Why Is The Aspect Ratio Of A Movie Or TV Frame Important?

Cinema is an integral part of the modern world today. But the general audience does not have much idea about how much effort is required to make a movie and how many things need to be taken care of. 

While making a movie, how to use color or color grading, how will be the framing of each scene or what will be the ‘aspect ratio’, the makers have to keep many such things in mind. In essence, these things determine how the audience will experience the movie.

One aspect that is especially important to filmmakers is aspect ratio. How a particular movie is framed depends on its aspect ratio. Even, the changing aspect ratio over time has also changed our experience of watching video clips in everyday life.

TV sets were also once made in the form of square boxes. But with time it has changed. Now most televisions are rectangular. It is also related to the aspect ratio.

What Is Aspect Ratio Or Aspect Ratio?

Every video, or every movie, is made up of a series of still images or pictures. These still images are called frames. The number of frames displayed on the screen per second is called ‘frames per second’ or ‘fps’ (FPS). In a movie, ‘fps’ is sometimes called ‘frame rate’.

Here, how tall and wide each frame is in length and width, that is basically the aspect ratio. Simply put, aspect ratio is the ratio of the size of the movie frame to the screen size. 

So if you want to see the full frame of a film on any screen or screen, the size of the screen should be the same. That is, the aspect ratio in which the movie is made, to see it on the screen, the aspect ratio has to be compatible with the size of the screen.

To understand this better, first think about how you would watch a movie in a movie theater. Then think, how will the same movie look on your television, smartphone or tablet? Basically, no matter where you watch the movie, its frame size will be exactly the same. This is why aspect ratio is so important.

That is, regardless of the screen or screen size, if the aspect ratio is correct, the viewer can see every frame of the movie properly. It does not affect their movie watching experience. 

Almost all smartphones or televisions manufactured today are compatible in shape. All are rectangular. This is because the aspect ratio in which most video clips are produced in the media world today is 16:9. This ratio or aspect ratio of the shape of the frame is easily seen on a rectangular screen or across the screen.

The question may arise, why exactly 16:9 aspect ratio is seen so much now? In order to know the answer to this question, we have to understand the other aspect ratios that were common in the past.

Aspect Ratio Changes Over Time

In 1891, American inventor Thomas Alva Edison filed a patent for a new type of video camera. According to him, the camera device called the Kinetograph “would do for the eye what the phonograph did for the ear.”

But before making the device, Edison and his colleagues had to decide what shape or size of the image or frame captured by it would be.

American photography company ‘Kodak’ was selling 70mm roll film for use in their box cameras on the market at the time. 

Meanwhile, William Dickson was working as an engineer in Edison’s company. He took a roll of Kodak film and cut it in half to use for their Kinetograph machine. Since then 35 mm film was born. Even today, the film industry still uses 35mm film to shoot video.

It is said that the name of the first film in history is ‘Roundhay Garden Scene’. The film is shot in 1:1 aspect ratio and shown to the audience. This movie of 4.33 seconds had a total of 52 frames. And it displayed 12 frames per second. 

Produced in a 1:1 aspect ratio, this movie will fit neatly into an old television set with a square box shape. Televisions called ‘Cathode Ray Tube’ or ‘CRT’ TVs were very popular until at least the end of the 20th century.

On the other hand, the first narrative film in history was a 1-minute documentary. The documentary captured a scene where workers were walking out of the Lumière factory. The groundbreaking film had an aspect ratio of 1.33:1. Later the aspect ratio of the same size became known as 4:3.

The 4:3 aspect ratio became the industry standard in no time. Because it was captured with a 35mm film video camera invented by Edison. 

At the same time, an organization called the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences—who now host the Oscars—set a new standard for aspect ratio. This aspect ratio, known as the ‘Academy Ratio’, measured 1.375:1.

The 1950s and 1960s saw two major technological innovations in videography. Panavision and CinemaScope are two video recording technologies that are still popular among filmmakers today. This format uses a 2.35:1 aspect ratio. 

Two recent examples of films produced in this format are “Avengers Endgame” and “1917” (1917). Another popular aspect ratio size in the US is 1.85:1.

Thus filmmakers keep trying to make new movies. As a result, more new formats and aspect ratios were discovered through their work. But this leads to a big problem. That is, how can so many different formats or aspect ratios be displayed on a square TV screen?

Perfect Solution – 16:9

Why is the 16:9 aspect ratio so popular for watching video clips on various multimedia devices? The main reason for this is that averaging 4:3 and 2.35:1 gives a value closer to 16:9. 

That is, it is possible to watch video clips created in a wide variety of aspect ratios within 16:9.

It is not possible to display all types of movies without any distortion on any screen or screen of any aspect ratio. But if the aspect ratio is 16:9, it is possible to watch almost all types of videos on the same screen. 

Both methods allow viewing of videos of all sizes on screens built with a 16:9 aspect ratio. They are:

  1. Pillarboxing: If a video has two black bars on the left and right of the frame during a video, then the video is pillarboxed. Pillarboxing is used when the frame width of a video is less than the screen width.
  2. Letterboxing: Letterboxing method is used to watch videos in various widescreen formats like 2.35:1 aspect ratio. This allows a black bar to appear at the top and bottom of the screen to view the full frame of the movie on a 16:9 aspect ratio screen. If you have used Netflix, you may have noticed that there are different options for watching videos like ‘Fit-to-Screen’ or ‘Original’. Such options are also found in various media player applications. Pillarboxing or letterboxing is used to view the entire frame of many videos or movies on the rectangular screen of all modern devices. It shows black bars on both sides of the screen. If you don’t want to see the black bars, you can use the ‘fit-to-screen’ option. But if the aspect ratio is ignored in this way, the entire frame of the movie will not be seen on the screen.

However, due to the advantages mentioned above, the 16:9 aspect ratio has now become the media and mass media industry standard. All types of high-definition content such as movies, videogames or TV-shows are now captured in 16:9 aspect ratio. Even the 16:9 aspect ratio is set to remaster all old media content for viewing on modern devices.

Finally, aspect ratio is a concept that the average viewer doesn’t care much about. By doing this, we do not understand how much influence it has on the production of the types of videos we watch today, such as movies or TV-shows.

As author and professor Paul Durrow writes in his book ‘Rhetoric of the Frame’: Just because a frame in a movie seems invisible doesn’t mean it really is. However, everything we see around us is a frame, if we have eyes to see it.

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