Snakes, funerals and Clint Eastwood

Deciding on the shape of the frame ☛

Last time I wrote about the shape of movies in terms of story; today I want to discuss a different sort of shape: that of the screen itself. Aspect ratio. Not long ago, Vincent Laforet brought to my attention a very good video examining the history of the different screen shapes and where they come from – you’ll find a link to this further down. What it doesn’t address, however, is: how do we decide what shape of screen to use?

Many different factors play into the decision, some aesthetic, others technical. It depends on where your film will be shown: online? On TV? On the big screen? It depends on what camera you are using. Most importantly, however, it depends on what sort of story you are telling. Believe it or not, certain aspect ratios lend themselves better to some genres of story than others.

As John Hess’s video shows, there have been many different aspect ratios throughout the history of cinema. However, if you’re making a film to be shown in commercial cinemas today, it boils down to a choice of only two:

Widescreen (1.85:1) or Cinemascope (2.35:1).

Sadly, commercial cinemas are rarely geared up to deal with any other shape, so I’ll start with these.

The Good, the Bad and the Distant (2.35:1 [Techniscope process])

‘Cinemascope’ (variously 2.35:1, 2.39:1, 2.44:1)*

We sit in a cinema waiting. The adverts come to a close. A small squeaky noise heralds excitement: it’s the noise of the motor pulling the side tabs outwards, the sound of the big screen getting bigger. It tells us that we’re about to see a movie, a proper movie. This what happens when you shoot a film in 2.35:1, and one reason why so many filmmakers love it.  In most theatres it gives us the biggest screen, the broadest palette, the greatest spectacle.

Cinemascope certainly has its uses. Fritz Lang found it excessively wide, he quipped in Les Mepris that “it wasn’t meant for human beings. Just for snakes – and funerals.” But it’s difficult to dispute that Cinemascope is great for wide open landscapes – it’s become the adoptive aspect ratio of the Wild West, one of the first things we think about when we bring to mind the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone. It betokens ‘epic’.

Ironically ‘Scope is also great at the other extreme: it’s the aspect ratio of psychological thrillers. There’s something about it that draws the camera close and takes us into the character’s head. Not by chance is it the shape that best fits a big close up on a pair of eyes.

On a technical level Cinemascope is a big winner if you’re lucky enough to be shooting on 35mm film because you can squeeze more out of your resources. By using anamorphic lenses you can make the best use of the area of your negative or, if cash is tighter than that, you can use the 2-perf Techniscope process and get your film stock to last twice as long.

Cinemascope says ‘cinema’, that’s why it’s in the name. It’s a no-brainer.

Or is it?

Truth is that many filmmakers rush towards the glamour of what they see as the most filmic of formats without asking whether it’s right for their story. Sometimes the more workaday 1.85:1 is just a better fit; I’ll sing its praises presently.

What’s more, if you’re not shooting 35mm anamorphic, 2.35:1 can limit your picture quality. Most digital camera these days have a 16×9 sensor, which works out as 1.78:1. This means that, in order to shoot Cinemascope, you have to crop the picture, sacrificing about a third of your image quality. On a cheaper camera with a lower resolution, you’re probably going to want all the picture area you can get, especially if you’re aiming for the big screen.

‘The King’s Speech’ showing off the props (1.85:1 Widescreen)


Widescreen (1.85:1 a.k.a American widescreen; also 1.77:1 or 16×9)†

Despite the undoubted glamour of Cinemascope, plain old widescreen is the more commonly used format, if only marginally so.  And for good reason.

For a start, 1.85:1 gives you a better view of interior environments. Being a taller frame than 2.35:1, widescreen allows you to see more of the room above and below the eye-level of a standing character.  Production designers often moan about shooting in Cinemascope because so much less of their work gets seen. If interiors are important for the story you’re going to tell, as they might be in Sci-fi films or period dramas, then 1.85:1 might be the aspect ratio for you.

Similarly if your characters are trapped in a confined space, you give yourself more framing options with 1.85:1. This is why Cube, The Others and Funny Games were all shot widescreen, indeed 12 Angry Men and Repulsion were both shot on the even taller (and now outmoded) aspect ratio of 1.66:1.

