Choosing between the 2.35 and 16:9 / 1.85 aspect ratios

Reader’s question:

My question is about aspect ratio. I know a lot about it but I’m kinda stuck on the thought of the correlation of aspect ratio and lenses.

For example, a scene shot in 16:9 using a long lens looks nice but very flat, and with wide lens, almost too documentary. When shot in Cinemascope 2.35, wides look vast and deep, while using long lens, it looks wide and clear.

What are your thoughts? And would you handle it on a project by project basis?

My answer:

Awesome question! You did not specify what gauge you have experienced this with – was it a small gauge (DV or HDV) or was it a larger format, such as the RED camera?

The reason I ask is that most focal lengths look pretty cinematic in both the 16:9 and 2.35 aspect ratios, provided the depth of field is reasonably shallow (background out of focus).

That said, I completely agree with you that the 2.35 aspect ratio is indeed very special.  For example, generally zooming in can look very TV-like if not done carefully, but is much more likely to look cinematic when done in the 2.35 aspect ratio.  Ridley Scott’s “Gladiator” comes to mind: there are plenty of zoom shots in that movie, but one is less consciously aware of the zooming in/out, and I ascribe this to the 2.35 aspect ratio.  It may seem peculiar, but that is the effect it has on me.

Regarding my preference for the 16:9 or 2.35 (Cinemascope) aspect ratios, until recently I had an exclusive preference to the 2.35 aspect ratio, and regarded the 16:9 aspect ratio as the bare minimum (and the 4:3 aspect ratio as completely unacceptable). I have now really grown to like the 16:9 aspect ratio, to the point where I actually prefer it to the 2.35 aspect ratio for most purposes.

There is no doubt that the Cinemascope aspect ratio affords amazing opportunities for creative framing and composition, but it is equally true that 99% of directors do not use those opportunities at all. Their framing tends to be so bland that they may as well have shot the film in the 4:3 aspect ratio.

To address your question more directly, yes: I would choose between the Cinemascope and 16:9 aspect ratios on a case-by-case basis.  If I were shooting an epic movie with lots of extras and spectacle, there is no doubt that the 2.35 aspect ratio works a lot better.

Conversely, for anything smaller than that, in my view the 16:9 (or 1.85 if you are shooting on film) aspect ratio looks a lot better, regardless of how big the budget is. I find that the 16:9 is an intrinsically very visually pleasing ratio.  It is wide enough to permit beautifully cinematic composition (with layering and foreground objects), but not so wide that it feels incongruous with non-epic projects. Steven Spielberg has shot most of his films in the 1.85 aspect ratio (almost identical to the 16:9 ratio) and his camerawork is some of the most imaginative in the whole history of cinema. He even shot “Jurassic Park” in the 1.85 aspect ratio, and that is a pretty big movie!

Quick summary:

– The 2.35 aspect ratio does have an amazing effect, and I noticed that zooming in or out looks massively different in this aspect ratio (see “Gladiator” for some examples).

– Most focal lengths can yield cinematic results, provided the depth of field is reasonably shallow.  If the background in the shot is completely sharp, you will struggle to make anything look cinematic.  It simply does not work.

– The 2.35 aspect ratio is definitely preferable for huge projects with many characters and lots of spectacle.

– The 16:9 or 1.85 aspect ratio is massively preferable for anything other than epic projects, even if you are replete with cash. It’s tight and perfectly balanced.

I hope this helps!

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One thought on “Choosing between the 2.35 and 16:9 / 1.85 aspect ratios

  1. I am researching the topic of aspect ratio choice at the moment. It appears a lot of people just shoot Cinemascope without giving it much thought. Interestingly, there is not much discussion online on this. The other nice article on film aspect ratio selection that I’ve found also recommends 1.85:1 as a good starting point! Apparently it is more balanced and easier to shoot in.

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