Essays · Movies

The Ever-Changing Aspect Ratios of the Jurassic Park Franchise

Aspect ratios killed the dino-awe.
Jurassic Park Tim
By  · Published on January 30th, 2018

Note that all screenshots were captured on a 1.6:1 laptop screen. We’ve left the letterboxing (the black bars at the top and bottom of the frame) in to help visualize the difference between the aspect ratios.

Few franchises have undergone as many aesthetic changes as Jurassic Park. Yes, other series have switched from film to digital and new cinematographers and directors have altered the visual style over time, but the Jurassic films have changed the very frame of the action… twice.

Ten years after E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial had surpassed Star Wars to become the highest-grossing film of all time (unadjusted for inflation), Steven Spielberg was looking to assemble another world-beating blockbuster: Jurassic Park.

But, as with E.T., he wanted something different to the action spectacular 2.39:1 aspect ratio (the ratio of image width to height) that audiences were used to. Most importantly, he wanted to be able to fit humans and dinosaurs in the frame together, so he decided to use the height offered by 1.85:1 (the cinematic standard closest to 1.78:1 modern television screens). Without the distortion of anamorphic 2.39, it also made achieving the groundbreaking computer effects easier for the VFX artists.

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It’s a relatively simple creative choice, but it made such a difference. A beautiful shot like this emphasizes the extraordinary height of the brachiosaurus. It allows for dinosaurs in both the foreground and the background at different relative heights. It also accommodates dynamic framing of the human characters, with Dr. Grant (Sam Neill) sitting above the children. Lex looks up to Grant in the same way Tim looks out at the animals: with wonderment. He may be hostile at first, but Grant will come to develop a paternal bond with the children. This shot foreshadowed that relationship beautifully and was only made possible by the additional vertical space of 1.85.

And, as always, the outer frame is merely a canvas on which other internal frames can be created. The 1.85 shape is particularly adaptable and allows directors and cinematographers more room to play. They can use the sizable frame as if it were 2.39, 1.37:1 Academy ratio or even a circle.

Spielberg was so pleased with the results that he kept the aspect ratio for his sequel, The Lost World: Jurassic Park and Joe Johnston picked up the mantle with Jurassic Park III. When the time came for Jurassic World, the story goes that Spielberg, who remains an executive producer, wanted the fourth installment to follow suit and be shot and released in 1.85. Director Colin Trevorrow and his cinematographer, John Schwartzman, had a different idea. This was Trevorrow’s first blockbuster, and he wanted to shoot in epic 2.39 widescreen. The compromise? 2:1 — an infrequently used format, but one that maintained some degree of consistency with the previous films, while adding the widescreen scope Trevorrow desired.

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Even the fourth highest grossing film of all time worldwide didn’t change the fledgling aspect ratio’s fortunes on the big screen. Jurassic World remains in a relatively small medley of films to use the format. 2:1’s biggest proponent remains master cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (Apocalypse Now), who created “Univisium” in the late 90s. Interestingly, the format has had far more luck on the small screen.

Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu have all released high-profile original content in 2:1 – Stranger Things, The Crown, The Handmaid’s Tale and Transparent, to name just a few. And more traditional networks are starting to take notice, including the likes of FX’s Fargo, which made a move to 2:1 for season 3. The general feeling is that Univisium adds a widescreen cinematic quality to television without alienating audiences with a heavily letterboxed image.

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But now, with Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, that crucial element of Spielberg’s original cinematographic vision has been lost entirely, as new director J.A. Bayona has opted for a blockbuster standard 2.39:1. The first trailer was greeted with indifference last month, and it’s possible the more conventional blockbuster aspect ratio has something to do with it.

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The change in aspect ratio alters the way the films feel. Consider these three shots of aerial vehicles approaching Isla Nublar: one from Jurassic Park, one from Jurassic World and one from Fallen Kingdom. In Spielberg’s shot, the camera is traveling behind the helicopter and tilting (a vertical up or down movement) to reveal the island.

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Whereas, in Trevorrow’s shot, the camera is traveling beside the helicopter and combines the tilt with a pan (a horizontal left or right movement). This flashy swoop lacks the wonder (or the impending doom) of a creeping look up. The Jurassic Park shot also utilizes a wider angle lens. Not only does this make the helicopter feel smaller, but it also emphasizes the vastness of the island. Whereas, the longer lens used by Trevorrow has the effect of flattening the image. This, plus the fact that Trevorrow leaves little headroom between the helicopter and the greenery of the island, makes it unclear just how far away the vehicle is from land.

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Finally, in Bayona’s shot, without the height of the 1.85 frame allowing for natural tilts, he has to resort to just using a pan. He shoots across the coast and then follows the plane’s banked turn towards the island. He has to be commended for making the shot feel natural and altering the vehicle’s movement to match the confines of a wider aspect ratio, but it’s an example of the sense of wonder of Jurassic Park being slowly eroded from a thrilling reveal shot to a casual shrug.

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Similarly, compare these two shots of Chris Pratt’s Owen interacting with Blue the velociraptor. The 2:1 of Jurassic World allows for visible shadows to be cast on the ground. That immediately connects Owen and his raptor buddies and further sells the fact that Owen’s interacting with prehistoric beasts. Despite benefiting from three years of visual effects advancements, the shot from Fallen Kingdom feels less real because the grounding shadows are lost below the frame.

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But how about the all-important T-Rex money shot? All we’ve got to go off from Fallen Kingdom is this climactic shot from the trailer. Now, hold that against this iconic shot from Spielberg’s original.

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Although the frame’s bigger in Jurassic Park, old Rexy seems to be roaring out of the screen. Bayona’s action, on the other hand, feels contained, despite taking place in a more open environment. In his attempt to fill the width of the frame, Bayona has blocked the dinosaur parallel to the lens. It suits the shape of the beast, in a way, but it makes the image feel far flatter. Spielberg however, places Rexy diagonally in the frame, with her tail disappearing into the darkness and her huge skull dominating the image.

He also captures scale far more effectively. With two identical, and (crucially) recognizable, objects in the frame – the 4x4s, one placed in the foreground and one in the background – Spielberg’s providing us with a system of measurement. As viewers, our brains subconsciously know roughly how big jeeps are, and we can deduce the size of this fearsome beast accordingly. In Fallen Kingdom, the Gyrosphere lacks that immediate audience recognition and it’s even unclear just how proximate Owen and the vehicle are to each other and the T-Rex. The mise en scène combines with the two aspect ratios to create one image of visceral horror and one of distant action.

It’s interesting because IMAX, which most regard as the pinnacle of “big” filmmaking, emphasizes the height of the image. IMAX’s native aspect ratio is 1.43:1, so taller ratios fit more naturally on these large-format screens. And I think we can agree that being overshadowed vertically by an object (or screen) is usually more impressive than being swamped horizontally.

Jurassic World commented on modern audiences’ desensitization to dino-awe through its narrative. With the move to a 2.39:1 aspect ratio, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom seems to have succumbed to that thinking. The terrifying and mesmerizing creatures of Jurassic Park have become fodder for a generic action movie.

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UK-based freelance entertainment journalist for the likes of Bloody Disgusting, Vague Visages and The Digital Fix.