Composition Techniques for Widescreen Aspect Ratios

We’re going to be looking at the basic concepts behind composition and how it relates to aspect ratio.

Visualizing Aspect Ratio

Odds are if you are watching this video, you’re most likely be working in some form of digital video. And as we learned in the History lesson on Aspect Ratio, almost all digital video products use the 16×9 aspect ratio.

But 16×9 isn’t really that classically cinematic, especially now that HD is the norm. Maybe you want to get that Scope 2.35 look.

But when you’re on set, your camera’s viewfinder is going to give you plain old 16×9. How can you get an approximation of what your final aspect ratio will look like?

ikan md7

This is when an external monitor can be very helpful. Advanced models like this beautiful IKAN MD7 have built in software presets to show you where you would want to crop for 4:3, 16×9, 1.85 and 2.35 as well as a custom setting which allows you to create any aspect ratio you want.

tapped Aspect Ratio

If you don’t have a monitor with advanced capabilities you can always use some gaffers tape and cover over your monitor to create your desired aspect ratio. You can use a ruler or just do it by feel. This isn’t nearly as precise and you should take precaution not to ruin your screen with the adhesive from the tape.

With the footage captured you can use letterbox masks to create you final desired aspect ratio. To figure out the size of the letterbox, we’ll need a bit of basic math.

Let’s say you want a 2.35 aspect ratio from a 1920×1080 HD Video frame. You simply divide 1920 by 2.35 which gives you 817. So your final image is going to be 1920 pixels wide by 817 high. Subtract 817 from 1080 and you’ll get 263 -divide by 2 and you get 131.5. So you should have a 131 pixel wide top letter box bar and a 132 pixel wide bottom letterbox bar (just padded one extra pixel).

Are we going to break out the rulers and measure to make sure you have exactly 2.35… or even to check if you used 2.39 over 2.35? No. It’s only a 6 pixel difference. If you’re heading to a film out – check with your vendors – but if you’re heading to the web or disc, don’t get too hung up on the minutia.

But to make it a little easier – here a few frame masks to lay over your footage to get the aspect ratio you want:

For 1280×720 Video

For 1920×1080 Video

4×3 Mask 4×3 Mask
1.85 Mask 1.85 Mask
2.20 Mask 2.20 Mask
2.35 Mask 2.35 Mask
2.39 Mask 2.39 Mask
2.76 Mask 2.76 Mask

 

The Golden Ratio

Now that we’ve visualized the final aspect ratio that we want to use, let’s talk how to actually compose a subject inside that frame.

Center-Frame-Composition-Examples

We could compose our subjects in the center of the frame. Many directors from Stanley Kubrick to Wes Anderson have built strong visual styles with a center composition. But the center composition can be too powerful – you may want to create a shot that is not quite as so strong by placing the subject off center.

To figure out far off center, let’s start with a subject that has fascinated humankind since the Ancient Greeks – the Golden Ratio.

Euclid

Euclid

First recorded by the Greek Mathematician Euclid, the golden ratio is a ratio between two lengths where the ratio of the whole to the part is the same as the ratio of the parts to each other.

Golden Ratio

This self repeating ratio shows up over and over again in geometry and nature and is considered by the ancients to not only be aesthetically pleasing but spiritually important.

Fibonacci-Spiral

Fibonacci-Spiral

So how do we apply the golden ratio to an image? Often a shape called the Fibonacci spiral is overlaid on the image. Since the golden ratio is 1.618 which doesn’t match any aspect ratio, we let the top and bottom fall off the screen. Now by placing our subject on those lines, we create a traditionally pleasing shot.

Spiral

But let’s get real here… No one is expecting you to get out a compass and draw spirals on your monitor. Though you can use the IKAN MD7’s custom markers to set lines where the golden ratio line would be.

But there’s a much more practical approach… The rule of thirds.

Thirds

Imagine dividing the screen up into three parts both horizontally and vertically. Now position your subject on one of the third lines and then just adjust the shot to something which you find appealing. This will actually get you pretty close to where the golden ratio would be.

Again, no one is going to get out a ruler and measure you composition to see if you’re exactly on the golden ratio or the third line – just get it where you like it – after all we’re making movies for human beings to watch, not robots!

Speaking of human beings, let’s talk briefly about how to frame up a face. If you look at the human head – all the emotional expressions comes from just right above the eyebrow to right above the chin. I’ve never known an actor who does his best work using the top of his head.

The Emotive Rectangle

The Emotive Rectangle

So when you frame a shot, keep in mind this emotive rectangle of the face and place that inside you thirds as much as possible. As you get closer in a closeup, let the top of the head fall out of frame – after all it’s not nearly as interesting as the what’s going on between the eyebrows and the chin.

The Scene Inside the Scene

Martin Scorsese once famously asked, “How do you frame a close up with widescreen?” This was a common criticism when widescreen first became popular. The beauty of 4×3 Acadmey Ratio is how it beautifully fits a human face. 16×9 and 1.85 are still relatively conducive to closeups but once you start getting into the 2.35 and above range, there’s a lot of wasted screen real estate in a full face closeup. Sometimes you’ll want that emptiness…

But sometimes you may want to use a technique of crafting your own specialized spaces inside your frame. The traditional word for this is mise-en-scene – literally placing on stage. By carefully composing your shot with a mix of foreground and background objects you can make really cinematic composition.

The most basic example is in shooting a face-to-face two person dialogue scene.

Dialogue-OTS

Here we used the back of an actor’s head to reduce the size of the space we’re using to frame the other actor speaking. Even though we’re shooting here with a 2.35 aspect ratio, the area of interest is significantly smaller. This technique of including unwanted elements is also called “Dirtying up the frame”

You can also use architectural elements to do this using walls to create natural boarders.

Archetectual-Elements2

Archetectual-Elements

One of my favorite techniques is using doorways as in this Godfather inspired sequence. Notice the walls and door way used to break apart the shot.

Godfather-1

Godfather-2
This Mis-en-scene approach to composition is really made possible by the widescreen aspect ratios. Orson Welles started the trend in Citizen Kane with his unique blocking but it became much easier when filmmakers had a wider canvas to work on. Generally speaking The wider your screen the more you should incorporate mis-en-scene in your compositions and rely less on montage (cutting) – or don’t. It’s up to you.

Just as with every choice in filmmaking, the choice of which aspect ratio to use and how you compose your shots all demand compromise. Be aware of your options, experiment, learn how these things affect your story telling and then make a choice – make something great.


Quizzes

Composition Techniques for Widescreen Aspect Ratios Quiz