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.

Late Night with Conan O’Brien: How it all began (for me, anyway)

I’m celebrating Late Night‘s 20th anniversary! This is part 1 of many!

Click the image to watch the very first episode of "Late Night."

Click the image to watch the very first episode of “Late Night.”

On September 13, 1993, “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” made its debut on NBC, where it would run for almost 16 years, until February 20, 2009.

The show is today mostly talked about in terms of the two events that bookmark it: the battle over who would replace Johnny Carson on “The Tonight Show” (it was Leno), and the conflict over who would replace Leno on “The Tonight Show” (it was… Leno).

I was too young and on the wrong continent to know about the history of Late Night. I was aware of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson through references in pop culture, but I had never seen it. Same with Letterman, although I would later find out that German Late Night host Harald Schmidt had, for decades, modeled not only his shows but his whole persona on Letterman, right down to facial expressions and little hand gestures. (Even his set was more than inspired by that of Dave’s Late Show, leading Conan O’Brien to remark what a weird experience it was to appear on Schmidt’s show in 1997.)

As you may have heard me go on and on about, I have been drawn to the English language from an early age. Maybe it was to rebel, or maybe German is just that hard, I’m not sure. In any case, there were four English-language TV stations back then, and I watched them all: MTV Europe (Ray Cokes!), CNN International (Larry King), BBC World News (Talking Movies) and the NBC Super Channel, later boringly renamed NBC Europe.

NBC Europe was my first foray into undubbed American TV comedy, including sitcoms. You may not know this if you’re not German – and even many Germans I know still haven’t fully realized it – but the process of dubbing over anything means that any or all quality, or humor, or content, really, is reduced to a smoldering pile of lowest common denominator-ashes. And this NBC didn’t air “Seinfeld” or “Friends,” but stuff like “Mr. Rhodes,” a show no one needs to remember but one that I’d still prefer to the dubbed “Cosby Show” or “Family Matters” on the other channels.

My memory’s a little fuzzy so it’s hard to come up with an exact timeline, but I know that I started watching Leno first – for the simple reason that it was on earlier and I had to go to bed when it was over – and then Conan. I’ll guesstimate that I was watching “Late Night” every night by 1998 or 99, when I was around 16.

And I became obsessed with it.

Not only did it present me with something I wanted to watch, but something I wanted to be.

More to come. Meanwhile, here‘s a great collection of “Late Night” clips.

The Great Star Trek Rewatch

Because I obviously don’t watch enough television already, and inspired by a list of her favorite TNG episodes Nancy sent around a while ago, and given the fact that I already started watching the (beautifully remastered, by the way) original series on Netflix, I decided it was time for a proper chronological rewatch of the several “Star Trek” television outings.

And by “proper,” I mean a selection of episodes based on Nancy’s list and on the episode rankings the GEOS provides, plus a few hand-picked ones here and there.

“Enterprise” isn’t featured, yet, because I’m lazy, and also because I never watched that, so it wouldn’t really count for a “rewatch,” anyway. I’ll get to it when I’m through with these.

Continue reading…

You Want to Believe? Start with “The Erlenmeyer Flask.”

The X-Files: The Complete First Season

The X-Files: First Season

Last year, when Vulture held a March Madness style tournament to determine “the greatest TV drama of the past 25 years,” only three of the eight quarter finalists were shows that originally aired on commercial broadcast networks: Buffy the Vampire Slayer,* Twin Peaks, and my personal favorite, The X-Files. None of them made it any further than that; Special Agents Mulder and Scully were kicked out by the eventual winner, The Wire.

Maybe the show, following two FBI agents (played by David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson) investigating the paranormal, falls a little short compared to the finely crafted offerings of golden age cable television. But it holds up remarkably well and is very much worth revisiting – or visiting for the first time, as it were.

Running for nine seasons from 1993 to 2002, The X-Files was a moderate hit for Fox, especially in the coveted 18-to-49 demographic. The show spawned two feature films, The X-Files in 1998 (the height of its popularity), and The X-Files: I Want to Believe in 2008, six years after the series had ended. All in all there are more than 150 hours of what became an important pop culture touchstones of the Nineties. So if you have avoided the show until now but finally want to find out what all the fuss was about, you probably have no idea where to start.

First, an important distinction between the two types of X-Files episodes. There are those that follow a vast government conspiracy to cover up alien abductions, including the one that Fox Mulder believes is responsible for the disappearance of his sister Samantha when he was a child. These are part of the so-called “mytharc” (mythology arc).

Then there are stand-alone episodes, featuring serial killers in all shapes and sizes – from stretchy, liver-eating mutants to bigamist demons to, well, just plain-old serial killers – plus mysterious creatures ranging from a human-sized tapeworm to a tattoo that talks in the voice of Jodie Foster. Those are called Monster-of-the-Week episodes.

