Cinematic Storytelling 2-35-1 Wide Screen Composition
November 5, 2013
•IADT General, Cinema Production
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2.35:1 wide-screen, developed as Cinemascope in the 1950s and then Panavision in the 1960s, is an extremely wide aspect ratio. And what is aspect ratio?
FilmmakerIQ defines aspect ratio as image height versus image width so 2.35:1 is 2.35 times as wide as it is tall. It is the widest aspect ratio in use in commercial cinema today. It is so wide that it allows characters and other story elements to be placed within the frame left-to-right without having to pan the camera. This means that your audience can look left and right, deciding which element in cinematic storytelling is important to look at in any given time while retaining a sense of overall grandeur in the viewing experience.
Cinema was created using a 1.33:1 or 4x3 aspect ratio, meaning it looked slightly wider than a square. This is rather narrow by today's standards. With the emergence of television in the 1950s, the same 1.33:1 or 4x3 aspect ratio was used. Scrambling to save their dying business, film producers and exhibitors had to come up with a gimmick to lure viewers back into cinemas, so they came up with wide-screen. All sorts of processes that yielded different aspect ratios were tried, but the two that stuck, and still exist today, are the wider 2.35:1 and the narrower 1.85:1.
Today's wide-screen HDTV has an aspect ratio of 16x9. This is an almost perfect fit for theatrical 1.85:1, but isn't as wide as theatrical 2.35:1. How do you achieve the spectacle and grandeur of 2.35:1 in your narrower 16x9 productions? You letterbox. This refers to putting black bars on the top and bottom of your image to direct the viewer's eye to the central visual storytelling area between those black bars.
Letterboxing Begins In the Shoot
During shooting, compose your images with about 30 percent more "head and foot-room" on the top and bottom than you normally would, knowing that you're going to crop those images at the top and bottom in post-production. If necessary, add black tape to the top and bottom of your camera's viewfinder or external TV monitor so that you can see exactly how much top and bottom you're going to crop.
Crop During Editing
Using your editing software, add those black bars to the top and bottom of the image. You've now effectively made your 16x9 images into wider 2.35:1 images.
Films That Tell the Wide Screen Story
Here are some famous films that are great examples of the use of 2.35:1 wide-screen composition to tell a story.
The mature Mrs. Robinson is putting on her stockings in frame left while the much younger Benjamin Braddock is standing in the hotel doorway in frame right, contemplating whether to give in to or resist her seduction. This shot shows us all the essential information we need to see, all in one shot; if we like, our eyes can be a camera within the shot, panning left to right, to determine for ourselves which element is more important to us and to the story at any given moment.
In a wide shot of a swimming pool in the afternoon, drug-dealer on-the-rise Tony Montana proposes marriage to the aloof Elvira Hancock, mistress of Tony's boss Frank. Michelle is lying out in the sun on far frame left and Pacino leisurely walks all the way around the opposite side of the pool on frame right, literally nudging at the edge of the wide screen as he tries to persuade her to marry him. The long distance between them on the screen also defines their relationship.
Quentin Tarantino's "spaghetti Southern" is an entire canvas of 2.35:1 wide-screen compositions. What's interesting about Tarantino's style is that he uses 2.35:1 wide-screen extensively for closeups. His movies are thus epics of human proportions. The left-to-right breathing room of 2.35:1 allows shots of individual characters to become two-shots of two characters, and yet we still see each character's face top-to-bottom tightly framed for great intensity.
Wide-screen has become an essential tool in the artistic cinematic storytelling pallette. You should add it to your toolkit of techniques to draw an audience into your story!
Photo credit: morgueFile