Using Aspect ratio 4:3 is an artistic choice
I drew my own little films on paper – in different aspect ratios’- Martin Scorsese
What is the aspect ratio?
To simply state, an aspect ratio is a proportional relationship between a printed or digital image's width and height. It is commonly expressed as two numbers separated by a colon, as in 16:9. For an x:y aspect ratio, the image is x units wide and y units high. (*1*) There are many common aspect ratios in use today, 8 in total with 16:9 being the one most popular format today. (2*) However back in the day, before being tossed aside for the wider images, aspect ratio 4:3 was the industry standard.
The aspect ratio can be important for the very reason that there are so many standards. For example, software developers creating content for both smartphones and PCs need to account for the fact that a smartphone display has a different aspect ratio than a laptop screen (many smartphones, for example, have a 9:19 vertical aspect ratio, versus the 16:9 horizontal display common on laptop screens). Social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Tiktok have popularized the vertical aspect ratio as a content shot in the vertical format generates a massive amount of engagement and views. However, outside of social media, narrative content in the vertical format has a niche target audience. Below is an example of a short film I directed in the vertical format.
How are streaming platforms impacting aspect ratio?
You must have read about the dismay of some Seinfield fans about the way Netflix is presenting the much-beloved TV show from the 90s. (3*) Even though it has a new 4K scan, fans were expecting it to be projected in its original format (4:3) in HD quality. Instead, what they got was an HD 16:9 version. You may think that it's better as it would fit the television better and you wouldn't have to deal with the black bars to the left and right of the image. However, the wider aspect ratio has a real impact on things like the basic blocking of scenes: in exchange for slightly more footage of the left and right sides of the frame, the top and bottom of the frames get cut off, resulting in the occasional cropped foot or top of someone’s head. In the image below, George Costanza (Man with the dark blue jacket) is clearly pointing to something on the road, which we don't see in the 16:9, Netflix version.
Is the 4:3 aspect ratio making a comeback?
Filmmakers are always looking for new ways to tell their stories to their audience. (4*) These days with filmmakers growing up with exposure to different aspect ratio standards from TVs, mobiles screen, and cinemas, they can now add playing with different aspect ratios into their filmmaking arsenal. 3 recently produced films by Robert Eggers, The Lighthouse (2019), Kelly Reichardt's Meek's Cutoff, and Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest hotel were shot with the 4:3 aspect ratio in consideration.
They were not shot this way as a gimmick, for example, The Lighthouse used the aspect ratio to convey a severe sense of claustrophobia. One way to look at it, since the 16:9 aspect ratio is practically everywhere, 4:3 could be one way we can separate the Television from the art of Cinema.