Zack Snyder’s Justice League is presented in 4:3 ratio, to protect his creative vision – a few thoughts on that right here.

Growing up in the VHS era, back when TV sets were all 4:3 and about two feet deep, I was used to seeing butchered and battered movies at home. What might have been a sweeping panorama down at the ABC was now just a slice of the action. An unbroken conversation batted back and forth across a table might now be cut up into pieces, with inserted edits to hop us from one character to another. Gross.

TVs were originally built with a 4:3 screen as this was the shape of most movies at that time. It was after this that the big screen tried to fight back by being… well, bigger again.

The battle waged on for decades. At some time or another, cinema tried expanding along all three spatial axes as a way to outbid television sets for the audience’s attentions: wider, taller, even moving into 3D.

Once widescreen TVs were commonplace in homes, and generally very big ones at that, the cinema industry pushed large format releases in IMAX as a defiantly cinematic (read ‘viscerally spectacular’) alternative. As a result, 4:3 images were surprisingly bought back into the blockbuster industry.

But this modern IMAX era created a dilemma for filmmakers, or at least it should have. The framing of a shot isn’t incidental, it’s crucial to how a shot communicates its meanings, and how it creates an experience for the audience. The shape of the canvas is as important to the Mona Lisa as the smile, so to speak.

When shooting huge tentpole movies with an eye on IMAX roll-out but also a wider release, the trend has been to ‘protect’ shots for both formats (or perhaps three different presentations, where ‘IMAX Digital’ and its 1.9:1 aspect ratio has been added to the mix).

Consider this marketing image showing how Star Trek Into Darkness would look on different screens.

The artistic/technical problems are threefold. Two are relatively simple to resolve.

  • How does someone make sure all essential information is in the portion of image that will appear on a ‘regular cinema screen’?
  • And what goes into the remaining space, given that it can’t be anything essential?

The third is increasingly difficult the more the filmmakers actually care.

  • How can three images, each of them at least partially comprised of information shared with the others, make use of their radically different aesthetic properties to maintain the same narrative import, tone, mood and emotional impact?

I’m not sure this third ‘problem’ can be perfectly resolved, no matter what. Run another two inches down each side of the Mona Lisa and you’re diluting the juice.

The version of Justice League newly made available for streaming this month has been formatted in 4:3. Director Zack Snyder and cinematographer Fabian Wagner shot the film with consideration of both 1.85:1 and 4:3 throughout, keeping their eyes on the planned 2017 release through both ‘conventional’ cinemas and true IMAX screens. This newly released version of the film could easily be screened in full-on IMAX cinemas with nary a bit of reformatting to be done.

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But why? Why didn’t Snyder finish the film in 1.85:1 and use most of the pixels on people’s TVs? Surely far more of us are going to see this film on our TV sets than in any other format?

It’s simple. The wide release on ‘conventional screens’ was always an aesthetic compromise, and Snyder’s not compromising on this film any longer. He explained to fans last year.

“We shot the movie flat, a full ap[erture] release. That is to say, the movie as photographed on the day was shot in a big flat 1.33 aspect ratio… my intent was to have the movie… play in a gigantic 4:3 aspect ratio on a giant IMAX screen.

That was how it started but I really started falling compositionally in love with that concept. Superheroes tend to be, as figures, less horizontal – maybe Superman when he’s flying, but when he’s standing he’s more of a vertical. Everything was composed and shot that way, so a lot of the restoration is trying to put that back…

… it’s 100% its own thing and it owes nothing to whatever aspect ratio the theatrical [Justice League] film was released in. A lot of the work we’re doing is trying to restore the full frame. It’s literally a restoration project – there were certain scenes that were fucked up by the crop so we have to fix it. That’s a big part of the job.

I had hoped that one day people would be able to see the entire motion picture [frame]… it’s its own thing, it’s really cool, and it really helps to differentiate it from anything else you’ve seen in this genre for sure.”

Restoring these shots and making this film for 4:3 is not just about scale – in fact, pillarboxing TV sets to achieve the final effect goes in defiance of scale. For Snyder, this is about getting as close as possible to the ideal versions of the shots he had planned, avoiding the problems that would come from cropping those frames, and hemming closely to the compositional ideas he had ‘fallen in love with.’

Next up for Snyder’s DC movie do-over project is an “IMAX formatted” Blu-ray of Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice, restoring Snyder’s preferred framing to that film’s home release. This means that many of the shots are in 2.35:1 while some are in 4:3, meaning the disc will letterbox most shots and pillarbox the others.

In all of these cases, Snyder’s preferred-format releases are secondary products of some kind, and he’s almost certainly benefiting from Warner Bros’ willingness to re-version movies it has already sold. Would he get the greenlight for an original genre movie that was going to be presented at home in 4:3? That would be a different story altogether, I’m sure – and his new Netflix movie, Army Of The Dead, appears to have been unsurprisingly framed in the ‘Netflix native’ format of 16:9.

Still, the so-called boxy shape of Justice League is one indicator that Snyder is marching to the beat of his own drum here – and, implicitly but tellingly, that the originally-planned 2017 release of his film, the one that never happened, would have involved the widespread compromise of most audiences seeing a 1.85:1 version.

Justice League is out again now. Hopefully it will be the Volvo of superhero movies: boxy but good.

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