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It’s Official: HBO Is Remastering ‘The Wire’ in the Wrong Aspect Ratio

It's Official: HBO Is Remastering 'The Wire' in the Wrong Aspect Ratio

Update: David Simon has posted clips showing "The Wire" in its original and remastered versions. See end of post.

Back in September, when a bunch of websites prematurely ran with the news that HBO was running a marathon of a remastered version of "The Wire," there was lots of speculation about what that might mean, particularly when it came to dealing with the show’s 4:3 aspect ratio in the widescreen era. Well, now we’ve got our answer. The remastered "The Wire" will be made available via HBO Go on December 26, with one full season a day airing on HBO Signature, and the whole thing will be available for digital purchase on January 5. And according to HBO:

entire series has been beautifully re-mastered in 16×9 Full-Frame HD
from more than 8,000 reels of original 35mm camera negative, allowing
for a tighter fit on widescreen TVs
and computer/tablet screens. The original negatives were scanned,
edited, dust-busted and color-corrected with great care and attention
taken to stay true to the look and feel of the original
Standard-Definition 4×3 version.

Stripping away the PR-speak, that means HBO is reframing the entire show so that idiots won’t complain that it doesn’t fill up their flatscreens. They can spin staying "true to the look and feel" of the show, but David Simon and his crew made a deliberate artistic decision to stick with 4:3 even as other shows were going widescreen — even abandoning the process of "future-proofing" after the initial season. As director of photography David Insley explained:

"The reason the show has stayed 4×3 is because David Simon thinks that 4×3 feels more like real life and real television and not like a movie…. When the show started 2001 / 2002 they framed it for 16 x 9 as a way of future-proofing. Then a couple of seasons ago, right before Season 4 began shooting, there was a big discussion about it and after much discussion — David, Nina, Joe Chappelle, the Producers, the DPs — and we discussed what should be the style of the show. David made the decision that we would stay with 4×3."

According to a post on his blog, creator David Simon is on board with the remastering, which will undoubtedly give the show a significant boost in public profile. But it’s still not "The Wire" as it was broadcast the first time around: As Simon writes, you can optimize the image for one aspect ratio and "protect" for another, but you can’t do both. "I’m satisfied what while this new version of ‘The Wire’ is not, in some specific ways, the film we first made," he says, "it has sufficient merit to exist as an alternate version."

Perhaps, though it’s unlikely, the Blu-rays due out next year will allow viewers to choose their own version of "The Wire," though this might be a good time to snap up the old DVDs, which feature the show exactly as it aired. After all, users of FX’s Simpsons World were supposed to be able to view "The Simpsons" in its original aspect ratio, a promise that has yet to be fulfilled, months after the site’s initial launch. But let’s not pretend this is anything other than the modern equivalent of colorization or superfluous surround-sound remixes, undoing deliberate artistic choices so that audiences don’t have to adjust their frame of reference — which is a substantial part of what "The Wire" spent five seasons fighting against.

Update: Simon has now added clips to his blog showing scenes in their original and remastered versions. True to the forthright way he’s handling the situation, he’s posted one pair where he feels the remastering improves the scene, and one where he feels more substantial alteration was in order.

In a sequence from "The Wire’s" second season, Simon writes that "the dockworkers are all that much more vulnerable, and that much more isolated by the death of their leader when we have the ability to go wider in that rare crane shot."

Note: The first set of clips contains a major Season 2 spoiler.



But in a scene from the pilot, Simon says, "the new aspect ratio’s ability to acquire more of the world actually detracts from the intention of the scene and the composition of the shot. For that reason, we elected in the new version to go tighter on the key two-shot of Bey and D’Angelo in order to maintain some of the previous composition, albeit while coming closer to our backlit characters than the scene requires."

Original widescreen:

Altered widescreen:

Simon allows this is "an arguable trade-off," but it’s great that he’s giving viewers the tools to make an informed decision.

This Article is related to: Television



You can’t just "pillarbox your flatscreen" to get the original 4:3. Some scenes were cropped and zoomed.
When they remastered Star Trek they made it beautiful, redid the SFX, but KEPT THE ORIGINAL RATIO.


Sheesh, the comments here. It’s the incorrect aspect ratio, plain and simple. I look forward to viewing it in a new light, but there is no reason to mess with the series’ original intent.


No one is an idiot because they want 16×9 version. But if you do want a 16 x 9 version, understand that you are looking at completely new framing that does not represent the original intent of the brilliant human beings who worked on the show, such as the director, cinematographer, camera operator, and gaffer. The choice of aspect ratio did not result from limitation of they equipment they used but out of careful consideration of the aesthetics of the show. The know-nothing tone of these comments in favor of the changes reeks of astroturf. Are you real people or flack for HBO?


"It’s artistic merit had far more to do with the brilliant human beings who worked on that show with everything they had" They had the option to film it in widescreen and chose not to. If you see them as "brilliant human beings" why would you not want to watch it the way they intended? Decisions about aspect ratio and framing are as important as those about scripting or acting. If HBO are scarred people won’t be able to deal with black space on their TVs then fair enough but at least give us the option to see the story told as it was intended to be.


people are fools and hollywood knows it

intangible fancy

@AJD: No, you can’t. That would get it to 4:3, but it wouldn’t be the same information as the original. For example, David Simon’s blog post talks about how they had to selectively zoom depending on the scene.


