Film Aspect Ratio Explained

In this article I’m going to consider the question, ‘what is the best aspect ratio for your film?’ I’m going to give you plenty of info, so you can actually answer the question for yourself. I think that’s the best outcome, if you want to be a confident filmmaker. If you’re not sure what an aspect ratio is or how you can use it creatively, stay tuned, as I’ll be covering all of that.

I’ll also show you my new Storyboard Notebook, which is available to buy right now. Not only can you use it to sketch storyboards, you can also customise the aspect ratio of your storyboards.

We’ll look at how you shoot for your preferred release aspect ratio. And I’ll show you how to use the Indigo Film School aspect ratio masks in your post-production software. You can get the masks by joining the Indigo Film School community.

What is the Aspect Ratio?

The aspect ratio is the shape of your frame. It’s represented by two numbers. The first number is the width and the second is the height. So the relation of the width to the height determines the shape of your frame. In this example the ratio is 16:9.

16:9 aspect ratio - TV widescreen

The aspect ratio is directly related to the resolution. For example, 4K TV has a resolution of 3840 by 2160 pixels, which is a 16:9 aspect ratios. As well as your TV, other display devices in your home and your pocket also default to 16:9 when you play a video full screen.

Aspect Ratios Shorter than 16:9

However, if you release a film for cinema distribution, or for a streaming service, you might want to use a different aspect ratio to tell your story. Below is a comparison between 2.00:1 and 16:9. 2.00:1 is also called Univisium and is used a lot for Netflix productions. You can see this is shorter than 16:9. However, it could also be described as wider. It’s simply a matter of perspective, both interpretations are correct.

Aspect Ratios Narrower than 16:9

As well as shorter, there are aspect ratios that can be described as more narrow than 16:9. Below is a comparison between Academy and 16:9. Academy has an aspect ratio of 1.375:1. It was a popular shape for movies from the 1930s to the 1950s. But it’s still used today by filmmakers who want a more narrow image. It can also be described as taller than 16:9, it just depends on how you look at it.

Social Media Aspect Ratios

Most aspect ratios are wider than they are tall. So the first number is larger than the second. The exception is aspect ratios for social media.You could use the 1:1 aspect ratio, which is a perfect square. And there’s 9:16, which is the 16:9 aspect ratio rotated by 90 degrees. The height is greater than the width, giving it a portrait, rather than a landscape frame.

You probably won’t want to shoot your whole movie in a social media aspect ratio. But if you know you’ll be using certain shots in the trailer, you might want to make sure they fit a 1:1 or 9:16 frame.

So, while 16:9 is the most used aspect ratio for television releases, there are these other ones for online, cinema, streaming and social media.

Letterboxing and Pillar Boxing

Before we go further down the aspect ratio rabbit hole, you need to understand letterboxing and pillar boxing. Image you’re watching a show on terrestrial television. Your TV is 16:9, the series is 16:9. So, the picture fits your television perfectly.

Now, let’s say you’re watching a Netflix series that’s in the 2.00:1 aspect ratio. Because your TV is 16:9, you’ll see black bars top and bottom to make the 2.00:1 image fit the frame. This is letterboxing.

Now let’s imagine you’re watching a series made in the 1980s (shout out to all Star Trek: The Next Generation fans). It’s going to have a 4:3 aspect ratio. Because your TV is 16:9 you’ll see black bars at the sides to make the 4:3 image fit the 16:9 frame. This is pillar boxing.

What’s the Best Aspect Ratio for Your Film?

Back to the question I posed at the beginning of this video, ‘What is the best aspect ratio for my film?’ We’ve looked at some of the aspect ratios out there, but how do you make a decision? There are four main things to consider when choosing an aspect ratio:

  • The scale of the film.
  • Practical reasons for the frame shape.
  • Where the action takes place.
  • The historic period you’re trying to evoke.

Scale of the Film

What is the scale of your film? 75% of the most successful blockbusters were released in the CinemaScope aspect ratio. These are epic films that demand a wide canvas on which to tell the story. When you release in CinemaScope, not only do you want to feature the characters, but also show the world around them. Most of the Marvel movies and the recent Star Wars trilogy were released this way. The aspect ratio of CinemaScope does vary slightly. It’s usually between 2.35:1 and 2.40:1.

