Aspect Ratio

2 Mar

The aspect ratio of a film is the relationship between the length and height of its rectangular frame.  The standard in Hollywood is 1.85:1, which means the width of the frame is 1.85 times longer than its height. You can see it here in Sixteen Candles (1984), directed by John Hughes:

Follow My Film Directing Aspect Ratio 1.85

Prior to the mid 1950s, the standard was 1.37:1.  This is a shot from All About Eve (1950), directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz:

Follow My Film Directing Eve 1.37

However, the affordability and convenience of television threatened to keep movie-goers at home, so Hollywood fought back with epic films in wider formats like 2.20:1 and up. Director David Lean famously utilized 2.20 in the epic, Lawrence of Arabia (1962):

Follow My Film The Script 2.20:1

As a result, 1.37 is virtually extinct now.  In an email, film historian and author David Bordwell explained to me that most modern movie theatres no longer have the technology to project 1.37.  In fact, director Steven Soderbergh wanted to utilize 1.37 for his film The Good German (2006), but did not since most theatres would be unable to screen it.

And what about high-definition video and television?  Its aspect ratio is 1.78:1, more commonly known as 16×9.  This is a shot from my film, First Light (2008).  As you can see, it’s virtually indistinguishable from 1.85, the current Hollywood standard:

Follow My Film The Script 1.78:1

Aspect ratio does not pertain to filmmakers only.  Painters have chosen the aspect ratio of their canvas for centuries.  Here is Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci (c. 1503-1506) and below is Odalisque by Jules Joseph Lefebvre (1874):

Follow My Film The Script Mona Lisa

Follow My Film The Script Jules

Like da Vinci and Lefebvre, filmmakers must be intentional with their aspect ratio based on the film’s content and their directorial vision.  However, most digital filmmakers go with 1.78 (16×9) by default. Why? Because they believe it’s more “film-like,” i.e., it emulates the look of a movie because it’s more rectangular.  That is not intelligent filmmaking; it’s nonsense.

Due to its flexibility, digital video allows us to make 1.37 films again.  It’s a beautiful format, lending itself to portraiture and close-ups.  The dimensions of a frame determine where the viewers’ eyes go, thus, the wider the frame, the more the eyes will wander about.  However, in a more square frame, a close-up fills the screen, forcing the viewer to connect with the characters’ eyes (note Betty Davis above).

Additionally, in his incredible book, The Visual Story, Bruce Block points out that the film frame can be manipulated to direct the viewers’ eyes.  This can be done mechanically, like the split screen effect, or better yet, with the use of objects in the scene itself, as seen in Vertigo (1958), directed by Alfred Hitchcock:

Follow My Film The Script VertigoIn Blow-Up (1966), director Michelangelo Antonioni uses enlarged photographic prints in the foreground to isolate the main character during a crucial turning point in the film:

Follow My Film The Script Blow-Up

And here in Rosemary’s Baby (1968), director Roman Polanski has a bit of fun with a notorious character.  This shot is a character’s point-of-view  through a front door peep-hole:

Follow My Film Directing Baby

So even after choosing the aspect ratio, the filmmaker is not stuck and can convert the frame size within the frame itself!  As to the aspect ratio of my film, I’m still undecided.  However, I definitely want to make an intentional choice and will consider all formats, including 1.37.

I’d love to hear your thoughts, especially the way 16×9 has become the new standard and the default choice.



10 Responses to “Aspect Ratio”

  1. Tyler January 7, 2011 at 8:26 am #

    Hey Christopher!
    So glad I found your site, I’m currently in postproduction of my first feature film and I’m also fighting the aspect ratio battle.
    My original footage (from camera) will be HD 1.78:1 or 16×9. Most indy filmmakers are shooting at this ratio now with the speed and acceptance of HD and affordability of HD cameras. Also almost ALL of my family and friends (besides a couple older house holds) have moved to HD 16×9 television sets.
    The current argument I have with myself and other friend filmmakers is cropping the original 1.78:1 to the cinematic 2.35:1 or 1.85:1.
    Now I totally agree that the wider format is more natural to the way we see things and it definitely adds to the cinematic “feel” of a film… because thats what we see on the silver screen.

    So here are the two questions I’m asking myself-
    Who will be watching my film, and where will they be watching it?

