The 2:1 aspect ratio – known by some as Univisium – has gained a tremendous amount of popularity in recent years. So much that it may now be the fastest growing format in modern cinema.
I’ve written extensively about other aspect ratios in the past, but until today have yet to cover the highly sought after 2:1 format.
While films have technically been exhibited in 2:1 for over 70 years, the format remained relatively obscure until it exploded in popularity in recent years. Not only as an exhibition format, but as a capture format too.
2:1 is used more today than ever before. Its dominance it felt on virtually every type of project – Feature films, streaming series, television content, and even commercials are using it.
Let’s unpack a bit of history behind 2:1, and explore why it’s become so popular today.
History Of The 2:1 Aspect Ratio
The 2:1 aspect ratio dates back to 1953, when RKO first introduced the “Superscope” format. At the time, Hollywood was moving away from 4:3 as the de-facto format for cinematography. They wanted to differentiate theatrical movies from the home viewing experience. New widescreen formats emerged as a result.
RKO Superscope was one of these formats, having an aspect ratio of exactly 2.00:1.
It served as a cheaper alternative to other widescreen options of the day – Like Cinemascope (2.39:1), which required more specialized anamorphic lensing and projection.
Ultimately though, Superscoope was only used on a handful of films in the 1950s – almost all of which were produced by RKO. Nearly all widescreen films from the 1960s onward were shot in either 1.85:1 or 2.39:1.
The 2:1 aspect ratio effectively vanished into obscurity. At least for a few decades…
In 1998, the 2:1 aspect ratio re-emerged for the first time since the early 1960s. And it was all thanks to cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, known for films like Last Tango In Paris, Apocalypse Now, The Last Emperor, and countless others.
Storaro recognized that there was about to be a massive shift in film exhibition. Most movies were being watched at home on a television, not in the theater. And in the home television market, standards were changing with 16:9 HDTV’s on the horizon.
Storaro proposed that all films should be shot in an aspect ratio that was effectively a compromise. One that could look as good on a home TV as it would in the cinemas.
His answer was 2:1 Univisium.
Here’s how he explained it in his original proposal:
“Recently, any movie – no matter how big or small, successful or not – will, after a very short life on the big screen, have a much longer life on an electronic screen. Today the answer print is made for both of these two different media. …Having these two different media, with essentially two different aspect ratios, each of us (directors, production designers, cinematographers, camera Operators, etc.) shares the nightmare of compromising the composition of the Image. Looking through a viewfinder, a camera, or a monitor, we are always faced with at least two images of the same subject.”
While Vittorio Storaro was clear with his vision, few other filmmakers ever adopted Univisium as a capture or exhibition format.
Storaro himself shot almost every one of his films from 1998 onward in the 2:1 Univisium format. But despite his push, it was still not yet adopted on any major scale.
2:1 & The Aspect Ratio Renaissance
As history will show, Vittorio Storaro was way ahead of his time.
For years, few (if any) filmmakers even considered shooting 2:1. It was either 1.85:1 or 2.39:1 for cinema, and 1.78:1 for HDTV. That was it.
But then came streaming services. And iPhones. And social media. And a thousand new methods of both capture and delivery, which completely dismantled any notion of standard aspect ratios. By the mid 2010s, aspect ratios became an overt creative choice.
Despite the rising popularity of many of these unconventional formats, none were adopted to the same extent as 2:1. Not even close.
Today, the 2:1 aspect ratio is nearly as popular as 1.85:1. On streaming, it may well have eclipsed it. If there is such thing as a new standard in this era, 2:1 might be it.
Why exactly did this happen though?
There are many factors, but the biggest of them surely has to be the rise of Netflix.
Netflix’s Role In 2:1 Cinematography
Netflix is known for their rigid technical standards, including their list of approved cinema cameras.
We can certainly argue the validity of these standards, which frustrate many filmmakers. But there is no denying that the Netflix “rules” are creating a new aesthetic. It’s a byproduct of their ability to mass produce content using a set of strict visual guidelines.
Netflix does not restrict filmmakers from using widescreen aspect ratios (like 2.39:1). However, they do seem to discourage it with statements like this in their technical guides:
“Aspect ratios greater than 2.00:1 must be evaluated and discussed with Netflix for approval.”
Note that it is precisely the 2:1 aspect ratio that is Netflix’s limit for widescreen, without having to jump through additional hoops.
Perhaps this is one reason why so many Netflix productions – from Stranger Things to House of Cards are shot in 2:1. Logically, it could be looked at as a compromise between the filmmakers and the studio (Netflix).
2:1 is right in between 16:9 HDTV and 2.39:1 scope.
It feels relatively wide to the viewer (serving the filmmaker’s goals), but still fills up enough of the frame to make for a substantial home-viewing experience (serving Netflix’s goals).
For this reason and perhaps others, it seems to be the middle ground that many productions have settled on. As a result, 2:1 has become the near-default aspect ratio of Netflix original productions.
Personally, as soon as I see a trailer for a film framed in 2:1, I almost instantly know I’ll find it on Netflix.
2:1 Aspect Ratio Outside Of Netflix
Netflix certainly has played a massive role in popularizing 2:1 as a capture and exhibition format. But today, it’s being used just about everywhere – from theatrical feature films (like Jurassic World Dominion) to broadcast commercials, and everything in between.
We’ve become so accustomed to viewing 2:1 content (thanks to Netflix’s dominance), that the look has become ubiquitous. It’s entered contemporary cinematic language, in a totally organic way.
What was likely a technical choice made by executives at Netflix to optimize for TV exhibition, has evolved into a stylistic aesthetic that is now sought after on every level of the industry.
And there’s no putting the cat back in the bag. I can only imagine the use of 2:1 inside and outside of Netflix will continue to skyrocket in years to come.
With 2:1 now unofficially accepted as a modern standard, we have yet another creative tool at our disposal. This really can only be seen as a good thing.
But whether or not you choose 2:1 for your project is of course entirely subjective. Personally, I don’t find myself particularly drawn to it from a purely creative perspective.
1.85:1 has such a traditional motion picture look, and in most cases I would choose it over 2:1. It’s not quite as wide, but it’s so classic – which I love. If I really want to go widescreen, I’ll typically opt for a 2.39:1 aspect ratio, which is much more dramatic.
I am also a big fan of shooting in 1.33:1 and 1.66:1. They are both so distinct, and can add a ton of character to the right project.
2:1 is still a fantastic option though, for many films and series. I might be more of a traditionalist myself, but it’s wonderful for those seeking a contemporary look.
And if there is such thing as the aspect ratio of the moment, it’s undeniably 2:1.
What are your thoughts on the 2:1 aspect ratio? Leave a comment below!