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Cinema is a
matter of what's
in the frame and
what's out.

Director Martin

Space in Cinema is defined by the frame.

Motion pictures are (at least for the time being) two-dimensional. They are flat.
All sense of depth is an illusion. Even a 3-D movie is viewed on a two
dimensional surface. Therefore space in cinema is defined in two dimensions.

The frame is a films two-dimensional boundary, a rectangle with width and

height, a window through which, at any given moment, a part of the films world
is revealed to us.

What is inside the frame is material, physical, specific. We see what is in the
frame. It is immediately real and defined.

Outside the frame is memory, assumption, imagination, suggestion. As Nicholas

Romber writes in The Blue Velvet Project, part of the frames meaning lies
outside of the frame itself, in the implied off-screen space that surrounds it,
accumulated in fragments from places the film has already taken us. That is
memory. But we also assume when we see a person in a medium shot from the
waist up that they have legs, we assume when we see three walls of a room there
is a fourth. We may imagine what that wall looks like, or what the inside of an
abandoned cabin in the woods looks like before we see it. A person with a
horrified look on their face suggests something horrifying off the screen.

There is geography inside the frame and geography that exists outside the frame.
Combined they become the geography of the world of the film.

Galaxy Quest (1999) The bridge of The Protector as seen within the frame. We
imagine or remember a view screen behind us, corridors and other rooms
beyond the bridge, outer space outside the vessel.

Galaxy Quest (1999) The reality may be different a studio space, movie lights,
scaffolding, crew members, etc.

Blue Velvet (1986)

READ The Blue Velvet Project, #143 by Nicholas Rombes.


(Aside The frame also defines time in cinema, but thats a different definition
of frame. More on that later.)

Reference: Research Parallel Realities

The frame obviously comes in different sizes, depending on the viewers choice
of medium.



WATCH: An aside from David Lynch, iconoclastic director of Blue Velvet and
Mulhuland Drive

David Lynch
The frame also comes in a variety of shapes.

No matter what the frames size, the frames shape is described by a ratio of its
width to its height, its aspect ratio.

REFERENCE: Wikipedia Aspect Ratio (image)

REFERENCE: Film Dimensions and Specifications


A chart of some common and uncommon aspect ratios
The selection or imposition of a specific aspect ratio informs composition, the
arrangement of elements within that frame shape.

The most common, standardized aspect ratios are the following:

Standard or Academy ratio (Full

(4 X 3 or 1.33:1).

In adopting the 35mm format, in which photochemical film is 35mm wide, early
filmmakers established the standard aspect ratio as a classical rectangle with a
ratio of four units of width to three units of height (or 1.33:1). Thus if the
projected image is twenty feet wide it will be fifteen feet high. This ratio is also
referred to as full frame as the 4 by 3 image fills the entirety of the 35mm
frames width. This ratio was adopted as a standard by the Academy of Motion
Picture Arts and Sciences and dominated cinema from its birth until the 1950s.
It also became the standard for television until the advent of high definition.

Notice in these images from The Maltese Falcon (1940) how the nearly square
shape of the frame allows for an almost equal mix of horizontal and vertical
compositional lines and focal points. In the first image two characters square off
from the sides of the frame, separated by a space occupied by a character
substantially lower in the frame. This allows for a face off as we might expect in
a western. In the second image, the square frame allows for the foreground
characters to crowd and visually intimidate the background character. These
images would likely be staged and composed quite differently in a different
aspect ratio.

The Maltese Falcon (1940)

How does the shape of the frame effect the composition of the images below?

REFERENCE: Shapeshifting Films
Moviemakers adopted wider aspect ratios in the 1950s as one of many strategies
to complete with the new medium of television and its small, square-ish,
academy ratio image.

European and British Standard
Widescreen (1.66:1) Used
beginning in the 1950s

An early attempt at widescreen involved simply masking the top and bottom of a full
frame image. First invented by Paramount Studios in America, this became a
standard for British and some European countries beginning in the 1950s.

WATCH: On the Waterfront Aspect Ratio Visual Essay

REFERENCE: Kubrick and his Ratios

REFERENCE: Hollywood Elsewhere 1.66:1 Aspect Ratio Festival


Standard Widescreen or
Academy Flat (1.85:1)
Introduced May,

One of the two most standard formats for motion picture production and
exhibition today is 1.85:1 It is achieved by masking the top and bottom of a full
frame image, either by means of a 1.85 aperture in the projector or by means of a so-
called hard matte printed onto the frames of the print, blacking out the top and
bottom of the academy ratio frame.

As well as permitting for more emphasis on horizontal compositional lines and
focal points, a wider aspect ratio allows for more emphasis on horizontal space,
such as empty or dead space within the frame, or the space between
At the dawn of the age of widescreen cinema, Director Don Siegel (Invasion of
the Body Snatchers, Dirty Harry) is rumored to have said that widescreen
photography was only good for snakes and trains. Director Fritz Lang is
rumored to have said it was only good for snakes and funerals.

Director Joss Whedon surprised and in some cases infuriated fans when he
elected to shoot The Avengers in 1.85:1, an aspect ratio more often used for
intimate dramas and comedies rather than for large-scale epic adventures, which
usually employ a wider frame.

