"This tale begins and ends with a fellow named Bob Colesberry."
December 3, 2014 10:12 AM   Subscribe

 
Nope. Don't need. I'll stick with the way it was framed by David Simon. I even like that it looks kind of gritty.
posted by joelhunt at 10:14 AM on December 3, 2014 [2 favorites]


So did they shoot the original series in 4:3 masked, is that where the extra content comes in?
posted by DirtyOldTown at 10:22 AM on December 3, 2014


I mean, I'm assuming that's gotta be it, but I'm figuring there's a more detailed version of that explanation.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 10:29 AM on December 3, 2014


That was an excellent write up by Simon. As expected.
posted by So You're Saying These Are Pants? at 10:33 AM on December 3, 2014 [1 favorite]


Why not release it in 4:3 1080p for people who are not philistines?
posted by entropicamericana at 10:35 AM on December 3, 2014 [6 favorites]


Damn it, I just watched the entire series!
posted by oceanjesse at 10:38 AM on December 3, 2014


This is awful. As beautifully documented here, the 4:3 ratio, subtly masked to widescreen for specific moments, was important to the show's visual style. Simon's write-up has the distinct---even Wire-ish---feeling of someone trying to convince others of something he doesn't believe.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 10:38 AM on December 3, 2014 [2 favorites]


DirtyOldTown, there might be a small amount of additional image* on the original 35mm film that didn't make it to air in the 4x3 version of The Wire, but for the most part the new HD transfers are cropping the tops and bottoms of the 4x3 image to provide a 16x9 image. So there's no "extra" content -- there's less.

* Take a look at this chart on Wikipedia showing the various 35mm maskings. Area #5 is the "television scanned area", but there's probably image on the film (again, a very small amount) beyond that area that could be used to help reframe the shot during the 16x9 transfers. (Since the crew shooting the show was probably only checking the safe areas, there's also the possibility of cables, mics, and other extraneous crap in those areas, too.)
posted by orthicon halo at 10:44 AM on December 3, 2014 [1 favorite]


[Updated the first link to avoid a redirect in their blog structure.]
posted by cortex (staff) at 10:45 AM on December 3, 2014


This reminds me of when the R2 Buffy releases insisted on being 16:9 even though the show was never framed for it (except for OMWF).

Even the R1 Angel Season 2 set got messed up. Angel was shot for widescreen from season 3 on, but for some godawful reason season 2 was released 16:9 as well. Leading to shots of random film crew on the side or offscreen characters lounging around. Ugh.

People got this idea that Widescreen is always better than Fullscreen, not realizing that the problem with pan and scan wasn't that it was fullscreen, but that it was not the _original_ aspect ratio.
posted by kmz at 10:46 AM on December 3, 2014 [5 favorites]


Speaking of original aspect ratios, more people should know about Netflix's dirty little secret.
posted by entropicamericana at 10:52 AM on December 3, 2014 [14 favorites]


"I'm trying to watch this Wire show but I think my tv is broken. There are these big black bars on the sides of my screen. Who do I call about this?"
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 10:52 AM on December 3, 2014 [3 favorites]


DirtyOldTown, there might be a small amount of additional image* on the original 35mm film that didn't make it to air in the 4x3 version of The Wire, but for the most part the new HD transfers are cropping the tops and bottoms of the 4x3 image to provide a 16x9 image. So there's no "extra" content -- there's less.

I'm sure you mean well, but my gut feeling is that your answer is likely a classic "commented without actually checking out the links, just using general knowledge" situation. We've all done it, so I'm not slagging you. But there is absolutely more image. Check out the first two clips in YouTube Doubler. That's maybe 25% more image, easy.

There's some knee jerk here about the cropping they must be doing, but not a lot of discussion about the mechanics of what they actually did (which, at least in the example clips, is not cropping.)

I get ratios in at least a general sense. I went to film school. I mean, I was a C student who mostly did screenwriting, but still, I'm not entirely clueless. There's more image there. A lot.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 10:54 AM on December 3, 2014 [12 favorites]


Panning and scanning or removing the matte, it's still not the OAR. Simon admits they didn't shoot it planning for 16:9 unlike other shows of that era.
posted by entropicamericana at 10:59 AM on December 3, 2014


Check out the first two clips in YouTube Doubler. That's maybe 25% more image, easy.

