I am an aspect ratio enthusiast. Actually, I’m probably the only aspect ratio enthusiast. Some of you reading this post have been subjected to my two-hour+ aspect ratio lecture, or maybe the slim one-hour abridged version. In that presentation are a few slides that show examples of films that change aspect ratio during their presentation. The recent release of the trailer for Oz the Great and Powerful sent me back to Keynote to update my slides.
As with all my lectures, my Aspect Ratio deck includes dozens of slides that I don’t show, and rather than just adding more clips that I’d omit for the sake of my live audiences, I thought I’d share all of them here.
First some quick background.
One Ratio to Rule Them All…
Between the turn of the century and the mid-1950s, all movies released in the United States were the same aspect ratio: 1.33:1 (sometimes known as Academy Ratio or Full Frame). This was also the aspect ratio chosen as the standard for video broadcast and recording in the United States. So, if you were making films in the first half of the 20th century, you had one frame to compose your shots within. No matter what the subject matter.
And you know what? Directors and cinematographers got really good at telling stories within that frame. They certainly had enough practice.
The 1950s and 1960s were full of technological innovations in film and as a result, filmmakers were offered more aspect ratios to choose from. While there were a few variations, two additional aspect ratios that would become most common. 1.85:1 was technically easy (and inexpensive) to film and project, so it became (and remains) the most common aspect ratio in the US.
Even wider, 2.35:1 (or 2.40:1 as it’s become in recent years) was more difficult to shoot, most often achieved using anamorphic lenses, but it was easy for exhibitors to project. 2.35:1 was initially adopted for expensive, epic films featuring panoramic vistas. Eventually, filmakers adopted it for telling all sorts of cinematic stories.
So, with occasional exceptions (you know, like most European films, which are commonly 1.66:1), these are the three shapes that all movies have been for the past 100 years.
1927: Abel Gance Stirs Up Trouble
French director, Abel Gance liked to fuck shit up, cinematically. In addition to uncommon hand-held shots, selective (and patriotic) red and blue tinting and an initial running time of over twelve hours, his epic Napoléon also changed aspect ratios during the finale.
In a process he dubbed Polyvision, Gance filmed using three, side-by-side cameras and projected using three, side-by-side projectors. Unlike Cinerama, which would attempt to take three-camera films into the mainstream in the 1950s, Polyvision didn’t just present a wide, panoramic image. Instead, the screen sometimes showed three different shots, side by side, or the same shot on the left and right with a different on in the middle!
But the part we care about here is that the first few hours of the film are the normal 1.33:1 aspect ratio of the day, and then when it’s time for the big battle scenes…pow! 4.00:1, garces!
1956: Presenting Around the World in 80 Days…but first…a lecture!
To ease audiences into the super-widescreen 70mm presentation of Around the World in 80 Days, the film starts with a 1.33:1 prologue about Jules Verne and cinema, which includes a really long chunk of Georges Méliès’ Le Voyage dans la lune. Then, when they feel we are ready, the picture slowly expands to a full 2.20:1.
It’s nicely done, and unlike Napoléon, a short bit of 1.33:1 gets us ready for several hours of 2.20:1, not the other way around.
1956: Rock and roll in Cinemascope!
A few months after Around the World in 80 Days, The Girl Can’t Help It was released with a, shall we say, less-formal introduction to the widescreen format…and color!
1977: Cinematic Poineers…ABBA!
“It’s not a documentary, it’s an event! This is going to be worldwide!” And you can tell because we’re going to change from 1.66:1 to 2.35:1 as those words are spoken!
I do like how the change in aspect ratio is motivated by the producer stretching out his hands. Also, I didn’t know that Lasse Hallström directed ABBA: The Movie before directing My Life as a Dog. And for those of you keeping score at home, so far the aspect ratio innovators have been: French, English and Swedish.
1981: John Waters can’t help it!
In a subtle nod to The Girl Can’t Help It, John Waters introduces the audience to the groundbreaking cinematic technology of Odorama™ in Polyester with a short informational monologue featuring a German scientist. When the 1.33:1 educational bit is done, the frame expands a little bit to 1.85:1.
1983: Brainstorm almost changed film formats as well as aspect ratios!
For his follow-up to Silent Running, Doug Trumbull hoped to do no less than to revolutionize cinema. He had developed a new cinematic format called Showscan, which increased visual resolution by using 65mm film and the temporal resolution by shooting and projecting at 60fps, and he hoped to use it for the “recorded reality” sequences in Brainstorm. That proved to be too big a hurdle to overcome with a large studio film. Instead, Trumbull used a wider aspect ratio (and extremely wide-angle lenses) to get a similar effect.
1985: Updating the Singing Cowboy for the 1980s
Like ABBA: The Movie, Rustler’s Rhapsodyalso transitions after the delivery of a line: “Always made me kinda wonder, what one of these B Westerns would look like, you know, if they made them today.”