CinemaScope for epic productions

In contrast, A Ghost Story was released in the 1.375:1 Academy aspect ratio. This might be a good choice if you need a more intimate canvas to frame the characters. It focuses your attention more on faces and reveals less of the world around the characters.

Academy for more intimate productions

So, consider the scale of your production. Do you want your audience to have an epic, cinematic experience? Or is your drama more intimate and focused on characters?

Practical Choices

Next, let’s take a look at practical choices. If you’re creating a production for television, it makes sense to release it in the 16:9 aspect ratio, as that matches the shape of the TV screen. However, productions for streaming services such as Netflix usually have a more cinematic look. CinemaScope is a good choice, but 2.00:1 has become very popular. This is because 2.00:1 is a good compromise between the television look of 16:9 and the epic presentation of CinemaScope. It has some letterboxing, but not as much as CinemaScope.

The director and cinematographer of Jurassic World wanted the movie to be in CinemaScope. However, the executive producer (Steven Spielberg) wanted to see it in Cinema Widescreen which is 1.85:1. He thought a taller frame was essential to show the dinosaurs at their best. A compromise was reached and the film was released with a 2.00:1 aspect ratio.

Place

Another deciding factor for the aspect ratio is the location where the action happens. While most Marvel movies are in the CinemaScope aspect ratio, The first Avengers movie was released in 1.85:1. The reason for this was the final act, which takes place in New York. A taller aspect ratio was needed to give the buildings greater visual impact.

Historic Period

The Grand Budapest Hotel changes the aspect ratio to evoke three different time periods. The scenes set in the 1930s are shown in the Academy ratio. Those taking place in the 1960s are in CinemaScope. And the modern scenes are in Cinema widescreen.

The aspect ratio might be chosen for historical or nostalgic reasons. The Disney Plus series WandaVision presents Wanda and Vision’s life in the style of soap operas from different decades. In the early episodes, the aspect ratio is 4:3, the classic TV shape. But once we reach soap operas from the 1990s onwards, it switches to 16:9, the TV widescreen shape. The scenes that take place outside of the soap opera world are in CinemaScope.

Varying Aspect Ratios

There might be times when you want to draw more attention to certain scenes by changing the aspect ratio. Most of The Dark Knight Rises is screened in CinemaScope. But for certain key scenes, such as the first confrontation between Batman and Bane, the frame grows taller. It switches to a 1.90:1 aspect ratio. This is the IMAX widescreen shape. Changing to 1.9 by 1 serves two purposes. First, the different aspect ratio draws your attention to the scene. Second, it makes the most of the screen height when viewed in an IMAX theatre. You can see this in action if you watch the IMAX Enhanced version of Marvel movies on Disney+.

If you want some sequences to look like they’ve come from different sources, then you can alter the aspect ratio. Imagine you want some scenes to look like they came from a security camera or a webcam. Changing the shape of the frame will tell the audience that this material is different from the rest of the movie.

The Storyboard Book from Indigo Film School

Probably the best way to communicate your story ideas to the production crew is with storyboards. But you’ll want your storyboards to have the correct aspect ratio, because the shape of the picture affects how shots are framed and blocked. To address this, I’ve created this Storyboard Notebook. It’s 200 pages and full of blank storyboards. They all have guide marks for customising the frame shape. You get nine different aspect ratios to choose from.

Storyboard Notebook cover

There are two types of storyboard pages. Sequential pages have six storyboards with room for brief notes. Big Shot pages have one large storyboard for a more detailed sketch. The default frame for each storyboard is 16:9.

You’ll find the letterbox marks down the sides of the storyboards. The pillar box marks are at the top and bottom.

How to Customise the Storyboards

To customise the aspect ratio, you simply take a pencil and a ruler and draw in your lines. Let’s look at an example with the Big Shot page. I want to release my movie in Univisium, which is 2.00:1. It’s shorter than 16:9, so the marks are down the sides. I’ll locate the 2.00:1 guides near the top of the storyboard and draw a line between them. Then I’ll locate the 2.00:1 guides at the bottom and draw a line between those. Now I have a storyboard that’s been letterboxed to a 2.00:1 aspect ratio. I’m ready to start sketching.

Storyboard with letterbox 2.00:1 aspect ratio

Let’s say I want my storyboards to be 4:3. I’ll draw a line between the 4:3 marks on the left. And then those on the right. Now my storyboard has been pillar boxed to a 4:3 aspect ratio.

