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:
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:
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):
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:
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):
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:
In 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:
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:
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.