A Primer On Aspect Ratio

There is a trend that I want to die. It’s certainly nowhere near the level of atrocity that is going on in parts of the world, but to someone that is trained in television and is into film and cinematography -whether it’s seen being done in public or the results of it posted on the internet – it’s quite an irritating sight. It’s a scourge of the youtube video world.

This scourge is known as vertical video. And many others have tried to inform the public of this thoughtless act that can be solved by simply turning your phone 90 degrees.

But, this vertical video syndrome seems to be just a branch of a deeper root of ignorance when it comes to aspect ratios. So, let’s take a look at the evolution of cinema and television and the various aspect ratios that have come out of it and why.

The best place to start is with what the film industry started with and what many people growing up prior to the early 2000s are familiar with:

Academy Standard (1.33:1 and 1.37:1)

Academy Standard Image

This is the 4:3 ratio of most CRT televisions since the beginning of television. It was chosen as the ratio for TV because this was cinema started with (1.33:1 for silent films and 1.37:1 for films with sound) and was the ratio used with 35mm film until the early 1950s. The ratio 4:3 is 1.33:1, which means the picture is 33% wider than tall. 4:3 rather than 1.37:1 was chosen for television because it was simpler.

Films such as The Wizard of Oz, Casablanca, Citizen Kane, and Dracula, for example, were shot on 35mm film in the Academy Standard ratio. And television shows prior to the early 2000s were shot in 1.33:1.

And it is because of television that film studios started to experiment with bigger pictures in the early 1950s in order to get people back into the theater. These wider ratios provide more picture to work with and something that people could not get at home.

So, here is a basic list of ratios that have been experimented with and that have become standard over the past six decades. But this is no means a comprehensive list of all the aspect ratios that have been used.

Academy Flat (1.85:1)

Academy Flat 1.85-1

This is the ratio closest to what 16:9 (1.78:1) widescreen televisions are. The 1.78:1 ratio was chosen for high definition televisions back in the late 1980s because it was a happy medium between all of these other ratios.

1.85:1 is a very common ratio used in film making to this day and is one of two ratios that are the most common in movie making today. Jurassic Park, the original Terminator, North by Northwest, The Shining, Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Saving Private Ryan are just a few of the films shot in this ratio.

Scope (2.39:1)

Scope 2.39.1

The scope ratio is the other common ratio used in modern movie making since 1975. There are different techniques to creating this large ratio. One of the most common and highest quality processes is to shoot movies anamorphically. This uses regular 35mm film, but lenses that squeeze a wide picture onto the film.

Another way is to use Super 35mm film. This is 35mm film, but a little bit wider (approximately 1.60:1) because the space reserved for the sound track is used. So, using this method, a 2.39:1 image is framed and cropped out. The downside is a lower resolution due to the smaller area of film used, but the upside is lighter sized lenses are used which brings the cost down during production.

Because of this ratio’s large picture, it’s the one used in many, if not most, big blockbusters such as the Marvel movies. Other examples of movies shot in this ratio are the original Star Wars trilogy, the Dark Knight trilogy (except for the IMAX scenes), The Thin Red Line, Looper, Inception, Gran Torino, Die Hard 1-4, Terminator 2, Inglorious Basterds, and Django Unchained.

Examples of other ratios:

Speaking of Quentin Tarantino; his next film, The Hateful Eight, is the first film since the mid 1960s to be shot in Ultra Panavision 70 (2.76:1). This is an anamorphic process that uses 65mm film rather than 35mm film. Other films that used this ultra-wide ratio include Ben-Hur (1959), Mutiny on the Bounty (1962), Battle of the Bulge (1965), and the final one to use it before Tarantino, Khartoum (1966).

Films that used 65mm film without anamorphic lenses include 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Lawrence of Arabia. Standard use of 65mm film produces an aspect ratio of 2.20:1. 65mm film is more expensive, but provides a much higher resolution than 35mm film.

VHS and DVD (full screen) distributors often angered directors because they released these films that are shot in a wider ratio than standard TV in the “pan and scan” format. Basically, it crops off the sides of the picture to fit it to a 4:3 television, compromising the vision of the director. You wouldn’t take a painting and chop it up to fit a different sized frame.

To put it simply, the “black bars” on the top and bottom of the screen or (in the case of a 4:3 picture displayed on a 16:9 television) on the sides of the screen are supposed to be there to show you the full picture in its proper ratio.

Vertical Video (9:16)

Vertical Video 9.16

So, to come back to the topic of vertical video, there is one thing that is common in all of these aspect ratios: width. We naturally see the world panoramically. This is why vertical (9:16) video is offensive to the visual sense. And it is extra offensive to those that understand frame composition.

In short: stop shooting your videos vertically, please. Thank you.

Graham McCann
Ever since he found his mom's Atari 2600 under the TV when he was about four years old, the rest of his life was connected to gaming. His family got their first computer when he was five years old in 1991 - a 286, which was powerful enough to play Wolfenstein 3D and the Hugo adventure game series. He got a Sega Genesis when he was eight, a Pentium 120 when he was nine, a Nintendo 64 when he turned 10, and a Playstation for Christmas when he was 12. A few years after that, he was able to make money and buy games for himself. So, his collection grew and hasn't stopped. When he was 12, he decided that he wanted to be a video-game journalist because he had a subscription to Gamepro Magazine. He eventually went to journalism school, then television broadcasting school, worked for a few years in the news industry, and now here he is with FGE. Graham looks forward to what the future has to bring and he is dedicated to being a part of this awesome gaming industry.

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