A film aspect ratio guide for filmmakers.

How aspect ratio matters for modern filmmaking.

In the past, aspect ratio was determined by the available technology. Now, it involves conscious choices based on what type of media is being consumed, what device it’s being watched on, and the director or creator’s vision.

Film aspect ratio.

Aspect ratio describes the relationship of an image’s width to its height. Are the images being viewed in a format that is basically square? Long and wide? Tall and narrow?

Typically, aspect ratio is shown by two numbers separated by a colon. The first number describes the overall image width and the second describes its height. Early films were produced in a boxy, nearly square format. Then, to compete with television, movies developed formats like Cinemascope and Panavision to produce ultra-widescreen spectacles — think Ben Hur and Lawrence of Arabia.

TV screens began to get wider as well. The current high-definition widescreen format, 16:9, is also the standard aspect ratio for online content like YouTube.

With the rise of social media and smartphones, however, aspect ratios are beginning to shift in a vertical direction. Instagram uses a square 1:1 aspect ratio. And so many people view videos on their phones that a new vertical aspect ratio, 9:16, is becoming popular.

Why does aspect ratio matter?

What aspect ratio will best match the content you’re creating? Does it involve wide-open landscapes, or scenes packed with action? Or does it involve scenes with just a few people and lots of closeups? Will the film be shot with a widescreen camera lens or an iPhone? Is it destined for YouTube or Instagram? Will your intended viewers be watching it on widescreen TVs? Laptops? Tablets or mobile phones?

One of your earliest film editing decisions is to pick the aspect ratio that will best serve both your creative vision and your viewing audience.

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