(Update: Another Example of Aspect Ratio Conversion.)
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.