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The Long And Short of Aspect Ratios - How to Choose the Perfect Frame for Your Content

By Chris Wells
Jan 16, 2024
6 minute read
A variety of aspect ratio screens

Understanding the shape or aspect ratio of video content is one of the more mercifully straightforward concepts in the world of video production. Despite the similar size of the screens we use today, from smartphones to cinema screens, the uniformity ends there. The possible shape of the content itself could exist in many slightly different rectangles.

The rich history of cinema has given us a diverse range of said rectangles for films, with no single, ‘definitive’ aspect ratio. Do you go for a ‘classic’ academy ratio or ULTRA WIDE? This flexibility empowers you to creatively alter the actual shape of your piece with all of the veritable subtexts and effects it carries with it. 

And don’t even get me started on changing the aspect ratio mid-piece, which can be as impactful as a dramatic shift to black and white (albeit much less flashy). Changing the frame shape can be used to symbolize a meaningful shift of various narrative elements, like a shift in the storyline's setting to a significant tonal shift. This technique adds yet another layer of visual storytelling, enhancing the viewer's experience and engagement with the content.

Choosing that aspect ratio is an important creative decision that impacts everything from shooting to editing to final delivery. But don’t worry! This handy guide will break down the key aspect ratios used, along with examples and tips on determining the best fit for your next masterpiece.

Aspect Ratio Explained

First things first, what the heck actually is an aspect ratio? Aspect ratio refers to the proportional relationship (the ratio) between the width and height dimensions of an image or video frame. It's presented as two numbers (often not whole numbers, so expect some decimal points) separated by a colon, indicating the width-to-height ratio.

So for example, 16:9 video has a width of 16 units across for every 9 units in height, and you can flip those numbers around for vertical video.

3 red retangles showing the difference in 16:9, 9:16 and 1:1 aspect ratios.
From the old TV 4:3 dimensions to the modern widescreen 16:9 and the plethora of ultra-wide cinema specs, aspect ratios have a big influence on composition, framing, and how much visual information can be blasted at your audience. 

Common Aspect Ratios

Defining 'common' in the context of the world of filmmaking is not as clear-cut as someone working under a tight deadline could hope for. Certain aspect ratios may vary in popularity over time, moving in and out of frequent use.

These are the most common on a day-to-day basis.

4:3 (1.33:1)

Arguably, the ‘most common aspect ratio’ was first used during the silent era of cinema all the way up to old analogue TV. Its boxy, nearly square frame suits tighter shots well but lacks widescreen impact.


16:9 (1.78:1)

The 16:9 or 1.78:1 widescreen aspect ratio, when not rounded up, dominates today's HD televisions and digital video. Almost all modern HDTVs are 16:9, with its rectangular frame giving more horizontal space for a comfortable cinematic view. Most digital cameras record natively at 16:9.

9:16

The 9:16 vertical video format has boomed thanks to social media apps like Instagram and TikTok. People no longer rotate their phones to match the placement of their eyes. Instead, it fills mobile screens in the default tall state instead of wide. Creative framing is key to optimising vertical video, especially if you intend to deliver your video in multiple aspect ratios.

Some More Aspect Ratios

As you can see, I chickened out on using the term 'uncommon' with regards to these aspect ratios, as these are far more common with regards to cinema but not necessarily other video platforms. Mercifully, platforms like YouTube do allow for many different aspect ratios, so do feel free to experiment!

2.35:1 CinemaScope

CinemaScope is an anamorphic widescreen format developed in the 1950s for theatrical films. 'Anamorphic' means that lenses squeeze the image horizontally to fit a standard (more square) film frame size while allowing for projection onto a much wider screen over 2x as wide as it is tall.

1.43:1 (1.90:1) - IMAX

IMAX uses an ultra-wide aspect ratio of approximately 1.43:1, which is significantly larger than conventional cinema ratios. This is because it's designed for IMAX's signature screens which span over 90 feet wide, the image fills most of the audience's peripheral field of view, creating an immersive experience. 

1.37:1 - ACADEMY RATIO

This classic Hollywood cinema ratio sits between 4:3 and widescreen. Originally created as an attempt to standardise the shape of films, it didn't last long, but The Academy Ratio still sees occasional use today for its nostalgic look.

1.85:1 - VistaVision

VistaVision was one of Hollywood's responses in the 1950s to combat the rising threat of television by providing a wider, more 'cinematic' experience than the boxier Academy Ratio.


