Over time, filmmaking has advanced from being shot in a small, 4:3 Academy ratio to the 21:9 cinematic movie ratio. Many movies are also shot in a 16:9 aspect ratio to fill our screen and give us a more immersive experience.
But then again, some filmmakers are also choosing to use a smaller aspect ratio for a thematic purpose. For example, two movies that will be coming out in 2017, A Ghost Story and Phoenix Forgotten, have used a polaroid and 4:3 aspect ratio, respectively.
Meanwhile, movies like The Dark Knight Rises, Interstellar and The Hunger Games franchise have used the IMAX camera to increase the aspect ratio for a stylistic purpose, rather than supplementing the theme of the movie.
So, as you can see, aspect ratio can be used as a creative tool that can transform a film's aesthetic. Therefore, I wanted to share 10 modern-day movies that veered away from the currently popular aspect ratios to further immerse us into the story.
10. 'Oz The Great And The Powerful'
Everyone who has heard the name Dorothy must know about Oz, but this is not a re-telling of the classic. The Sam Raimi-directed movie is an origin story for the ominous Wizard of Oz. I think Brett Ratner's Hercules and Oz are two of the smartest takes on these classic stories, even though the latter movie has cheesy acting and a meandering pace. Oz has one of the most simplistic uses of an aspect ratio change during its opening moments, widening the frame as Oscar Diggs finds himself in Oz.
This movie is first on this list because it only uses this feature once in the movie. The window-boxed aspect ratio gives the opening a dated aesthetic, which is further established by the use of black and white. The transition to a wider aspect ratio helps the audience understand the shift from reality into fantasy, and is a callback to the use of technicolor in The Wizard of Oz.
9. 'American Honey'
Andrea Arnold's latest directorial venture delved with the youth of 21st century America. It follows the story of Star (Sasha Lane), who discovers a new sense of freedom with a group of travelers. After traveling through the midwest with Jake (Shia Labeouf) and his group, she begins to understand how she might not be as free as she first thought.
The entire movie is shot in a 1.37:1 ratio. As the movie delves into the concept of Star's sense of freedom, dependence and constraints, the aspect ratio confines the characters and the audience to give a claustrophobic feeling. On top of that, it also mocks the use of Instagram and how the younger generation uses it to such a large extent. It is dark, gritty and dirty and doesn't shy away from showing the grimier aspects of reality.
In an interview with The Guardian, Arnold explains her vision of America, that she witnessed during an impulsive road trip:
"America is a vast and complicated place filled with all kinds of truths and contradictions and I wanted to find my own emotional connection to it. Otherwise I couldn’t have made this film. It’s a mixture of what I saw and learned on those travels, but also what I grew up seeing on films — the mythical America of westerns and road movies. That’s all in there, too."
Even though the movie has a 3-hour run-time and does begin to lag, American Honey holds a mirror to the Insta-youth of the nation and provides a reality check, that no matter how many filters you use on your photos and videos, the world isn't going to change if you don't change yourself. Among the hundreds of blockbusters and controversies regarding LaBeouf, I think this movie is severely overlooked and if you haven't watched it, I'd highly recommend American Honey.
8. 'Fish Tank'
Another Andrea Arnold classic, Fish Tank deals with the story of Mia (Katie Jarvis), a teenage girl living with her drunk mother and little sister. Mia is always cynical and angsty, but has an inherent urge to do something with her life. Her life begins a whole new chapter after her mother's boyfriend, Conor (Michael Fassbender) comes into their life and guides her along the way.
Fish Tank is entirely in 1.33:1 aspect ratio and, just like American Honey, the ratio helps to establish the restrictions of Mia's life. As she is a teenager, living in a haphazard environment, everything seems to confine her in her surroundings. It also provides a feeling of claustrophobia and in a way, putting us in Mia's perspective.
During an interview with IndieWire, Andrea described how she creates tension in a mundane scenario:
“I guess the one thing that I could think of is that I’m telling it from one person’s point of view. I think that that can be quite an intense experience because you’re always going with them and seeing the world through their eyes and experiencing things as they experience them….When I wrote ‘Red Road,’ and I gave it to someone to read first of all. They said, ‘Oh, it’s a thriller,’ and I said, ‘Oh, is it?’ And it’s not really. I don’t think it’s really a thriller….It doesn’t occur to me. I just try and write the characters and their journey as truthfully as I feel it.”