Widescreen also tends to work better than 2.35:1 for comedies. Commonplace wisdom is that comedy plays better in the wideshot, physical comedy in particular. The pleasure of seeing ‘business’ play out in real time shouldn’t be underestimated. In Cinemascope, actors feel too distant in a head-to-toe shot: too much space around them, we feel removed. Fine for Clint Eastwood to face down bandits in a moral desert; less good for a chase around a table. Comedy can also rely on context. A character accidentally turns up to a black tie party in fancy dress. You’ll want to be able to see the man’s embarrassed face and the kangaroo-suit in its fully glory all at once for that reveal. Again, Cinemascope is too wide: if we see all of the suit, we’re too far away to see the subtlety of the facial performance.

Widescreen has technical advantages too. The native shape of both HD and 4k is 1.77:1, meaning that 1.85:1 uses 96% of what the sensor has to offer.

It’s true that widescreen doesn’t fill as much of a cinema screen as does 2.35:1. However, in these days where more and more films are being watched on TVs and monitors, the fact that 1.85:1 almost exactly fills a widescreen TV is a decided advantage over Cinemascope, which only fills two-thirds of the screen. What’s more, feature film delivery requirements still demand a 4×3 (1.33:1, old-fashioned TV shape) version of your film for certain markets. Panning and scanning 2.35:1 down to 1.33:1 loses you half your image area and destroys most of the compositional panache.   I once saw Michael Mann’s Last of the Mohicans in 4×3: two armies line up on the field of battle, the officers standing forward of their men… except that in 4×3 both armies had fallen off the sides of the image and you only saw the officers. A very different story, and not what Michael intended.

The stairway to heaven in ‘A Matter of Life and Death’ (1.37:1 Academy)

I said earlier that 2.35:1 and 1.85:1 were the only options for commercial cinema, but independent and art-house cinemas are a bit more flexible. Gus Van Sant’s Elephant and Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank, for example, were both shot in the old Academy aspect ratio 1.37:1 (effectively the old TV shape).

I have to confess a great love of Academy, a love I have singularly failed to inspire in any of my cinematographer friends. I tell them not to look at it as the cramped shape of 1970s TV drama, but to see it instead as the tall canvas of a John Ford western. In Academy, an epic landscape also gets to be a cloudscape.

Indeed, Academy is the perfect aspect ratio to dramatise vertical relationships. This can be to do with power: you’ve not seen one man tower over another as effectively in any other format. But it can have other uses, whether it be Trevor Howard’s hand on the shoulder of a seated Celia Johnson in Brief Encounter, or lending height to the stairway to heaven in A Matter of Life and Death. The ability to compose shots vertically or on the diagonal is matched only by the way Academy encourages you to use the depth of the frame. This is possible in any aspect ratio, but where Cinemascope draws the eye across the frame, the more window-like shape of Academy encourages us to look into the space of the movie world. It’s like 3D, but without the annoying glasses.

These days pretty much any aspect ratio can be achieved, even if means that you’ll have to live with black borders on certain platforms. If you’re making a commercial feature film I wouldn’t advise straying from industry standards. If, however, you’re making a short or an indy micro-budget feature and you have a good reason for wanting to shoot a square frame, why not?

So, if you’ll excuse me, I must get back to planning my Ring-Cycle trilogy of features in Duckerama™  – the future’s circular, my friends!


* In truth, Cinemascope is an informal name for this aspect ratio, referring back to the old CinemaScope process of the 50s and 60s. The term ‘Anamorphic’ is also used, but this can lead to confusion. Anamorphic is one specific way of achieving the 2.35:1 framing, using camera lenses that squeeze the image; the image is then unsqueezed by a lens on the projector. 

†  1:1.85 and 16×9, while subtly different, have become pretty much interchangeable. 16×9 was originally a TV format developed for video cameras. Seeing as it works out as 1:1.77, only 4% taller than 1:1.85, films will often be shot 16×9 and cropped to 1:1.85 for cinema release.

Copyright © Guy Ducker 2013

Edited by Dr Sara Lodge

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