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The Fascinating History of the Aspect Ratio

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Read Time: 8 min

Ever wondered what those black bars are on Hollywood films or how to get the same cinematic look for your videos? Follow along to discover everything you need to know about aspect ratios. 

What You'll Learn

  • What is an aspect ratio?
  • The history of aspect ratios
  • Different examples of aspect ratios in cinema and TV
  • Why 16:9 was chosen to be the modern standard
  • How to choose what aspect ratio to use

About Your Instructor

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1. Introduction to Aspect Ratios

1.1 Introduction to Aspect Ratios

Watch video lesson (1 min) ↗

The aspect ratio of a film or video is much more than just a technical term—it affects how people view the end product, and you can use it as an important storytelling device. In this free course, we'll look at what an aspect ratio is, explore its history, and help you decide what aspect ratio to use.

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1.2 What Is an Aspect Ratio?

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So let's first get clear on what an aspect ratio is:

"Put quite simply, an aspect ratio is the relationship between the width of an image and its height."

aspect ratioaspect ratioaspect ratio
In this example, the width is 2.35 times the height, so the aspect ratio is 2.35:1.

The aspect ratio is usually expressed in a ratio of width to height, such as:

  • 16:9
  • 4:3
  • 2.35:1

However, it can also be expressed as a decimal, such as:

  • 1.85
  • 2.20
  • 2.39
The most common aspect ratio in use today is 16:9.

1.3 What Is Letterboxing?

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So what is letterboxing, or those cinematic black bars that you see at the top and bottom of an image—or sometimes the left and right?

Letterboxing occurs when the aspect ratio of the video is different from the screen it's being viewed on. It's a way of displaying the entire mismatched image on the screen, without cropping any of it out—so the black bars make up the difference.

Here, a widescreen film is being displayed on a screen that's not so wide, so the black bars appear.

2. History of the Aspect Ratio

2.1 The Early History of the Aspect Ratio

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The earliest film aspect ratio was 4:3, simply because of the film stock in use in the early 20th century, which was mostly 35mm film. Using an image height of four perforations on 35mm film led to a 4:3 aspect ratio, which became the industry standard.

perforations of 35mm filmperforations of 35mm filmperforations of 35mm film

However, in the 1930s, when silent films gave way to films with audio soundtracks, film-makers needed to make a small adjustment to account for the audio track along the side of the film, so the new standard became the Academy Ratio, which was 1.375:1—very similar to 4:3.

2.2 The Move to Widescreen Formats

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The Academy Ratio remained the standard until the 1960s, when film-makers began experimenting with various widescreen formats. Human vision, they reasoned, is wider than a 4:3 box, so why not stretch the image to give viewers more information? Here are some popular widescreen formats of the era:


An early widescreen format, Cinerama involved shooting through three different cameras at specific angles, and then using three different projectors to project the film onto a huge curved screen, with an aspect ratio of 2.59:1.

It was an outstanding technical feat, but perhaps because of the complexity, it never took off, and only a couple of films used Cinerama, including How the West Was Won (1962).



A more practical widescreen format was VistaVision, which used traditional film but shot widthwise instead of lengthwise.


Vistavision was eight perforations long instead of the traditional four perforations high, resulting in an aspect ratio of 1.85:1.

The advantage of VistaVision was that it used traditional film and could be displayed on regular projectors, so it was more widely adopted than Cinerama. Hitchcock was famous for using VistaVision in his movies.

Anamorphic Aspect Ratios and CinemaScope

The anamorphic aspect ratio, often known as CinemaScope, is 2.35:1. It's created by shooting using a special lens and squeezing the footage onto traditional film, before "desqueezing" it to produce the widescreen format. Flip between the two images below to see how it works:

Large-Format Film and Panavision

Some film-makers also chose to shoot using large-format film, such as 65 or 70mm film instead of the traditional 35mm. This led to a whopping 2.20:1 aspect ratio. A famous early example of large-format film is The Sound of Music (1965).

sound of musicsound of musicsound of music

A slight variation on this was Panavision, which also used large-format film but also involved a special lens. Panavision had the same aspect ratio of 2:20:1, and a famous example of it in action is Lawrence of Arabia (1962).

lawrence of arabialawrence of arabialawrence of arabia

2.3 Aspect Ratios for TV

Watch video lesson (2 mins) ↗

As film-makers used widescreen formats to take advantage of the wide cinema screens, however, television was also becoming more popular. And early TV sets had an aspect ratio of 4:3. So movies shot in widescreen either had to be shown on TV with those black bars we talked about earlier or adapted to match a 4:3 aspect ratio.

Widescreen image with letterboxing effect on TV
tv aspect ratiotv aspect ratiotv aspect ratio
Image adapted to fit the 4:3 aspect ratio of TV

As I mentioned earlier, 16:9 is the modern standard. Why is that?

Well, it's a compromise between widescreen cinematic aspect ratios and the 4:3 aspect ratio of early TV sets. Modern TV screens often use 16:9 because it's easy to adapt both 4:3 footage and widescreen footage to display without losing too much information or screen real estate.

4. How to Choose the Right Aspect Ratio

4.1 The Aspect Ratio as a Storytelling Device

Watch video lesson (1 min) ↗

Although the different aspect ratios were born from the technical requirements of film-making equipment through the ages, you can also use aspect ratios creatively in your work.

For example, in The Grand Budapest Hotel, director Wes Anderson uses different aspect ratios in different scenes to denote the era in which each scene is set.







4.2 How to Choose What Aspect Ratio to Use

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Although aspect ratio is an individual creative decision for you to make, here are some tips that will help you:

wide aspect ratiowide aspect ratiowide aspect ratio

Which Aspect Ratio to Choose


Go Wide for Sweeping Vistas

If you want to capture wide landscapes or large ensemble casts, widescreen is a great choice.


Go Narrow for Mismatched Heights

If you have characters of very different heights, like the dinosaurs and humans in Jurassic Park, then go for a narrower, taller aspect ratio to make sure they can all fit on screen!


Keep It Standard to Keep Viewers Engrossed

For something like a gritty crime drama where you want viewers to feel engrossed in the characters and scenes, a standard aspect ratio of 16:9 is ideal.


Consider Mixing It Up!

Don't be afraid to use different aspect ratios in the same film if there's a good reason for it. It's an interesting creative choice, and mixed aspect ratios are quite common in both documentaries and video games.

5. Conclusion

5.1 Conclusion

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As we've seen today, the history of the aspect ratio gives a fascinating glimpse into the development of cinema and film-making as a whole. And it's not over yet—aspect ratios continue to evolve to match the technology of the day, as we've seen with the recent popularity of vertical video for use on mobile phones.

I hope this exploration of aspect ratios has been interesting for you and will help you decide which aspect ratio to use for your next project.

Once you've decided on your aspect ratio, head over to Envato Elements and check out the wide selection of video templates to help you with your project.

Learn More About Video

We've got loads more video and film-making tutorials and courses for you, all free to watch on the Envato Tuts+ YouTube channel. Why not try these next?

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