The Grand Budapest Hotel, the new Wes Anderson movie, is presented in not one but three aspect ratios. That term, aspect ratio, refers to the proportion of a movie’s width to its height—so, e.g., one of the most common formats for major theatrical releases in the U.S. is 1.85:1, with the projected image almost twice as wide as it is tall. (The best-selling HD TVs have a similar ratio, 1.78:1.) Anderson uses that familiar format only briefly in Grand Budapest, though, for scenes at the beginning and end of the movie.
The majority of the film is presented in the so-called Academy ratio, 1.375:1. The name derives from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which set that ratio as the standard for studio films in 1932. And a few sequences of The Grand Budapest Hotel are presented in an anamorphic widescreen ratio, 2.35:1.
Each of the three ratios is used to reflect cinematic history during the respective period that it depicts. How so? Below, an illustrated explanation.
1985 to the Present, More or Less
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
The movie is bookended, so to speak, by snowy present-day scenes of a young woman holding a cherished copy of The Grand Budapest Hotel, a work of fiction, and leaving a key at a monument to its author, listed in the credits as Author. After the first of these snowy scenes, the movie cuts to Author himself, played in advanced age by Tom Wilkinson. The year is 1985.
These scenes are in the 1:85:1 ratio, which became a standard format for theatrical releases starting in 1953, and so reads easily as “the present” to a moviegoer. Is 1985 a deliberate echo of 1:85? Perhaps.
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
The Author in his advanced years explains that his stories—such as the ones in his book The Grand Budapest Hotel, presumably—were often told to him by other people. The movie then cuts to the Author in his younger days, when he is played by Jude Law.
The year is 1968, and for these scenes Anderson employs a widescreen format—specifically, he told critic Matt Zoller Seitz, author of The Wes Anderson Collection, 2:35:1. From Rushmore through Fantastic Mr. Fox, all of Anderson’s movies are in a widescreen format close to this one. Interestingly, Moonrise Kingdom, which, like these scenes, is set in the 1960s, uses the 1.85:1 format that here Anderson employs for later years. Nonetheless, using widescreen for the 1960s makes sense: It was in the 1950s and 1960s that the movies got wide, in part as a reaction to the rise of the small screen (television, that is).
Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1
The younger, Jude-law-embodied version of Author meets a man named Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), who tells him a story about his own life that takes place in 1932. That is also the year that the Academy ratio was formally established as the studio standard. (Coincidence? We’re guessing not.) Anderson told Seitz that he had long wanted to make a movie in this format. “My plan is to shoot my next movie in 1.33:1,” he said at the time. (Anderson later acknowledged that it’s not 1.33, but 1.37, though the difference, visually speaking, is miniscule: “1.33 is what I always thought it was, but then the German camera guys are very precise … I was always told 1.33, but it’s not, apparently. It’s a tiny bit wider, I guess.”)
The multilayered formatting of The Grand Budapest Hotel seems to have started with the fervent wish to film in the Academy ratio. “It’s not as wide,” Robert Yeoman, Anderson’s long time cinematographer, says, “but you have more up-and-down, you see ceilings a lot more, and it’s a little bit looser. It’s very different from what we’ve done before, and I think both Wes and I really had a lot of fun.”
It certainly seemed that way to us. What’s more, the three-tiered presentation also reflects the multiple narrative ‘lenses’ through which the movie moves: from a finished book to the book’s author to the person who told the story to the author in the first place.