Most of the movie is shot on a hand-held camera and it will remind you of your discombobulated teenage years. So, even though it is a 2009 movie, the technical treatment aptly showcases the workings of an adolescent brain. Fish Tank has some amazing performances by Katie Jarvis and Michael Fassbender that makes it a must watch.
7. 'The Assassin'
This Hou Hsiao-Hsien classic is set in 8th century China and follows the story of Yinniang (Qi Shu). After failing to accomplish one of her tasks, her master sends her on a mission that will test her willpower.
I think this is the most beautiful film in 1.37:1 aspect ratio I've ever seen. Each shot is brimming with rich, Asian scenery and the interior shots boast immaculate set-design that will immediately transport you to 8th century China.
In an interview with A.V. Club, Hou Hsiao-Hsien explained his choice for the 1.37:1 aspect ratio:
"I’ve always liked [the 1.37 aspect ratio], but I’d never shot that way. And because I had spent such a long period of time away from making films, I thought this would be a really good opportunity for me to shoot in this 4-by-3 set-up. I like it for filming people, because it makes them look very beautiful. It was always something that I wanted to play around with. And also because it’s the Tang dynasty, and I felt that it represented something visually. I felt the era would look much better in this aspect ratio."
The Assassin changes to a 16:9 aspect ratio for one shot during a character's soliloquy. That change signifies that it was the only moment where a character was being truthful, making the choice of the 1.37:1 aspect ratio a depiction of deception and lies. Even though the movie has a slow pace and little dialogue, the picturesque scenes will keep you rapt till the end.
Just in case you're still wondering why you should watch this movie, The Assassin won the Best Director award at the 68th Cannes Film Festival. It also won the Best Feature film, Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Makeup and Best Sound Design and the 2015 Golden Horse Film Awards and won almost every section it was nominated in the 10th Asian Film Awards.
This Pablo Lorrain-directed movie follows the story of Jackie Kennedy, discussing her grief with a journalist after the assassination of her husband on November 22, 1963.
The 1.66:1 aspect ratio gives a dated look, calling back to the popular aspect ratio of the time in which the events happened.
The smaller aspect ratio fills up the screen with the actors' faces and that lets us engage with their expressions more minutely. Pablo Larrain described this approach in an interview with FilmComment:
"Stéphane [Fontaine, the cinematographer] and I photographed that sequence with two cameras. We put them together, almost touching, facing in opposite directions, an operator on each side, the actors looking right into the lens. It had to be super-frontal. You can’t hide. I thought it would be more interesting to expose the characters as much as possible right away, put it all on the line. We shot those sequences at the end of production, so Natalie had fully absorbed Jackie. She was in full control."
This is probably Portman's best performance to date, and Peter Sarsgaard and Billy Crudup are equally amazing. If you are a fan of period pieces, Jackie is a must watch.
5. 'The Artist'
This 2011 gem of a movie, directed by Michel Hazanavicius, tells the story of a Hollywood legend who soon begins to lose his fame due to the advent of talking movies. The Artist took home seven awards at the 65th BAFTA and five at the 84th Academy Awards.
The use of the 1.33:1 aspect ratio is to remind us of a bygone era. The decision to take this approach and take us to the time where it all started was bold and subsequently lauded by critics and audience.
During an interview with Collider, Michel explained his love for the '20s:
"This is a period that’s very cinegenic. The cars, the props, the suits, the haircuts, the dresses, everything, and it gives you pleasure to compose frames with that material. The music, I really love jazz, so for me, when you have good materials and nice things, it’s very pleasant. For this one, it was very important to do something nice for this specific movie."
Personally, I strayed away from this film on release, thinking that it was probably overrated, but trust me when I say that it isn't.
4. 'The Blair Witch Project'
Three film students travel to Maryland to make a student film about a local urban legend, the Blair Witch. The three went into the woods on a two-day hike to find the Blair Witch, and never came back. One year later, the students' film and video equipment were found in the woods.