Ask any X-Phile (yes, that is what we fans call ourselves) to name their favorite episode, you will get great examples like “Drive,” written by the creator of Breaking Bad and starring Bryan Cranston, “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose,” featuring Peter Boyle in an Emmy-winning turn as a melancholy insurance agent who can tell you how you are going to die just by looking at you, or the three-part deep dive into the mytharc, “Anasazi,” “The Blessing Way” and “Paper Clip.”

And then there is another special subset of X-Files episode: The funny one. From the beginning, the series has had a certain element of humor in the way it looked at itself, but starting with “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space” in the third year, we get, about one per season, episodes that can only be classified as comedy first, mystery later.

As a first-timer, you’ll want to delay watching the funny episodes until you have gotten to know Mulder and Scully – and the show – a little bit better. Having a basic familiarity with the characters’ foibles and the dynamics of their relationship will give you a much greater appreciation of the self-deprecating humor in these episodes later.

Instead, start with “The Erlenmeyer Flask,” the finale episode of the first season. Written by series creator Chris Carter, it introduces the audience to the elements that would make up much of the mythology to come: human-alien hybrids, government cover-ups, and the origin of Mulder’s iconic mantra, “Trust no one.” It may not be the best episode of The X-Files – not even the best of the first season – but for newcomers it is an easy way into the themes of the show, and the then relatively young mythology is explained away in a few handy lines of exposition.

The episode opens with a dramatic high-speed car chase and the unexplained disappearance of a (literally) green-blooded suspect, after which Agent Mulder is tipped off by his enigmatic informant Deep Throat to investigate. Right away, Mulder and Scully come across tampered evidence and other attempts to hide the truth from them.

The X-Files will often separate Mulder and Scully for dramatic effect, but the show is at its best when they are on screen together, doing some good old-fashioned police work. Fueled by the undeniable chemistry between Duchovny and Anderson, the back and forth between the agents, not without the occasional wisecrack, keeps the series grounded amid its more fantastic elements, and it’s why we came back to watch week after week.

Here, Mulder and Scully come up against a chain of increasingly out of this world (pun fully intended) artifacts, from extra-terrestrial bacteria to fully-grown naked men suspended in fish-tanks, all while being pursued by sinister men in black.

If “The Erlenmeyer Flask,” even with all its signifiers of mid-Nineties TV (why did everyone wear suits two sizes too big back then?) makes you want to spend more time with Fox Mulder and Dana Scully, you’re in luck. The truth is out there – all 202 episodes are available for streaming on Hulu Plus and Netflix.

* It was Sally Tamarkin‘s great Slate piece on Buffy that inspired me to write this one.


QINeed to catch up on QI before series K starts airing in the Fall?

Well, you’re in luck, I made a list of all the episodes from series A through G, with links to YouTube, where you can watch them in full.

  1. Unaired Pilot (2002)

Series A (2003)

  1. Adam
  2. Astronomy
  3. Aquatic Animals
  4. Atoms
  5. Advertising
  6. Antidotes
  7. Arthropods
  8. Albania
  9. Africa
  10. Aviation
  11. Arts
  12. Advent

Series B (2004)

  1. Blue
  2. Birds
  3. Bombs
  4. Bible
  5. Bears
  6. Beavers
  7. Biscuits
  8. Bees
  9. Bats
  10. Bills
  11. Beats
  12. Birth

Series C (2005)

  1. Campanology
  2. Cummingtonite
  3. Common Knowledge
  4. Cheating
  5. Cat’s Eyes
  6. Cockneys
  7. Constellations
  8. Corby
  9. Creatures
  10. Cleve Crudgington
  11. Carnival
  12. Combustion

Series D (2006)

  1. Danger
  2. Discoveries
  3. Dogs
  4. Dictionaries
  5. Death
  6. Drinks
  7. Differences
  8. Descendants
  9. Doves
  10. Divination
  11. Denial and Deprivation
  12. Domesticity
  13. December

Series E (2007)

  1. Engineering
  2. Electricity
  3. Eating
  4. Exploration
  5. Europe
  6. Everything, Etc.
  7. Espionage
  8. Eyes and Ears
  9. Entertainment
  10. England
  11. Endings
  12. Empire
  13. Elephants (Compilation Show)

Series F (2008-09)

  1. Families
  2. Fire and Freezing
  3. Flotsam and Jetsam
  4. Fight or Flight
  5. France
  6. Fakes and Frauds
  7. Fingers and Fumbs
  8. Fashion
  9. The Future
  10. Flora and Fauna
  11. Films and Fame
  12. Food

Series G (2009-10)

  1. Gardens
  2. G-Animals
  3. Games
  4. Geography
  5. Groovy
  6. Genius
  7. Girls and Boys
  8. Germany
  9. Gallimaufrey
  10. Greats
  11. Gifts
  12. Gravity
  13. Gothic
  14. Greeks
  15. Green
  16. Geometry

YouTube has a couple of episodes from H, I, and J, but not all. But I’m sure you’ll come up with ways to find them online, anyway.