The Uncertain Future of Aspect Ratios

By  · Published on March 17th, 2015

In Tom at the Farm, Xavier Dolan’s thriller about a young man who must attend his late boyfriend’s agrarian funeral posing as only a friend, the titular protagonist (played by Dolan) is regularly confronted by Francis (Pierre-Yves Cardinal), the deceased’s brother and a looming , uber-masculine force of gay-panicked nature dead-set on ensuring that no sexual truths be revealed to family. In at least three moments – first when Francis corners Tom in a bathroom, second when Francis fights Tom after a chase through a cornfield, and finally during a consensual yet unnerving act of sexual choking – the top and bottom of Dolan’s letterbox-ratio frame begin moving slowly inward, barely detectably at first so that the shift in frame size and width is noticed only when it’s achieved an insidiously claustrophobic affect – beyond the narrowness of the CinemaScope ratio – to match Tom’s own lack of escape.

Mommy, Dolan’s newest film, sees the director realizing the opposite effect. The majority of Mommy is framed in a 1:1 aspect ratio, an ostensibly perfect square but one that comes across as more vertically narrow on cinema screens upon which our eyes have been trained to see the standard 1.33:1 Academy ratio as a square, resembling instead something closer to the peripheral limits of a vertically oriented cell phone video. Dolan uses an experimental ratio, one that hasn’t been so square since the silent era, to once again pursue a claustrophobic affect, but one meant to demonstrate and emphasize the limited options of a teen with behavioral disorder and a mother with receding recourses by which to transform him into a functional member of society.

The unorthodox aspect ratio also forces to Dolan to focus on faces, finding numerous ways to apply his elegant visual sensibilities to frame evocative close-ups of enfant terrible Steve (Antoine Oliver-Pinon) and his mother Diane (Anne Dorval).

When Steve and Diane (and Suzanne Clément’s at-home teacher) enjoy a rare happy moment riding through their suburban Quebec neighborhood, Steve pushes his arms outward as if to break free, a maneuver that forces the left and right frames of the image to move outward into a conventional 1.85:1 letterbox ratio, thus signaling to audiences a relief from tensions that have compounded throughout the film, a relief that occurs all too briefly before bad news arrives at Diane’s front door, thus allowing the frame to return again to its seemingly eternal narrow state. This frame expansion occurs again as Diane later fantasizes about Steve enjoying a successful, normal life and future before finally returning to the narrow ratio for the remainder of the film when the stark reality of her trying motherhood is once again made present.

Dolan’s manipulations of conventional aspect ratios in Tom at the Farm and Mommy are hardly arbitrary – the decisions informing the framing of each are shaped by clear thematic and formal, even instructive, choices and intended affects – but the fact that Dolan sees the film frame as mutable, unfixed, and unbound by supposed standards of narrative filmmaking speaks a great deal to the uncertain place of the film frame amongst the increasing variety of image-housing frames and screens present in our digital lives. Like Wes Anderson’s use of multiple aspect ratios to follow a Russian doll-structured variety of temporal settings or Alejandro González Iñárritu’s use of both 1.85:1 and 2.35:1 ratios to explore boundaries between the worlds of the living and dead in 2010’s Biutiful, Dolan sees the cinema screen not as an overdetermined space upon which images reside, but an undetermined platform from which a variety of certain realizations of the film frame can be explored.

A few years ago, it seemed that the Academy ratio was making a comeback from independent filmmakers variously invested in anything from silent-era nostalgia to radical new approaches to framing in a cinematic landscape that hardly remembers Academy as a norm. And the first standardized aspect ratio is indeed still experiencing something of a quiet renaissance – Lisandro Alonso’s forthcoming Jauja is but one of many limited release titles to have utilized the classic ratio in recent years, not to mention Dolan’s own Laurence Anyways.

When width has been standardized in televisions, computer screens, and phones, the Academy ratio now appears to be something that its better-known wider variants sought to become after their standardization by Hollywood answered the challenge posed by television in the 1950s: uniquely cinematic. In an era of width, narrowness provides an unexpected but potent witness to cinema history for contemporary filmmakers who have a stake in that history. The Grand Budapest Hotel’s Academy sequences, after all, take place in 1932 – the year of the ratio’s standardization.

Yet we aren’t seeing a mere comeback of an old aspect ratio, but a rethinking of the film screen by some of today’s more recognized narrative filmmakers who hardly see the four walls within which a film resides as a dreamspace for audiences to lose themselves in the seamless unfolding of a cinematic yarn. Playing with and shifting the space that exists inside and outside the frame is itself a playground for expressive and affecting possibilities, an area of filmmaking and filmgoing that has gone largely underexplored since the career of Abel Gance or outside of the avant-garde.

On the one hand, the aspect ratio seems to be weathering an uncertain moment of crisis. Recent controversies over cropping brought upon by high definition upgrades of The Wire and The Simpsons bespeak an imposing new normal that is just as problematic as the days of pan-and-scan: an assumed pressure for media texts to fit dominant delivery formats, with the wider screens of television and laptops having replaced demands for squarer cropping in the home video era. Not even television, it seems, “fits” on televisions.

But more importantly, the cacophony of plural screens of all shapes and sizes by which we experience a variety of media texts troubles traditional correspondences between form(at) and function, thereby doing away with notions of what ratios are suitable for what types of entertainment and troubling standards that distinguished television from filmmaking for decades. The 2:1 ratio of Netflix’s House of Cards, for example, is evidence of compromise in the face of eroding medium specificity, both resembling and defying the means by which we recognize works of television and film.

But this rethinking of the film frame posed most recently by Anderson and Dolan is something altogether different – an embrace of new cinematic possibilities in the face of format schizophrenia and an opportunity for unique visual experimentation, even with commercially viable narrative filmmaking. It seems now that the supposed standardization of cinematic aspect ratios was yet another box for filmmakers to think their way out of.