The Avengers (2012)

The frame was composed for the 1.85:1 aspect ratio, a concept that
was spearheaded by Whedon early on. Explains (Cinematographer
Seamus) McGarvey, "Shooting 1.85:1 is kind of unusual for an epic
film like this, but we needed the height in the screen to be able to
frame in all the characters like Hulk, Captain America and Black
Widow, who is much smaller. We had to give them all precedence
and width within the frame. Also, Joss knew the final battle
sequence was going to be this extravaganza in Manhattan, so the
height and vertical scale of the buildings was going to be really
Arri News: Avengers Assemble!

The filmmakers chose to frame for 1.85:1. (Cinematographer
Seamus) McGarvey recalls, I was keen to shoot 2.40:1 because I felt
it would have offered more scope, but Joss was worried about the
height of the cityscape, and he wanted to be able to create both
vertical and horizontal movement in the frame. Also, we had to
leave space for the Hulk. Hes scraping the ceiling of our frame,
and in 2.40:1 the poor guy would have been beheaded!
American Cinematographer: Seamus McGarvey, ASC, BSC brings the
Earths mightiest heroes to the big screen for Joss Whedons The Avengers.

Anamorphic (CinemaScope) or
Super 35mm Widescreen (2.35:1,
Used beginning in the 1950s;
Standardized in 1957

The second of the two most standard formats for motion picture production and
exhibition today is 2.35:1 (sometimes 2.39:1) .

An even wider aspect ratio allows for panoramic vistas, for horizontal compositional
lines and objects or groups of objects, for greater emphasis on space, such as empty
or dead space within the frame, or the space between characters. And it allows for
close framing of subjects while still assigning significant compositional real estate to
the environment.

One way this aspect ratio is achieved is by using an anamorphic lens. In

production, such a lens squeezes the image horizontally to fit within the full
35mm frame. A lens then stretches the image back into a wider ratio in
exhibition. This process is sometimes referred to generically as scope, based
upon the common brand name CinemaScope, but that it has gone by many brand
names over the years.
Anamorphic Squeeze Anamorphic Stretch
(Production) (Exhibition)

REFERENCE: PetaPixel: Shooting with an Anamorphic Lens on an Ordinary DSLR


A side effect of using an anamorphic lens is a distictive lens flare. A lens flare
occurs when light is allowed to shine straight into the lens. Due to the squeezing
and stretching, anamorphic lens flares become long horizontal lines. Director J.J.
Abrams is known for his use of anamorphic flares, but he is certainly not the only
director or cinematographer to do so.

The 2.35:1 ratio can also be created by using parts of the 35mm film usually
reserved for soundtrack information to widen the image in conjunction with
making the image shorter. This is referred to as Super 35mm.
Here directors discuss widescreen cinematography:

WATCH: Sydney Pollack on Widescreen


WATCH: Orson Welles on Widescreen


WATCH: Directors on Widescreen


REFERENCE: In Praise of Widescreen


Ultra Panavision 70 (2.76:1)
Used for a brief period beginning
in the 1950s (1957 1966)
Resurrected for The Hateful Eight

Combining a wider film stock (70mm wide) with anamorphic lenses can create
an even wider aspect ratio.

Squeezed Anamorphic Image on 70mm Stretched Anamorphic Image
(Production) (Exhibition)

The Hateful Eight (2015)

WATCH: The Hateful Eight Featurette - Ultra Panavision (2015) - Quentin

Tarantino Movie HD

IMAX (1.43:1) A standard IMAX screen is 22 16.1 m (72 52.8 ft)

In 2002, to compete with home theater and digital devices and their relatively
small screens, feature films began to be shot and released in IMAX, a large
format presentation previously dedicated primarily to specialty documentary
and travel shorts shown at institutional venues such as museums, science centers
and national parks.

Although projected on massive screens, the aspect ratio of 1.43:1 was ironically
close to the original academy ratio.

Films shot in 1.85:1 and 2.35:1 ratios are also projected on the large-scale IMAX
screens often preserving their original shapes. Some feature films shot with
digital cameras or on regular 35mm photochemical film stock have undergone
the IMAX Digital Media Remastering (DMR) process for exhibition both
in 70mm photochemical IMAX theatres and in Digital IMAX theatres. More rare
are films, such as The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises, Interstellar,
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, and Star Trek Into Darkness that are
shot partially in IMAX format with IMAX cameras and shift between ratios
during presentation in IMAX theaters.

Avengers: Infinity War will be the first feature film shot entirely with IMAX
large format cameras.

WATCH: Interstellar in 6 Different Screening Formats! Which to See?




REFERENCE: How Imax Works


Standard High Definition
(16:9 or 1.77:1)

Since 2009 16:9, or 1.77:1, has become the standard for video, televisions,
monitors and personal devices. Television programs and Internet content are
produced almost exclusively in this format. Preserving the aspect ratios of films
shot at the standard 1.33:1, 1.85:1, and 2.35:1 required letterboxing (placing black
bars at the top and bottom of the 16:9 frame) or pillar-boxing (placing black bars
on the sides of the 16:9 frame).

