What do we talk about when we talk about “Birdman“?

I guess people latch onto things they can relate to, things they recognize. For a lot of professional reviewers I follow here and elsewhere, that would be how the film portraits their line of work, notably in the form of the theater critic and talk of Twitter, social media, and things ‘going viral.’

Others, including, I’m assuming, the filmmakers themselves, see the main focus of the film in the struggle of the artist, the search for meaning and relevance, the divide between supposedly empty blockbuster entertainment and high, respectable art.

I am neither artist nor critic, as much as I like to pretend to be either at times. So while I recognize that “Birdman” has something to say on these subjects, it’s not saying it to me, at least not directly.

We latch onto the things we relate to, we recognize. What I saw in “Birdman” was a deeply troubled man who finds himself so tortured by depression – in his case personified by a long gone superhero alter ego that serves as constant reminder of the fame, the power, the endless possibilities that the march of time has taken from him – that he desperately clings to a last-ditch effort to revive some of the past’s glory, only to find that this, too, does not liberate him from his mental anguish.

During the course of the film, Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) engages in a variety of self-harming acts and tries or gets close to trying to take his own life three times, finally achieving the desired result.

We hear of another, possibly first failed suicide attempt in a story he tells his ex-wife (Amy Ryan). It’s one of his many cries for help, some cryptic, some explicit, all unheard.

Suicide attempts on screen are not rare, but what I found remarkable was that in “Birdman,” unlike most films I can think of, trying to kill yourself isn’t the turning point, the traumatic abyss you climb your way out of to start the healing process, now with concerned loved ones at your side and no longer inflicted with the wish to end it all.

Riggan’s on-stage bullet to the face is greeted with many things, actual concern for his mental state being least among them. His family and friends quickly dismiss looking for a deeper motivation behind the incident, highlighting instead all the ways he finally got what he wanted all along: the play is a hit, he himself has gone viral. The people love him, the critics respect him. Everything worked out fine. It’s a happy ending that most movies would gladly indulge in.

But it’s a false one, as we and Riggan are reminded of by the reappearance of Birdman in the actor’s hospital room.


Because Birdman isn’t Riggan’s depression. Birdman is the shape that Riggan gives his anxiety, the costume he puts on it, trying to give form to something that’s entirely beyond his grasp.

He’s not depressed because he’s not as famous as he was, because he’s grown older, or because he feels unloved and unadmired. These are just the things his depression claims as reasons because they are easy targets.

Real depression has no inherent focus, no singular triggers. Like one of those plasma globes it stretches out its feelers in all directions until it finds a surface to land and concentrate on. Easy targets, usually: feelings of loneliness, of heartbreak and loss, of insecurity and insignificance. But take those away and it will just look for other ones.

This is what Riggan learns in that hospital bathroom. The love of his family, his newly acquired flood of Twitter followers, the positive review in the Times. None of it matters. None of it solves anything.

The only solution Riggan can see is the one he has been coming back to over and over again. And while some or all of his prior attempts may have been deliberately botched because they were intended as cries for help more than definite, final acts, there is no ambiguity this time. He is done with life and done with clinging to the Birdman fantasy he used to disguise his depression with to make it seem like a slightly lesser and therefore possibly solvable problem.

Michael Keaton is not in every single scene of “Birdman,” but I do believe that we are experiencing things from Riggan’s perspective even when he’s not present. Scenes between Emma Stone and Edward Norton are at the same time projections of Riggan’s fears (his daughter getting involved with the actor) and hopes (her being brought to the realisation that maybe he wasn’t such a bad father, after all).

Similarly, the scene between Naomi Watts and Andrea Riseborough is all about their characters needing to define themselves through his approval. It’s his vision of how a conversation between them might play out – big kiss at the end and everything – just like many of the film’s fantastical scenes are clearly his version of events, not what is actually happening.


And so the last shot of the movie is not the filmmakers telling us that Riggan Thomson really was Birdman all along, flying away into a happy ending.

Instead, we see what Riggan would have wanted to see: his daughter, finally appreciating the pain her father was in, and taking comfort, joy even, in the fact that he found a way out of it.

And that’s the real tragedy.

Asking for help is never easy, and it can be devastating when even the people closest to you don’t recognize how much pain you are in. Depression is a serious and complicated issue, and thankfully there are trained professionals who know how to recognize and approach it in ways friends and family just can’t be expected to.

There is no shame in being depressed or suicidal.

There is no shame in seeking help.

