Aspect ratios in Errol Morris's Wormwood28 Dec 2017
Thanks to Peter Oleksik for sending me this “tip” last week:
“The aspect ratios in Wormwood are BANANAS”
I was curious and have some free time, as I was spared from family events this holiday season and don’t want to leave my apartment because it’s freezing outside, so I took a look. They are, indeed, BANANAS.
For context into aspect ratios, you might want to read or re-read the duo blog posts Peter and I wrote investigating the aspect ratios in Beyonce’s LEMONADE. The first part is available here and links to the second post and the pre-post about video errors in Formation. It goes into the history and ways we talk about aspect ratios, as well as common errors and degradation found in home movies, which I’ll also cover a little bit. I’m not going to repeat what we said in those posts.
On with the show!
Wormwood is a new “docudrama” directed by Errol Morris and recently released on Netflix. It follows the story of a CIA agent’s death in 1953, told primarily via interview format but also through a recreated narrative of concluded events, home movie footage, news footage, and collage.
By default, Morris works within a frame of 2.39:1 and this is how Wormwood opens, as shown above. This is the wider of the two most common cinema aspect ratios; the other being 1.85:1. Both of these are wider than HD television size, which is 1.77. 1.77:1 is likely to “fill up the entire screen” if you are watching Netflix on your laptop or home television, so this feature will still have letterboxing at the top and bottom of the screen.
It shortly shifts to splitting the frame in half, so there are now two frames with a 1.85:1 aspect ratio each, or 3.7:1 when side-by-side (maybe slightly more due to the frameline in the middle – my ability to determine sizes is by clumsily taking screenshots and dividing pixel width into pixel height).
Anything 3:1 and above is super unconventional – I was notably bewildered when Beyonce took some shots in LEMONADE to 3.5:1. Is it because Wormwood is widening our perception of reality???
Below seems to be something approximate to 3.17:1, with an approximate 1.58-9:1 aspect ratio each. This still crops the top and bottom from the original broadcast footage, which would have been 1.33:1, but allows for a fuller frame. Two standard-definition frames next to each other would have been 2.66, which is taller than the default chosen ratio of 2.39:1. But instead of trimming each frame down slightly to 2.39:1, Morris crops it even tighter, to an unconventional ~3.17:1.
Is this supposed to make us uncomfortable? Because it makes me uncomfortable! So wide and so far away from cinematic conventions! It’s almost as if we have been secretly drugged.
Here, below and above, you can see how the footage fits into a traditional television set (1.33:1). Below, you can compare it to how it was cropped on the right to create a 3.285:1 aspect ratio from 1.64 each. (I know my ratios are not scientific – but this really seems to be different from the very similar shot up above! Morris, tell me what you’re thinking!)
Below is the widest ratio used, with two 2.35:1 ratios split, creating a massive aspect ratio of 4.7:1! Our minds are now FULLY EXPANDED.
Sometimes the frames split more than just into halves, consolidating into many frames but keeping the 2.39:1 aspect ratio. These come in at 3:1, with a 2:1 aspect ratio each. Below are two examples of that (and the many, many cameras used while filming the interviews). AHHHH ALTERNATE DIMENSIONS??
The 4-by display used in introduction sequences and elsewhere fits into the 2.39:1 ratio, with each frame of the 4x4 also being 2.39:1. Logical.
This frequent use of multi-angle perspectives complements the collage-effect (and both are relevant and complementary to the story) which appears in animated sequences like below:
Wormwood intercuts a lot of analog archival footage, which are all shot in Standard Definition, 1.33:1. But unlike standard cropping methods, the material is cropped in a way that emphasizes the edges of the frame, like this edge-to-edge scanned film clip with visible recorded-sound-on-film on the left:
Wormwood relies heavily on archival footage to move the story forward, and I just mentioned the irregular framing. I like this below shot because it showcases so many naturally-occurring artifacts related to film, particularly home movies. This is or is-supposed-to-be Standard 8mm and is identifiable from the size and position of the perforations. There are scratches on the film (maybe hard to see in this down-rezzed version), the sprocket holes are visible, the text that appears alongside the film edge is visible, and the film jitters, showing off-balanced film sprockets and/or light leaks. Also, on the right is an irregular film line. Some of these errors are probably computer-generated or cut from a different source, but I won’t speculate. But some of the sizing just doesn’t add up here. What is reality, anyway, after watching Wormwood?
Video footage is used heavily too, and the interlacing lines are visible. Although I don’t know when the lines are there because they are pulling only one field, or if they are fake lines put in to emphasize this is video.
Below is a good example of the Moire Effect, where this man’s suit contrasts with the horizontal video lines, creating a light rainbow effect.
When referencing news articles, a visual representation of an active microfilm machine is used. Here’s an action shot:
This kind of fuzzing can be seen in the framing and focus of this camera angle, giving a similar aesthetic to the above.
What is the truth, Errol Morris?!?!!
In addition to playing with the aspect ratio of the entire frame, Morris makes a lot of choices in framing scenes, like the scene below, reminiscent, of course, of the classic opening shot in The Searchers. Sorry I had to use my Intro to Film History skills there.
Television footage is displayed framed within a vintage television set, which solves the problem of how to fit 1.33:1 footage into a 2.39:1-and-beyond framework (as discussed earlier). Also, this TV is cute.
As a bonus, there are a couple of round frames too, like various views from a peephole…
…and a (potentially archival footage?) view similar to a microscopic lens.
That’s it! Hope you enjoy the tale of mystery found in the series as well as the mysteries found in frame choices within the series. If you come up with any theories or have some more research to add to this brief investigation, let me know!