What are Aspect Ratios and Why Should We Care?

The structural and emotional gambits upon which cinema of the past and present is founded have their roots in a number of factors, not least of which is one curiously under appreciated cinematic element: aspect ratio. Tucked away in the further reaches of a project’s production details on IMDb or found alongside a runtime on your favorite streamer’s ‘About’ page or average Blu-Ray case, this term quite simply relays the dimensions of a displayed image in terms of the relationship between its width and height. Aspect ratios common to contemporary consumer displays include a rectangular 16:9 for most televisions, laptops, smartphones and monitors, a largely square 4:3 for older TVs and some tablets, the 3:2 ratio often seen in 2-in-1 computing devices and 21:9, which is employed on ultrawide monitors and many projector screens.

These image proportions are assigned another similar designation during production and for the purposes of exhibition, with a majority of films assembled within either the 1.78:1 (and 1.85:1, both most analogous to 16:9 widescreen) or 2.35:1 (synonymous with 21:9 anamorphic ultrawide) ratios. Even the ‘peak TV’ space has grown to favor experimentation with aspect ratio, with numerous Netflix series and most recently Marvel Studios’ WandaVision on the burgeoning Disney+ deploying different presentations of its superpowered sitcom-bending realities, sometimes changing within a single episode.

4:3 ratio as seen in WandaVision (Photo: Marvel Studios)
21:9 ratio as seen in WandaVision (Photo: Marvel Studios)
1.78:1 ratio as seen in WandaVision (Photo: Marvel Studios)


Ultrawide Ratios

The far wider, less tall 21:9 presentation tends to suit the depiction of massive swaths of terrain, be they home to alien landscapes, grand vistas or massive battles as pictured in, say, Lawrence of Arabia (originally presented in the alternative 2.20:1,) The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King or the recent Ad Astra. To some degree, the narrow image framing can also foster a sense of claustrophobia, as captured by director Dan Trachtenberg by way of the mysterious bunker in 10 Cloverfield Lane.

Ad Astra (dir. James Gray, 2019; Photo: 20th Century Fox)
10 Cloverfield Lane (dir. Dan Trachtenberg, 2016; Photo: Paramount Pictures)
Lawrence of Arabia (dir. David Lean, 1962; Photo: Columbia Pictures/Horizon Pictures)


Widescreen Formats

Conversely, the 1.78:1 ratio has emerged as the standard-bearer for broadcast and streaming content, with a vast majority of cable television, streaming series and YouTube uploads relying on it to fill traditional displays in a show of presentational equilibrium. Some filmmakers, perhaps most prominently Steven Spielberg whilst filming Jurassic Park, have made the case for widescreen ratios (in the case of that 1993 smash and its tall CG dinosaurs, 1.85:1) in order to best capture the enormity of onscreen imagery. While the films of Ang Lee have largely favored the 1.85:1 presentation, his misunderstood screen adaptation of Hulk used it to great effect in capturing Bruce Banner’s inner beast throughout the whole of the frame in such a way as to evoke an intimacy with the green giant while delivering an accurate representation of the magnitude of Bruce’s affliction. Creature features aside, the widescreen aspect ratio is also at the core of adaptive IMAX presentations of contemporary movies by filmmakers including Christopher Nolan, Clint Eastwood, J.J. Abrams and Denis Villeneuve, among others. While many of these pictures adopt a wide 2.39:1 framing for a majority of their runtime, on some occasions certain sequences or the entirety of the film is presented in a unique 1.90:1 ratio that tends to supply further height and dimension.

Hulk (dir. Ang Lee, 2003; Photo: Universal Pictures)
First Man (dir. Damien Chazelle, 2018; Photo: DreamWorks Pictures/Universal Pictures)
The Dark Knight (dir. Christopher Nolan, 2008; Photo: Warner Bros.)


“Academy” and Squarish Ratios

The decidedly square 1.33:1 (or 1.375:1, also referred to as the Academy Ratio which was held up as a standard for productions by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences) factors heavily in older broadcast television and films, and for all of its ability to induce sensory effects like the previously noted claustrophobia, it comes into its own as a means of displaying piercing close-ups and portraits of individuals.

Elsewhere, avant-garde films including Dog Star Man and cinema staples of the era such as Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless were presented in variations on this square ratio. More recently, filmmakers like Pablo Larraín and David Lowery have delivered works with Jackie and A Ghost Story that use Academy-esque formats (or that ratio outright) to visually represent the perceived majesty of a time period or the deep traumas of their characters. Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff stands out as a fairly recently released Western that nevertheless opts for a 1.33:1 presentation.

Dog Star Man (dir. Stan Brakhage, 1961-1964)
Breathless (dir. Jean-Luc Godard, 1960)
Jackie (dir. Pablo Larraín, 2016; Photo: Fox Searchlight)

Famously, director Wes Anderson, already a champion of varied image presentations on film, deployed some three different ratios throughout his 2014 confection The Grand Budapest Hotel, with the Academy ratio in particular standing out for its portrait-like feel and the wider framings broadening the scale of the hotel and allowing for elongated compositions. A film’s aspect ratio is at the core of its constructive fabric and is worthy of recognition for its potential to enhance its themes, imagery and general resonance.

Andres Arias, born and raised in Miami, is currently majoring in journalism and pursuing a film studies certificate. He is interested in pop culture and consumer technology and aspires to contribute to the body of public opinion as a critic.