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Aspect Ratio: What is it and why does it matter?

in Category: Filmmaking | by Videvo

Video has come a long way since the invention of the talkies in the late 1920s. Improvements in camera and sound technology, the switch from analog to digital, and the sheer variety of video content produced over the years have all contributed to it being the most popular form of media to date. Cisco have predicted that video will comprise nearly 80% of all web traffic this year. But how has the shape of video changed since its conception?

A Brief History of Aspect Ratio

As video has evolved (and continues to do so without any sign of slowing down) so too have the standard aspect ratios that are used. The very first talkies had their aspect ratio dictated by the sound technology that changed the face of cinema. The aspect ratio narrowed from 4.3 to 19:16 (almost square) in order to accommodate the optical soundtrack (printed next to the sprockets on the film) that allowed for sound to be perfectly synced with the moving image. However, as this was no longer necessary, the video industry returned to a more rectangular, horizontal aspect ratio.

The square(ish) aspect ratio continued its life into television sets. However, as increased television consumption began to affect cinema ticket sales, movie theatres began to offer a rectangular, horizontal ratio to bring audiences back in. The appeal of horizontal aspect ratios comes from the simple fact that our eyes are arranged horizontally, thereby making information displayed in a horizontal format easier to digest. Cinemas achieved this by projecting three 35mm images side by side, producing an aspect ratio of 21:9.

Attempts to eradicate the hassle of a three-camera system in the 1950s led to innovations such as rotating 35mm film 90 degrees to produce a higher quality image at a larger projection size led to the 1.85:1 ratio becoming an industry standard. This ratio is still used today, often in a masked widescreen format when not used for television. This involved blocking out the top and bottom sections of the image to artificially create an image much wider than it was tall (or trusting the projectionist to frame it correctly).

Anamorphic lens illustration with stretching. Author: Wapcaplet

An alternative solution to increasing quality was the anamorphic widescreen system in which footage was horizontally compressed to fit on to 35mm film, so that actors appeared elongated in the film. Playback equipment (e.g. projectors) were then fitted with special lenses to re-distort the subject back to their original proportions, and producing a widescreen image, usually at the ratio 2.39:1. The same was done for 70mm films, but the practice was less common due to higher production costs. This resulted in the 1.43:1 ratio, used in IMAX cinemas.

HDTV ratio – 16:9 – is perhaps the aspect ratio most commonly seen today. It arose in 1996 as the geometric mean between the ratios most commonly seen in cinemas and the ratios seen on television, to allow for minimal letterboxing, pillarboxing or distortion when displaying videos made for television along videos made for cinemas.

Aspect Ratio and Social Media

As video evolves from something to be marketed into a tool for marketing, the way aspect ratios are used and evolve has become less about what is visually most appealing (i.e. providing the most engrossing ratio, in the highest possible quality) to reducing the effort that has to be made on behalf of the consumer in order to watch the video itself.

Instagram was a huge innovator in this regard, building a platform – first for image, and then for video – based on the 1:1 aspect ratio. The ratio was originally meant to recall the photographic aspect ratio produces on the Holga toy camera – one of the cheapest available cameras on the market in the 80s. Instagram aimed to reboot the shoot-on-the-go, everyone-can-be-a-photographer mentality that the Holga camera originally meant to inspire.

But as marketers turned to social media as a platform to increase brand awareness and consumer interest, and as 80% of social media traffic now occurs now on mobile devices, the aspect ratios they encourage and show to be most successful have become less about nostalgia, and more about the modern user, consuming video constantly, and on the go.

As video consumption increased, smartphone manufacturers began standardising their aspect ratios to meet the 16:9 industry standard in 2010. Since 2017, increases in screen size – as users turn more and more to mobile devices instead of computers mean that they are often 18.5:9 or even 19.5:9. But this doesn’t mean that consumers are viewing videos in their standard, landscape formats (whatever the ratio).

Aspect Ratios and Video Marketing

Snapchat was the first social media platform to introduce vertical advertising videos in 2016. It saw a 5x greater conversion rate than horizontal video advertisements and reports a 9x higher video completion rate than their horizontal counterparts. Given that mobile video consumption has risen by 100% every year, this trend is hardly surprising.

It’s no wonder then, that not long after Snapchat launched vertical video out of the stigmatization of pillarboxing and into the video-marketing spotlight, that Instagram and Facebook jumped on the bandwagon, introducing vertical stories and marketing options. Vertical video is, of course not universally acceptable. Film and television are still best suited to horizontal consumption, even on mobile devices. And similarly, YouTube still uses 16:9 as its default aspect ratio, though even they introduced vertical video playback in 2018. Buffer found that across Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, it was 7.5-33% cheaper to reach and engage with users using 1:1 aspect-ratio videos compared with horizontal video. And even though the preference for square and vertical videos cam abour in a negative response to letterboxing and pillarboxing, square videos (even with letterboxing) consistently outperformed horizontal videos.

Choosing the Right Video

What this all means is that there is no longer a uniform aspect ratio that will work best across all platforms for all kinds of marketing. So if you’re looking to re-use clips or content, how do you go about choosing clips that will look good in a widescreen, square, and vertical format?

Abstract clips by nature are well suited to this kind of cropping and adjustment. And of course, clips where the subject is in the centre of the frame, or remains stationary throughout the clip will make it easier to adjust the aspect ratio without losing too much of the content you are including in your video.

And of course, don’t forget that if you do choose to publish a widescreen video on a platform with square dimensions, the black or white bars at the top and bottom of your screen can be used to display easy to read text or subtitles!

As aspect ratios changed to make video more appealing to its audiences, either through accommodating sound, or to draw people back into the cinemas, so standards change to make advertising videos more appealing to consumers. So when you’re developing your next marketing video, consider aspect ratio alongside content, length, and demographic!