Thursday, September 3, 2015

Why do we use certain aspect ratios over others?

When discussing with a friend of mine which aspect ratio would be best for a cinema project he was crafting for a class, it got me pondering a few questions. For instance, just what effect does aspect ratio have on an audience that is watching visual media, specifically motion picture?

I have always found it fascinating that during my early teenage years, widescreen was such a touted feature for cinema, with claims that one can see more “stuff” due to the wider aspect ratio of the motion picture.

I am also fascinated that older technologies and methods of capturing video involved portraying it in a less rectangular format, and that cinema was the medium that introduced what we know as “widescreen.” As technology advanced, the “cinematic” widescreen aspect ratio as trickled down into less grandiose forms of video, from television, to HD camcorders, then to cellphones.

So why is a wider aspect ratio such a sacred format for high end motion picture? Is it because there is more to see horizontally than vertically? Probably, at least in motion picture. It also might make more sense in terms of production, when countless devices and rigs are set up just outside of the frame, possibly suspended overhead.

I suppose still photography works best when closer to being square (like 4x3 or 3x2), as subjects of photography can be framed vertically with as much success Widescreen, when rotated vertically, is very unappealing. With this more or less figured out, I moved to my next question.

When I went to shoot test footage with my friend, we shot in the modern television standard aspect ratio, 16x9. What was really fascinating to us when we were reviewing the footage, was that no matter what we did, we were not satisfied with the look in terms of framing until we began cropping our footage to a wider aspect ratio. Now, it was not really wider in this case, because we were removing data though our crop, however we found the image to appear more “cinematic,” and to be honest, we couldn’t really explain why. It just looked better. It may have been simply because it looked closer to what professional film is expected to look like, and nothing more.

Thinking about my own experience watching movies, I never really enjoyed the black bars that came with watching movies shot in cinemascope being portrayed on a 16x9 television. However, when watching movies in the theatre, I preferred screens that were less tall due to having to strain my neck at times to view all of the image. Could it be that professional cinema is shot in a way that accommodates viewers in a theatre? It is possible.

So while our desire to replicate the "professional" look is what influenced my friend and I to decide that we would shoot in 2.35x1, it still could make a difference, as friends of mine who see my footage with and without cropping almost alway say they prefer the cropped version.

Popular websites such as NoFilmSchool discuss in depth how determining aspect ratio comes down to what works best to aid in telling your story to an audience. I have no doubts of the aesthetic control that choosing the right aspect ratio can give a cinematographer. With that said, however, I cannot bring myself to create motion picture that strays from an industry standard. To me, my images look better in cinemascope (2.35x1), the industry standard. I am struggling to understand why the industry standard aspect ratio still is the way it is.

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