Long title for a short post. One thing I completely neglected to mention when discussing Fish Tank is Andrea Arnold’s decision to frame this in 1.33:1.
For those unfamiliar with aspect ratio it’s simply the ratio of the width to the height of the frame (screen). Commonly we see things in a “long” or more rectangular aspect ration – 2.35:1, 1.85:1, sometimes 1.66:1. It’s the rare film that releases in 1.33:1 (or 4:3).
Aspect ratio is an aesthetic choice. Composing a shot within a square is much different than otherwise. Godard used the 4:3 to great effect in some of his 80s films (Hail Mary and First Name: Carmen come to mind). If composition is literally the placement of subjects and objects within the frame, then 4:3 forces us to view a film in a different way. Some of these are obvious: height generally speaking takes on a more vertical feel (think of the IMAX sequences in The Dark Knight). This is on display in the wide-shot of Mia’s apartment in Fish Tank.
More: 2-shots tend to be more closely framed. Think of Bergman’s Persona (actually 1.37:1, the European 1.33:1 equivalent). The famous shot of one person in the foreground and profile and the other in the background (middle-ground is more appropriate, perhaps) and facing camera. The square-ish aspect ratio better achieves this effect, eliminating negative space.
The horizon line tends to play a slightly altered role in 4:3 productions. I just watched the trailer for Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff (trailer looks great. Loved her past films). Reichardt frames in 4:3. There are a lot of wide-shots, that should perhaps be called “tall-shots” in this instance. Visually and cinematographically they recall Terrence Malick. But the horizon line tends to be about halfway or 3/4 of the way up the frame. This can certainly be achieved in a 2.35 or 1.85 frame as well, but then the emphasis is less on the level at which the horizon crosses and more on how it stretches horizontally to either side.
In Reichardt’s trailer, and also in Fish Tank, the aspect ratio is actually not, perhaps counterintuitively, used for claustrophobia. I also suspect that it is not a budgetary concern (both films have “names” and are shot on 35mm). The effect seems to be a focus on centralized framing alongside the aforementioned attributes.
Is one aspect ratio better than the other? Would Fish Tank be a better film were it 2.35? I doubt it. It would look significantly different and have forced Arnold to re-think her compositional strategy, but she uses the square frame well. One negative effect of the Academy ratio (another name for 1.33:1) is, in my opinion, that it will subconsciously look to the uninformed viewer that the film is “low budget.” It will look “television” (though that has no meaning anymore either).
Nonetheless, it’s refreshing to see it used in these recent and upcoming films to what was (Fish Tank) and what looks to be (Meek’s Cutoff) an aesthetically beautiful outcome.