Another Example of Aspect Ratio Conversion

To further illustrate my previous post, another example of how different versions of the same scene look on different TVs and with different settings.

From Friends‘ “The One with Ross’s Teeth” (Season 6):

As originally broadcast, on 4:3 TV.

As originally broadcast, on a 4:3 TV.

This scene makes full use of the 4:3 aspect ratio. To evoke the claustrophobic setting of the elevator, there is barely any empty space on the sides or the top.


As seen on blu-ray, on a widescreen TV.

Filmed on a constricted set, there is nothing on either side to open the image up to, so instead this is one of the rare cases where the widescreen aspect ratio was achieved entirely through cropping:


This means that Rachel and Ralph Lauren’s hands, which in the original version added much to show their respective levels of comfort on this elevator ride, had to be sacrificed.


Preserving the original 4:3 aspect ratio on a widescreen TV set.

The pillarboxed example above shows how opening up the image, while keeping the hands in frame, makes the elevator feel a lot less cramped. It’s a trade-off, and I don’t blame whoever decided to crop the image for doing it that way, especially when you consider how the 4:3 would look like on most widescreen TVs:


A widescreen TV automatically zooming in on a 4:3 image.

The Real-Life Drawbacks of Aspect Ratio Preservation

(Update: Another Example of Aspect Ratio Conversion.)

A scene from "The One with Joey's New Brain," off the 7th season DVD set of "Friends," as seen on an old 4:3 television.

A scene from “The One with Joey’s New Brain,” off the 7th season DVD set of “Friends,” as seen on an old 4:3 television.

There’s been some noise (at least in my filter bubble) about aspect ratios lately. First when FXX ran old episodes of The Simpsons cropped to fit widescreen TVs, then again this week when HBO announced they are going to rebroadcast The Wire in HD and reformatted to 16:9. (Wire creator David Simon has stated that, while the episodes were composed for 4:3, he’s basically okay with the new versions.)

The same scene, this time from the "Friends" blu-ray set, on a 16:9 widescreen TV.

The same scene, this time from the “Friends” blu-ray set, on a 16:9 widescreen TV.

Outrage over re-formatting old TV shows for widescreen is nothing new. Forums and blogs are filled with examples of shots showing either too little (when important elements get cut out of a frame) or too much (when crew members or equipment become visible) when the image is cropped or opened up (in some cases a little of both) to accommodate the wider format.

Direct comparison of the aspect ratios from the DVD (yellow) and the blu-ray (pink).

Direct comparison of the aspect ratios from the DVD (yellow) and the blu-ray (pink).

My preference on this matter is clear: I want to watch shows in the aspect ratio they were originally shown, or, overriding that, the way the creators had intended them to look.

A great example of this are the seven seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation, which are presented in beautiful, remastered high definition and the original 4:3 aspect ratio on blu-ray.


Preserving the original 4:3 aspect ratio by placing black bars left and right of the image.

But most studios or networks, like HBO and FXX, are going another way, and one oft-circulated reason for not pillarboxing old 4:3 shows is that viewers prefer to have their screens filled, and with widescreen TVs now the norm, that means presenting content in 16:9.

I don’t believe that most people prefer full screens over black bars. What I do believe is that most people don’t actually have a preference, because they have never even thought about it. The reality that the vast majority of people wouldn’t even know how to change the aspect ratio settings on their televisions might be a sad one to some of us, but that’s the way it is. And I’ve been around enough widescreen TVs in the wild to know that, without actively telling them not to, they will do whatever they can to avoid showing black bars on the sides of the image.

A 4:3 image stretched to fit a 16:9 screen.

A 4:3 image stretched to fit a 16:9 screen.

Filling a widescreen TV by zooming in on a 4:3 image.

Filling a widescreen TV by zooming in on a 4:3 image.

I don’t think anyone will argue in favor of stretching the image – it’s clear to see why that’s a bad idea – but looking at the second example some might wonder what’s so bad about it. While it might not be that obvious on a show like Friends, cropping an image always means that information gets lost at the top and bottom of the frame. A widescreen TV zooming in on a 4:3 image will just automatically show you the 16:9-shaped middle of the frame, without regard for what’s being cut off.

Friends was actually filmed in a wider aspect ratio than how it first aired on TV, so the producers had the opportunity of opening up the image on either side when they converted the series to widescreen for the blu-ray release. But the image still had to be cropped, and in most cases they decided to keep the top part of the frame rather than the bottom, mostly to preserve the negative space above characters’ heads, which makes an image feel more open and less crammed.