REFERENCE: Wikipedia 16:9


Since the beginning of the medium, filmmakers have chafed against the
intractability of the frame shape.

The most common technique during the silent film era to fight the rectangle was
the mask, or matte, that created a new compositional shape WITHIN the existing

Sometimes the mask was employed to soften the edges of the frame, so that the
image gradually merges with the darkness of the theater around it.

Sometimes it was used to create an entirely new compositional shape. Most

common was the circle, or iris, sometimes softly edged, sometimes sharply
Sometimes masking was employed to create other compositional shapes.
Sometimes the edges of the frame were softened or diffused through careful
lighting rather than masking.

And in other cases environmental elements were employed to reframe a subject.

The Wild Cat (1921)

Perhaps the most extreme example of playing with masked shapes within the
frame occurs in The Wild Cat: A Grotesque in Four Acts, a German comedy co-
written and directed by Ernst Lubitisch in 1921.
WATCH: The Wildcat (1921) - Rischka and Pepo MV

REFERENCE: Transatlantic Auteur: Ernst Lubitschs Self-reflexive Comedies of


REFERENCE: Silent Volume - The Wildcat (1921)


REFERENCE: Observations on Film Art Archive for Silent Film Category


REFERENCE: Changes in Film Style in the 1910s


Increasingly, filmmakers are mixing aspect ratios for creative and narrative
purposes. This technique has been dubbed shapeshifting.

However, it is not a new invention.

In 1927, years before mainstream Hollywood would introduce widescreen

formats to moviegoers, French director Abel Gance invented a widescreen
process he called Polyvision for his epic production Napoleon. Polyvision
employed three side-by-side cameras for production and three side-by-side
projectors for exhibition. This allowed him to create a cinematic triptych. A
triptych is defined as a set of three associated artistic works often presented side-
by-side and intended to be appreciated together.

Examples of triptychs range from Peter Paul Rubens 15th century The Descent
From the Cross to Francis Bacons 20th century Three Studies for Figures at the
Base of a Crucifixion.

The Polyvision technology made Gances cinematic triptychs, each composed of

three 1.33:1 images, possible.
Polyvision also allowed Gance to align adjacent images together to create a
single, panoramic image. For the films finale, he expanded a standard 1.33:1
image to a massive and unprecedented 4:1 aspect ratio.
WATCH: Napoleon Trailer | In cinemas 11 November 2016 | BFI release



An aside:
Twenty-five years later, in its search for widescreen technologies, Hollywood
would adapt and attempt to perfect Gances three camera / three projector
technique. The result was Cinerama, achieving an aspect ratio of 2.60:1.

The technology proved expensive and unwieldy and succumbed to anamorphic
and larger format approaches.

REFERENCE: The Wayward Charms of Cinerama


REFERENCE: The Entire Development of the Cinerama Process


There are many recent and not-so-recent examples of shapeshifting.

The Road Warrior (1981)

WATCH: The Road Warrior Aspect Ratio Change

(https://videopress.com/v/apak7UgR) (Copy and Paste)

Galaxy Quest (1999)

The sci-fi comedy Galaxy Quest used all three of the primary aspect ratios, but only
in its theatrical release. The film tells the story of the washed-up cast of a once
popular science fiction television show, now surviving on cheap promotional
gimmicks and convention appearances. The movie starts with a clip from the
original show, and as it would have been seen on television at the time, it is
presented in 1.33:1.

The filmmakers then reveal that the show is being projected on a screen at a science
fiction convention, and ratio expands to 1.85:1, where it remains for several scenes.

Later actor Jason Nesmith, played by Tim Allen, after a series of misunderstandings
realizes for the first time he has been beamed aboard an actual spaceship by a group
of aliens he has mistaken for fans. He watches the massive doors of a spaceport
open to reveal a breathtaking space-scape, and the screen expanded to 2.35:1 to
match the movement of the doors. With the story now shifting from a comedy of
errors to a space adventure, the 2.35:1 width remains.

Unfortunately, these dramatic aspect shifts were not preserved for digital releases
of the film.

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (2010)

WATCH: Scott Pilgrim vs. The World Aspect Ratio Change (Some Idiotic Dream)
(https://videopress.com/v/Vpy8B9A3) (Copy and Paste)

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

REFERENCE: The Aspect Ratios of The Grand Budapest


Filmmakers not only experiment with shapeshifting, they also experiment with
non-standard ratios and shapes.

WATCH: Cutting the Edge: Freedom in Framing


And in case this subject of aspect ratios is still confusing, well let Director James
Cameron clear it up for you.

WATCH: James Cameron on Avatar aspect ratio Hometheaterforum.com



Jaws (1975) 2.35:1

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) 1.85:1

The General (1926) 1.33:1


READ AND WATCH CLIPS: Film Studies 101: A Beginners Guide to Aspect Ratios

REFERENCE: Shapeshifting Films


REFERENCE: The Elastic Frame



REFERENCE: The Changing Shape of Cinema: The History of Aspect Ratio


REFERENCE: Apertures, Aspect Ratios, Film Formats Part Two