As editing software companies add tools to accommodate the plethora of aspect ratios editors are faced with these days, I can’t help but wonder about the results. Social media platforms have a dizzying array of ratios. And we’ve all probably seen the results when one aspect ratio is crammed into another.
I understand why the tools are being created. We’re being asked to create content once and repurpose it to multiple outlets. But at what cost to the concept, to the message and to the viewer?
The image above is over the top for sure, but in some instances, it could be close to what happens when converting video aspect ratios. Mashing American Gothic into a 16×9 aspect ratio doesn’t work. Sure, you might recognize it as American Gothic, but only because you’ve seen the image before.
With 16×9, you don’t pick up the pitchfork or get to see much of the environment (like the porch). Popping it into 1×1 might get you closer, but you then must choose between losing the man’s hand holding the pitchfork or chopping off the couple’s heads.
When you create once and then deliver in different aspect ratios you must average the content over multiple aspect ratios in order to make it fit. The keyword in the last sentence is “average.” By making it fit, I think you also make it average.
When I have the luxury to be on pre-production conference calls, one of the first things I ask about is delivery. I don’t just ask about audience, resolution, frame rate and platform, I make sure to put aspect ratio front and center.
Often, the answer to “What’s the aspect ratio we need to deliver?” is two or three different aspect ratios. At that point, I can be a bit blunt and ask a follow-up question: “Which is the important one?”
That’s usually followed by a bit of silence, then a reply that they’re all important. In that case, I ask if they will shoot separate takes for all aspect ratios. If that is the case, then we’re in good shape, provided there’s time/budget to edit multiple versions.
If there isn’t the ability to shoot multiple aspect ratios, I fall back to my original question about which aspect ratio is the important one. I want to keep the issue front and center. Too often I hear “We’ll shoot 16×9 and protect for 1×1,” or worse: “We’ll shoot 16×9 and protect for 9×16.” Instead of accepting that as an answer and moving on, together we try to figure out the best way to work around the problem.
It might be that just one or two shots need multiple framings. Or maybe a particular scene has the composition adjusted to avoid having to make the “average” look bad. Additionally, I try to make the case to have separate edits for each aspect ratio.
I recognize that sometimes your only option is the one-size-fits-all approach. But I think it makes sense not to start with that option as a default, but to try to create for the aspect ratio you’re delivering. In short, try to avoid being average.