Aspect Ratios and Visual Storytelling in Zack Snyder's Justice League
Today, a quick review of ASPECT RATIO as a storytelling tool. This isn't new material for me (I covered it in some depth in this StudioBinder video) but with debate recently re-invigorated by a controversial re-release of a director's cut of a superhero film flop, it seems like a good time to revisit the topic.
What Brought "Justice League" Back?
This is relevant! I promise!
Since the release of director Zack Snyder's ill-fated "Justice League", there has been a clamor among his fans to "release the Snyder cut". Apparently, Warner Bros. released an unintelligible fragment of what fans believed was the director's much more robust and artful movie.
The Snyder Cut is a four hour monster of a movie. There was no reason for Warner Bros. to spend time or money on a re-release. And they said so - many times.
Fast-forward to the COVID-era. Warner Bros. and HBO were in trouble. HBO MAX, a new streaming platform, was about to launch. Streaming platforms do well at first when they have a large library of content - not a problem for Warners and the Home Box Office. But they can't sustain new subscriber levels unless they offer something new. When COVID hit, Hollywood production ground to a near-standstill. Creating new content became nearly impossible for a while.
So they rooted around in the trash bin, found the bits and pieces of "Justice League" that had been discarded, and repackaged them as "new content" in order to appeal to subscribers on their new small-screen platform. ("Small screen"... remember that... it'll matter...) After the initial shock of the film's four hour running-time (and the fact that - despite the hype - it's really just mediocre), the biggest complaint I've seen about the film is about something technical that most people don't pay attention to: its ASPECT RATIO.
What is Aspect Ratio?
An aspect ratio is the ratio of the height and width of a film's frame. Most of the films we see today are shot in a fairly wide aspect ratio, ranging from roughly 1.78:1 at the narrowest (also referred to as 16x9 - the ratio of high definition television) to 2.66:1 at the widest (the far end of what is colloquially referred to as "scope" or "Cinemascope") 1.85:1 and 2.35:1 are very popular aspect ratios for movies.
But the Snyder Cut of "Justice League" is presented in a much narrower aspect ratio than any of these: 1.33:1, also known as 4x3 - the aspect ratio of old televisions, and very similar to the 1.37:1 "Academy Ratio" of old Hollywood movies.
Many of the complaints I've seen come down hard on the aspect ratio itself, as if 1.33 is somehow a "bad" aspect ratio for a movie.
I actually directed a feature film in 1.33, so I can tell you from experience, there's nothing wrong with it!
Aspect Ratios and Storytelling
It used to be that a film's aspect ratio was an accident of technology. Film cameras recorded images in a particular rectangular frame, and that's the frame you got to work with as a filmmaker.
This changed most dramatically in the '50s, as Hollywood began to compete with television for American eyeballs. The studios employed different types of lenses and film to create wider images - images that could not be reproduced satisfactorily on a TV set in a living room.
This is an important point, as we'll come back to it later in the article!
In the second half of the 20th century, filmmakers had increasing options for their films' aspect ratios. Rather than being 'forced' into a ratio, it became something filmmakers could choose before the start of production.
I heard a story once about the great cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski. He was asked how he chooses the aspect ratio for the films he shoots. His response, roughly: "If it is about grand landscapes and big chase scenes, I shoot in a wide format [so, some version of "Cinemascope" - 2.35:1 or wider], and if it is about tall monsters or dinosaurs, I shoot in a taller format [so, 1.85:1 - a favorite of Spielberg's first few decades]."
In other words, the aspect ratio of a film dictates how the action or images on the screen are presented to the audience. It makes a difference - sometimes a profound difference - in the way the story is told.
Christopher Nolan (notably: an Executive Producer of "Justice League") takes this to another level, routinely changing aspect ratios within a film - going from a wider screen in action sequences to a taller screen for dramatic moments. Often, in Nolan's films, these aspect ratio changes can only be seen in IMAX theaters - the taller frames are cropped for smaller screens. (See "DUNKIRK" for an example of this).
Why Use 1.33:1 Aspect Ratio?
The old television aspect ratio of 1.33:1 is hardly ever used in movies, even though it is very similar to the "Academy Ratio" of Hollywood's first Golden Age.
Once audiences got used to the wider formats, they came to expect those wide images in theaters. In fact, many new filmmakers will shoot their early films in very wide formats, just so they come across as "more cinematic". This isn't always the best choice for the story, but such are the mistakes beginners make.