Sure, but what are we gaining here? Looks like nothing, to me.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 11:01 AM on December 3, 2014


I'm one of those unreasonable persons who will walk out of a theater and ask for my money back if they use the wrong plate (thankfully not as big of a problem with digital projections), but this doesn't seem as bad. Cropping is a mortal sin but this isn't it. Still, it's problematic. As Simon says: "And while we were filming in 35mm and could have ostensibly “protected” ourselves by adopting wider shot composition in the event of some future change of heart by HBO, the problem with doing so is obvious: If you compose a shot for a wider 16:9 screen, then you are, by definition, failing to optimize the composition of the 4:3 image. Choose to serve one construct and at times you must impair the other."

Just leave it alone.
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 11:02 AM on December 3, 2014


Sure, but what are we gaining here?

We may not gain much, but HBO gets to sell new box sets.
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 11:03 AM on December 3, 2014 [4 favorites]


So that's what they did, removed the matte? I'm not amazed or surprised by that. I'm certainly familiar with the idea. But I wish he'd given at least cursory mention of the nuts and bolts of that. I find that kind of thing interesting. I'm not for a nanosecond trying to have "there's more picture, so it's better!" talk. I'm strictly interested in the mechanics of why it was matted initially and how complicated it was to unmatte it for this edition.

Didn't Kubrick shoot many of his later films matted the other way (and with secondary framing in mind to boot) so that they could be transferred to standard TV without letterboxing? I've always wanted to give some of those a spin, just for the curiosity of it.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 11:03 AM on December 3, 2014 [1 favorite]


I'm looking forward to this and will hold off judgement until after I see it. I've watched the entire series a couple of times now so it will be interesting to see what this adds or takes from it.

Can someone explain in non-filmmaker terms what "crossing the line" means in this context? Even after reading the article it still didn't make sense.
posted by bondcliff at 11:04 AM on December 3, 2014


Crossing the line: imagine two people talking. Draw a line connecting them. Okay, typically dialogue scenes are filmed with the camera completely on one side or the other of that line. If at any point during the scene the camera jumps to the other side of the line, you've "crossed the line" or "crossed the axis." Some filmmakers -- Scorcese for one -- will on occasion intentionally cross the line during a dialogue scene, so as to induce a subtle sense of unease.
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 11:06 AM on December 3, 2014 [3 favorites]


Can someone explain in non-filmmaker terms what "crossing the line" means in this context? Even after reading the article it still didn't make sense.

They're talking about the 180 degree rule. TL;DR is, viewers understand the relationships between people and objects in a scene by thinking of it as looking at it from one side. You can't just arbitrarily cut to shots from the other 180 degree without disorienting them and potentially taking them out of the moment.

On preview, what AH&WO said.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 11:08 AM on December 3, 2014 [1 favorite]


Don't feel bad, bondcliff. Christopher Nolan doesn't understand that rule, either.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 11:09 AM on December 3, 2014 [14 favorites]


#BurnNotice
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 11:10 AM on December 3, 2014


I dated a girl in college whose dad was the first person I knew to get a DVD player and the first DVD he bought was The Firm. He brought it home, hooked it up, then skipped to around halfway through, pausing and pointing to a guy sitting at a desk on the far right edge of one scene. "SEE???!?!? I told you I was in this movie." Since only Pan & Scan was generally available of that movie on home video until DVD, it had been years since he'd been able to show anyone his "big scene."

There are probably a bunch of extras who get to add their role in The Wire to their resumes now.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 11:18 AM on December 3, 2014 [17 favorites]


He does mention that they zoomed the picture in in one place and had to digitally paint out production equipment in a lot of places.

I like wider images. Honestly, I don't think anything can be well-composed in a 4:3 box, it's such an ugly ratio.
posted by rubber duck at 11:30 AM on December 3, 2014 [2 favorites]


There are probably a bunch of extras who get to add their role in The Wire to their resumes now.

No, because their not expanding the sides out, their cutting the top and bottom off. There's going to less to see, not more.
posted by octothorpe at 11:31 AM on December 3, 2014


Honestly, I don't think anything can be well-composed in a 4:3 box, it's such an ugly ratio.

Yeah Citizen Kane was a piece of shit.
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 11:32 AM on December 3, 2014 [21 favorites]


Honestly, I don't think anything can be well-composed in a 4:3 box, it's such an ugly ratio.

Sixty years of filmmakers would disagree with you.
posted by octothorpe at 11:33 AM on December 3, 2014 [2 favorites]


I guess HBO is updating their back catalog. They did the same thing to The Sopranos too.
posted by FJT at 11:34 AM on December 3, 2014


No, because their not expanding the sides out, their cutting the top and bottom off. There's going to less to see, not more.


