Aspect Ratios and Conquering My Lazy Brain

My brain is lazy.

When it comes to screenwriting, there are those who say you don’t need guys in front of classrooms to teach you to tell a story. “Just read scripts,” they say, “and you will learn all you need to learn.”

What they mean by that (I hope, at least), is not really just read.  Even though you aren’t in school, I think the statement assumes you will make a study of the scripts you are reading and notice things—from sentence structure to how scenes are set up to the shape of the dramatic action.

I think this works if, by nature or discipline, you are a person who tends to break things down, analyze, determine their essence. My husband, Paul, is such a person. He’s inclined to look at things—including narrative—in terms of its mechanics. Me? Not so much!  I love to get lost in a story, and before writing school I read hundreds of stories without worrying how they “worked.”  One of the things that school did for me was give me a kind of checklist of things to notice, on paper and up on the screen, and made my brain less lazy.

But now that we’re preparing to produce Lovers in Their Right Mind, (and I still want to direct that short film!) I want to think less like “just a screenwriter” and more like a “filmmaker.” And guess what? I’m finding out my brain is still lazy–about all the things that weren’t on the checklist! For example, I’ve watched hundreds of hours of media without really thinking about the PICTURE.  Not even the most basic part: the shape of the frame. Of course, I noticed when movies on DVD started to offer the option to “letterbox,” on my television, and I knew it was supposed to be better. I noticed when we bought a wide screen TV. But I didn’t notice that there were still variations in how wide. And I didn’t think about the choices behind why the film was originally shot in any specific way.

Now, with three weeks of a community college Cinema 1 class under my belt, my world has forever changed. I have a new item on my checklist of things to notice, and it’s called ASPECT RATIO. The “ratio” part of aspect ratio is the width of the frame divided by its height. I guess the “aspect” part is just how it looks. Here are some common aspect ratios that will probably look familiar:


Why shoot in one aspect ratio instead of another? There are lots of reasons. For a long time, televisions only could broadcast 4:3–so if you were creating for TV, that was a gimme.  And if you were shooting film and needed to save money by shooting with 16 millimeter film instead of the more expensive 35 millimeter…that also meant you were shooting 4:3.  A couple of weeks ago, I attended a screening of a movie called “Fish Tank,”  and in the Q and A session afterward, the director talked about the fact that she shot the movie in 4:3, even though she had other options. Her movie was about a single protagonist and Arnold felt that 4:3 was the best way to direct attention to one person, and to help convey her internal life  without being distracted by all the things around her.

fish-tank-movie                          (An image from Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank)

On the flip side, it seems intuitive that movies featuring vast landscapes or big space battles might opt for a wider format.

Think of your favorite movies. Can you say whether they were shot in 1.85 or 2.35, or something else? Are you curious? All the sudden I wanted to know.  Children of Men?   Strictly Ballroom? Or Brokeback Mountain*? What about the new release, Sicario that folks are talking about?

So I was thrilled to discover that there’s this whole ‘nother part of IMDb (Internet Movie Database) that (no big surprise) I had never noticed!  Once you select a movie, if you go over to Quick Links on the right and click on Explore More

Explore more

…you’ll see this menu, where you can select Technical Specs…

Technical Specs

…which will show you stuff like Aspect Ratio!

Fish Tank Tech Specs 2

So next time you’re playing Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, you can look up St. Elmo’s Fire**, and see how wide they decided to make the screen to accommodate the whole Brat Pack… You’re welcome!

* The landscapes in Brokeback Mountain felt so sweeping and beautiful, I felt for sure it was 2:35, but I discovered it was only 1:85. Then I thought  how often it was focused on just the two people how  intimate it felt, and, and it made sense. As a romance, we want Lovers to have that tension between our two leads…so should we shoot 1:85?***

**I remember St. Elmo’s Fire feeling kind of close–with lots of apartment interiors and bars…1:85 stuff. But when it turned out to be 2:35, I thought about the size of the ensemble cast, and how some scenes had several characters reacting to what other characters are doing. Lovers is also a movie with a big families and parties and a big wedding reception. Hmmmm…should it be 2:35?***

***Don’t worry, our director, when we find her, will have an opinion!

 PS. Here’s a fun video from back in the days of pan-and-scan…

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