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Aspect ratios are the window through which we view movies. Whether you’re watching on your iPhone or the BFI IMAX, the filmmaker has decided how much footage they want you to see at any one time. But exactly how much footage is the right amount of footage?

Is less more? Or should absolute immersion be the goal of any respectable director/cinematographer? Join me on our second odyssey into the land of mystery and wonder that is format, as we aim to decide once and for all: what is the golden ratio?

Aspect ratios work pretty simply: they’re expressed as fractions or decimals. For instance, if a film is 4 units wide and 3 units tall, then the ratio would be 4:3. If we were to express 4:3 as a decimal, it’d be 1.33, and written in standard film notation that’d be 1:1.33. For convenience’s sake, we’ll just call it 1.33. Back in the days of silent movies, frames of celluloid were 4 perforations long – giving an aspect ratio of 4:3/1.33; and by 1929, sound had arrived. The insertion of this sound strip changed the ratio to 1.37 – the decimal now known as the Academy Ratio. If you can’t visualise it in your head, the easiest way to think of it is as a CRT television set.

[The Academy Ratio] feels more like a window into some other world

If you’ve been to the cinema as of late, you may have noticed the Academy Ratio being employed to interesting effect. The Beguiled, The Grand Budapest Hotel, and American Honey (amongst others) all feature this historic format in a modern light. A widescreen image feels like a complete scene: the edges of the screen are the edges of the film/landscape. Academy Ratio, on the other hand, is so unnatural in its presentation (we don’t see in square, do we), that it feels more like a window into some other world. The freewheeling expansiveness of American Honey makes perfect sense to have been shot in Academy Ratio, because it perplexingly makes the canvas feel massive. And, indeed, the allure of being able to control mise en scene to a minute level is just one more reason why this historic format won’t die out.

We’re traversing the ratio landscape chronologically, so I’m gonna chuck in a mention for Polyvision. Used exclusively for Abel Gance’s crazily long 1929 epic Napoleon, Polyvision has an aspect ratio of 4:1 (that’s 3 4:3 films presented side by side!). For your information, in case you hadn’t already pictured it, this is absolutely insane – and we’ve never seen it again. With modern cinema technology, there’s no real reason for a ratio like 4:1 to be necessary.

[Ultra Panavision] captures entire vistas in one romantic swoop; or, alternatively, every little detail

During the 50s, the television industry grew at an unprecedented rate – thrusting cinema into a perilous slump that demanded rapid reinvention. The result? Widescreen. The immersive trend that’s reached its presumable nexus in virtual reality sprung up around 70 years ago in the form of picture sizes that TV-owners just couldn’t match. Cinerama had a ratio of 2.51 – projected with three projectors onto a curved screen (a method yielding a natural image unlike the earlier Polyvision attempt). And, indeed, Cinerama still exists today in a few theatres across the US.

However, in 1953, the folks at CinemaScope discovered you could achieve a wide ratio of 2.35 featuring just one camera and one projector – providing it used an anamorphic lens when shooting and an anamorphic lens on the projector to un-distort the image. This was, it transpired, the start of a format war in which various studios tried to out-ratio each other with new cameras and projectors ad nauseum. The most important thing to come out of this was Ultra Panavision 70 – the widest a film can possibly get without becoming, for lack of a better word, silly. With a 70mm projector, Ultra Panavision 70 yields a picture with an insane 2.76 aspect ratio. That’s super wide. It’s also, as we will cover in another article, very beautiful. Ultra Panavision represents a standard whereby a film can be an acceptable height – a height almost unnoticeably reduced by the widescreen – but a staggering width which captures entire vistas in one romantic swoop; or, alternatively, every little detail on Samuel L. Jackson’s face (as we saw in The Hateful Eight).

Think about it – when have you gone to the cinema and been disappointed by the aspect ratio of the movie?

We spoke a little about squares earlier – and how the Academy Ratio is sort of a window into a much wider world; whereas widescreen has an artificiality that it’s hard to shake. Well, in 1970, IMAX began utilising a pretty square 1.43 ratio with their super high-quality cameras. The key with IMAX is the theatre planning – a square ratio allows audiences to witness a realistically proportioned window of space comprising enough of the floor and the sky to emulate vertical human visual range, but it’s still within a self-contained square. Therefore, the solution involves curving the screen to better fit human eyesight, making it massive to fill the vision of audience members, and then moving the seats so close to the screen that the walls and ceiling become as invisible as possible. Hey presto – you have the least artificial emulation of genuine visual experience possible on the film market – both in 1970 and in 2017.

Nowadays, ratios are a pretty simple business – unless a filmmaker is planning on experimenting with some older technology. Either a 1.85 or a 2.35 ratio is employed as a standard. It’s a pretty middle-of-the-road sort of affair – without the peculiar effect of Academy Ratio, and lacking the wow factor of ultra-widescreen. But it does its job, and many would say it does its job well. Think about it – when have you gone to the cinema and been disappointed by the aspect ratio of the movie?

There are a couple of modern additions to the ratio canon that deserve a mention. Remember Polyvision? Well, in 2015, another absurdly outlandish experiment in ratio brought what has become known as Barco Escape to the market. The logical successor to Vance’s passion project, Barco Escape features a triple screen format featuring two side projections at aspect ratios of 2.35. You do the maths. That’s an unheard of ratio of 7.17. 7. Goddamn. 17. That’s so ridiculous that Samsung were using it to demo content for their Gear VR device! I have to say, this is disastrously impractical, and I can’t imagine it ever catching on – with 3 screens the artifice is very clear – but it’s an impressive folly nonetheless.

we’ve unearthed the main conflict between the great Aspect Ratios of cinema: artificiality vs realism

And speaking about VR, we’re almost certainly heading to mainstream feature films being produced in the form. An HTC Vive, for instance, has an aspect ratio of 1.8 – which becomes pretty damn immersive when shoved into your face. The first two movies that are pushing these boundaries are Oculus’s Myubi, and a bizarre mobster mockumentary called Opportunities in Organized Crime. Virtual reality represents more than a ratio – it’s almost certainly a paradigm shift – and if so, the very nature of ‘cinema’ could be changed forever. A large percentage of film festivals are already featuring VR sections – it’s hardly unbelievable.

I think, from that potted history, we’ve unearthed the main conflict between the great Aspect Ratios of cinema: artificiality vs realism. On the one hand, Ultra Panavision 70 is the king of staged beauty: grand, textured, and so detailed it’ll take your breath away; But on the other, the IMAX ratio captures a 1:43 window to another world in such stunning realism that you’ll believe you were actually there. And, in the immediate future, we’re going to be seeing things in VR undivorceable from reality. Or, let me rephrase, experiencing things in VR undivorceable from reality. So, ultimately, it all comes down to personal preference and context. What’s it gonna be – real life or someone else’s dream?

James Witherspoon

Image: Strictly Vintage Hollywood

James Witherspoon

Freelancer, UCL Law Student, and movie geek living the life in London! Can be found in the corner of some obscure coffee shop, muttering about how Christopher Nolan is overrated...

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