But 1.33:1 has its place. Sections of "The Blair Witch Project" were presented in 1.33:1. This was both to preserve the home-video and indie documentary feel of the movie, but it also served a storytelling purpose. A 1.33:1 frame tends to make close-ups very dominant. There's very little room to see beyond or around the face. In contrast, a close-up in a 2.35:1 frame often fills less than half of the screen, leaving plenty of room for the scenery, or for other characters.
In a claustrophobic horror film that's all about scary things that exist just outside the frame (like "Blair Witch"), an aspect ratio that doesn't allow us to see around our close-ups makes those scenes all the more intense.
When I used 1.33:1 in a feature film called "Glimpse", it was for a similar reason. The film is about a police detective who's stuck at home while his department investigates the suspicious circumstances of his wife's death. Since he's stuck at home the whole time, I wanted to convey that sense of claustrophobia, of the walls closing in. So I hemmed in my film's characters in a claustrophobic 1.33:1 format.
"Glimpse" played a few film festivals and won awards for what was seen as a 'daring' use of the aspect ratio. But when it came time for release, the old feeling that "1.33:1 isn't for movies" reared its head. To this day, the only version of "Glimpse" that you can see is presented in a wider aspect ratio.
What Went Wrong with "Justice League"?
If there's nothing inherently wrong with 1.33:1 as a cinematic aspect ratio, why all the complaints about it in "Justice League"?
I'll be honest, I think it was a poor choice.
I've left a few clues along the way. Let's piece them together.
Remember how the studios in the '50s started using wider aspect ratios as a way to drive more cinema-going? Truth is, it's still happening, but now that TVs offer wide screens, it's happening in other ways.
In this case, IMAX is the culprit. The format offers filmmakers the opportunity to shoot on very high-resolution cameras, and for the films to be screened on enormous cinema screens. The IMAX aspect ratio is 1.43:1 - very close to the 1.33:1 or 4x3 of "Justice League". In fact, Snyder has admitted that his preferred exhibition method would have been IMAX screens, had the pandemic not gotten in the way of a theatrical re-release.
But the pandemic is the reason the re-release happened at all, and it's because of a need for small-screen content.
And here's where everything derails. If Snyder framed his scenes for IMAX, he meant for them to be seen on a screen that is so large, it extends to the farthest corners of our field of vision. When we watch a movie on an IMAX screen, we generally can't take in the entire frame in one glance. We create our own 'frame', guided by the focal points of the image before us. But what happens when you take an IMAX frame and shrink it down to fit in a domestic television set? Remember wide formats like "Cinemascope"? They were pushed by the studios as a way to give people an "only in theaters" experience. IMAX is like that, too. A film framed for IMAX simply won't have the same effect on a small screen.
Of course, the 1.43:1 aspect ratio can (in theory) work fine on small screens. After all, it' so similar to TV's old standard 1.33! But there's a big difference between framing a scene for a television set that fits comfortably within our field of view, and framing a scene for an IMAX screen that extends beyond our field of view. The same frame that forced us to engage, to find the focal points of the image, to 'frame' it ourselves, no longer compels us. Whatever life it may have had on the huge screen is diminished by the fact that we can see the whole thing in one glance.
Snyder's original intent was not to make a TV movie. He framed his scenes for an IMAX screen - and that might have been the right way to go for a theatrical release. But when the "Snyder Cut" was resurrected, it was always a small-screen ploy.
And Snyder could have adjusted for it.
Hollywood films are shot to 'protect' for other aspect ratios. Most movie theaters don't have IMAX screens, so films are shot in such a way that wider aspect ratios can be cropped out of the larger IMAX image. Even if Snyder's cut of "Justice League" had made it to theaters when the film was first released, most of those theaters would have shown a cropped, "wide" version of the film. Only IMAX screens would have shown the "taller" aspect ratio.
My little indie film was shot in the same way - we framed the action for 1.33:1, but made sure a wider 1.85:1 aspect ratio would be possible within those frames. When the film was released on streaming platforms, it was the wide aspect ratio that reached audiences.
It's tempting to brand this Snyder's mistake. Or HBO's. Or Warners'. They could have released "The Snyder Cut" in the same wide-screen ratio that they would have used in non-IMAX theaters.
But that's a bit like suggesting that "Lawrence of Arabia" should have been cropped on VHS. Ick! "Pan and scan", the method by which wide-screen movies were re-framed for 4x3 TVs, was a terrible thing for cinema.
Really, the mistake is ours - it's our fault for expecting anything like an IMAX experience on our small home televisions.
I'll be honest. I really disliked "The Snyder Cut", and generally haven't responded well to most of Snyder's films. But at the end of the day, I don't think we can judge the aspect ratio fairly until we see it at its intended scale.