Among the many things you couldn’t possibly forget about Emerald Fennell’s hit movie Saltburn, one of them surely was the film’s highly unusual 4:3 aspect ratio.
Emerald Fennell’s latest film Saltburn follows Oliver, played by Barry Keoghan, a student at Oxford University who finds himself drawn into the world of his aristocratic classmate Felix Catton, played by Jacob Elordi, who invites him to his eccentric family’s sprawling estate for the summer.
Saltburn is one of the most visually compelling movies of 2023 and much of that is down to Fennell’s fascinating use of the 4:3 aspect ratio in the film.
While most modern movies are filmed in the industry standard 1.85:1 ratio, Fennell deviates from this and chooses to shoot Saltburn using a 1.33:1 ratio — commonly known as 4:3.
As a result, the movie looks more square than the usual wider cinematic format audiences know.
‘It Gives You The Impression of Peeping In’
In an interview with Vanity Fair, Fennell said she visited the sprawling mansion that features in Saltburn with several cameras and lenses to experiment with image styles.
During this process of pre-production and test photography, Fennell became obsessed with the 4:3 ratio on location and worked with cinematographer Linus Sandgren to apply this format to Saltburn.
“It gives you the impression of peeping in, and that’s kind of what this is,” Fennell tells Vanity Fair.
“It’s a doll’s house and we’re all kind of peeping in, scrabbling to get in.”
According to MovieWeb, Fennell’s use of the distinct 4:3 aspect ratio creates a unique visual experience that enhances Saltburn’s recurring themes of voyeurism and lends to the feeling of unease that haunts the film.
Fennell has described Saltburn as an expression of voyeurism and the film’s viewers will know that some of its most shocking and unforgettable scenes see the character of Oliver obsessively watching the Catton Family.
The confining 4:3 ratio allows for unique framing opportunities that emphasize the intensity of these scenes and make the viewer feel like they are spying on acts that should not be witnessed.
The Square of Instagram
Interestingly, in the same interview with Vanity Fair, Fennell talks about Saltburn and relates it to how Instagram has turned society into voyeurs who covet what others have in photos posted online.
“We are all in this very strange world now, I think, of wanting,” Fennell says.
“We’re just in a perpetual state of desire and need and want.
“Our relationship with the things that we want when we look on Instagram, or we look at clothes, or we look at food, whatever it is: ‘I both want it and I’m disgusted with myself for wanting it.’”
Instagram photos are usually uploaded in the square aspect ratio — similar to the 4:3 ratio used in Saltburn. Fennell may be making parallels between the voyeurism of social media and Oliver’s desire for the Catton family’s world.
The 4:3 ratio was first created in 1892 and was commonly used in the silent films of the 1920s and 1930s — before it fell out of favor. Besides Fennell, director Wes Anderson used the format in the 2014 film The Grand Budapest Hotel.