Some readers might be too young to remember, but there was a time when getting a movie on home video in the right aspect ratio was a big deal. Particularly during the VHS boom and even the early days of DVD, movies were routinely presented pan-and-scan, a boxy format which fit the square shaped televisions of the day. But as TVs got wider, studios got more comfortable with presenting movies as they were shot, and we didn’t think twice about whether we were getting something the way the director intended. Well, now we’re facing a different problem in the 16:9 TV era — everyone wants everything to fill up the screen, even if it wasn’t meant to be that way.
Earlier this year, FXX drew fire during their epic “The Simpsons” marathon when the early episodes of the show were cropped from their 4:3 presentation and shown in 16:9. What’s the big deal? Well, it meant the many of the show’s visual gags were cut off (see an example here) or eliminated, and simply, it wasn’t the way the carefully composed show was intended to be seen. And the problem was transferred over on the Simpson’s World app as well, and thus far, has yet to be fixed. There was much talk about it at the time, and just as it was fading away, HBO has stirred the aspect ratio discussion again. Yesterday, the network announced “The Wire” was going HD and would be available on digital in January, and on Blu-ray next summer. But it won’t be presented the way it was shot. Here’s the crucial excerpt from their press release:
The 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.
The words “tighter fit” should raise some eyebrows, and indeed it did. And while the show’s writer/creator David Simon ultimately stands behind the decision to bring “The Wire” kicking and screaming into the “fill-up-my-whole-screen-because-I-bought-this-TV-at-6-AM-on-Black-Friday” world, he’s taken to his blog and concedes that 16:9 is not the best shape for the show that was consciously shot in 4:3. Here’s some of what Simon had to say in a lengthy blog post:
First, there were many scenes in which the shot composition is not impaired by the transfer to 16:9, and there are a notable number of scenes that acquire real benefit from playing wide….
….But there are other scenes, composed for 4:3, that lose some of their purpose and power, to be sure….
I’m satisfied what while this new version of The Wire is not, in some specific ways, the film we first made, it has sufficient merit to exist as an alternate version. There are scenes that clearly improve in HD and in the widescreen format. But there are things that are not improved. And even with our best resizing, touchups and maneuver, there are some things that are simply not as good. That’s the inevitability: This new version, after all, exists in an aspect ratio that simply wasn’t intended or serviced by the filmmakers at the moment that that camera was rolling and the shot was being framed.
Still, being equally honest here, there can be no denying that an ever-greater portion of the television audience has HD widescreen televisions staring at them from across the living room, and that they feel notably oppressed if all of their entertainments do not advantage themselves of the new hardware. It vexes them in the same way that many with color television sets were long ago bothered by the anachronism of black-and-white films, even carefully conceived black-and-white films. For them, The Wire seems frustrating or inaccessible — even more so than we intended it. And, hey, we are always in it to tell people a story, first and foremost. If a new format brings a few more thirsty critters to the water’s edge, then so be it.
It’s a bit of a roundabout approval of what is rightfully called an “alternate version” by Simon. He does make a point that storytelling is what wins at the end of the day, but it’s a bit disheartening that craftsmanship seems to be considered of secondary importance to that process. Hopefully HBO will give viewers a choice of which format they want when “The Wire” goes HD next year, but right now that doesn’t seem to be the case.
Thoughts? Let us know below if Omar will still be comin’ the same way in 16:9 as he is in 4:3.