To me, the 1.66:1 aspect ratio has a magical quality to it. It’s been used to frame countless iconic feature films from the 1950s to today, and some would say it’s the ultimate happy medium for capturing tight closeups, wide landscapes, and everything in between.
Similar to the 4:3 aspect ratio (AKA 1.33:1), 1.66:1 has its roots in classic cinema. It was first introduced as the European widescreen standard, but later re-emerged as the native aspect ratio of Super 16mm film.
I’ve written about this in more detail in this recent post about choosing the right aspect ratio for your film.
While most of my films have been shot in 2.39:1, my last feature was shot natively in 4:3 and I really enjoyed working with a non-standard format.
Doing so forced myself, the crew, and even the cast to think outside the box when composing shots or blocking scenes. Not to mention, the narrow canvas worked toward the tense and confined atmosphere that I was going for.
I had such a great time working in 4:3 that I considered shooting my upcoming feature (Shell Shock) in that format too, but ended up committing to 1.66:1 – which was a surprise, even to myself.
I thought it would be helpful to share my thought process behind shooting 1.66:1, to give you an idea of whether the format might be right for your next feature film too.
4:3 VS 1.66:1
For a while, I went back and forth trying to decide if 4:3 (1.33:1) or 1.66:1 would be the right choice for my film. The two formats are very similar in many respects, and can overlap quite a bit in terms of creative benefits.
4:3 is narrower than 1.66:1 (being almost square), whereas 1.66:1 is a touch more rectangular and closer to 1.78:1 (standard HD widescreen). But really, the two aren’t all that different when you look at them side by side –
To the average viewer, 4:3 or 1.66:1 doesn’t make a world of difference – both are unique choices that offer a similar visual experience. And both are huge departures from the standard 2.39:1 widescreen format we associate with most modern cinema.
But there are some subtle nuances between 4:3 and 1.66:1, that can be of particular relevance to filmmakers. And they are what ultimately pushed me away from 4:3 and toward 1.66:1, at least for this specific project.
For starters, each aspect ratio has a different origin, and therefore has been used differently in the historical context of film and television.
4:3 for example, was the original 35mm motion picture Academy standard, AND the television standard for many decades before HDTV hit the scene.
This creates an almost unconscious association with 4:3 that may call back films from the golden era of Hollywood, early classic television, or retro 1980s/1990s straight to VHS films… Just to name a few examples.
On the other hand, 1.66:1 has a very different history. It was dominant in European cinema in the 70s and 80s, and has been used on countless indie features/documentaries ever since Super 16mm hit the scene.
1.66:1 then is associated with European arthouse films, gritty documentaries, 90s indie darlings, and a variety of other genres that made use of the format natively.
Making this distinction helped clarify my own choice about which format was right for my movie. While my film is not a period piece or directly rooted in any of the genres listed above, it does draw stylistic influence from both European arthouse and 90s American indie film, making 1.66:1 a natural fit.
Do I think 1.66:1 is going to make for a dramatically different final product than 4:3? Of course not.
The difference will be subtle, but it’s still important nonetheless. Like color correction or sound design, it’s not something the audience will be acutely aware of, but something they will feel.
Using The 1.66:1 Aspect Ratio On My Feature FIlm
My upcoming feature (Shell Shock) is a dark, gritty, genre film with hints of nostalgia. All of which could benefit from the 1.66:1 format.
From a thriller/genre perspective, 1.66:1 works on many levels. It allows for tighter, more intense closeups, since you don’t have to worry about cutting off your talent’s head. The added height also creates opportunities to use the vertical space to achieve more abstract framings, adding to the haunting/suspenseful atmosphere.
Perhaps most importantly, the 1.66:1 aspect is synonymous with Super 16mm film, which is in turn is synonymous with classic genre films from the 80s, and 90s. This is a huge asset to the project, since the visual stylization is influenced partially by that era.
But really, it comes down to a gut instinct. It’s hard to verbalize, but I just like the way 1.66:1 feels. And I like it’s potential on this project – one that is inherently experimental, and in need of a unique visual challenge.
Is 1.66:1 The Golden Aspect Ratio?
There’s an intangible quality about the 1.66:1 aspect ratio that – to me at least – makes it hard to frame a bad shot with.
This is especially true when compared to framing with wider aspect ratios like 2.39:1, which typically require more more trial and error to dial in. A significantly wider frame means there is more canvas to fill, design, adjust, or eliminate.
1.66:1 on the other hand, doesn’t create nearly as much negative space. It makes any subject you point the camera at the obvious focal point – even if you’re using unconventional framing.
The 4:3 aspect ratio offers a similar benefit when framing faces, but is not nearly as versatile as 1.66:1, particularly with wide establishing shots or landscapes.
So as I alluded to above, 1.66:1 is kind of the goldilocks of aspect ratios. It uniquely works with just about anything you throw at it.
My unscientific explanation for this is based in theory of the “golden ratio”.