Jesus Christ, does anyone read the article, watch the links, or read the other comments anymore? Go ahead and catch up. We'll be down here when you're done.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 11:35 AM on December 3, 2014 [14 favorites]


There was some additional detail at The AV Club:
This isn’t a big deal for the first three seasons of the show, which according to DP Dave Insley were framed to work in 16:9 in anticipation of an eventual HD transfer. But, as Insley says, before shooting began on season four of the show, a meeting was held and series creator David Simon decided they would stick with 4:3, which he thinks “feels more like real life and real television and not like a movie.”
Don't feel bad, bondcliff. Christopher Nolan doesn't understand that rule, either.

And then there are directors who don't believe in the rule. Or those who sometimes flout it.
posted by yerfatma at 11:36 AM on December 3, 2014 [1 favorite]


Sorry for the snark, octothorpe, but we did already cover that. Here, try this: SD/HD of same scene, YouTube Doubled.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 11:38 AM on December 3, 2014 [3 favorites]


I can't watch videos but the article says that the show was shot in 4:3. What am I missing?
posted by octothorpe at 11:41 AM on December 3, 2014


Shot in 4:3 usually means shot _for_ 4:3 on wider film.
posted by kmz at 11:44 AM on December 3, 2014


So it was time for me to buy a screen to go with my projector. Too long projecting on a wall (that wasn't even white). I like my big screen, but I'm also a cheap bastard (hence waiting so long).

So decision time comes and then I have to decide what aspect ratio of screen to buy. Well, I only have so much width to work with, but height isn't really a problem. I realize I have a lot of 4:3 content, and if I get a 16:9 screen I'll just have black space on the sides. But if I get a 4:3 screen, I'll have just as much screen real-estate in my 16:9 video, and a ton more for my 4:3 video. So I decide on 4:3. Turns out those screens are dirt cheap (in comparison) - people are emptying out their stock as no one wants that aspect ratio in a screen any more. I didn't realize (think it through enough) that I'd be sacrificing some resolution for my 16:9 content, but honestly I don't notice - it looks pretty beautiful. In retrospect, I wish I asked ask.metafilter about the whole thing.

So, in summary, if metafites can rewatch the entire season, then tell me which version to watch, that'd be great.

Also, let me know if I made the right screen decision.
posted by el io at 11:47 AM on December 3, 2014


Can someone provide some info or background on why they would have shot the show matted into 4:3 rather than simply shooting it on 4:3 film? There are conflicting bits about whether they were covering themselves for later transfer to 16:9 or not. Would there be any other reason to do that?
posted by DirtyOldTown at 11:53 AM on December 3, 2014


There's some knee jerk here about the cropping they must be doing, but not a lot of discussion about the mechanics of what they actually did (which, at least in the example clips, is not cropping.)

As said by Simon, they're removing the matte, which adds visual information. But because that information is often extraneous (or worse---sometimes lights or production assistants can be seen), they then have to enlarge the shots to eliminate that extra information, and at that point, you've pretty dramatically reframed the image.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 12:07 PM on December 3, 2014


An explanation for those unfamiliar with all this technical stuff:

Before the widespread adoption of the widescreen format in TV in the mid-00s, doing television production meant that you either worked with a videocamera, usually in a studio, and recorded to tape, or you worked with film, which could be either in a studio or not. Film looked better and you had the virtue of using all the equipment and techniques of conventional filmmaking. However, movies went to the wider formats fifty years ago and, crucially for this discussion, the standard 35mm film and cameras are all in the wide aspect ratio and so using film for a 4:3 television result meant using something that is a wide format and somehow converting it.

Now, to be clear, there are various widescreen cinema aspect ratios, too -- that's a whole post of its own -- and most of them can be made to work with the same 35mm film. How? For wider ratios, you can variously mask the top and bottom. Note that you can do this either on the camera or when you transfer from the developed film to an intermediate format or just do it when the film is projected, which is easiest (except for the projectionist). And there's another, fancier way to do this -- use a special lens that squishes the image in one direction but not the other.

So they did and still do that with movies, it was not really a big deal to do that with filmed television to produce that square 4:3 result -- they could just mask the left and right portions of the image. Again, either in camera, or in post-production, or when it goes to tape or digital, or on exhibition.

That's what happened with The Wire. They filmed on 35mm using the full wide frame, then masked later in their process. But they have the original film or workprints or whatever. So they have all those scenes shot in a wide 16:9 ratio.

There's two problems with this, though. one aesthetic and one technical.

The aesthetic problem is that the photographer composed all these shots around that squarish 4:3 result with the left and right chopped off. There's all sorts of implications for this in terms of how things will look and, in some cases, even some textual stuff where there's a very deliberate and direct connection to the dialogue or action and precisely what we can see on the 4:3 screen. Including the left and right parts that were intended to be removed can undermine or oppose very deliberate and meaningful choices. It's not just that things look different wide than square -- though that's very, very important -- it's that those different looks sometimes are crucial to the narrative.

