On Aspect Ratios

Having no formal education in film, I am always learning about the medium, both technically and artistically. One of the hardest things to wrap my head around has been aspect ratios. I don’t know all of the nuance, so I won’t be comparing how say, 70mm looks when constrained to 1.178:1, or the previous “Academy ratio” which was more square.

Regardless I understand how important it is in order to experience film as intended (or as closely as possible). Sometimes it is frustrating because it is hard for us as film lovers to have control over it. We are beholden to the whims of the projectionist at the theater (if there is one), and at home whoever makes the decisions about what a blu-ray should look like. Something so carefully selected by the director can quickly be distorted or disregarded before it even reaches the audience.


Of course, this year’s Grand Budapest Hotel is a wonderfully obvious example of how a director can use aspect ratios to help tell the story. Drawing on the history of film and a story told across several time periods, Wes Anderson employed various aspect ratios as a kind of visual shorthand for the structure of the story. David Haglund and Aisha Harris at The Slate explain it better than I could, with a demonstration of each ratio.

Recently, aspect ratios on TV are generating more controversy. FXX’s recent “Every Simpsons Ever” marathon came under a bit of fire for stretching the classic “square” episodes into widescreen, thus cutting off the top and bottom of the frame:

Not to sound ungrateful for something that’s brought the best of “The Simpsons” back to everyone’s attention again, but doesn’t this violate the spirit of the whole idea of airing the series uncut? The show didn’t switch to 16:9 until 2009, about a third of the way into season 20, so that’s the bulk of the series that’ll suffer. A number of “The Simpsons” fans on social media are annoyed, with some comparing it (rightfully) to pan-and-scan for widescreen films back in the days of VHS.

Around the same time, the announcement that HBO would be debuting remastered episodes of The Wire  immediately turned to discussion of widescreen versus the original format, as The Wire was intentionally shot for ‘standard definition’ TVs:

The Wire for each of its five seasons has been produced in good old fashioned 4 x 3 standard definition. DP Dave Insley recalled, “The reason the show has stayed 4×3 is because David Simon thinks that 4×3 feels more like real life and real television and not like a movie. The show’s never been HD, even 4×3 HD and that (SD) is how it is on the DVDs. There is no 16×9 version anywhere.” As a viewer with an HD set I will point out that like much of SD television that makes its way to HD channels, it appears that HBO utilizes state-of-the-art line doubling technology. It may still be standard definition, but line doubled it looks considerably better on a high definition set than it would on a standard definition set.

Among all of this controversy, though, I want to end on a high note. Nick Acosta has been simulating what widescreen would have looked like on the original Star Trek:

I created this project of what the show would have looked like in Cinerama widescreen. As a kid the show always felt bigger and more epic than it appears to me as an adult. I was able to create these shots by waiting for the camera to pan and then I stitched the separate shots together.





Author: Ryan Silberstein

Ryan spends his days at a company named one of the best to work for in the Philadelphia area, and his nights as a mysterious caped vigilante saving his city from the disease that is crime watching movies. He lives on a diet consisting of film, comic books, experimental beer, black coffee, and those big metal historical markers around town. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.

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