Charlie Kaufman has been a purveyor of surreal films for decades, and his latest direction is no exception. Adapted from Iain Reid’s novel of the same name, I’m Thinking of Ending Things has all the Kaufman traits you’d expect: a clumsy protagonist, playful use of time and space, and a disorienting story ripe for critical debate and analysis.
However, the Netflix Original movie, which launched on the service on September 4, is also notable for the inclusion of a filming technique that has become all too rare in feature films: an aspect ratio of 4: 3.
Unlike most of the 400+ original movies Netflix has dropped since 2012, I’m Thinking of Ending Things was shot in a 4: 3 (or 1.33: 1) aspect ratio by cinematographer Łukasz Żal – a conscious choice that was almost ignored by higher up.
In an interview with Dazed Digital, Kaufman revealed that Netflix was initially against the idea of making the movie in 4: 3 – “They thought it would turn off audiences who would think something was wrong with their screen.” The crew experimented with different formats, but decided to stick to their original plan. “[We] found there was some tension in 4: 3 that wasn’t in the wider. It made it feel more worrisome and claustrophobic, ”said Kaufman.
Kaufman might have had to negotiate with Netflix to get his way, but there was a time when full-screen shooting wasn’t a decision you shouldn’t have made at all. The format is as old as movie making itself, and up to the 1950s, 4: 3 was the standard; in fact, it became known as ‘Academy Ratio’ when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences officially adopted it in 1932 (technically they’ve adopted the 1.37: 1 ratio, but it’s so close to 4: 3 that they in fact considered the same).
However, as televisions became household appliances, the movie industry turned to widescreen to provide a cinematic experience viewers couldn’t get at home on their boxy screens.
It didn’t take long for 4: 3 to be phased out to make way for ever-expanding ratios such as Cinerama (2.59: 1), VistaVision (1.85: 1) and more recently IMAX (1.43: 1). Thus, Academy Ratio became a TV format that networks clung to until the early 2000s, when HDTV adoption boomed. After trading their old CRTs for plasmas and LCDs, many scoffed at the idea of watching full-screen content on widescreen TVs.
As a result, both film and TV had almost completely left 4: 3 by early 2010. But where some would now label it an obsolete format, others have recognized that the boxier style may still have something to offer the modern audience.
While it may seem like an outlier, I’m Thinking of Ending Things isn’t the only recent movie to use the old Hollywood standard. A Ghost Story (2017), First Reformed (2017) and The Lighthouse (2019) are all part of a small but growing family of feature films made in the 4: 3 format. While any of these films would be remarkable achievements however they were shown, the aesthetic benefits of 4: 3 have helped set them apart in a crowded market.
“It’s an old-fashioned aspect ratio, so on a very superficial level it helps to make the movie look old,” said Robert Eggers, director of The Lighthouse told the LA Times in 2019. “It is also a better shape for photographing vertical objects, such as a lighthouse.”
The old-fashioned framing can also be used to evoke a sense of nostalgia, focus on a character’s face, or even reinforce the feeling of claustrophobia or isolation in a scene. Director Andrea Arnold’s two most recent films, Wuthering Heights (2011) and American Honey (2016), were both shot in 4: 3, which she calls a “very respectful” frame. “That’s what it feels like to me when I look at someone framed in a 4: 3 picture,” Arnold told Filmmaker Magazine in 2012. “It makes them really important.”
Stop cropping yourself
Thanks to the efforts of filmmakers like Eggers and Arnold, Academy Ratio is once again a viable, albeit niche, way to frame movies. The TV, on the other hand, has yet to embrace the 4: 3 comeback.
While HBO’s The Wire was intentionally filmed in 4: 3 to create an increased sense of claustrophobia, it was almost two decades ago – long before HDTV adoption began. That said, there is at least one recent 4: 3 example making headlines in the TV room. When Disney Plus launched last November, the biggest controversy surrounding the streaming service wasn’t the lack of original content – a problem that still plagues it in 2020, by the way – but rather the decision to broadcast the early seasons of The Simpsons in widescreen.
Like a now-viral tweet pointed out, the 16: 9 remasters cut out large amounts of animation, to the point where some visual jokes were cut off completely. The uproar was rapid, prompting Disney to eventually make The Simpsons available in the original untrimmed size.
Outside of those closely following visual media formatting trends, the Disney Plus fiasco was probably the first time many people heard the 4: 3 aspect ratio in quite some time. It’s also safe to assume Disney would have preferred it to have gone unnoticed as the Disney Plus team was reportedly required to do reconfigure the entire content delivery engine to bring back those old boxy episodes of The Simpsons.
Aside from The Simpsons controversy as a prime example of the consumer outrage pushing a large company to improve its product, Disney’s content delivery overhaul opens the door for more aspect ratio swaps on its service . At the very least, offering the choice between full and widescreen versions of a classic movie or TV series is a little quality of life that Disney could hang his hat on – even if only a small contingent of subscribers notice or care.
While it’s doubtful Disney would have gone so drastically had The Simpsons not been such an important part of the streaming catalog, the 4: 3 restoration serves as a high-profile example of why media preservation is important. Cropping The Simpsons to make it suitable for widescreen TVs may not seem like such a big deal, but it’s part of the same dilemma that George Lucas faced with his infamous Star Wars special editions (hey, Disney, we’re still waiting for those original cuts).
If tinkering with the original work makes things noticeably worse and doesn’t provide your fans with an easy (or in Lucas’ case) way to access the raw version, don’t be surprised if those same fans start turning on you.
What’s old is new
In an industry where filmmakers such as Christopher Nolan and Quentin Tarantino are increasingly choosing larger formats to make their films stand out (both projected their recent films in 70mm format), it’s refreshing to see some of their peers making big plays by becoming small.
The evolution of aspect ratios has been driven mainly by technology, but modern filmmakers are no longer bound by such restrictions. Thanks to higher-resolution digital cameras and cheaper lenses, filmmakers big and small can shoot to their heart’s content in 2.35 (the current unofficial standard). But as filmmaker Noam Kroll writes4: 3 is “yet another creative tool” that he and his colleagues have at their disposal for telling their stories.
Will 4: 3 ever become an Academy favorite again? It’s questionable. And yet the re-evaluation of this abandoned aspect ratio can only be a boon to an industry in which major studio releases have become visually homogenized. While Marvel Studios is unlikely to shoot the next Avengers movie in 4: 3, its acceptance by some indie filmmakers may well mark a turning point in how we think about aspect ratios.
As I’m Thinking of Ending Things proves, there is no ‘standard’ format for recording a movie; there are only stories and how they are told. Whether the 4: 3 revival is or not, it’s safe to assume we haven’t seen the last boxy movie that looks weird on our widescreen televisions.