2.76:1 - 70mm

At nearly three times as wide as it is tall, the 2.76:1 frame captures a horizontal expanse far greater than conventional widescreen ratios.

Choosing The Right Frame For Your Content

Originally, aspect ratios were constrained by the technical limitations of film and projection equipment. However, modern digital video frees us filmmakers from those physical restrictions.

Now aspect ratios can be set based purely on creative choice rather than technological necessity. Of course, it must be noted that unconventional aspect ratios may result in black bars when videos are viewed on screens or devices with different native dimensions (letterboxing). But for many creators, that is an acceptable trade-off to achieve their desired framing and composition.

The creative possibilities are wide open to employing aspect ratios uniquely tailored to individual projects and artistic visions rather than outdated hardware constraints, so wide, in fact, knowing where to start can be rather overwhelming. Don't worry; these key questions will help guide your next video project into the appropriate shape.

Where will the bulk of my audience watch this?

It's key to consider where your video will be mainly consumed. If you're submitting your video to a film festival, shooting it vertically won't look great in a cinema (unless the festival is a vertical film festival...BUT YOU KNOW WHAT I MEAN) and visa versa. The majority of TVs and monitors are 16:9, as are the default settings on most DSLRs and camera phones; it could be that this is an effective place to start.

What is the key mood that I am trying to evoke?

Modern films demonstrate the sheer versatility each aspect ratio has, showing that no single ratio is exclusively tied to a singular mood. For example, the 4:3 ratio. It's been used in recent films to evoke feelings of nostalgia, claustrophobia or intimacy, drawing viewers closer to the characters and their journey. Think about the emotional response you're aiming for in your audience. Whether it's immersion, anxiety, relaxation, or nostalgia, different aspect ratios can be effective tools in crafting these diverse emotional atmospheres.

Using Multiple Aspect Ratios

Now we're breaking the creative can of worms out into a million pieces. While it's possible to maintain a consistent aspect ratio throughout your film, why not draw inspiration from these various examples and experiment with changing the format? This approach can lead to exciting and innovative results.

Legion - Explaining Quantum Mechanics

One of my favourite shows Legion, uses different aspect ratios for many reasons, as it explores different aspects of reality and perspective.

This is fortunately easily shown in the short clip below as a version of one of the show's protagonists explains the multiverse theory and uses different aspect ratios to signify different timelines.

 

 

The Incredibles  - Transitioning of Time

The opening section of Pixar's masterpiece uses the 4:3 ratio to evoke a nostalgic time now past by using the ratio of old TVs of the time.

 

The rest of the film is told in ultra-widescreen for its epic cinematic qualities.

 

The Grand Budapest Hotel - Different Perspectives

One of my favourite ever films, which I consider to be an exemplary showcase of using a variety of aspect ratios effectively, is Wes Anderson's masterpiece, "The Grand Budapest Hotel."

As the film is essentially a girl reading a book about a man telling a story that another man is sharing at a dinner table, it shows those differing perspectives with different colour palettes and aspect ratios, as Wes Anderson himself describes below.


Conclusion

Aspect ratio is one of the most fundamental yet easily overlooked filmmaking tools that shape the viewer experience. This simple rectangle impacts everything - composition, perspective, how much information can be included or excluded, and the mood and tone you are showing.

With today's variety of display formats, from mobile to theatrical screens, choosing the right aspect ratio empowers filmmakers to optimise videos for their ideal venues. A video designed for wide cinema screens risks awkward pillar boxing bands when viewed vertically on the phone. Similarly, an engaging TikTok-style video may feel cramped and expanded on a widescreen TV.

Establishing venue and platforms at the beginning guides better-shot design, framing choices and editing workflow.

Intuitive and responsive tools like Lightworks will equip you to organise hours of footage, finesse nuanced edits, enhance audio, apply effects, edit and export files precisely tailored to your output needs, and more. Download for free right now to have a go.

Additional Resources

For deeper dives into editing techniques and Lightworks tutorials, visit Lightworks Resources. Enhance your skills, discover community insights, and bring your creative visions to life.

Transform your video editing journey with Lightworks. Whether crafting a short film, a documentary, or a personal vlog, Lightworks gives you the tools to tell your story your way. Download now and embark on your path to becoming a master storyteller.