It’s interesting to note that the shift is from 1.33:1 to 1.85:1, not to 2.35:1, the ratio used for many Westerns of the 1960s and 1970s. That transition is about a change in sound and color, as well as framing. I was a projectionist by 1985 and I checked the analog soundtrack on our print of Rustler’s Rhapsody: it changed from mono to four-channel Dolby Analog. Notice too, that when the ratio changes, the frame shakes and rotates as if it’s being jolted by the booming sound of the gunshots.
1998: Robert Redford opens up the frame to fit Montana
The Horse Whisperer begins in New York and also begins in 1.85:1. When the action moves to the wide-open spaces of Montana, the frame expands to 2.35:1.
The transition is immediately preceded by a sequence in which a crazed Pilgrim resists confinement, shot with long lenses and framed very tightly. Once we open up to 2.35:1, it’s all aerial shots and wide angles.
1998: Let’s start the longest shot in the world with an aspect ratio change
Oh Brian De Palma, we know you like really long shots and cinematic trickery, but why did you need to start Snake Eyes with a 1.33:1 television shot that then changes to 2.35:1?
It’s not simply a matter of starting with a tight shot of a television monitor and panning over. The title text is carefully placed within the 1.33:1 frame until the camera pans over. Then the next block of credit text fills the new 2.35:1 frame. So the message is “Hey, everyone, this is a 1.33:1 movie…psych! It’s 2.35:1!” Which is then followed by “Now let’s keep this shot going for 13 minutes without a visible cut!” Isn’t the usual custom to help the audience forget that they are watching a movie, not remind them that they are? If nothing else, this opening shot sets us up nicely for the mess that follows.
1999: Three aspect ratio changes in one film…
…well, if you saw Galaxy Questat the cinema, that is. If you see it on DVD, you only get one. The first change, everyone gets to see:
Pretty straight forward. We start with a TV show presented in it’s original, pre-HDTV aspect ratio. What you see in this clip is not what happened in the theatrical release. Here it goes directly from 1.33:1 to 2.35:1, a perfectly respectable space movie aspect ratio. In the theatrical release, however, it changes from 1.33:1 to 1.85:1, a normal, mainstream aspect ratio. Then, when Jason Nesmith (Tim Allen) realizes that he’s on a real spaceship looking out at space, it changes to 2.35:1. Imagine that change happening when the bay doors open in this clip:
I remember when we were working on this sequence at ILM and Visual Effects Art Director Alex Jaeger had to design the shot with that transition in mind. And it worked great! Each change in ratio signaled a new scope of the story that Nesmith was being dragged into. I wish the Blu-Ray at least kept things in tact. Another reason to seek out revival screenings of Galaxy Quest on the big screen.
2002: The frame that confines
Catch Me if You Can is not just about Frank Abagnale Jr.’s attempts to keep from being arrested, it’s also about his desperation to avoid being contained. This film is full of shots composed to reinforce this idea. So, the use of a 1.33:1 frame to present an episode of To Tell The Truth at the opening is also the first of many times that Spielberg will put Frank in a box.
If you keep watching the clip past the return to 2.35:1, you see a shot framed in a circle, rather than a rectangle, and Frank framed several times in boxes within the film frame.
2004: An animated, CG documentary about superheroes that has scratches and dirt
The first footage we see in The Incredibles is worn, roughly cut 16mm film of candid superhero interviews.
The messages are clear: this is a real movie; it’s not an overly clean CG movie; this story has roots in the past and these characters, and the world have changed. Like Catch Me if You Can, The Incredibles is also about confinement, and like that film, when we first meet our protagonist, he’s confined within a box. The Incredibles is another amazingly well-composed film.
2007: Disney pokes fun at their own conventions
Disney’s Enchanted starts like most of their 1990s animated features, but when Princess Giselle is pushed into a magic well, she emerges in Times Square having transformed, along with the film, into live-action.
The simultaneous change to 2.35:1 underscores the message that this is no longer a Disney cartoon.
2008: A new format for feature films and a new direction for ratio shifts
Following the successful release of several enlarged 35mm films on IMAX screens, Christopher Nolan took the next logical step and filmed a portion of The Dark Knight with IMAX cameras. Most of the press at the time concentrated on the opening bank robbery sequence, which is presented entirely in the native IMAX ratio of 1.44:1 before letterboxing to 2.35:1. But Nolan returns to the taller format later in the film for shots Sweeping exterior shots of Hong Kong.
He does it again when Batman is out among the skyscrapers at night. As the action moves back and forth from interior to exterior, the aspect ration changes with it.
For the first time, a filmmaker opened up a film vertically. Remember that the clips presented here were captured from Blu-Ray, so they switch between 2.35:1 and 1.77:1 (HD video’s native resolution). The IMAX scenes have been cropped from their original 1.44:1 aspect ratio.
2009: Michael Bay says “Me too!”
As a big tentpole sequel, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen was a natural fit for an IMAX release, and Michael Bay enjoyed filming in IMAX so much that he ended up shooting more shots than expected in the format.
