A film aspect ratio guide for filmmakers.
Why aspect ratio matters for modern filmmaking.
No matter where you’re watching content, be it on a computer, phone, in the theater, or on a brand new 65inch 4K HDR OLED TV, size matters. Back in the day, the available technology determined the aspect ratio (otherwise known as screen proportion) — but now it involves making conscious choices based on the type of media being consumed, the device you’re using, and the director or creator’s vision.
So, how to know what’s what and which is which when it comes to choosing the correct aspect ratio for your project? Let’s dig into the details.
What is film aspect ratio?
Aspect ratio is a numerical formula that describes the relationship of an image’s width to its height. Comprised of two numbers separated by a colon, the first number denotes the image’s width and the second its height. For example, an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 means the image's width is 1.33 times the size of its height. If you wanted to eliminate the decimals in this ratio, it can be (and often is) written as 4:3 instead.
Discover four modern film and TV aspect ratios.
Although there have been many different aspect ratios throughout film and television history, the four following ratios are the most common today.
Film cinematography aspect ratios:
Similar to the 16:9 size but slightly wider, whatever you shoot in 1.85:1 will show on widescreen TVs and computer monitors with thin black bars on the top and bottom of the screen. Most feature films use this aspect ratio, but some high-end TV shows also shoot in 1.85.1.
This is known as the anamorphic widescreen format and is the widest aspect ratio used in modern cinema. Premium dramatic features best showcase its wide field of view and ability to capture broad, scenic landscapes.
Television cinematography aspect ratios:
4:3 or 1.33:1.
Until widescreen HDTVs came on the scene, 4:3 was the normal ratio for standard-definition television sets. Today, the 4:3 aspect ratio primarily serves stylistic purposes — for example, giving off the vintage vibe that was popular before widescreen aspect ratios became the norm.
This is the most used aspect ratio for display on standard size HDTV widescreens and computer monitors. In addition, 16:9 is also used for most video filmed for TV and the internet since other film aspect ratios tend to give off a more cinematic look. In fact, outside of actual in-person movie theaters, most viewers watch content on 16:9 screens. It’s also the standard aspect ratio for YouTube content.
Why does aspect ratio matter in film?
The right aspect ratio can make a huge difference in not just how films and TV are displayed — but also in how they attract viewers and create viral buzz for the project. The concept is important to both independent filmmakers and big studio directors.
Due to limited technology, early films could only be produced in a boxy, almost square format but now advances in screen and camera equipment offer so many options that filmmakers and video creators alike can ask themselves which would work best for their films — the old school square style? Something long and wide or taller and narrower? Learning about older aspect ratios can help modern creators finesse their current projects.
Old school meets modern day ratios.
70mm became popular in the late 1950s, mainly because of its use in the Best Picture-winning film Ben-Hur, but gradually faded in popularity over the following decades. Today, directors like Christopher Noland and Quentin Tarantino are behind the reemergence of the 70mm film format because of its huge aspect ratio of 2.76:1, making it perfect for display on gigantic IMAX screens.
1.37:1 (Academy ratio).
Only slightly wider than the 4:3 ratio used throughout the silent film era, the Academy Ratio was the standard film ratio in 1932 when “talkies” (aka, films with sound) began. Contemporary filmmakers like Andrea Arnold and Paul Schrader still occasionally use this ratio.
2.59:1 to 2.65:1 (Cinerama).
When TV exploded in popularity in the early 1950s, Hollywood film distributors needed to create a reason for the public to get out of the house and into the theaters. The result was “Cinerama,” a super widescreen format involving three standard 35mm film cameras that projected films onto a curved screen at the same time. There’s still a working Cinerama Dome theater in Hollywood, CA today.
2.35:1 to 2.66:1 (Cinemascope).
Debuting in 1953, Cinemascope was a super widescreen format developed by the head of research at 20th Century Fox. Because it used anamorphic lenses for the first time, Cinemascope only required one projector, which made it much less complex than Cinerama.
Small screens, big choices: What works best?
With the rise of social media and smartphones, aspect ratios have started to shift in a vertical direction. Instagram, for example, uses a square 1:1 aspect ratio. And because so many people view videos on their phones, a new vertical aspect ratio, 9:16, has also become popular. So, which should you use? First, ask yourself if your content is destined for sites like YouTube or Instagram or for the big screen, and if your viewers will be watching on a widescreen TV, desk or laptop, tablet, or smartphone.
Then, the right choice is the one that matches your content to the aspect ratio size that not only displays it best but also shows your creative intention. If it involves wide-open landscapes, or scenes packed with action, try the 2.39:1. for theater display or 16:9. for viewing on widescreen HDTVs and desktop monitors. Or does it feature scenes with just a few people and lots of closeups? In that case, the 1:1 square aspect ratio might be a better choice if you’re viewing on a phone or the 4:3 on a TV or smartphone.
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. A mixture of thoughtful research and content creativity will help make your final product a standout.
Uncover more filmmaking tips.
Aspect ratios play a huge role in how films are perceived by the audience. The right aspect ratio is key to setting the mood for the film. Get inspired to create, explore, and discover more about filmmaking with all the tips, tricks and tools found in Adobe Premiere Pro.