37:1 aspect ratio. Nearly identical to 1.33, 1.37 was ever so slightly wider to accommodate a soundtrack on the literal film reel. And for twenty or so years, (nearly) every Hollywood film was in 1.37.
You can learn a bit more about the changing shape of movies and their ratios in the video below.
1.33 was not gone forever, as it soon evolved into the 4x3 aspect ratio that dominated the newly created television landscape of the 1940s and ‘50s. 4:3 was thus created with the advent of television screens, as screens and monitors did not use “technical” ratios like 1.33 or 1.37. And since nearly every movie ever made by the early 1950s could fit into a 4:3 ratio, TV was the hot new thing to watch any movie on.
But movie theaters reacted to TV with the widescreen revolution, including CinemaScope and VistaVision, which resulted in 1.33/1.37 being dropped from legitimate filmmaking in favor of wider ratios. And so from the mid-1950s to today, most movies are in an aspect ratio wider than 4:3. You can learn a bit more about the widescreen revolution in the video below.
As for TVs, they stayed 4:3 for pretty much the entirety of the 20th century. This of course led to pan-and-scan when widescreen movies came to home video, but that’s a separate issue that was later solved by letterboxing. It was not until the 1990s that the idea of wider television screens was being played with (which included the idea of a 2:1 aspect ratio).
So these days (the 2020s), widescreen televisions at 16:9 (1.77:1/1.78:1) are the new standard, with 4:3 aspect ratio pixels a relic of the 20th century.
4:3 Aspect Ratio Pixels
How 4:3 is used today
Over the years, the line between 1.33 and 1.37 has been further blurred in the common film fan vernacular, even as those differences have become more easily discernible than ever. With the advent of DVD and Blu-ray, along with websites like IMDb listing off technical specs, we can now see the exact aspect ratio of a movie.
That means we can dig further into whether a movie is actually in 1.33 or 1.37 (along with knowing specific 4:3 aspect ratio pixels), but since they are so uncommon in contemporary cinema, 4:3 has become a catch-all term to refer to movies in either ratio.
It should be noted that 4:3 aspect ratio resolutions specifically refer to screens and monitors — like 16:9 — but it’s frequently used to refer to 1.33/1.37 movies in casual film conversation. Additionally, movies shot on regular 35mm (or even on digital) can be shot and presented in a native 1.33 or 1.37 aspect ratio. Since the 1950s widescreen revolution, most films presented in 1.66 to 1.85 are shot natively in 1.33 and cropped later.
In the last decade or so, "4 by 3," be it 1.33 or 1.37, has been popping up again in contemporary cinema. Independent filmmakers Andrea Arnold (Fish Tank, American Honey) and Kelly Reichardt (Meek’s Cutoff, First Cow) have been among the most consistent and prominent users of 4:3 aspect ratio films, as they have used it for a great majority of their work.
On a per-film basis, The Artist (2011) was a notable contemporary movie that intentionally used 1.37 due to it also being a black-and-white silent film. A few years later, Wes Anderson released The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), which, on top of being a box office hit, uses multiple aspect ratios but mainly sticks to 1.37 (which is very much in line with Anderson’s style).
Since then, other independent films like A Ghost Story and First Reformed (both 2017) have used the 4:3 frame to tell intimate stories that reached critical acclaim. You can learn more about the return of 4:3 aspect ratio films in the video below.
Even as the 4x3 aspect ratio style has continued to show up in smaller movies, such as Jonah Hill’s directorial debut Mid90s (2018), the more obscure 1.19:1 aspect ratio showed up in Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse (a movie that has sometimes been incorrectly referred to be in 4:3).
But since these are all independent films, it is not too surprising if they can get away with using an archaic ratio.
But a surprising development in the use of 4:3 has found it being used in the most recent Marvel Cinematic Universe miniseries, WandaVision. In that case, the use of 4:3 was an homage to television programs of the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, as well as a way to depict Wanda’s created world versus the world outside of it (which is in 2.39:1). The video below talks about how these various aspect ratio uses and transitions helped the miniseries narratively.
As for a major film with major hype that was shot and presented in 4:3, look at Zack Snyder’s Justice League, which premiered exclusively on HBO Max. In the case of JL, it was an artistic choice by the director, so much so that HBO issues a disclaimer that the film is presented in 4:3 to preserve his vision.
You can learn more about this, and how it fits into Snyder’s directing style, in the video below, which includes some Snyder quotes to provide more context.
While mainstream 4:3 aspect ratio films are still mostly a thing of the past, independent cinema, along with streaming programs and some major filmmakers, are bringing it back in their own ways. It’s hard to say whether 4:3 will break back into the mainstream, but if Zack Snyder could do it, maybe some other major filmmakers will, too.
Why the 2:1 aspect ratio is so popular
Now that you know a bit more about the 4:3 aspect ratio, why not learn more about the 2:1 aspect ratio? We talk about where this special ratio came from, its use in television and film, and how it is used to enhance the movies and shows it’s used for.