Had Friends been released in the original 4:3 aspect ratio on blu-ray, the scene above would look like this on most (not yours or mine, of course!) widescreen televisions:


4:3 image automatically zoomed and centered to fit 16:9 screen.

And that’s why some creators will rather release a show in widescreen than preserve the original 4:3 aspect ratio. It’s not that viewers prefer their screens to be filled, it’s that producers like David Simon know that they are going to be filled, and they prefer to at least have a say about how.

I am in no way promoting this practice – like I said, my preference for original aspect ratios is clear – but I can certainly understand why it’s done. Looking at the bigger picture, it’s the most practical way for artists to control the way their shows are watched.

Can a Computer Play the Perfect Game of Super Mario?

Mario_Bros._WorldMaybe you’ve seen these videos online of video game “speed-runs,” where the goal is to complete, let’s say, a game of “Super Mario Bros.” as fast as possible. They generally fall into one of two categories: actual humans playing the game in real-time, punching actual buttons and all that, or the “tool-assisted” variant, where players use an emulator to basically play the game slowed down, being able to use button combinations that wouldn’t be physically possible on a real controller, and, the big one: being able to “rewind” the game and doing moves over and over until they get them perfect.

I’ve played around with an NES and SNES emulator a bit and it’s basically like a combination of Neo’s powers at the end of “The Matrix” and the ability to travel back in time to fix mistakes that those aliens in “Edge of Tomorrow” have. After I’ve played that way for a few hours I got so used to this strange power that I had to remind myself the real world doesn’t quite work that way. Which is a good thing to keep in mind when you’re riding your bike down a busy street…

There are huge communities around both tool-assisted and non-assisted speed-runners, and one thing that kinda blows my mind is that even for games that have been around for two decades they are still setting new records on a regular basis. These guys and girls don’t rest on their laurels; they’re constantly looking for ways to improve the current runs, even if the end result’s just one frame faster than the old record. It’s fascinating.

The human element, even with tool-assisted speed-runs, is a huge, important part of the experience, and I immensely enjoy both the skill and the creativity on display there. But I was wondering if a computer program, on its own, would be able to find the fastest way through a video game. If we take something relatively simple like the the first Super Mario Bros. on the NES, and just let a computer play through all possible ways to play the first level, how long would it take to master it?

The options aren’t unlimited. The NES controller only has a few inputs: four directions (up, down, left, right), an “A”-button that makes Mario jump, and a “B”-button that, when held down, makes Mario run. Without physical restrictions (it’s impossible [I think?] to press both “up” and “down” simultaneously on the controller), our computer would have, on each frame of the game, the option to either press no button at all, one of the six buttons, a combination of two of the six, and so on. That’s, like, 64 unique button combinations per frame?

The longest the level can be played is until the timer runs out, which I gather is around 200 seconds. (I’ve just spent more time than I’d like to admit trying to come up with exact numbers on this. It gets pretty messy with frame rates and other stuff that I don’t really understand. Feel free to write in with the correct numbers.) Let’s say the game has 60 frames per second (again, not an exact number, just something to work with), that would mean a maximum of 12,000 frames per run-through, with 768,000 unique button combinations. Less than that, actually, if you stop the run each time Mario either dies or reaches the goal before the timer is up.

The world record for Level 1-1 of Super Mario Bros., as far as I can tell, is somewhere around 32 seconds (including the little victory animation at the end), so we can just tell our computer to stop trying if it hasn’t reached the goal after that time. So already we’re down to about 120 million button combinations that contain the fastest possible way (or ways) through the level.

If we have our computer play through each combination for 32 seconds in real time it should be done within 45 days.

And why stop there? The record for all of Super Mario Bros. is under 5 minutes, which should take our computer no longer than 10 years to beat (or confirm).

Let’s get on that.

Bright/Kauffman/Crane Productions

This is a screenshot of the Bright/Kauffman/Crane Productions logo as it appeared on the “Friends” DVD sets:

Bright/Kauffman/Crane Productions


This is a screenshot of the Bright/Kauffman/Crane Productions logo as it appeared on episode 15 of season 6 of the “Friends” blu-ray set:

Bright/Kauffman/Crane Productions high definition


And this is a screenshot of the Bright/Kauffman/Crane Productions logo as it appeared on every single other episode on the “Friends” blu-ray set:

Bright/Kauffman/Crane Productions