The History of Aspect Ratio in Film

5 Jul

John Hess of  presents an overview of film aspect ratios from the silent film era through the widescreen heyday of the 1950s and 1960s to digital cameras being used today.

In a previous post, we explored aspect ratio, but Hess gives a more detailed history explaining the technical aspects and showing examples from various films including Lawrence of Arabia and North By Northwest. Explaining the technical changes through examples and visuals this video gives a good overview of the main aspect ratios that have been used over the years by filmmakers and how they were adopted by the industry. Aspect ratio is a technical consideration for filmmakers but can also influence the framing, the cinematography, and the overall effect of the film.

Aspect ratio is usually not the first thing a viewer thinks about when they are watching a film, but it can create a different feeling that goes beyond just the look of the film. Films that feature wide horizons or grand landscapes such as Lawrence of Arabia, North By Northwest, or westerns such as Shane seem well suited to a widescreen format. A more personal intimate drama might be more suited to the 4:3 aspect ratio which has less space. Jean Luc Goddard used the more square frame of the 4:3 aspect ratio in his film First Name: Carmen, and Ingmar Bergman used the European equivalent of 1.33:1 (actually 1.37:1) for his claustrophobic drama Persona.

Although more filmmakers are gravitating towards the widescreen format the 4:3 ratio can often be a preferred choice as it is for Andrea Arnold (dir.  Wuthering Heights, 2012). In an interview with Filmmaker Magazine, Arnold explained why she chose that aspect ratio for her film,

I wasn’t intending to do that and then we did some tests and one roll we looked at we went straight onto the projector in the cinema. It was 4:3. I thought it looked so beautiful and knew I wanted to do that…It is not a popular format…I loved the fact that it’s the entire 35mm negative, you’re not cutting anything off. It’s square like the negative. There is something honest about that. It’s like you’re projecting the negative, it’s there, there it is, you’re not doing anything else to it, that’s the way it is. I think it’s also a very beautiful frame for one person. It is a portrait frame. My films are generally from the point of view of one person. I think it’s a very respectful frame. I keep using the word respect and I don’t know why I keep saying that, but that’s what it feels like to me when I look at somebody framed in a 4:3 frame. It makes them really important. The landscape doesn’t take it from them. They’re not small in the middle of something. It gives them real respect and importance. It’s a very human frame, I think. I think that’s the main reason. I don’t know, but I think. You can also see more sky, but I think the other one is the real reason.

In the end the choice of aspect ratio is an aesthetic as well as a technical choice. Being aware of all the options and the different effects gives a filmmaker more choices.


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