This movie is directed by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez and stars a group of relatively unknown actors. The Blair Witch Project is one of the first found-footage hits that I had seen, which had a profound impact on me for a long time. It felt so real that I couldn't shake off the image of the final 20 minutes for years.
The 1.33:1 aspect ratio is integral to the film's found footage aesthetic. The characters are amateur filmmakers who on a budget, so the grainy, 4:3 footage has to be convincing. Most importantly, the ratio adds to the sense of claustrophobia. A 21:9 aspect ratio movie requires a lot of blocking and staging to confine our view, whereas a 1.33:1 aspect ratio increases the sense of fear with ease.
3. 'Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World'
This list wouldn't really be complete without the inclusion of Edgar Wright's Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. The movie follows the life of Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera), who wants to date Ramona (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) but has to defeat her seven evil exes in order to do so.
The movie is in 16:9 aspect ratio, but Wright uses the dramatic 21:9 aspect ratio to increase the intensity of fight scenes. Not only do the black bars come into the frame, but even the camera zooms with comic-like lines, guiding our eyes towards the characters.
As the movie is based on a popular comic, the smart use of this cinematic tool will definitely impact your viewing experience without you even noticing. Wright also divides the frame when two characters are talking on the phone, and uses his signature edits to give the movie an authentic, comic book feeling.
2. '500 Days Of Summer'
500 Days of Summer is directed by Marc Webb and stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel. We follow Tom as he falls in love with Summer, a love skeptic, in the hopes of making her fall in love with him. As a hater of love stories, this movie is one of my favorite romantic movies of all time.
Even though the movie is primarily shot in 21:9 aspect ratio, Webb uses a polaroid 4:3 frame to differentiate between expectations and reality, or a time gone by. There is also a shot of the narrator telling us about Summer's past that is shown in a 1:1 monochrome frame. The most beautiful depiction of reality taking over expectations is shown by the 21:9 aspect ratio taking over a smaller frame.
As we are seeing a simple story, Webb presents it in a non-linear format and uses these cinematic tools to tell us a generic tale in an original way. Even if you don't enjoy romance movies, I recommend that you give this film a chance.
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1. 'The Grand Budapest Hotel'
Wes Anderson's visual masterpiece is a story within a story, within another story. The main focus centers on M.Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), the concierge of The Grand Budapest Hotel. His story is being told by Mr. Moustafa/Zero (F. Murray Abraham/Tony Revolori) to a young writer (Jude Law), while we are experiencing the writer's work via a girl reading it. It sounds complex, but it's easy to understand while watching.
Anderson makes use of three different aspect ratios to differentiate these timelines. The story being read by the girl and being narrated by the author is kept in a window-boxed format. Mr. Moustafa telling the story to the young writer is shown in a 21:9 aspect ratio.
Finally, M. Gustave's timeline is depicted via the 1.37:1 aspect ratio. This is one of the smartest moves in cinematic history because it not only helps us shift from one timeline to another, but also reminds us of the cultural aspects of the respective periods.
In an interview with SBS, Anderson talked about his inspiration for The Grand Budapest Hotel:
"Those ‘30s movies are part of the inspiration for the setting and sort of middle Europe filtered through Hollywood. We had all watched films together in Görlitz. We’d watched some Lubitsch movies, 'Grand Hotel,' 'To Be or Not To Be,' 'The Good Fairy' with Margaret Sullavan, 'Love Me Tonight,' the Rouben Mamoulian, 'The Mortal Storm' with the great Frank Morgan, the Swedish film 'The Silence,' which is in its own invented country with hotel scenes."
The Grand Budapest Hotel has a barrage of great actors and actresses and is the epitome of cinematography and visual comedy.
So, as you can see, aspect ratio offers a wide range of uses. I'm really looking forward to Phoenix Forgotten and A Ghost Story to see how they use the aspect ratio to the benefit of the theme. Personally, I think more directors and cinematographers should use different aspects of filmmaking to enhance their storytelling methods and give us a different experience every-time.