Bear with me folks, I’m an old projectionist so this is what I daydream about when I’m not dawdling on about hockey or a hermetic life spent in the Seychelles. My column today concerns the importance of choosing the right aspect ratio for your future cinematic masterpieces along with a brief look at the advantages of shooting in film and digital. Hardly barn-burning stuff you may think, but stay tuned for porn and explosions!
(Please note: neither ‘porn’ nor ‘explosions’ will take place below.)
When to choose 1.85 : 1 Aspect Ratio
You want to tell an intimate story–for example the struggles of half-Job, half-schmuck Larry Gopnik in the Coens’ A Serious Man (2009). The story resonates with the Coens’ own Minnesota childhood and because Larry at no point fights a polar bear on top of the White House or saves the Third World, the film remains in the smaller, more appropriate ratio of 1:85 (aka “flat widescreen”). Another example is Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation (2003), which never stretches the borders of a 1:85 screen nor the demands of the viewer with its zeitgeisty romance, because if you expand the frame you’re also expanding the viewer’s expectations. The flat screen ratio has been adopted worldwide by filmmakers over the standard 1:37 that was once de rigueur for documentaries and fictional work grounded in reality, with 1:37/1:33 ratios still being used for certain projects (Alan Clarke’s Elephant  and later Gus Van Zant’s own version  spring to mind with their particular unsettling realities).
Below is an example of a 1:85 widescreen ratio:
When to choose 2.39 : 1 Aspect Ratio
If you’re gonna do a “larger than life” film (see: Tarantino’s WWII fantasies in Inglourious Basterds , or PTA fulminating against capitalism with There Will Be Blood ), you don’t want your epic fighting for breathing room in the frame, hence the longer image of 2:39 to match a larger subject matter. The Man with No Name in Leone’s spaghetti westerns was an iconic character in an iconic setting, therefore The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) had to be shot/viewed in anamorphic widescreen–the alternative to a shoddy pan-and-scan world lacking perspective on the mythical gunslingers in the Wild West (via the high plains of Spain). This can also apply to gritty films with an immense worldview, say the international scheming of Syriana (2005), or the canonization of the 9/11 passengers in United 93 (2006). Soderbergh’s Traffic (2000) worked in 1:85 because it had common ground with the reality of cinema-vérité documentaries, but it also would have been entirely acceptable to have been shot/screened in anamorphic with its scope of characters and events.
Below is a 2:39 aspect ratio:
Film vs. Digital
Celluloid has existed for over three centuries, and along with persistence-of-vision remains the closest claim to alchemy that civilization has achieved. Digital is the steadily-popular method for filming blockbusters, indie flicks and everything in-between, for very good reasons: flexibility, durability, ease of shooting on set and transfer time in post-production. My thoughts on shooting film vs. digital go beyond the technical limitations and financial reasons behind both formats and towards the psychology of WHY you should choose a certain format. If celluloid and photography have deep roots in our history over the past 200 years and digital points to our present and future, should that thought process not apply to the format with which you choose to film a Mumblecore short, a 3-hour Custer bio-pic or any sci-fi extravaganza?
Michael Mann chose digital to bring John Dillinger’s brief life to screen in Public Enemies (2009) with the intention of immersing the audience in 1930’s Americana and it worked up until the slo-mo climax stretched the demands one could place on the format. Digital has yet to find a solution to its awkward appearance in slow-motion, and this undercut otherwise excellent reasoning for more period pieces to be shot digitally. Another offender is Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto (2006), which allowed the filmmakers an easier time of shooting in the Mexican jungles than 35mm film yet in any scene involving fast-cutting movement, digital ‘pixelation’ occurred–thus taking me right out of the realm of the Mayans. Now if pixelation were to occur in present day settings such as Mann’s Miami Vice (2006) or the futuristic Avatar (2009) I would readily except the digital look as a reflection of our modern times and the years to come. My point being if you want to capture the essence of the past perhaps you should put down the Red One camera and pick up a Super 35 camera with a fine grainy stock, and vice-versa if you’re making the next Terminator popcorn muncher.
There you go, those are my thoughts on the matters, I hope they can be of use to you.
Thanks to the images section of Blu-ray.com and dvdbeaver.com for the examples used above.