Why Are More Movies Going With 'Old TV Aspect Ratios?'
Despite what your film school friends who wipe their mouths with copies of Cahier du Cinema say, movies have been on the back foot in the battle against TV since day 1. Because the latter can offer the kind of laid-back viewing experience that'll get you kicked out of a movie theater for cutting your toenails in a bathrobe, theater films need to keep finding eye-grabbing ways to look like they're still worth the price of admission. And their latest attempt is by looking exactly like an old episode of Full House.
With people now having better home cinema setups than the average movie theater, and streaming getting that Disney/WB/Bezos money, the final lines between television content and movies have all but blurred. So now that TV truly has become the new cinema, cinema has decided to just become the old TV by shooting films in boxy 4:3 (or 1:33:1 if you want to be fancy) aspect ratio. From arthouse films like First Reformed and The Lighthouse to blockbusters like Zack Snyder's Zack Snyder's Justice League, more and more directors are making their movie look like the film experience they had watching TMC cross-legged in their footie pajamas while the cathode rays of their parents' 23 inch RCA washed over them.
Why go back to the old ways? Nostalgia is definitely an important part of this (d)evolution of film into 4:3. These aspect switches can be used to better evoke the past through its own filmic lens -- like the olden days of 1996 in Mid90s. Wes Anderson uses this to great effect in The Grand Budapest Hotel. Each of the movie's three time periods is shot in the aspect ratio that was most popular at the time -- a switch audiences didn't find jarring since Wes Anderson movies are so symmetrically centered you could watch them through a kaleidoscope.
Others will defend the improved cinematic quality of the box format. Before it went all panoramic in the '60s (also a direct counterattack to the rise of TV's), it was Hollywood who first set 4:3 as the Academy Ratio. Defenders of 4:3 will say that the Academy Ratio is still the best way to not only frame people and action (instead of massive sets and CGI spectacles) but that it can create an intimate, almost claustrophobic feeling. Cinematic defenders include Kelly Reichardt, whose Pioneer-western Meek's Cutoff uses the 4:3 format to represent the restrictive bonnets of pioneer women, their boxy vision further enhancing the unexpected dangers of the American frontier (and reminding audiences of playing Oregon Trail).
Another great champion of 4:3's cinematic value is the creator of the Mercedez Batmobile, Snyder, who insisted that people with 4K widescreens looked at his HBO special in 4:3 because the original cut was shot to be shown on massive (and close to 4:3) IMAX screens to overwhelm audiences with floor to ceiling shots of Aquaman's brooding nipples.
But for all that arthouse posturing, the main drive behind shooting in 4:3 seems to be that it's just different. As film professor Peter Decherney remarks, the shift in aspect ratio "is part of the argument that there is something about movies today that separates them from television." With kids these days not even remembering what a tube TV looks like, the film industry has a shot at salvage 4:3 from analog obsolescence and turn it into vintage cinema, the 'artsy black-and-white' of 21st-century filmmaking. Hopefully, this trend of reappropriating the old standards of newer media continues in the coming decades. As a 90's kid, I'd love the nostalgic rush of walking into a movie theater and watching a new release in 144p with a LimeWire logo in the bottom right corner.
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Top Image: HBO