A wide shot of the vastness of space. An intimate home video of a child’s first steps. A social media savvy YouTube vlogger with the latest and greatest in makeup techniques. Whatever you may be watching, there should be an essence to the visuals that feels cohesive with the content being portrayed. Certain shots feel right at home in a reality TV drama, while others perfectly capture the epic grandeur of a Hollywood blockbuster. The culprit is often staring at you right through a letterbox (rimshot): aspect ratio.
Aspect ratio is simply the relationship between the height and width of an image. It is also one of the most important elements to the entire video production process.
Most images began as 4:3 squares. This so called “Academy” ratio was the standard for films, as it fit the frame of a 35mm film reel. Nowadays, this Polaroid square ratio is still used stylistically by filmmakers and content creators to evoke a sense of nostalgia through this more intimate, confined framing. Companies like Instagram capitalized on these dimensions by encouraging users to be very purposeful with their content, as it would be prominently featured in the center of a 4:3 box. Instagram has since broken out of “the box” and adopted other screen dimensions on their platform. (For a more in-depth look into current screen sizes on Instagram, read this blog post from fellow CenterTable video editor, Justin Szykowny). Filmmaker Wes Anderson used the technique of switching to a 4:3 aspect ratio in his film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, to accurately depict the different eras in which his story was taking place, and give the audience a heightened sense of time.
As filmmakers sought to expand their horizons, so did the literal dimensions of the content they were producing. Full frame 16:9 moved beyond the filmstrip and took advantage of camera sensors to allow for wider frames and bolder images. These new screen sizes gave birth to high definition television and is now considered the standard for most broadcast and social media videos. Documentaries and commercial videos live best within this ratio because of its accessibility and familiarity. Most consumer-friendly cameras and smartphones shoot in this format, translating nicely across a multitude of viewing platforms.
The advent of social media has created a major shift within the video production industry. With sites like Facebook boasting over 2 billion users, content creators are being forced to adapt to how users interact with content. Vertical video has since been on the rise, thanks to the heavy dominance of smartphones as the viewing platform of choice. Vertical video accommodates the standard dimensions of most smartphones by inverting the 16:9 landscape to a 9:16 portrait format. This creates a more streamlined viewing experience for smartphone users that doesn’t force them to turn their phone sideways to accommodate wider dimensions.
What makes something look “cinematic”? While certain factors like color and camera settings certainly play a role, the size of the screen can be the most essential ingredient. As Martin Scorsese says, “Cinema is a matter of what’s in the frame, and what’s out.”
Classic Biblical epic, Ben-Hur, was among the first movies to define what is truly considered to be cinematic. Shot in anamorphic 2:76:1, director of photography Robert L. Surtees dazzled audiences with the sheer scale that was able to be fit into a screen. Movies like Star Wars continued this trend by using wide frames to capture the expanse of space. Aspect ratios like this are often reserved for larger cinema screens, as it is an integral part of the movie magic spectacle.
At CenterTable, choosing a frame size is a technical decision as much as it is an emotional one. Where will our video or photo be viewed? How would we like them to be viewed? The aspect ratio is a powerful storytelling technique that can transport the audience, tug at their heartstrings, and fill them with awe.