Here are a few ways the iconic 4:3 aspect ratio can help improve your video project or make your story stand out — and why it’s so popular again.
I was sitting in my seat at the theater, patiently waiting for John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum to start when all of a sudden a trailer comes up. Which movie it was advertising isn’t important; what is important is that this new movie was in the 4:3 aspect ratio. Pretty sure I let out an audible “What in tarnation?”
So there it is — another movie makes it into theaters with a 4:3 presentation. How did we get here? I’m not complaining. I like it, and I get it — stories require specific and intentional techniques. I’m not about to tell one person to make movies one way or the other. But, my one question was . . . Why? And maybe . . . When? When did this become such a thing? Let’s take a look!
What Is 4:3?
The obvious first step on this journey through time and space starts at the beginning of cinema history. I can talk about why filmmakers originally framed images this way — and the progression of aspect ratios in relation to screening formats — but, to keep things simple, just know that the decision to shoot 1.33:1 and 1.37:1 at first was out of necessity. It was not an artistic choice, but, rather, was due to a variety of reasons involving the size of film and the introduction of anamorphic lenses. Below, I’ve shared a good video if you’re interested in learning more about all this.
The introduction of the new lenses caused people to think Hey, you know what would be cool? Seeing a movie like you see the world, with a wide lens. Cut to decades later, and everyone can shoot a widescreen (2.35, 1.85 appearing) movie with their phones. So the box-like format made a comeback. The comeback has not been mainstream — sure, some music videos and an Oscar winner have helped boost the format a little, but for the most part, the majority of 4:3 films you see are lower-budget with limited releases. You will most likely never see a Marvel movie shot in 4:3.
So, what can this format do for your film? How can changing the aspect ratio like this improve or even amplify the weight and meaning of your story?
What 4:3 Can Do
Almost anytime a film comes out shot and presented in 4:3, you better believe when the director was making their press rounds, they got asked “So, you decided to shoot in 4:3. Can you tell us about this decision?” And we always hear how the presentation helps amplify their story to the nth degree. Whether that means framing characters and portraying intimacy, or intentionally subverting expectations for the genre, or maybe even just an aspect of the story itself — like the color grade or the soundtrack. I recently listened to No Film School’s interview with Rick Alverson about his new movie The Mountain. The movie was shot in 4:3, and he shared an interesting take on the decision and how it informed the way he blocked out his scenes and worked with his actors.
The 4:3 format can help the portrayal of your characters’ motivations, keeping the audience close to your actors. It’s all about aesthetics and intention. Like any artistic decision, intentionality is always the backbone, but we’re talking about literally creating a movie that is unavoidably different-looking. You know immediately that the film is in 4:3, even if you’re not super familiar with aspect ratios and film formats. You just know something looks different about the screen. You even notice when screens change from 1.85:1 to IMAX, so obviously if the screen has black bars on the side, you notice.
So what this format can do you for you and your film is really up to you. And it can create a visually different take that might stand out when you apply to that film festival.
Why Is It So Popular?
The 4:3 format could just be a product of the growing accessibility and popularity of filmmaking. Everyone’s got a camera on their phone, and other models are easily available on the market, so anyone can shoot something. That means there’s a lot of content out there, and 4:3 is just another way to stand out.
The merits and benefits of different aspect ratios vary based on your filmmaking goals. Some recent examples include David Lowery with A Ghost Story, Paul Schrader with First Reformed, and Andrea Arnold with the sprawling American Honey. Each used the format for different reasons to conjure different emotions. (Good calls — all three movies were hits.)
Some filmmakers stick with the format, and some move back and forth, trying out different things. Which brings us to 2019, when filmmakers ask themselves Wouldn’t it be cool to see a movie like Instagram? I’m kidding. But, I mean, come on — it does seem a little conspicuous that filmmakers continue to push 4:3 more and more. I can’t help but feel like it’s part of a growing trend to recreate the past through artistic media like film, music, and photography.
Let’s look at music as an example; vinyl is huge right now. But why? We’ve got the best possible way (most accessible) to listen to music in our pockets, yet we’re still buying records. Let’s also take photography. In a world full of Sony a7IIIs, Moment Lenses, and the 1DXmkiii, we’re still choosing to shoot on film now more than ever (not ever . . . but certainly in the last 10 years). We love feeling the warmth and familiarity of the past.
So, do I think the 4:3 trend will slowly fade away? Yes. Do I think filmmakers will stop using the format altogether? Absolutely not. I don’t think we should rule out or steer away from the format, thanks to some modern pioneers who made it cool again.
Cover image via First Reformed (
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