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David Bordwell Shows How Aspect Ratios Matter

David Bordwell Shows How Aspect Ratios Matter

We at Criticwire are no fans of aspect ratio changes. From “The Simpsons” and “The Wire” being remastered in 16:9 instead of 4:3 to the old days of pan and scan on VHS, changing a film’s picture to fill the screen inevitably distorts the image. It’s become a constant battle for certain cinephiles and pop culture fans to get their favorite movies and TV shows shown properly, and while there’s a large swath of viewers who don’t mind the changes and get annoyed by the constant grumbling, it’s hard not to feel sad that the artist’s original intentions aren’t being respected.

We’re not alone. Writing on his blog “Observations on film art,” film theorist and scholar David Bordwell took a look at the history of home video, television and streaming services mucking up aspect ratios, complete with screencaps that demonstrated how the changes made things look not quite right. It starts with an example of pan and scan, or the process or making one widescreen image look like two shots, to diminished effect:

Here’s an instance from an old VHS tape of “Advise and Consent, “one of the most daring American widescreen films. The slightly fatter faces are due to the distortion of the CRT monitor I shot from.

Bordwell continues with a history of directors shooting coverage to make sure their films didn’t look like disasters when shown on TV before moving on to how channels like IFC and Sundance are messing up how “Jaws” is supposed to look by making Quint (Robert Shaw) seem smaller, and less larger than life, than he should be while completely cutting out Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss).

Sometimes today’s pan-and-scan makes the figures seem smaller. That’s because the full-frame original image offers a bit more space at the top or bottom than we see in the anamorphic version, and that gets incorporated into the 1.77 or 1.33 version. (You can see it in the Jaws example above, with the space above Quint’s head.)

Bordwell also gives examples of how “The Matrix” and “The Graduate” have been zoomed in on, making the images less striking and almost totally negating the emphasis of a key background detail. He also details horror stories of Netflix showing films in the wrong aspect ratio, which is sometimes corrected when viewers point it out, sometimes not. 

Apologies to readers who find the aspect ratio griping pedantic. I hate to come off as an autocrat with regards to how films should be viewed. But if one believes film is an art form worthy of serious study and analysis, it’s difficult to accept the idea that nothing is being lost from these alterations. It goes beyond matters of original intentions (though that should matter). The choices made by the director and cinematographer were made to have a clear effect on the viewer, whether it’s a greater sense of realism on “The Wire” or a shot in “Jaws” that suggests Quint’s surer footing at the sea. Distorting the image flattens the image and mutes the effect. It’s not as immediately noticeable as, say, the colorization of black-and-white films, but it’s similarly devastating to the film’s power. Blank space on the screen might be annoy some viewers, but better a smaller but truer picture than a full-frame debacle.

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