Why The Triumphant (But Quiet) Return of the Academy Ratio Matters

By  · Published on September 11th, 2012

Culture Warrior

I recently viewed the trailer for Andrea Arnold’s upcoming Wuthering Heights. Besides being a truly awesome-looking adaptation of some literature you were probably forced to read in high school, the third feature by one of the UK’s most promising new filmmakers, and sporting a nice quote from none other than our own Kate Erbland, there’s something else worth noticing about this upcoming indie period drama: it uses the old-school Academy standard (1.33:1 to 1.37:1) aspect ratio instead of the more conventional cinema standard (1.85:1) and anamorphic widescreen cinema standard (2.35:1) ratios.

Now, this might sound like I’m drowning deep in some movie nerd recess that actually involves numbers (and escaping anything seemingly math-related is scientifically-proven to be the means by which most movie nerds come into being), there’s something genuinely important about the fact that a handful of small independent and foreign films have embraced this all-but-abandoned ratio. In an era in which all of our screens (movie, television, laptop, tablet, phone) are rectangles, the squarer-shaped screen that characterizes the Academy Ratio is proving to offer unique, even startling approaches to film visuals that can only rarely be found in other categories of experiencing audio-visual media.

The Academy Ratio

Though never seen in studio filmmaking today, the Academy Ratio is an important piece of Hollywood history. Variations on aspect ratios were experimented with through the silent era and into the early sound era, especially in non-Hollywood filmmaking. Abel Gance’s Napoleon (1927) even experimented with what we would deem today “wide screen.” However, while their exact measurements varied, most early films employed some form of square-shaped aspect ratio.

Officially standardized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1932 as the ratio used for Hollywood films, this square provided the exclusive framing through which Hollywood movies were seen by audiences until the 1950s when, in an effort to compete against television (whose images were captured and broadcast in a similar ratio), studio technology experimented with new means of making bigger screens to emphasize the unique spectacle available in the theatrical filmgoing experience. These new, wider aspect ratios then became standardized as the primary frame through which mainstream films are captured and seen, and Hollywood hasn’t looked back since. However, Academy Ratio’s influence on the shape of television screens and computer monit ors was maintained until fairly recently, when wider LCD computer screens and HD televisions became the standard framework for other modes of viewing since the early 2000s.

However, with a few newer films employing the Academy Ratio, the square frame is making a quiet but welcome comeback, and its newfound rarity makes a convincing case that the Academy Ratio offers particular ways of experiencing images that can’t be replicated by other aspect ratios.

The 2011 Academy Award Winner in the Academy Ratio

Though The Artist is clearly the best-known, highest-grossing, and most-awarded film on this list, that doesn’t mean we’ll be seeing any more of an upsurge of mid-profile films employing the Academy Ratio than we will see contemporary silent films funded by studios. The Artist retains the place that the Academy Ratio has been in for decades: firmly rooted in cinema’s past. In its attempt for silent-era verisimilitude, resurrecting the Academy Ratio is a given. However, while The Artist was well-publicized for its “silence,” the film’s embrace of the archaic ratio probably went largely unnoticed.

However, that doesn’t mean that The Artist doesn’t display the unique potential of the ratio. Classic Hollywood has been known for its ability to frame faces and interactions in alluring ways. After all, this is the institution that made movie stars out of soft-focus close-ups. While a great close-up can arguably be made in any ratio, there’s something special about the Academy Ratio’s ability to capture the intricate expressions of the human face. (Could The Passion of Joan of Arc be made in any other ratio? No. The answer is no.) It’s no wonder this ratio worked so well for silent cinema: its ability to capture the subtleties of human emotion as via the face didn’t require dialogue to explicate its profound effects.

So while The Artist may not have been the greatest film of last year, the interaction between Jean Dujardin’s George Valentin and Berenice Bejo’s Peppy Miller remains so engaging and endearing not only because of the performances, but also because of the potential for intimacy afforded by this ratio. And this isn’t only the case for silent cinema. Something about watching talented actors and actresses dance in the Academy Ratio Fred-and-Ginger style seems like such a geometrically perfect way to depict human interrelations.

Intimate Claustrophobia

Of all the films on this list, Fish Tank’s aspect ratio was the most surprising. Because Fish Tank feels so immediate and contemporary in its setting, and so anti-Old-Hollywood-artifice in its subject matter, there was something jarring yet difficult to explain about seeing this film in this ratio. However, upon completing the film it’s clear why a square frame is the most appropriate for telling a story about the sexual confusion and social struggles of a 15-year-old girl in the economically-burdened culture of East London housing estates. In order to illustrate Mia’s (Katie Jarvis) social isolation and economic restriction, a ratio that literally restricts what the viewer is used to seeing when watching contemporary cinema is more than fitting.

The Academy Ratio can produce a sense of vulnerability in the viewer through its uniquely claustrophobic, distinct borders. However, this is only possible specifically because the Academy Ratio is so incredibly rare in today’s cinema. Not that the choosing of certain aspect ratios always requires clear justification, but the claustrophobic effect doesn’t necessarily work for Classic Hollywood cinema when 1.33:1 was the norm. But that’s exactly why Andrea Arnold – clearly continuing to explore the possibilities of the Academy Ratio with Wuthering Heights – is proving that this aspect ratio offers new opportunities for filmmakers in ways markedly different from its patterns of use decades ago.

A Sprawling Restricted Landscape

Kelly Reichardt’s use of the Academy Ratio for her divisive neo-Western, Meek’s Cutoff, is one of the most incredible and unique moments in cinematography’s recent history. While the Academy Ratio helped create the Classic Western (i.e., Stagecoach), the genre largely benefitted from an expansive frame because of the ability of wider ratios to capture landscapes and horizons peripherally. That a film which takes place entirely outdoors opts for the narrower, square-shaped ratio was a provocative decision.

But it worked beautifully. Instead of gazing out into the distance, viewers are forced, as are the characters, to focus on the textures and objects of nature immediately in front of them, be it the cracked landscapes in the deserts of the American West or an ominous tree upon which the wagon crew must hang all hope for the impending future. Like the characters, we the audience have trouble knowing what exactly may lie ahead. With the Academy Ratio, Reichardt forces us to focus on present conditions, and the mysteries, inevitable troubles, and lingering remnants of hope that automatically comes with facing a present moment characterized by dire circumstances.

As with Fish Tank, the Academy ratio’s implementation in Meek’s Cutoff is thematically justified, but it also allows for opportunities of striking beauty. Unlike Hazanavicius, both Arnold and Reichardt are not using an old aspect ratio in old ways. Meek’s Cutoff makes a strong case that future visionary filmmakers will make use of the unexhausted potential of the seemingly archaic ratio: because we now view almost all media through wide screens and distinct rectangles, the Academy Ratio’s square might be one of the only ways that filmmakers can compel audiences to see, perceive, and think differently.

View More Culture Warrior in Stunning 48.3:1

Or Enjoy a Different Feature