As with The Dark Knight, the IMAX shots have been cropped for Blu-Ray. For the third Transformers film, Bay stuck to 2.35:1 for the whole film, much to the relief of many ILM visual effects artists.
2009: Anticipating the Instagram Look
In a flashback montage in 500 Days of Summer, the aspect ratio becomes the nearly-square 1.20:1 ratio that recall snapshots and Polaroids, but is now synonymous with Instagram photography.
The use of black and white (how old is Summer, again?), and the voice-over further enhance the historic/nostalgic feeling of the sequence.
2010: 8-Bit/Manga Fighting
Scott Pilgrim vs. The World uses single-shot aspect ratio changes in most of the big fight sequences, and even changes ratio during some of them.
It also changes ratio during Scott’s “idiotic dream.”
2010: More IMAX-ish ratio changes…this time without shooting IMAX
Tron Legacy was released in IMAX theaters, so it takes advantage of the taller screen for sequences that take place in the world of Tron. Because those sequences were not shot (or in most cases, rendered) with IMAX cameras, the taller sequences were designed with an eye toward Blu-Ray as 1.77:1 rather than 1.44:1.
2011: An animated time travel aspect ratio change.
When Season Ten versions of Stewie and Brian travel back to the pilot episode of Family Guy, they find that not only have the character designs changed, but so has the aspect ratio of the show!
2011 and 2012: More IMAX sequences…but not at home.
Mission Impossible – Ghost Protocol has a sequence that, even more than the ones in The Dark Knight or Tron Legacy, feels like the kind of subject matter that would make a great IMAX movie: shooting from the top of the Burj Khalifa. In an interview, director Brad Bird explains that ”when you’re sitting watching IMAX, the Panavision part fills your point of view. And then suddenly you see above that point of view and below it drop away.”
You can imagine it being a very effective way of heightening the very vertiginous sequence that has a very vertical focus for Ethan Hunt as he dangles 150+ floors above Dubai. But when it came to the home video release of Ghost Protocol, Bird elected to crop the entire film to the 2.35:1 ratio of the Panavision cameras used to film the majority of the film. Bird explains:
“Most people, when they watch at home, sit across the room, and they’re watching a little box. And if that’s the case, I would rather have them see the Panavision thing, because it’s not drawing attention to itself. In retrospect, I probably should have [made] both versions available, but there has been this tendency to say that that version is the definitive version, and the Panavision version is not. To me, if you’re going to watch it at home, I would rather have a consistent aspect ratio – we even filmed the IMAX sequences so they would look good in Panavision.”
You can see that careful composition here, but I agree that both versions would have been prefereable (and more importantly, much better for this article):
Audiences who elect to see Skyfall in a non-IMAX theatre will see the film in 2.35:1, the ratio used for most of the Bond films. So, the entire film was composed for two very different ratios, as is the case with most Super 35 films. But I think I’ve discussed Skyfall long enough because technically, it does not belong in this article because it does not change ratios.
2012 and 2013: New films that present two aspect ratios at the same time!
I started this article with the trailer for Oz the Great and Powerful, which takes the Wizard of Oz’s famous transition from sepia-tone to vivid three-strip Technicolor and adds a change from 1.33:1 to 2.35:1. A nice nod to the original and an acknowledgement that this vision of Oz is a contemporary one. I have to wonder if there will be a transition to stereo as well.
But the thing that excited me about the trailer in addition to the ratio/color change, was the shot where a fire-eater’s flames break the 1.33:1 frame and intrude into the pillarboxing on the left side of the screen!
That shot is both 1.33:1 and 2.35:1 at the same time!
And that would have been interesting enough, but this week a sequence from Life of Pi was released and it not only shows a change from 1.85:1 to 2.35:1 but it has fish that break the top and bottom of frame into the letterboxing all the way to the edge at 1.77:1!
This has got to be an effect to enhance the stereo presentation of the film (and give the impression of depth even if you’re not seeing it in stereo!), but it means that Life of Pi not only changes ratio but some shots are both 1.77:1 and 2.35:1 at the same time!
Argo sits on the other end of the spectrum from Life of Pi. Rather than immersing viewers into an fantastic world beyond not only is possible in the real world (or even possible in cinema), Argo‘s power lies in the fact that it is not fantasy, but instead a retelling of actual events. An important component of those events is, however that cinema is artificial. To reinforce the veracity of its story, the film opens with what appears to be 8mm or 16mm documentary footage of a protest outside the US Embassy in Tehran intercut with high-fidelity, 2.35:1 anamorphic footage shot in a “documentary style” but certainly polished and cinematic. One of the “cinematic” shots even shows a man in a tree shooting the other “documentary” footage. These mixed aspect ratio shots serve to transition the audience from “reality” to cinematic reality.
I can’t wait to see how filmmakers continue to use multiple aspect-ratios as another strong visual tool for storytelling, and another way to differentiate the theatrical from the home presentation of films.
As always, let me know what films I might be missing!