The Boy Downstairs – A widescreen comedy disaster

Jim here, you all know me. You know how I earn a livin’. Always on the hunt for a film that breaks Jimmy’s cardinal sin, one shot in the wrong aspect ratio! Okay, so film is a subjective medium, and I guess it is a filmmaker’s call to decide what aspect ratio their movie should appear. But I find, time and time again, filmmakers these days tend to lean on the widescreen 2.35:1 format as if the ghost of David Lean were guiding their independent film epic.

The majority of these films, even if they do see the flickering light of a projection system, will only be screened on someone’s HD television with an aspect ratio of 1.79. This fact eludes the majority of these filmmakers. All I am trying to say is, why are films that would have been shot 1.85:1 twenty years ago, now shot widescreen, 2.35:1 when they aren’t utilizing the frame for cinematic effect?

Case in point: Exhibit A.) 2017’s comedy, drama, romance (according to the genre detectives at IMDB), director Sophie Brooks’ debut feature, The Boy Downstairs. The film stars Zosia Mamet and some guy named Matthew Shear. Never heard of this movie? I know, it is a freakish thing of nature that I have, and it is because I was searching through my on demand guide and I came across it. I read the description, which should have told me I was treading on dangerous waters, but I am a sap for New York borough, young Millennials in love, rom/coms. Am I right? We’re all there on this. So I gave this movie a spin.

Boy Downstairs typical framing, complete with lens flare. The ghost of Conrad L. Hall was haunting the production.

I am not writing a review of the movie. The film isn’t particularly good — the story we have seen many times before. Boy and girl meet, break up; the girl ends up living in the same apartment building as ex-boyfriend two years later. He’s moved on. She has not. They fall back in love — end scene. Throw in a confusing back-and-forth timeline, and a head-scratching performance by a male lead who has all the personality of an over-ripe avocado, and you got your movie. So be it.

But here is the sin. The film is shot at 2.35:1. My suspicion is, with today’s professional digital movie cameras, selecting the aspect ratio is as easy as a button setting. There is no need for anamorphic lens squeezing. Either the director ‘thinks’ the wider format is more cinematic, thus instantly upgrading them to the status of mise-en-scene auteur, or a financier of the movie told the production to do it. Either way, if you are going to shoot your film in an aspect ratio beyond the limits of a home theater’s HD screen shape, have a purpose. Make it cinematic. Plan out some shots. Use the frame to generate power and tension between the performers. Create a plan!

The Boy Downstairs pretends to be nothing more than a basic romantic comedy. That it mostly fails at this level is not essential. Choosing a framing better suited for comedy may have helped the film somewhat. 1.85:1, a standard cinema aspect ratio since the early 1950s, allows for perfect two-character situational action. If a director is going to shoot mostly masters, mid shots, and close-ups, with your classic back and forth point of view, and they are going to stick those characters mainly in the middle of the frame, why are they going to the trouble of shooting with extra width on the left and the right? Using the excuse that 2.35:1 looks fresh, is not an acceptable answer. I’ll go you one better: check out the majority of British films, comedy, drama, action, thriller, horror, from the late 60s to early 70s, and you find the aspect ratio is 1.66:1. While this may sound smaller in many ways to the widescreen format of 2.35:1, what you lose in left, right imagery, you gain in height. A lot of exciting framing possibilities open up when you begin to look at framing from a different perspective. And all I’m saying is if you are a director, and you are not going to use the horizontal space to tell your story, try the vertical space; it’s what you are currently framing for anyway.

I am sorry to pick on poor Boy Downstairs. It is but one example of the misuse of aspect ratio to tell its story. But there are more. Oh, so many more. And I’m coming for you.

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