You might not spend much time thinking about the shape of the movies you watch, but everyone from filmmakers to streaming services are paying more attention than ever. Will the next movie you watch use the taller Imax Enhanced aspect ratio? Will it be ultrawide or almost square? And more importantly, why would a director or studio choose to change the shape a movie is presented in?
Read on to learn more about what aspect ratios are and why they matter and to see some examples. Looking for a high-quality experience watching your favorite content? Check out our lists of The Best TVs and Best Projectors.
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What's in the Frame?
In simple terms, the aspect ratio of a movie is how wide the frame of the movie is versus how tall it is, usually expressed as a ratio. For example, most TVs and computer monitors are 1.77:1 (more often expressed on consumer packaging as 16:9), which means the screen itself is 1.77 times as wide as it is tall. The higher the first number in this ratio is, the wider the screen will be.
This might sound like arcane data only film nerds need to care about, and to a certain extent it is, but things are becoming a bit blurrier when it comes to “standard” aspect ratios for content. When filmmakers used to start shooting a movie, they would often choose what aspect ratio(s) they were going to shoot in, and that was that. But recently streaming services from YouTube to Disney+ have made it possible to show videos in a wider range of aspect ratios, sometimes without distracting black bars. In some cases, you can even choose for yourself which version to watch.
So let's examine why filmmakers shoot in different ratios, and when you as the viewer might prefer one version over the other.
Deciding how to compose a shot—where actors go in a frame, what parts of the environment to show, what elements are or aren't in focus—is a complicated and creative field. But before any of those decisions can be made, the shape of the frame comes first. And it's a more important decision than it might seem.
For example, The Avengers often features the Hulk in the same frame as the much smaller Black Widow. If that movie were shot in the typical 2.39 that many theatrical movies use, it would be difficult to fit both of these characters in the frame properly. So instead, the movie was shot using a 1.85 aspect ratio—another common, but relatively taller ratio—allowing more vertical space. You can see the difference in the graphic below. The red sections show how, for example, the top of Hulk's head would be cut off if the image were cropped down to an ultrawide frame, even as it cuts off most of several characters' legs.
As director Scott Derrickson (Doctor Strange, Sinister) explained to WIRED, taller frames can have a powerful impact when it comes to larger-than-life stories. “The extreme top and bottom of Imax theatrical creates an amazing visceral experience where the aesthetics of the frame are replaced by an image so vast that you are basically inside the frame. In my experience, this is exceptionally good for action and the only way I like to view 3D.”
This is part of the reason Zack Snyder chose to use an extremely tall 1.33:1 aspect ratio—closer to old-school televisions—to emphasize the weighty height of superheroes like Batman. In such a tall, but less-wide frame, you can fit a full human standing up in a dramatic pose with much less empty space on the sides, which would have been particularly impressive on Imax screens.
However, the movie was adapted to a more traditional widescreen format for the theatrical release. The fabled "Snyder cut" was eventually released in its full 1.33:1 glory but mostly viewed on TV screens that are much wider, leaving black bars on the side. This highlights the problem filmmakers face when choosing what aspect ratio to film in: They can have an ideal viewing experience in mind while shooting the movie, but many (in some cases even most) people who ever watch their work will see it in an entirely different context.
The ‘Cinematic Look’
There's another reason to choose a specific aspect ratio: the “cinematic look.” Ask 10 filmmakers what makes something look “cinematic” and you'll get 11 different answers, but at least some of them will likely mention ultrawide frames.
There's a lot more to it than that, but Derrickson explained, “I generally prefer the [2.40:1 aspect ratio] for subjective reasons—the composition feels more cinematic to me, with its emphasis on width of space and the way it forces close-ups to be off-center.”
We all have subconscious associations with the movies we grew up watching that collectively make things feel like a movie. And ultrawide aspect ratios like 2.4:1 have been the almost exclusive domain of movies for decades. TVs eventually migrated to the now-common 1.77:1 standard, but if you remember watching anything that was ultrawide, it was probably a movie. So your brain starts to associate that shape with “cinema,” even from a very young age.
This isn't just a Pavlovian association. As with any aspect ratio, there are specific benefits to this ultrawide frame. Wide shots of sprawling landscapes feel even more grand. For example, in Blade Runner, shots of the dystopian Los Angeles in the far distant future of … um … 2019 feel as massive as if you were looking out over the actual city. The red bars show how much of this frame would be cut off if it were a more typical 1.77:1 aspect ratio in the images below.
However, it's not just wide shots that can benefit from this wide frame. “I also really love the way extreme close-ups look in 2.40," Derrickson explained. "You usually have to crop the hairline of the actor or actress, but there is great power in how those extreme close-ups work.”
Derrickson offered the example of Jack Nicholson's iconic scene in A Few Good Men. Initially, Nicholson is framed widely enough that you can see the top of his head, but as soon as the camera cuts to him to deliver the line, “You can't handle the truth!” the shot is close enough to cut off the top of his head. It draws the focus to his intense facial expressions.
As an added bonus, the harsh straight line across his forehead where it meets the edge of the frame emphasizes the parallel horizontal lines of his eyebrows, his shoulders, and even his pursed lips. In the wider shot, you can see the curvature of his head, but in this laser-focused shot, Nicholson's framing is rigid and sharp to accentuate his harsh lines.
I've added red bars to indicate how much less space there might be on a taller aspect ratio, and while that might be fine, the extra space makes wider shots feel that much emptier, which only heightens the effect when the camera comes in so close that Nicholson's face fills the screen. Like every other filmmaking tool, the aspect ratio a director chooses can have a dramatic effect on the feel of a movie.
For a lot of film history, picking an aspect ratio was a one-and-done choice. The whole movie had to be distributed in a single size frame, even if some movies were shot with multiple aspect ratios in mind for different edits for, say, theatrical and home distribution. But more recently, it's become fairly common to see movies that change aspect ratios—or even let the viewer decide.
“The first film I remember seeing that toggled between 2.40 and 1.9 in IMAX was The Dark Knight,” Derrickson said. In that movie, many of the biggest action scenes were shot with a much taller aspect ratio, allowing more vertical space within the frame. In the theater, the film switched between them, often without audiences—or even professionals—noticing. “What was remarkable was that I didn’t even notice the shift because the 2.40 on that enormous screen was still so large.”
Derrickson's own superhero movie, Doctor Strange, used a similar technique for many of its action scenes. And while Derrickson initially clarified on Twitter that the Imax scenes weren’t shot with home viewing in mind, he told me, “I’ve recently watched the IMAX 3D version on my 55" TV screen, and I think the switch is much more noticeable, but the power of opening up the frame and giving the home viewer a significantly larger image for the major set pieces works well.”
More movies are also experimenting with uncommon aspect ratios. Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth is shot in black and white in a tall 1.33:1 ratio. And the 2019 film The Lighthouse went even taller with a ratio of 1.19:1 to evoke the classic look of box cameras from the 1890s.
Now that it’s easier than ever for films to be shot and distributed in a variety of aspect ratios, you might find yourself watching movies that are more shaped around the story being told, rather than the frame they’re limited to. You might even have some agency in that choice.
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