The technical problem is just that given that it was assumed that those left and right portions were never going to appear on the screen, there may be and, in fact, pretty much there's guaranteed to be stuff that shows up there that absolutely shouldn't be. Like boom mikes and other equipment, crew standing around in the background, reflections of the crew, sound effects done in post-production that don't match things visible happening in these new areas of the film, and so on. All of that has to be fixed, somehow.

Now, we know both from Simon's blog post and from the example videos that they filmed in 35mm and have access to these full-framed sources and so they are basically, in effect, just "unmasking" the parts that weren't already masked. But what if they weren't able to do that? What if, for example, they'd masked in the camera, or they'd actually filmed to a 4:3 format? Or it was shot on video in a 4:3 format?

What's done to convert to widescreen in those cases is that you can chop off some of the top and bottom of the frame, resulting in a loss of information (not a gain) and a widescreen aspect ratio. This is generally a very not-good solution to this conversion problem. But back in the day when widescreen DVD formats were all the rage and everyone equated it with quality and then especially when widescreen television became ubiquitous and people started complaining about black bars on the left and right (when they'd been complaining before with their old TVs about black bars on the top and bottom), you had a whole lot of conversions that did this. This is why octothorpe is reacting so negatively, though he's wrong about the actual fact of the matter.

"So that's what they did, removed the matte?"

That's necessarily true, given what Simon wrote and what we've seen.

"Panning and scanning or removing the matte, it's still not the OAR. Simon admits they didn't shoot it planning for 16:9 unlike other shows of that era."

That's true, but not completely true:
In the beginning, we tried to protect for letterbox, but by the end of the second season, our eyes were focused on the story that could be told using 4:3, and we composed our shots to maximize a film style that suggested not the vistas of feature cinematography, but the capture and delicacy of documentarian camerawork.
...but, as he had previously written (note that he's probably using "protect" in a somewhat different sense than he did in the previous paragraph):
And while we were filming in 35mm and could have ostensibly “protected” ourselves by adopting wider shot composition in the event of some future change of heart by HBO, the problem with doing so is obvious: If you compose a shot for a wider 16:9 screen, then you are, by definition, failing to optimize the composition of the 4:3 image. Choose to serve one construct and at times you must impair the other.
And, as he discusses later, it turns out that not only didn't they really attempt at all to compose for 16:9, by the end of the second season they weren't even bothering to try to protect the cropped areas against equipment and such.

Still, I think it's pretty clear, based upon what he says, that it's not a disaster. There are many cases in the show where 16:9 conversion works better than the original. Others, not so much but it's no big deal. And still others where it's a change for the worse. And, regardless, it involved a whole lot of technical work to fix the stuff that shouldn't be seen in the frame, like equipment.

A key point, though, is that it's not what octothorpe and presumably others thought that this is -- it's not a cropping of the top and bottom to force a 16;9 ratio.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 12:12 PM on December 3, 2014 [10 favorites]


Omar's still badass though right?
posted by entropone at 12:15 PM on December 3, 2014 [5 favorites]


Oh, Indeed.
posted by Saxon Kane at 12:17 PM on December 3, 2014 [7 favorites]


This also means that Clay Davis' exclamations of "sheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeit!" will be up to 25% longer.
posted by Saxon Kane at 12:19 PM on December 3, 2014 [7 favorites]


Yeah Citizen Kane was a piece of shit.

Sixty years of filmmakers would disagree with you.

OK, I guess things can be reasonably well-composed in 4:3, but I still think it's a huge limitation, and I don't think there's any 4:3 composition that wouldn't be improved by having a wider frame. There's a reason both cinema and TV have abandoned the hideous 4:3 rectangle.
posted by rubber duck at 12:25 PM on December 3, 2014


I'm fine with it as long as they were involved. I liked the show in 4:3, but I think HD makes a difference in scenery, set dressing, expressions, and so on. And since it's not a destructive letterbox process, the worst that can happen is a bit of slop on the composition side, which is a shame but The Wire is about the characters, story, and dialogue, not the imagery — though of course the imagery does its part. In this case I'm inclined to take Simon at his word - it's different, it's a mixed bag, but it isn't often worse and might even be a little better at times.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 12:34 PM on December 3, 2014 [1 favorite]


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.

I'm eagerly awaiting The Wire: Reader's Digest Condensed Edition.
posted by Monochrome at 12:36 PM on December 3, 2014


What a gracious essay.
posted by infinitewindow at 1:02 PM on December 3, 2014 [2 favorites]


There's a reason both cinema and TV have abandoned the hideous 4:3 rectangle.