Storyboard with pillar box 4:3 aspect ratio

On the Sequential pages you draw the aspect ratio lines is exactly the same. But because of the way the storyboards are arranged, you can customise more than one at a time. With letterbox lines, you can customise two storyboards across the page. And with pillar box lines, you can customise three storyboards down the page.

The CinemaScope marks are thicker than the others. This is because it varies slightly between 2.35:1 and 2.40:1. If you want 2.35:1, draw your lines on the outer edges of the marks. If you want 2.40:1 draw your lines on the inner edges of the marks instead.

You can download the Storyboard Notebook Guide, to discover how to get the most out of the Storyboard Notebook.

Storyboard Notebook Guide cover

How to Shoot for Different Aspect Ratios

Let’s take a quick look at how you would shoot for different aspect ratios. To make sure your shots are correctly framed, you should decide on your release aspect ratio before you start shooting. If you leave your decision until the editing stage, you might end up cropping bits of the image you’d prefer to keep.

Your camera has a native aspect ratio, which relates to the shape of the sensor. It’s likely to be 16:9 or 17:9. Some high-end cinema cameras are 3:2. With that in mind, there are two approaches to shooting with a different aspect ratio. There might be settings in your camera to crop the sensor to other aspect ratios. The other approach is to display aspect ratio guides on your monitor. For example, you might be shooting in 16:9, but you show guides that help you frame for 2.00:1.

The CinemaScope aspect ratio is also known as anamorphic, because it’s usually shot with an anamorphic lens. This is a special, non-spherical lens that squeezes the image horizontally so it fits on a more narrow sensor. The image is then de-squeezed in post-production.

However, if your camera has a resolution of 8K or greater, you can shoot CinemaScope with a standard spherical lens. With such a high resolution, you can crop the image in post without compromising the quality.

How to Use the Aspect Ratio Masks

On the subject of cropping in post, I’ve created a set of aspect ratio masks you can use in any video editing software. Join the Indigo Film School community to get them right now.

These masks are designed to be applied to a 16:9 project. They letterbox or pillar box your image to the desired aspect ratio. You also get guide images. And these have safe zones and rule of thirds grids.

Once I email the masks to you, open the zip file and you can see they’re organised by aspect ratio. You’ll see there’s a mask and then a guides image that matches that mask. Certain aspect ratios are supported natively by your software. For those, I’ve provided versions with and without masks.

Let’s see how you use the masks…

Masks in Video Editing Software

The masks will work in any editing software. Once the edit is completed, drop the mask above all the other clips and extend it to cover the whole timeline. In this example, I’m using a 2.40:1 mask which letterboxes the image. I’ll add the 2.40:1 guide and drag that above the mask clip.

Because the camera footage is taller than the new letterboxed aspect ratio, you can tweak the picture on the Y axis to make sure it’s in the right position. I can use the rule of 3rds grid to help me with the framing.

Don’t forget to delete the guide image before Sharing or Exporting the movie!

Using a Transparent Background for Position Adjustments

Here’s a quick tip…

When you’re changing the position of a clip under that mask, make sure you change the background to transparent instead of black. That way, if you adjust the clip too far, you’ll immediately see the checkerboard underneath.

Masks in Motion Graphics Software

You can also use the masks and guides in your motion graphics software. Using Motion as an example:

  • Make a new Group at the top of my layers.
  • Position the playhead is at the start of the composition.
  • Drag a mask into the new Group.
  • You can also drag the rule of 3rds grid into the same Group.

Make the background a checkerboard, so I can see it more clearly. Select the video clip and in the Properties tab you can adjust the position on the Y axis.

Masks in VFX Apps

The masks work fine in node-based visual effects apps. I’ll use the Fusion page in DaVinci Resolve as an example:

  • Connect your scene to the background input of a Merge node.
  • Drag in a mask and connect it to the foreground input of the same Merge.
  • If the mask isn’t the right size, you can adjust the foreground image size in the Merge node.

I can do the same if I want to apply the guides. Create a new Merge, bring in the guides image and connect it to the foreground input. Adjust the size in the Merge node if required.

Sign-up to the Indigo Film School community right now and get the Aspect Ratio Masks to use in your post-production software.

Summary

I hope after reading this article you’ll feel confident about choosing the best aspect ratio for your next project.

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