The “golden ratio” is a mathematical ratio found in nature – it appears in plants, animals, and even humans. When the ratio is applied to image composition, design, or other visual mediums it delivers organic compositions that are aesthetically pleasing.
For this reason, countless artists, photographers, architects, and other creatives have intentionally applied the golden ratio to their work throughout many decades.
Here are some examples of the golden ratio in nature and design –
Rounded up to aspect ratio format, the golden ratio is approximately 1.62:1 – which is strikingly close to 1.66:1. Certainly much closer than any other aspect ratio.
Is the golden ratio responsible for the intangible magic that 1.66:1 seems to offer? We’ll never know for sure. But it’s certainly a valid theory, and one I took into account when deciding to embrace the format.
Films Shot In 1.66:1 Aspect Ratio
Above any beyond any technical, historical, or subjective reason, what really made me fall in love with 1.66:1 were the countless films that used the format so brilliantly.
Below are just a handful of examples of movies that have benefitted from the 1.66:1 format –
The VVitch (2015)
Blue Valentine (2010)
The Good German (2006)
Fanny and Alexander (1982)
New York, New York (1977)
Barry Lyndon (1975)
Clockwork Orange (1971)
Rear Window (1954)
On The Waterfront (1954)
While the more modern films on this list typically employed 1.66:1 as a stylistic choice, many of the older films used the format out of necessity, or because it was just the standard at that moment in time.
In any case, each film made brilliant use of 1.66:1, whether by design or fluke.
Of the films on this list, Jackie and Blue Valentine were what sold me on 1.66:1 for my next feature film.
I always loved the cinematography on both films, and for years hadn’t realized both were shot in the (now relatively obscure) 1.66:1 aspect ratio. This discovery is what initially sparked my interest in the format and led me down a path of explore the format in a deeper way.
Once production concludes on Shell Shock, I will be sure to share more about my experience shooting in 1.66:1.
For now, if you want to experiment with the 1.66:1 aspect ratio you can download my free letterbox pack here. It includes a frame for 1.66:1 (along with 16 other aspect ratios) to help you find the best format for your next project.
What’s your favorite aspect ratio and why? Leave a comment below.
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Thank you for this article. Was good to get your own perspective and musings on how you’d like to implement it in your own work. Was helpful.
Noam, the 720p and 1080p frame ratios are 16:9. which is 1:1.77–it would be a worthwhile addition to your visualisations of 4:3 and 1:1.66 above to add this slightly wider common format, I feel. IOW, standard HD video’s frame ratios are very similar to the Golden Mean ratio you like so much. Coming as I did (as an ex-network director), from the era of 4:3 to the new-to-me ratio of 1:1.77 was quite a challenge (4:3 does two-shots and close-ups so well) but I adapted, and I prefer the wider format now.
And like Jeremy above, I’d love a Super 16 sensor camera now. All of my professional video work is done on µ4/3rds cameras (Panasonics). Nothing I make will ever end up on the big screen these days so 2K is perfectly good for me, too. Great article, thanks.
Great suggestion, Kit. I will aim to update this in the future.
The Golden Ratio, or Golden Mean; aka, the natural order of things is 1:1.6180339. To arrive on the exact proportions, take a perfect square (all sides equal at 90 degrees to each other, a square), then bisect the bottom side (find the center of that line). Now, draw a diagonal from that midpoint to the far, upper corner. Rotate that diagonal line down to the bottom side of the square,(from where you started); (the diagonal line is now longer than the original bottom of the square). Now, extend the square to be a new rectangle with the length the diagonal line that you brought down to the bottom by extending the top line of the square to the same distance of the bottom (the diagonal line that you brought down), and by drawing a line connecting the these new, longer lines. This new rectangle has a proportion of 1 (the height of the original square) to the new length, longer the square side by .6180339). I prefer to think of proportions and visuals, instead of numbers and that conch shell spiral that no one really understands, especially Pepsi and their redesigned logo. (I thought this might help). I made a visual story and posted it online, but facebook deleted it; I don’t use facebook anymore. Thanks for this article! I appreciate it!
Thanks so much for this breakdown!
Jeremy Evan Taylorat
I agree 100%. I have a fantasy in my head that some eccentric millionaire who is a movie buff will pick up where the Digital Bolex left off and make a new 2K camera with a s16 CCD sensor, but with a couple more stops of DR, Compressed Raw/ProRes capture, the ability to shoot 48p for slo-mo, and have a usable image up to 3200 iso. Nothing crazy unnecessary or unrealistic for a CCD sensor like super high iso, 16 stops of DR, IBIS, 4k/6k capture, or autofocus. But just enough to make s16 looking movies with a little more flexibility. That would be amazing.
I’m ashamed to admit this, but I still haven’t sat down and watched Blue Valentine all the way through. I’ll have to add that to my ever growing list. Thanks for another great article, Noam.
Thanks so much for the feedback, Jeremy. And I am 100% with you – hoping for a camera like this in the future… Might have to make it myself one day lol.
I’d rather shoot the whole thing on film, preferably 16mm as I want my films to last, not to crash.