Wes Anderson would probably have something to say on the matter.

As far as the Wire's aspect ratio, it feels like someone decided it would be a good idea to pull the Mona Lisa off its frame and unfurl the rest of the canvas. Sure, it's ruined... but now we can see the whole thing!
posted by buriednexttoyou at 1:23 PM on December 3, 2014 [1 favorite]


So. I've never seen The Wire. Any of it. Guess I have to think about how much any of this matters to decide how I go about seeing it.
posted by dnash at 1:34 PM on December 3, 2014 [1 favorite]


The wire was never exactly a stunning visual masterpiece imo. It's a great fucking story with incredible acting and dialogue writing; it has some gritty, well composed shots, especially in scenes set in places you don't usually see--like the homeless back alleys, and quiet churches, and echoy dirty public school hallways. Those felt real, like a public access channel. I'm sure that took a lot of art to create, Idk. But I was never very blown away when they tried to get Filmy, especially those season ending montages= nah.

So, dnash, it won't matter to you one bit. It's a masterpiece of the highest order and you would love it if you watched the whole thing on your phone while hitchhiking in a blizzard (for 3 weeks).
posted by Potomac Avenue at 1:36 PM on December 3, 2014 [4 favorites]


Watching that first pair of HD vs SD clips made me appreciate the original framing. Watching the HD first I thought this is a modern look and then watching the SD version, I keyed in on the actors hands at their sides, keys jangling on hip belts, the frame felt more cluttered with people and their bodies being clumsy. It was most definitely framed for 4:3.

I'm really happy that it can have a new life at 16:9 but I encourage people to find an old CRT television on the side of the street and dust off the DVD player in the attic.
posted by vicx at 2:44 PM on December 3, 2014 [1 favorite]


Oh hey there's Wallace -- he was just standing way off to the side this whole time! *whew*
posted by Karlos the Jackal at 3:30 PM on December 3, 2014 [18 favorites]


The movie that really, really needs to be remastered for video is Brainstorm. Most of the film was shot in 4:3, but the scenes from the POV of people experiencing a Brainstorm thought recording were in high-def widescreen, so as to be more immersive than the scenes of real life.

In the DVD they show the regular scenes full screen and letterbox the widescreen sequences, shrinking them and creating exactly the opposite effect the film was meant to convey.

Now that widescreen TV's are common it would be dead simple to restore the narrow and wide scenes to their correct relationship, without the ridiculous loss in size and resolution that would have resulted from double-letterboxing the 4:3 scenes on a 4:3 display.
posted by localroger at 3:42 PM on December 3, 2014 [2 favorites]


OK, I guess things can be reasonably well-composed in 4:3, but I still think it's a huge limitation

You must be fun at art museums. Is 4:3 the new Golden Ratio or something? There's no art without constraint and 4:3 can be just as beautiful as whatever your new TV is sized for. Next we'll be hearing about how black and white is ok, but color man . . . color!
posted by yerfatma at 4:38 PM on December 3, 2014


However, movies went to the wider formats fifty years ago and, crucially for this discussion, the standard 35mm film and cameras are all in the wide aspect ratio and so using film for a 4:3 television result meant using something that is a wide format and somehow converting it.

That part's not quite right, unless I'm misreading you. The standard ratio of four-perf 35mm film (meaning one frame per four perforations on each edge of the film) remained 1.37:1. You get the wider aspect ratios, as you note, by using anamorphic lensing (which "squeezes" an image horizontally by a factor of 2:1 to capture the wider image on the standard film frame), by matting the image on acquisition, in post, or at projection, or by using a camera that's been reworked to shoot three-perf film or even two-perf (Techniscope and the like). Those latter two configuration save film, because if a frame only takes up three perforations instead of four, you're only shooting 75 percent as much film. But four-perf has remained the standard configuration for all those years, though three-perf and two-perf have picked up some steam recently. (Hunger was shot in two-perf a few years ago, which allowed Steve McQueen to shoot a crucial dialogue scene that ran way longer than the standard 10-minute capacity of a four-perf film cartridge.)

If you're having trouble visualizing the whole 2-perf/3-perf/4-perf thing, there's an image on this Wikipedia page that may help. Again, three-perf and two-perf aren't especially common formats. I'd say the vast majority of widescreen films were shot in four-perf, either anamorphically or with the expectation that they would be matted to the widescreen aspect ratio later.