Sean: Camerawork on The Wire not meant to recreate viewing experience of the human eye

Scott: I was wondering about that, as well


David Simon thinks it’s OK:

check davidsimon DOT com/the-wire-in-hd/


"as as Simon writes" ?!


If you want 4×3 put up black flags on your TV. It was stupid of them not to frame this show in 16×9 originally. Sopranos did it. It doesn’t make any sense that it feels more "life like. We see life in a rectangle, not a square.


This comment section makes me very sad.


Man, Christopher seems to have some unresolved resentment towards artistic integrity, even though he praises the "brilliant human beings" who made The Wire. Does he realize that many of those human beings made the show the way they did on purpose?


Before this was announced, I accepted with some regret David Simon’s 4:3 preference and the fact that I wouldn’t get HD Wire. So many other great shows were coming out looking better than ever, and it was disappointing to think we would never get that with the best drama to ever air (in my opinion). So I was surprised when this news first came out, and I’ll admit that I’m happy to see the remastered versions despite Simon’s preference. The show is a masterpiece in soooo many other ways than "aspect ratio" and if this compromise draws more viewers to this wonderful, compelling experience, I’m fully behind it.

Sam Adams

@Joel The Amazon version is not the HBO remaster. I think it’s a straight 16:9 crop.


The big issue with the conversion hasn’t been totally explained. If they shot the original 4:3 at full academy for the last two seasons (meaning they used the entire 35mm frame) then any letterbox in to 16:9 would actually be REMOVING imagery that was composed for those shots. Close ups would be tighter, information on the north and south of the image would be cropped off. This may not sound like a big deal to people who don’t pay attention but frames can start to look pretty weird when they become unbalanced by this type of cropping.

If the first three seasons were shot with a possible 16:9 version in mind, they should be fine as the 4:3 was taken from the center of the negative and the added 16:9 is extra imagery. The later seasons could be problematic.

M. Rohner

I seriously doubt this makes The Wire any less The Wire-ier. Complaining about aspect ratio is pointless.

Greg Cwik

The majority of the people who have commented on this article and made known their absurd disdain for preserving an artist’s intended vision are really stupid, and I hope you don’t procreate and engender more stupid people.


it is already on Amazon Prime in 16×9 right now, FYI.

Sam Adams

@Christopher: I’m confused as to how a show will look "better than ever" when the image is being fundamentally altered, and not cleaned up or restored. If you mean "tweaked to better conform to current prejudices," then you’ve got me there.

@CCS: I’m sad to hear that 4:3 makes you "shudder." It takes some work at first to get used to seeing things in a way other than you’re used to, the same way it does reading subtitles or watching silent movies. But it is so, so worth the effort, for reasons beyond the vast worlds of great art it opens up to you. In the nicest way possible, I’d suggest that your problem with watching 4:3 is just that, your problem.


Christopher: It’s not that 4:3 "fools" people into believing they’re watching real life – it’s about the assumptions in the choice. 4:3 evokes documentary and TV coverage (as TV existed for years, at least), evocations which contribute to The Wire as a whole. No comparison to shooting in black and white, either. Don’t play dumb on this.

Matt Zoller Seitz

"Please. Get over your ivory-tower artistic snobbery." Comments like this are why we can’t have nice things.


Disagree. I’m glad it will 16×9. I tried to re-watch it recently and shuddered when I saw the 4:3 aspect ratio -a format that I will be happy to see go a way….


Why does the fact that a 16:9 HD version exists upset people? This new version does not negate the existence of the "real" version. So, go watch the originals, enjoy, be happy.


Atleast it isnt cropped 16×9, ill just hit the crop button on my player to view it how it was intended


How do people with no appreciation of intended aspect ratio get introduced to a site geared towards cinephiles?


@Christopher, If David Simon made the decision to frame the show in 4:3 for aesthetic reasons then it should be maintained in its original aspect ratio. Don’t be such a philistine. Should we remaster classical Hollywood films like Casablanca so they fit better on your TV, too?


I’m an idiot because I wanted a 16×9 version. Geez. I can’t wait to buy this set and have it fill up my flat screen.


You can always get some black construction paper and pillarbox your flatscreen if you don’t like it


I’d like to watch it in HD 4:3. Why do they have to complicate something that is so simple?


"The reason the show has stayed 4×3 is because David Simon thinks that 4×3 feels more like real life and real television and not like a movie."

That’s ridiculous. I look forward to watching this in HD. I’m not so simple as to be fooled into believing something is more real and more realistic television because it’s in 4:3. If he really felt that why not shoot it in 16mm black and white.

"Undoing deliberate artistic choices so the audience doesn’t have to adjust their frame of reference"?

Please. Get over your ivory-tower artistic snobbery.

This show will look better than ever and reach a wider audience over a longer period of time. It’s artistic merit had far more to do with the brilliant human beings who worked on that show with everything they had, than from the limitations of the original pieces of equipment used to capture its images.

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