One exciting trend that has slowly evolved from a novelty to the norm in recently years is the use of non-standard aspect ratios.
Things have changed so much that I’m not sure the term “standard aspect ratio” even holds any meaning at all anymore.
Like most filmmakers, when I started out the 2.39:1 aspect was the only ratio you wanted to use for the “film look”. 1.85:1 was acceptable too of course, but less sought after by emerging filmmakers than the wider 2.39:1 format.
For the majority of my life at least, movies were shot in only one of those two formats.
Countless other aspect ratios had been used exhaustively over the years too of course (including the once standard 1.33:1), but by the time HDTV took over in the early 2000s it was basically a two-horse race between 1.85:1 and 2.39:1.
For many years I didn’t even consider the possibility of working in a different format. Shooting in 1.33:1 (just as one example) would have felt like it was made for television.
But over the past few years, everything has changed.
2.39:1 and 1.85:1 are still heavily used on the majority of motion pictures – whether indie level or studio.
But there has been a dramatic increase in the use of other, in some cases more experimental, aspect ratios.
A couple years ago when I made my second feature film Psychosynthesis, I decided to shoot the movie in a 1.33:1 aspect. At the time, there were a handful of other films (like American Honey and Son of Saul) that had used the format brilliantly. But it was noticeable when they did it, because few other movies were experimenting that way.
By the time I released my film (almost 2 years later), the 1.33:1 aspect ratio had exploded. It’s like everyone had the same idea at the same time.
Now, another year later, this movement has expanded even further. So much that virtually every aspect ratio imaginable is now in play.
Major feature films like The Lost Daughter on Netflix are being framed in 1.66:1. Hollywood productions like David Fincher’s Mank are being shot in 2.20:1. And even TV shows like WandaVision are experimenting with mixing multiple aspect ratios – using 1.33:1, 1.78:1, and 2.39:1 all juxtaposed against each other!
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Everywhere you look – from commercials to music videos to feature films – aspect ratios are a complete free for all. Widescreen, square, vertical, it’s all fair game.
As far as I can tell, this is the first time in the history of cinema that aspect ratios have been used so explicitly as a creative tool.
Filmmakers always did have a choice in format of course, but there was a time when it really made no practical or creative sense to veer off the beaten path.
Today though, choosing a less conventional aspect ratio doesn’t feel unusual at all. It’s quickly becoming the rule, not the exception.
This movement is clearly influenced by the way content is consumed today on mobile devices.
The trend of non-standardized aspect ratios correlates directly with the rise of the iPhone and social media.
People have become accustomed to watching content on different devices in different formats. Vertical videos were once jarring to look at, and now are as ubiquitous as 16:9 television.
And new standards have emerged from the development of camera technology (like REDs use of the 2.00:1 aspect ratio), which has given creatives more choice than ever.
From where I stand, I don’t think we’re ever going back.
Aspect ratios were standardized in the last century largely because they had to be for technical and exhibition purposes. Today, it’s equally easy to capture and deliver in any format, and audiences seem to be receptive to the use of different aspect ratios as a creative tool.
The cat is out of the bag, and it’s not going back in.
Will older aspect ratios like 1.66:1 ever overtake 2.39:1? Highly unlikely. But it’s just as unlikely that 2.39:1 will regain the monopoly it once had. And from a filmmakers perspective, this is a great thing.
We now have a broader set of tools to help elevate our stories to the next level. It’s just one tiny part of the visual process, but an important one that can have a major impact on the audience experience.
This opens up a whole new set of creative possibilities, and it’s incredibly exciting to see so many filmmakers take advantage of this additional layer of expression.