    For me, the target demographic of my film will probably people from the 18 to 40 age range. And they will most definitely be watching it either at home or possibly online. I will have ONE theatrical screening of the film at the premier but a theatrical release is very unlikely, if I’m being brutally honest with myself.

    So, this huge wave of new digital indy filmmakers are very much attached to the ultrawide 2.35.1 and I admit, I am too. BUT, when you crop your 16×9 footage and view that aspect ratio on a HD TV, you get the obvious crop marks on top and bottom. This has become the accepted format with film makers, but NOT with the general public. My wife says she “hates” when it’s not full screen and it has the “black bars” on top and bottom. I’ve asked several family members and friends this and they agree. And it’s because 2.35:1 or 1.85:1 is for theatrical release, meant to be played on a wider screen. Hollywood makes its millions in the box office on the big screen, not on DVD or Blue-ray sells. So naturally they format their films to the BIG screen.

    I know it’s much harder to artistically fill and use a frame that I can’t alter, BUT until I’m shooting films for the big screen or the current 16×9 television format changes, I have to think of my audience.

    So far, I’m thinking 1.78:1 (16×9) would be my rational choice. Even if the big screen is calling out to me… and if it will cramp my shooting style.

    One final bit before I shut up, in the end – it doesn’t matter HOW people see it, if the story isn’t worth telling in the first place. Story first, production last.

    Thanks for the post, hope I didn’t rant too much!
    Break a leg!
    Tyler Roberds

    • Christopher January 7, 2011 at 11:37 am #

      Hey, Tyler. Thanks for sharing. It’s good to hear that you’re carefully considering aspect ratio rather than defaulting to tradition, technology or cliche.

      You definitely are thinking like a producer, so now I think you ought to think like a director! It sounds like “Producer Tyler” votes for 1.78; however, what does the director want to do? In other words, as I argue in my aspect ratio post, what ratio will best serve your content and vision?

      Honestly, it sounds like you’re at a similar stage in your career as myself, so I think you need to doggedly make the film YOU want to make, not want the potential audience wants to see on the big screen or their TV.

      Peace and nice to meet you. Definitely keep me up-to-date with your progress!

      • Tyler January 7, 2011 at 12:47 pm #


        I’m afraid It will be a death match between my inner producer and inner artist… the producer never wins… I guess that’s why a lot of artist are starving. =0)

        Much more film study ahead, I need to do a test the same scene shot in both ways and judge after the fact.

        Be well,

  2. Miguel N. March 9, 2010 at 7:02 pm #

    I like the idea of being able to use the whole frame, depending on the format I’m shooting. It’s the idea of capturing “the reality” in front of the camera. I’ll like to capture it as wide as my eyes can see, but obviously there is the frame’s constraint.
    I always thought that it was dumb to add those 16×9 black bars on a mini dv camera “just to make it look cinematic”.

    • Christopher March 10, 2010 at 10:40 am #

      Hey Miguel. I agree that a wider format is much more similar to our visual perspective. Good point. We definitely don’t see things in a square-like fashion. It really comes down to what’s best for the content of the film and how to best visualize the narrative. I’m simply advocating that we think through the decision rather than default to some hokey film mimicry… Thanks for the comment!

  3. Invisible Mikey March 7, 2010 at 9:39 am #

    It depends upon your story, in my opinion, and upon your intended target audience. I think 1:37 is definitely better IF your audience may be likely to watch it on laptop screens for example. Most of them aren’t wide-screen. For an older audience more likely to view on HD TVs, 16×9 would be more appropriate. The subject matter should influence the choice too. Epic vistas, outdoor scenes and/or a lrge cast would be best portrayed wide, but a personal two-character story, or one in which you want to intensify the tension is easier to realize in a box closer to a square. That’s one reason film noir is more effective in 1:37.

    • Christopher March 7, 2010 at 9:50 am #

      Very good points! I never thought about the framing of a large cast – very helpful. Widescreen is just so “cinematic” and tempting by default; however, an intelligent decision must be made….

  4. Macha March 3, 2010 at 7:00 pm #


  5. Joletta Boghosian March 2, 2010 at 11:30 am #

    I really respect your decision to be intentional about all aspects of your filmmaking, instead of blindly following the norm. Intentionality is a trait we can apply to every area of our lives…

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