I’m about to begin story-boarding so I’m currently looking into what aspect ratio to use for my film. Although it seems like a it’s pretty small and inconsequential decision, it will impact how I compose and edit the shots and the overall look of the film. It’ll also be really hard to change even half-way through pre-production.
Everything I’ve previously worked on (except for a few old 4×3 projects) has been 1.78:1 (or 16×9). This is pretty much because 1.78:1 is the main standard for HDTV and web based videos these days, so it has almost become the default choice. However, there are some other aspect ratios that are worth looking into.
There have been many aspect ratios used throughout the history of cinema. Here’s a great video from FilmmakerIQ on the history of aspect ratios for those interested.
I’ve also found a great vimeo channel called Unsusual Aspect Ratios which highlights the diversity of aspect ratios people are using out there.
Most contemporary feature films use one of these three aspect ratios:
2.39:1 – ‘Scope’
1.85:1 – ‘Flat’ or ‘Theatrical Widescreen’
1.78:1 (16×9) – HDTV
Of course there are exceptions to this, such as Mommy (2014) by Xavier Dolan which is mostly uses a 1:1 square aspect ratio, or The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) which changes between 1.37:1, 1.85:1 and 2.35:1. These rare aspect ratios are interesting but I’m mostly interested in using the 2.39:1 ‘scope’ and 1.85:1 ‘flat’ aspect ratios. There are several pros and cons to both which has made it pretty difficult for me to decide on which I want to go with.
2.39:1 ‘Scope’ aspect ratio (sometimes referred to as 2.35:1) gives a wide field of view which is great for panoramic shots, landscape shots and tight close-ups. The wide frame can lend your cinematography theatricality and gravity.
The cons of 2.39:1 lay in distribution. Depending on your digital distributor, your film may be required to be ‘pan and scanned’ (cropped) down to 16×9. This is unacceptable as it will ruin the framing of your shots completely. Thankfully this seems to be getting less common as digital distributors are happier letterboxing the film to fit 16×9 screens.
The Devils (1971) ~2.39:1
We Are The Strange (2007) ~2.39:1
Kuroneko (1968) ~2.39:1
1.85:1 ‘flat’ is wide yet not excessive. It’s the middle ground of theatrical aspect ratios. It is also close to 1.78:1 so on 16×9 screens the letter boxing is minimal or optionally (but in-advisably) you can cut a little off the sides to fit the frame.
Ghost In The Shell (1995) ~1.85:1
A Clockwork Orange (1971) ~1.85:1
Angel’s Egg (1985) ~1.85:1
One of my initial hesitations for using 2.39:1 is that until pretty recently there just isn’t that much animation done in that aspect ratio. Some early Toei animations such as Magic Boy (1959), as well as the more recent Evangelion 3.0 (2012) used 2.39:1, however nearly all theatrical anime has, and continues to use 1.85:1 ‘flat’.
With the exception of a couple of 2.39:1 Disney animations such as Brother Bear (2000) and Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001), the majority of Disney films were shot in their preffered aspect ratio of 1.66:1.
Another rare example of 2.39:1 aspect ratios being used in animation is M Dot Strange’s feature films We Are The Strange (2008), Heart String Marionette (2012) and I Am Nightmare (2014) which all use the 2.39:1 aspect ratio.
Many of my favourite western and independent animations had extremely tight budgets, so they tend to be a mix of 1.37:1, 1.66:1, or 1.85:1, such as Fantastic Planet (1.66:1), Midori (1.37:1), Hair High (1.66:1) and Alice (1.37:1).
DISTRIBUTION AND EXHIBITION
Let’s look at the DCP frame sizes.
. Flat (1998×1080 or 3996×2160), ~1.85:1 aspect ratio
. Scope (2048 x 1080 or 4096×1716), ~2.39:1 aspect ratio
. HDTV (1920×1080 or 3840×2160), ~1.78:1 (16×9) aspect ratio
The majority of my audience will access my film through VOD or from downloading it, which means the film will most likely be watched on TVs or computer monitors; the majority of which have an aspect ratio of 16×9. This means that if I went with 2.39:1 for my film, most people will see the film letter-boxed. Letter-boxing isn’t such a big deal for me (I actually kind of like it), so I’m not going to let that influence me.
What could influence me is if a distributor makes me crop the finished film to 16×9. That would be the worst possible scenario for a 2.39:1 film. While it’s worth considering hypothetical situations and problems that may come down the line, it isn’t enough to sway me. It also seems to be coming less frequent as network bandwidth’s improve across the globe.
TESTING ASPECT RATIOS
I’m instantly drawn to the 2.39 scope ratio. But is it the right choice for my animation?
To help me decide I made some 1.85:1 and 2.39:1 (or 2.35… whatever!) viewers from cardboard and duct tape so I could frame some shots and find what feels better to me.
I framed multiple shots of various types to get a feel for the frame ratios. I looked at framing human figures, objects and landscapes in Extreme Close-ups, Very Close-ups, Close-ups, Medium Close-ups, Mid Shots, 3/4 Shots, Long Shots and Extreme Long-shots and in a wide variety of angles.
Sketch by Jared Brown
The shot framing tests pretty much just confirmed what I already thought.
1.85:1 is a solid aspect ratio. It excels at framing MCU’s, CU’s, MS’s and 3/4 Shots. Framing long shots or ECU’s with it is ok, but it has less room to create interesting compositions. I feel that this aspect ratio would be great for framing scenes inter-personal conflict and intimate subject matter.
2.39:1 was good at framing at CU’s, MCU’s, MS’s and 3/4 shots but it was a little harder to frame them effectively due to it’s width. This aspect ratio was excellent at ECU’s, LS’s, ELS’s, panoramic and scenic shots. The 2.39:1 aspect ratio will be great for impressive scenic shots, grand, intense or epic subject matter as well as dynamic compositions.
Ultimately (as you may have guessed), it really just comes down to taste. What kind of film do I want to make? What kind of actions will be occurring on screen? What kind of cinematography will suite the style and content? What am I most comfortable using?
After thinking about this for some time and swaying back and forth multiple times I’ve decided to go with 2.39:1. The wide frame gives heaps of room to create dynamic and expressive shot compositions. I also feel that the wide frame will suite my film better, as the subject matter is intense and will contain a fair amount of large set pieces and spectacle.
Maybe I overthought this, but as it’s something that will be hard to change once I’ve begun, I thought I should really try to figure out what I wanted. I hope this helps any other filmmakers or animators out there trying to decide which aspect ratio they want to go with. If you have any questions hit me up.