Selecting your aspect ratio is one of the major decisions you have to make in pre-production and a lot of times it goes unnoticed! Usually we discuss what camera or what lenses to use to get the right emotion. All I can say is, selecting the right aspect ratio can make or break your film. So let’s get right down to it.There are lots of options to go creative with your aspect ratios. I usually work with the 3 commonly used industry standards: 2.35:1 (aka cinemascope), 1.85:1 (standard widescreen for features) and 1.78:1 (in other terms 16:9 used for HD TV and commercials).On a feature film, it’s important to understand how aspect ratio is going to affect your story, creatively and logistically. Your framing comes down to how the story wants to be told.
Let’s take a look at how the 1.85 aspect ratio on Crazy / Beautiful made all the difference.The story is about teenage love, which to me means passion, big emotions, and inconsistency. The best way to achieve that is with framing – I wanted my compositions to feel a little “off”, and that is harder to do with 2.35:1. 1.85 on the other hand… that gives you a lot of space. You can play with your framing, with your head space, and your foot room.
Another film where I decided to go with 1.85 was The Greatest Game Ever Played. Why would I choose an aspect ratio other than 2.35 for those beautiful landscapes of the golfing ranges? Because those landscapes are not what tells the story! The characters do. Also here we ran into a logistical problem – one of our main characters was a kid, which means a big height difference. With 2.35, the kid’s head would have been on a platter.
Sometimes, it’s practical reasons like this that influence your decision. But, you always have to ask yourself: What is my story about? Even though it’s easy to be tempted by the beautiful shots you might get in 2.35, you always have to stick to your story. In this case, it was about the dynamics between my two main characters, and the emotion would be best told with 1.85.
There are also some downsides to this approach, logistical and otherwise. You can read about more specific problems and solutions that I’ve come across while shooting these films in Pre-Production: Selecting Your Aspect Ratio.
-Shane Hurlbut, ASC
Go further in depth on aspect ratio: