Film School: A Guide to Aspect Ratios

Film School: A Guide to Aspect Ratios

What are aspect ratios, and what can they mean for visual storytelling?

Storytelling Considerations

As Fandor demonstrates, the power of aspect ratio is that the screen’s dimensions can tell us anything from the time period of the story it frames, to the mood of the characters and the action it’s our window onto:

Now You See It looks at more examples, to help answer the question every film-maker must about Aspect Ratio: Which Should You Choose?:

StudioBinder also looks to examples to help answer this question about Aspect Ratios in Film: How to Choose The Most Cinematic Aspect Ratio:

Technical Considerations

In production, aspect ratio is often determined by the camera’s sensor size. In Depth Cine offers an overview of the more popular industry standard sensor sizes:

Media Division offers a more comprehensive look at the various sensor sizes, including how and where they have been most popularly used:

Pan & Scan

Different shows and different screens don’t always match dimensions. Whether it’s YouTube versus Instagram, landscape versus portrait, or widescreen cinema versus television, images are often cropped to fit different formats, and moved around to show the most important part of each frame. This technique is called pan & scan – and, as Patrick H. Willems explains, often you may be seeing only part of movies you watch:

Next time you’re watching a “remastered” version of an older movie or TV show, check whether the “upgrade” is actually a downgrade:

How Blockbuster Film-Makers Respond To This Challenge

Denis Villeneuve‘s Dune films were shot in IMAX, but released in both IMAX (1.43:1) and cinema (2.39:1) aspect ratios. As far back as the 1990s, James Cameron was shooting his films for release in 2.39:1, 1.78:1, and 1.43:1 aspect ratios (some of which even added 3D). Christopher Nolan began his eventual graduation to shooting entire films in IMAX by learning to frame within his frame for Panavision and HDTV (16:9) aspect ratios. All three directors manage to optimise their films for release across a range of formats – without using pan and scan (via From The Frame):

From the video above – ‘ground glass’ (aspect ratio guides) used on Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991), Oppenheimer (2023), and Dune: Part Two (2024):

More specifically on How Dune: Part Two was filmed in IMAX, for release in a range of formats (via KDCloudy):

Further Viewing

If your project’s final delivery is to different formats – say, both “horizontal” for YouTube, and “vertical” for Instagram – or if you’re simply not sure and want to maximise options for deciding in post, perhaps your camera offers an open gate recording option. DP Review explains what it is, and how and why you might use it:

Delving deeper into the mechanics of capturing true “widescreen” footage – specifically, at an enthusiast or prosumer level – is Anamorphic on a Budget‘s detailed explainer, The Effects of Sensor Size and Focal Reducers:

More on focal reducers:

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