Anyway, there's a lot of good information in this old story on The Wire. Near as I can figure from reading the info presented there, the first two seasons were shot on 35mm film (4x3) but framed at 16x9, just as a general hedge against the future, even though the final 4x3 image would then have to be cropped from the center. (I think this was fairly common at the time though it seems counter-intuitive.) At some point, the show switched to three-perf Super 35, which gives you a widescreen image (you're using the entire width of the traditional frame, but only three-quarters of the height), even though they still planned to crop to 4x3 for broadcast. That meant they ended up shooting 25 percent less film, saving quite a bit of money—but for the entire run of the show it looks like they were still generating extra image on both sides that could be used by HBO to reframe the picture for 16x9. (I'm sure this was a factor in his bosses at HBO being totally cool with him still delivering the show in SD at the end of the day; they knew they'd have something to work with when they finally decided to remaster for HD.)

The movie that really, really needs to be remastered for video is Brainstorm. Most of the film was shot in 4:3, but the scenes from the POV of people experiencing a Brainstorm thought recording were in high-def widescreen, so as to be more immersive than the scenes of real life.

You've got a new item for your Christmas list, then! Brainstorm was reissued on Blu-ray in 2012 with the correct framing — for the first time since laserdisc. The overall picture quality is kind of mediocre, considering how good Blu-ray can and should be ... but it's the only way that movie's worth watching at home. Since Metafilter gets a kickback, I'm just going to drop an Amazon link right here.
posted by Mothlight at 6:26 PM on December 3, 2014 [2 favorites]


*sad* I won't own a blu-ray player due to the DRM crap. If it's not on DVD it's not available to me.
posted by localroger at 7:53 PM on December 3, 2014


I spent years working in post-production often dealing directly with framing/cropping problems, and I learned two main things. First, every project has its own process. Second, it's nearly impossible to discuss framing without viewing examples or at least drawing pictures. So definitely take a look at the video examples.

I enjoyed The Wire at 4x3 so I don't really need to see it in 16x9. But if the creators were involved with the retransfer, it probably looks fine. However, the earlier point:

Simon's write-up has the distinct---even Wire-ish---feeling of someone trying to convince others of something he doesn't believe.

Rings fairly true to me. I definitely get the feeling that David Simon doesn't think of the whole endeavor as necessary.
posted by dogwalker at 8:25 PM on December 3, 2014


I am a BIG fan of both widescreen and HD. Back in the 90s, in college, I gave a persuasive speech on how VHS movies should be put in letterbox format. Remember letterbox? Back when everyone had a 4:3, SD television.

Now no one has a 4:3, SD television and that is a good thing. I don't think there's any good reason to intentionally film in 4:3 (and certainly not SD), but as Simon explains, to do both with The Wire, in the early 2000's, was simply more expensive. So 4:3 was first and foremost a financial, not artistic, choice.

As much as I love widescreen, though, if they have to crop the original 4:3 print and effectively zoom in on the scene, then the viewer loses part of a shot. There is nothing gained except the lack of black bars on the side. And 16:9 means the mise-en-scene is different from the original director's vision. It's like the exact opposite crime that all those VHS movies suffered from, when they were cropped from 16:9 to 4:3.

In a perfect world, they would've filmed it in widescreen, but since that didn't happen, the aspect ratio should not be fucked with; end of story.
posted by zardoz at 10:19 PM on December 3, 2014 [1 favorite]


Here's hoping HBO does the right thing and provides original framing in HD when the Blu-Rays come out...
posted by ReeMonster at 12:05 AM on December 4, 2014 [2 favorites]


Dave Simon says: "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."

Only the casual viewer is likely to take that stance, surely. And you know what we say about the casual viewer...
posted by Paul Slade at 3:36 AM on December 4, 2014 [1 favorite]


I think original framing on Blu-ray is a lost cause, though I'd be delighted to be proven wrong. First question would be whether, as part of the process of rescanning the film and creating the 16x9 widescreen version, the team also did a quick deliverable of the not-fucked-with 4x3 version at HD resolution. If so, then there might be just a chance if the fans made enough noise and/or David Simon requested it. If that 4x3 version does not exist, I think the odds are worse just because there's no compelling commercial interest and inertia favors not returning to those files right now. Plus, retailers and distributors alike hate having two SKUs of the same title in the market ...
posted by Mothlight at 6:46 AM on December 4, 2014


As much as I love widescreen, though, if they have to crop the original 4:3 print and effectively zoom in on the scene, then the viewer loses part of a shot.

Help yourself to the links and comments above. That's not what's happening here.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 6:46 AM on December 4, 2014


*sad* I won't own a blu-ray player due to the DRM crap. If it's not on DVD it's not available to me.

