If you’re an aspiring filmmaker, you’ve probably heard the term aspect ratio quite often. Before you shoot even a single frame of your film, you have to decide what aspect ratio would be best. This decision will affect the staging and framing of every single shot going forward. Why? What is aspect ratio, and why does it matter so much?
Let’s find out.
Aspect Ratio Meaning
Defining aspect ratio
The shape of your image is dictated by its aspect ratio. In the early days, there was only one option while today there are many. Understanding the power of aspect ratio has on your storytelling starts with basic math.
Aspect Ratio Definition
What is aspect ratio?
Aspect ratio is the formula of width (w) to height (h) that describes the shape of your film, or image. It’s usually written like this 1:1. This aspect ratio would be a square, and can also be written as 500px X 500px. Because it’s w x h, an example of a portrait aspect ratio would be something like 2:3.
Aspect Ratio CHOICES
Common aspect ratios
In film, it is critical to determine which aspect ratio you want to shoot in, depending on the context of the film, and what you want to show. Certain genres lend themselves to certain aspect ratios (e.g., Westerns highlight landscapes so a wider frame is better suited).
We also want to be able to show our project across multiple platforms. But viewing our films in theatres vs. on a phone or laptop, demand knowledge of aspect ratio for proper conversion.
When you’re editing or resizing images, it’s essential to have an aspect ratio calculator, especially if you’re going from widescreen to full-screen aspect ratio.
These calculators use an algorithm to make edits precise and help you to crop or expand images without it looking too stretched or shrunk.
2.76:1 Ultra Panavision
Popularized in the 1950s when widescreen presentation was all the rage. It hadn't been used for decades until recently when Tarantino brought it back for The Hateful Eight.
2.35:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
This ratio is helpful when the landscape or story world is a major player in the story itself. Even close-ups allow us to see the full landscape. Star Wars often uses this. We want to see everything, all the time.
Vittorio Storaro, legendary DP on films like Apocalypse Now and The Conformist developed a 2:1 aspect ratio he dubbed "Univisium." It is meant to give filmmakers happy medium between the widescreen theatrical size and what most TV sets are designed to show. Here's a quick look at the 2:1 aspect ratio and how it bridges that gap.
1.85:1 Standard Widescreen
Helpful when we’re framing taller buildings than the previous ratio. This one is a bit more versatile. Because of its tighter focus, a close-up fills more of the frame, and the moment becomes more intimate.
16:9 Standard Video/Television
Computer monitors and televisions began to take on different shapes in the last few years. They morphed from a boxy 4:3 to a wider ratio to accommodate widescreen content.
If you've been to an IMAX movie, you've seen the screen is much taller than a standard multiplex. This is because of the 65mm film used for these productions to capture the largest image possible.
1.33:1 Full Screen
This ratio was used for decades before the advent of widescreen formats. Any classic, black and white movie or vintage television programs used this more "full screen" shape.
9:16 Vertical Video
The most recent evolution of popular aspect ratios has everything to do with our phones and the tendency to film in vertically instead of horizontally. Social media has embraced this and 9:16 has become the standard for content on Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat.
COMPARING Aspect RatioS
Use aspect ratio for tone/genre
As we've discussed, certain aspect ratios lend themselves to certain genres or moods. Wider frames can capture landscapes and action, while taller frames can show more of a character's performance.
Let's look at two examples using a StudioBinder shot list. In Mad Max: Fury Road, the film is anchored by massive car chases across the desert. Keeping the scene geography intact in such chaos depends on the amount of information we can squeeze into the frame horizontally.
In our second example, Paul Thomas Anderson chose a slightly taller 1.85:1 ratio for his film The Master. If you've seen it, you know that the performances are astounding. The image dimensions help capture not just the face but the entire physical performance. Consider this scene when emotions run high.
In StudioBinder, you can adjust your storyboards to whichever aspect ratio you've chosen for your project. Once you've populated your shot list, the icon in the upper left corner gives you various options, including 1.85:1, 16:9, 4:3, and others.
We hope this brief overview has answered the fundamental question: what is aspect ratio? Remember, this is not an arbitrary decision for your project. The size and dimension of your image has a direct impact on how it is received by the audience. Whether you're making a short film, a music video, or even a commercial, understanding the benefits of aspect ratio will elevate its quality and power.
What is a storyboard?
Now that you’ve picked the right aspect ratio for your shots, how will you plan them? You can use storyboards to execute on your vision. The next post explores the purpose of a storyboard with a brief step-by-step guide on how to use one.