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 film’s two-dimensional boundary, a rectangle with width and height, a window through which, at any given moment, a part of the film’s 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 frame’s 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. It is a created, or “creative” geography.
ASIDE: The “frame” also defines time in cinema, but that’s a different definition of frame. (More on that later.)
The frame obviously comes in different sizes, depending on the viewer’s choice of medium.
The frame also comes in a variety of shapes.
No matter what the frame’s size, the frame’s shape is described by a ratio of its width to its height, its aspect ratio.
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 Frame) (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 frame’s 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 1950’s. It also became the standard for television until the advent of high definition.
Notice in these images below 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.
How does the shape of the frame effect the composition of the images below?
Moviemakers adopted wider aspect ratios in the 1950’s 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 1950’s
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 1950’s.
Standard Widescreen or Academy Flat (1.85:1), Introduced May, 1953
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 characters.
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 important.”
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. He’s 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 Earth’s mightiest heroes to the big screen for Joss Whedon’s The Avengers (https://www.theasc.com/ac_magazine/June2012/TheAvengers/page1.php)
Anamorphic (CinemaScope) or Super 35mm Widescreen (2.35:1, 2.39:1, 2.40:1)Used beginning in the 1950’s; 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, other times 2.40:1, depending on manufacturer and on production vs. projection ratios).
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.
On the left we see the Anamorphic squeeze effect created in production; on the right Anamorphic stretch effect produced for exhibition.
A side effect of using an anamorphic lens is a distinctive 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
Ultra Panavision 70 (2.76:1), Used for a brief period beginning in the 1950s (1957 – 1966) Resurrected for “The Hateful Eight” (2015)
Combining a wider film stock (70mm wide) with anamorphic lenses can create an even wider aspect ratio.
On the left above we see the squeezed Anamorphic image on 70mm wide film generated during production; on the right the stretched Anamorphic image produced for exhibition.
“The Hateful Eight” (2015)
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.
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).
THE TYRANNY OF THE FRAME
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 frame.
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 distinct.
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 Lubitsch’s Self-reflexive Comedies of Misunderstandings. (http://sensesofcinema.com/2011/feature-articles/transatlantic-auteur-ernst-lubitsch%E2%80%99s-self-reflexive-comedies-of-misunderstanding/)
REFERENCE: Silent Volume – The Wildcat (1921) (http://silent-volume.blogspot.com/2011/12/wildcat-1921.html)
REFERENCE: Observations on Film Art – Archive for Silent Film Category (http://www.davidbordwell.net/blog/category/silent-film/)
REFERENCE: Changes in Film Style in the 1910s (http://wcftr.commarts.wisc.edu/exhibits/harry-roy-aitken-papers/changes-film-style-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 Ruben’s 15th century ‘The Descent From the Cross’ to Francis Bacon’s 20th century ‘Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion.’
The Polyvision technology made Gance’s 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 film’s finale, he expanded a standard 1.33:1 image to a massive and unprecedented 4:1 aspect ratio.
Twenty-five years later, in its search for widescreen technologies, Hollywood would adapt and attempt to perfect Gance’s 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.
There are many recent and not-so-recent examples of shapeshifting.
“The Road Warrior” (1981)
“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)
“The Grand Budapest Hotel” (2014)
Filmmakers not only experiment with shapeshifting, they also experiment with non-standard ratios and shapes.
And in case this subject of aspect ratios is still confusing, we’ll let Director James Cameron clear it up for you.
“Jaws” (1975) 2.35:1
“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (2004) 1.85:1
“The General” (1926) 1.33:1
REFERENCE: Apertures, Aspect Ratios, Film Formats Part Two (http://rjbuffalo.com/filmclips.html)