*boggle* Yes, the DRM-free format known as DVD. WTF.
posted by entropicamericana at 7:54 AM on December 4, 2014 [1 favorite]


So 4:3 was first and foremost a financial, not artistic, choice.

There seem to be two different threads going on in here. From the link I posted above: "Simon decided they would stick with 4:3, which he thinks “feels more like real life and real television and not like a movie.”"

I don't think there's any good reason to intentionally film in 4:3

You might want to give the absolutes a rest (I can assure you based on every 4th trash day around here there are still people with SD televisions and we're in a middle-class neighborhood). The idea that 16:9 is some kind of Perfect Format for Art because an engineer thought it was a good idea and because HDTVs which happen to be in 16:9 look nicer than SDTVs which are typically 4:3 is silly. Again, this is like going to an art gallery and arguing exclusively about the frame choices.
posted by yerfatma at 9:25 AM on December 4, 2014 [1 favorite]


Yes, the DRM-free format known as DVD.

The DRM on DVD's has been broken, and does not provide for retroactively revoking keys or future "upgrades" requiring firmware updates. Ask any of the people who bought a spiffy new Avatar Blu-Ray only to find it was more useful as a coaster than as content in their players.
posted by localroger at 9:44 AM on December 4, 2014


"You might want to give the absolutes a rest (I can assure you based on every 4th trash day around here there are still people with SD televisions and we're in a middle-class neighborhood). The idea that 16:9 is some kind of Perfect Format for Art because an engineer thought it was a good idea and because HDTVs which happen to be in 16:9 look nicer than SDTVs which are typically 4:3 is silly. Again, this is like going to an art gallery and arguing exclusively about the frame choices."

I share your impatience with these absolutist/extreme preference for a wide format -- there are all sorts of subjects where a square-ish or even a vertically-biased format is the better choice. But you shouldn't go too far in that direction because there are very good reasons to prefer a horizontally-biased format for most motion pictures.

Basically, for motion pictures with subjects involving people interacting or landscapes, especially people interacting in landscapes, a horizontally-biased format is much better. People in a scene are almost never distributed around each other on a vertical basis, but rather horizontal, and people moving around are moving through a horizontal space, not vertical. And of course with landscapes, where most of what we're interested in is distributed horizontally (whereas most of the vertical field is sky or the ground directly below our feet), a horizontal-bias is best.

This is less true for still photography, of course. Portraits, especially those of individuals, favor a vertical format for obvious reasons. It's still often the case that a horizontal format works better for still photography because of landscapes and, again, how people in groups are inevitably distributed horizontally in a scene. But it's instructive to consider why it is that there's a stronger preference for a horizontal bias in moving pictures relative to still photography, and that's because we generally make movies of people, and people move and interact across horizontal spaces.

It's like talking about color versus black-and-white photography. Color is much closer to how we visually experience the world, and so all things being equal, it makes sense to prefer color. But even though that's true, and even though it's true that people interacting with each other favors a horizontal format, there are good reasons why an artist would choose black-and-white or a square or even a vertical format. Sometimes that can be because you want to emphasize some visual aspect that this other format does better -- black-and-white can give you really beautiful ranges of tone. And a square-ish format for motion pictures can create a stronger atmosphere of spatial constraint, which would be very appropriate for some subjects.

But, also, you might want to choose a different format because of the connotations associated with the typical usages of that format. There's no intrinsic reason why handheld cameras used by documentarians should be in a 4:3 format other than historical contingency, but given that this is the case then the use of that format has connotations of being documentarian. This was, in the end, a big part of why Simon said that they decided to keep this format -- it increases the sense of verisimilitude, of credibility. Like how photographers will use "shaky cam" for the exact same reasons. Or how people might choose to film in black-and-white to connote some aspects of the era of black-and-white movies. This strikes some people as being precious or disingenuous, which I think is a very thoughtless, uninformed reaction because the simple truth is that all art is like this -- there's inevitably in every kind of art a culturally-determined vocabulary and grammar, often a product of historical contingency, and choices about how an artist uses these seemingly arbitrary conventions are just as intrinsic to the artistic process and the resulting artwork as anything else. People like to rationalize every single possible choice as being inherently correct and natural -- like I'm arguing about horizontal formats for people moving through space -- but very often there's not really any other reasons for some conventions, or violating those conventions, than that they are conventions. But that's okay, that's an inevitable and -- more to the point -- an important and meaningful part of art.

So this discussion about the aesthetics of formats is really weird to me because it's not a choice between arguing for some rationalized absolutism or just a relativism that it's just preference. It's a combination of both. Some paintings really ought to be very large. Some paintings are large because they ought to be small and the contradiction is part of what the painting is doing. There's a number of inherent, naturalistic reasons to prefer a wide format for motion pictures -- but that doesn't apply to all subjects and, also, there's good artistic reasons to go against that sometimes.

