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How We Talk About Aspect Ratios, Or Whole Integer Foppery


Satsuki Murashige
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Ahem. (steps on soapbox)

In recent times, equipment manufacturers have adopted the dubious practice of describing aspect ratios as a ratio of whole integers. Camera, display, and delivery specs regularly state ratios like 4:3, 3:2, 16:9, 17:9, 6:5, even 21:9. More recently, quite a few filmmakers have also begun adopting this habit. At the same time, there is confusion from many corners about how various aspect ratios are related and when to use them, especially when shooting with anamorphic lenses.

For example, I keep reading questions and comments in various forums about using the 4:3 aspect ratio with 2x anamorphic lenses, often resulting in some confusion about why cropping is necessary to achieve a final 2.39:1 aspect ratio. The confusion multiplies exponentially when dealing with anamorphic lenses of 'non-standard' squeeze ratios. I have also had several discussions in-person with experienced cinematographers on the same subject, which concerns me greatly. Then there are the producers who often don't understand the difference between UHD 16:9 and DCI 4K 17:9. I can’t help but think there is a correlation here.

Traditionally, aspect ratios have been described by using a common integer and decimals: 1.33:1, 1.50:1, 1.78:1, 2:39:1. Yes, this system requires three more characters to program into camera menus. But what we lose in simplicity, we gain in clarity. When you describe aspect ratios in this way, it becomes immediately clear how they compare in width and in shape. You can use simple math to determine how an anamorphic lens with a 2x, 1.8x, 1.5x, or 1.3x squeeze ratio will affect the final aspect ratio. In short, while the 'common integer' format may be harder for manufacturers to market and program into their products, it ends up being vastly more useful for filmmakers and end users.

I propose that we as filmmakers refrain from engaging in this 'whole integer' foppery. Not only does it run counter to our interest in helping our clients make informed decisions, but it continues to spread confusion amongst us where there needs be none (or at least, significantly less).

Finally, I humbly leave you with these two aspect ratio charts: the first in 'common integer' format, and the second in 'whole integer' format. The latter is to roughly to scale, and I leave you to calculate the more unusual ratios as an exercise in absurdity. As for the question of which is more immediately intelligible, I would only ask this: would the 'whole integer' chart be as useful if it did not contain any images of the aspect ratio frames to compare directly but only had numbers, as we would typically encounter them in our camera equipment?

Curious to hear everyone's thoughts.

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Of course common integer is a better system.  You just have to keep in mind the lack of precision that might make certain people even more confused.  16:9, for instance, not actually being 1.78, but rather 1.7777777777...

And 17:9 is used for the whole integer aspect ratio describing a 2K DCI, right?  That's just a whole big mess.  17:9 = 1.8888888..., but will be shortened to 1.89, 1.9, or just referred to as 1.85.

I'm not sure anyone with a physical film background ever really gets confused by these terms, since knowing measurements of the recording medium down to the hundredth of a millimeter usually accompanies such work.

Edited by Malcolm Ian Vu
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And... I propose that we, in the US, convert to the metric system of measurement!

Another good idea that's never going to happen 🙂

In the end, at the post production stage, I just use the delivery format such as 2k scope = 2048 x 858 pixels...  Just to confuse things even more!

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To calm your nerves, there aren’t that many aspect ratios in the cinema. Actually, there’s only one, 3:4. The rest is bullocks.

Booh, booh, fade out. I’m an old fart.

Okay, there were about five different ratios in the beginning. Yeah, Le Prince has hot square images, 1:1. The Lumière cinématographe has a 4:5 aperture plate. Latham’s Eidoloscope shoots 3:7. Then you have Panoramico Alberini, about 2:5. Dickson with Edison made 3:4 images. All that up to 1900

Then half a century no changes. Fox Grandeur in between, alright, but that had disappeared again. In 1952 CINERAMA, followed by all the other wide-screen processes. Television, video? Laughter, fade out

The single oldest image aspect ratio still in force and the base of all film cinematography is 3:4 or 1:1,333. It’s here on 35mm film, on 9½mm film, on 16, on Double-Eight, DS-8, Super-8, Single-8. TV screens were 3:4 for half a century. Have you ever seen a wider telly tube? Computers and the digital world make all the fuzz. Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn. And then again I’ve lived the old times.

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