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Modern Framing with Traditional Film

Modern Framing with Traditional Film 

One of the things that we have grown to love about film scanned to digital are all the choices we have when we set up the film frame. We now have many ways to take 4:3 images to create an entirely new aesthetic, even within the same project. With more and more capacity for projects to be seen in so many different ways,  the most difficult thing becomes what to chose.

When we speak of frame size we are referring to its aspect ratio. This is the measurement of the frame’s width over height.  A standard piece of paper for example is 8 1/2” by 11”  ( which would be an aspect ratio of 1.29 vertical) or a  common still photo is 5” by 4” ( an aspect ratio of 1.25 vertical). In moving pictures the two most common aspect ratios are 4:3, also known as 1.33:1 or fullscreen, and 16:9, also known as 1.78:1 or widescreen or even HD Horizontal. 

The aspect ratio of moving images began primarily as 4:3. Theatrical images were present in 4:3 up until the 1950 when with competition from the new medium television they began the journey into wide screen presentation.  Television screens and computer monitors remained 4:3 until the mid 1990’s  Then came the broadcast changes to HD and with it the television went wider. For the past 20 years now, theatrical releases and television broadcast used mostly the same size screen.  It was a glorious time of uniformity in framing and we all adapted to make the most to fit these parameters. 

Now here comes the Smart Phone, a new mighty force that morphed from a thing we used to make phone calls into a mobile computer that put the world of digital technology in the palm of your hand. As this versatile device evolved so did the size of its screen and aspect ratio of that screen to a present day 9x16 .  And to make it more complicated, your smart phone is clever and can be held sideways to accommodate the traditional moving images work of 16X9. But the reality of wanting to hold your phone upright to watch videos has forged forward and is a might force in todays motion picture image market.

Traditional motion picture film equipment was designed for a 4:3 world.  All film formats, including 8mm, Super8, 16mm and 35mm are based on 4:3 images.  During the great evolution of motion picture images,  screen sizes changed and with them the camera technology had to change to fill the needs of wider images. These modifications involved using different perf configurations, like with 35mm using 3 perf or 2 perf to make wider images, or expanding the gate aspect ratio to make Super 16 from 16mm or Max8 from Super 8.  Other techniques include  matting the image to fit the screen, or using optics that squeeze the images onto the standard frame to then to be reproduced as wider image like with Cinemascope. 

Today, cinematographers are presented with new challenges and new possibilities to achieve a twist on image framing, to accommodate a new generation.

Portrait Shooting: 

Portrait shooting is filming with an aspect ratio that is taller than it is wide.   Since traditional motion picture film was based on being the opposite orientation,  one simple solution is to simply film with your camera sideways.  Although this orientation while shooting has its challenges (like mounting the camera and the fact that shooting this way looks peculiar,)  the results are easy to achieve and can make for and easy way to creat portrait images.  Although the smart phone has the potential of showing and image as 9 x16 it is most commonly used with a 5X4 image with graphics on both top and bottom. The graphics might also include the ability to comment on the images as you are watching.    Images that are uploaded as 5x4 will typically  fill the screen space while image that are uploaded in 4X3 will be small by comparison and lack the framed look of an image that fills the screen.  Images that are upload as 16x9 will be tiny unless the screen is rotated, which does not always seem to work correctly.  

Shooting Portrait Style 


One very economic approach is to take advantage of is using double perforated 16mm film.  By matting the image as it is being shot in the camera you can be shooting only half the frame, then flipping the film over to shoot the other side.  This allows for two portrait images to be created on the same frame of 16mm film.  Not only do you get two for one on the film but since these images are processed and scanned as one you save half of this cost as well. This would result in cutting the cost of shooting with16mm by half.  

Probably the easiest and most flexible way of achieving portrait is to crop your film negative to fit portrait applications.  By simply concentrating your photography on using the center of the frame you are shooting, it is very easy to produce quality portrait images.  This method also offers you the ability to have the traditional frame should you so choose, thus expanding your options.


Technically speaking, anything less than 4X3 for a motion picture film person is  “Portrait” but Instagram and Smart Phone users differentiate between square  4X4 and Portrait 5X4 (1080 x 1350) or 1:25 vertical almost the same as 4X3 at 1:33 horizontal when rotated. Instagram also has a dedicated 9X16 channel but that is not the success of their standard version at 1 billion subscribers.  FaceBook has 2.7 billion subscribers and supports images that are square and portrait, but does not support native 9X16 images. These must be matted.  The full 9x16 of the phone is rarely used as typically graphics are used top and bottom of the screen so 5X4 is the usual full-size image watched on a phone. 

Banner Shooting


One new shift in framing evolution is also happening in the opposite direction with an ever wider dimension than the widest Cinemascope motion picture shooting,  Banner.   This is making websites more interesting with beautiful header videos.  The two big video sharing platforms are YouTube, 2 billion users and Vimeo, 240 million users. The McDonalds and Burger King of video now allow a variety of native super wide aspect ratios.  In other words if you post a non traditional  framed video to YouTube or Vimeo,  it no longer takes that video and conforms it to a 4x3 or a 16x9 player. In most cases, it will leave your image in its native aspect ratio. This is a critical evolution because experimenting with wider frame is now a wide open; a creative possibility without resulting in a matted image.  For example, there is an amazing new film format in a prototype stage called Ultra-DS8. With Ultra-DS8 you take a 8mm cameras and modify it for Double Super 8.  You then add 16mm lens optics to create an Ultra Wide imaging format.  UltraDS8 has a mighty 3.1 to 1 Aspect Ratio native.  Vimeo now let you banner your video channel. For example 

A Few Practical Considerations

When thinking about all these new possibilities one must consider and define the workflow needed to maximize the potential.  Although in post most images can be cropped or matted into other forms, the results are often so compromised that the footage is almost unwatchable. Back in my early days of providing Super 8 cameras to theatrical feature productions I realized that without some form of guidance it was very difficult for a cinematographer to shoot with the 4:3 super 8 format for inclusion in a 16:9 or even greater wide screen theatrical presentation formats.  During the production of the feature film  “Sympatico ” with John Toll, AS ,  he asked us to come up with a solution for this issue. So we came up with the first Super 8 viewfinder that had frame markings for 16:9 images.  With these guide lines Mr. Toll was able to properly frame the images on a Super 8 camera to  fit into a theatrical production.  The frame guides system was later added with a modification to the cameras gate to expand the negative size which we then nicknamed MAX8.  The Maximum wide image you could achieve on a traditional Super 8 cameras. 

As filmmakers get specific with new kids of new framing, one issue that will arise is that typical film camera viewfinders are not showing users the complete frame.  All cinema equipment was invented in a time when a percentage of the actual image was to be cropped when the film was projected.  You will often see confusion about the actual size of an image format because there are two;  the camera size and the projection size. In the viewfinder the cinematographer sees the projection size while on the film it is actually a larger image.  This overshooting was also used in standard definition video where you have a normal image, meaning the one you saw on your television set.   But there was a larger “underscan” of images you recorded.  Modern digital no longer used any of this and you can see to the real edges of your frame in both shooting and in display.  All this over and under framing typically does not affect a cinematographer since he or she sees in the viewfinder the typical showing frame. But some care needs to be taken when you start using the frame more precisely and start to do things like split it in half like in the Double 16mm example to correctly orientate the images.  If any of these methodologies becomes popula , a more specific viewfinder will have to be invented to more precisely orientate the images.  

 (c). Phil Vigeant, Pro8mm 12/2020.  No part of this article may be reproduced without permission of the author.

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