Just like with the 180-degree rule. The whole subject of film grammar is really, really interesting because it seems pretty clear to me that it's all about this interplay between inherent naturalistic reasons involving how people see and process information and much more arbitrary and historically contingent convention. It's not one or the other, it's both. I think the 180-degree rule has a naturalistic basis. But that it's also become a convention means that it's part of the film grammar of how people have learned to interpret cinema.

Moving another step back, I think you can see this even more clearly with the vocabulary of comics. Some of the conventions used to express certain things are obviously based upon trying to translate how we see the world to comic panels. But so many other things are just plain cultural vocabulary, entirely learned and meaningless without that learning. Cinema is like this, it's a mixture of finding ways to replicate human visual experience of the dynamic world and symbolic convention that we know how to interpret because we learned to do so.

For all these reasons, I think people ought to be open to experiencing media in multiple formats because the availability of different formats allows the artist a greater range of possible expression.

"That part's not quite right, unless I'm misreading you."

No, you're right and I appreciate the correction and elaboration. I ended up writing in much more detail than I intended and got sloppy in doing so.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 11:21 AM on December 4, 2014 [4 favorites]


So 4:3 was first and foremost a financial, not artistic, choice.

There seem to be two different threads going on in here. From the link I posted above: "Simon decided they would stick with 4:3, which he thinks “feels more like real life and real television and not like a movie.”"


Yes, they stuck with 4:3 because they wanted to keep the budget modest. To quote Simon, which I think is at the heart of the discussion here:

The Wire was at its inception a bit of shoestring affair and expectations for the drama at HBO were certainly modest. Filming in letter-box was more expensive at the time, and we were told, despite Bob’s earnest appeals, that we should shoot the pilot and the ensuing season in 4:3.

At which point, Bob set about to work with 4:3 as the given. And while we were filming in 35mm and could have ostensibly “protected” ourselves by adopting wider shot composition in the event of some future change of heart by HBO, the problem with doing so is obvious: If you compose a shot for a wider 16:9 screen, then you are, by definition, failing to optimize the composition of the 4:3 image. Choose to serve one construct and at times you must impair the other.

Because we knew the show would be broadcast in 4:3, Bob chose to maximize the storytelling within that construct.

So the financial imperative made filming in 4:3 and SD the reason for it, and once that had been decided, the series was designed with 4:3 in mind.
posted by zardoz at 5:14 PM on December 4, 2014


Is the original 4:3 image in different places in the 16:9 version? If not, couldn't we just hang some curtains over our TV edges if we care, or some enterprising person could remask the HD version and upload that, right?

I agree that sound fairly nuts, but certainly watching those side-by-side videos, almost every single shot looks well-composed in the 4:3 version and ill-composed (ill-framed, with randomly-arranged stuff at the edges) in the 16:9 version. Hopefully I won't be OCD mentally remasking every shot when I rewatch it, the way watching 3D movies in 2D ruins them for me as I continually imagine what some ridiculously ill-composed shot in 2D was attempting to do in 3D.
posted by chortly at 6:42 PM on December 4, 2014 [1 favorite]


(Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates: "Honestly, I don't think anything can be well-composed in a 4:3 box, it's such an ugly ratio.

Yeah Citizen Kane was a piece of shit.
"

Technically, Citizen Kane wasn't 4:3. Almost no films have been, really, since the introduction of sound or thereabouts. Academy ratio, like Citizen Kane is, is 1.375:1, not 1.33:1. So yeah, still not 16:9 exactly, but at least a bit wider than 4:3.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 10:30 PM on December 4, 2014


"Watching 3D movies in 2D ruins them for me as I continually imagine what some ridiculously ill-composed shot in 2D was attempting to do in 3D."

I don't much like the experience of watching a movie in 3D*, so on the odd occasion when there's a 3D-made movie I want to see, I happily opt for the 2D version instead. What drives me nuts, though, is that there's always one or two entirely gratuitous shots included purely for the purposes of showing off the original 3D effects.

Even that Simpsons short with Maggie which they did a few years ago - and which I viewed in 2D, of course - had a shot of a butterfly fluttering in the extreme foreground which served no other purpose in the film whatsoever. Once you start noticing this stuff, it's hard to stop, and the end result is that the 3D technology ends up making even the movie's 2D version a less enjoyable experience.

* For a quick summary of everything that's wrong with 3D movies, see the Mark Kermode piece here.
posted by Paul Slade at 2:03 AM on December 5, 2014


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