The Meaning Behind Saltburn’s Unusual Aspect Ratio

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Summary

  • Saltburn’s use of the 4:3 aspect ratio creates a unique visual experience that enhances the film’s theme of voyeurism.
  • The film’s cinematography has received recognition at major awards ceremonies, including BAFTA nominations for Outstanding British Film and Critics Choice Awards nominations for Best Cinematography.
  • Saltburn’s visually stunning composition and attention to detail make it a visually captivating piece of cinema that stands out among other films of its genre.


If you’ve been anywhere near social media in the last two months, you’ve undoubtedly seen (or at least heard of) Emerald Fennell’s newest movie, Saltburn. Whether it’s watching reactions to people seeing the first for the first time on Tik Tok, or hearing Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s Murder On the Dancefloor for the thousandth time on Instagram, Saltburn is currently inescapable online.

Written and directed by Emerald Fennell, Saltburn follows Oliver (Barry Keoghan), a lonely student at Oxford University, who befriends Felix (Jacob Elordi). After a “family tragedy” that stops him from going home for the summer, Oliver is invited back to Saltburn, Felix’s family’s mansion, where he slowly begins to ingratiate himself into the family through increasingly obsessive means.

Alongside its revival of Murder on the Dancefloor and some shockingly gross scenes, Saltburn also stood out as one of the most beautiful movies of 2023, and that’s thanks in part to the expert use of its unique aspect ratio.


Why Saltburn Isn’t Full Screen

Unlike the industry standard 1.85:1 ratio, Emerald Fennell shot Saltburn using a 1.33:1 (commonly known as 4:3). The resulting picture is more square than the standard modern cinematic format. 4:3 was once the Hollywood standard before being thrown out for a wider display. The ratio was first developed in 1892 and is most commonly seen in the great silent films of the 1920s and 30s. 4:3 is occasionally used in contemporary cinema, with Wes Anderson being the highest-profile director to recently utilize the format for The Grand Budapest Hotel. As well as providing unique visuals in the modern world of widescreen cinema, Fennel worked with Oscar-winning cinematographer Linus Sandgren to make the most of the underutilized format.

Fennell has described Saltburn as an expression of voyeurism, with the act being a recurring theme in the film. In an interview with Vanity Fair, the director discussed the process of pre-production and test photography. She said she visited the sprawling mansion with numerous cameras and lenses to test image styles. Fennell became obsessed with the 4:3 ratio on location, stating,

“It gives you the impression of peeping in, and that’s kind of what this is. It’s a doll’s house and we’re all kind of peeping in, scrabbling to get in.”

Those who have witnessed Saltburn, or at least seen online reactions to any one of its four distinctly memorable scenes, will understand the role voyeurism plays in the film — and it can only be seen to be believed. Just as Oliver is obsessively, and disgustedly, observing the Catton family, so too are we observing, relishing in, and laughing at Oliver’s behavior, through the personal lens of the 4:3 ratio.

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The intimacy of the 4:3 ratio can also be likened back to the days of Super 8 cameras and home videos, which frequently used the intimate ratio. Even if you weren’t born during that time period, you’ve undoubtedly seen 4:3 found footage in documentaries, or in movies set during the ’60s and ’70s. This subconscious nostalgia lends itself to the forced, and uncomfortable intimacy Saltburn presents audiences with.

Saltburn’s Aspect Ratio Makes it an Awards Contender

Saltburn
Saltburn

Release Date
November 24, 2023

Runtime
2hr 7min

As we reach the peak of the awards season, cinephiles around the world are desperate to see which films are being nominated at the major ceremonies. The Golden Globes have been and gone, and Saltburn saw two nominations for Best Actor (Barry Keoghan) and Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Rosamund Pike). While it didn’t have any success at the Golden Globes, Saltburn has seen greater recognition at the BAFTAs and Critics Choice Awards and is expected to be nominated for at least one Oscar for its cinematography.

Despite what you thought of Saltburn‘s use of shock entertainment, or of it as an overall movie, it is inarguable that Saltburn is a visually stunning piece of cinema. Fennel and Sandgren made expert use of the 4:3 ratio and packed each frame with as much detail and blissful aesthetic as possible — with Saltburn now available on streaming, expect screenshots to appear all over Tumblr and Pinterest. Most importantly, Saltburn‘s aspect ratio isn’t just used for the sake of aesthetics, it is a key component in conveying the movie’s theme of voyeurism.

RELATED: Oppenheimer & Poor Things Lead 2024 BAFTA Nominations — The Complete List

It seems the Critics Choice Awards and BAFTAs have taken note of the film’s beautiful cinematography. Saltburn has been nominated for three Critics Choice Awards, including Best Cinematography and Best Picture, and a stunning five BAFTAs, including one for Outstanding British Film of the Year.

Surprisingly, Saltburn missed out on a BAFTA nomination for Best Cinematography. However, the competition in that category is perhaps the best it has been in years, with the nominees being Killers of the Flower Moon, Maestro, Oppenheimer, Poor Things, and The Zone of Interest, all of which are equally deserving of the nominations.

Of course, at awards season, the big prize is an Academy Award. The full list of nominees is set to be released on January 23, live on GMA, with Zazie Beetz and Jack Quaid announcing this year’s nominees. It is highly likely that Saltburn will make the list in at least one category, if not for cinematography, then most likely for Barry Keoghan’s excellently chilling performance — which would be his second nomination in a row.

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