4:3 4Evah (t-shirts to follow)
Widescreen DVD version (2004) of the pilot episode of ER (1994)
Widescreen moving image processes are old but widescreen images on a television set are pretty new. I remember my first letterbox experience watching Woody Allen’s Manhattan on PBS in the early 90s. I didn’t know what the stripes were for but I could tell they must be important. Apparently the letterbox was already more common in Europe than North America, but I was not aware of the term before my adult years and my discovery of cinephilia. Friends and I would watch VHS dubs of letterboxed films off of laserdiscs. The very word, “letterbox,” sounded so distinguished and luxurious, the home video equivalent of “extra virgin” or “high thread count.” I remember moving my chair closer to the 13-inch television set I inherited from a cousin when I moved to Madison in 1997. It was on that diminutive set, with staticky sound that could only be too loud or too soft, that I watched dozens of classic films, many widescreen, so pleased to be seeing them in all their glory even as the images were tiny. Did I really see those films?
A consciousness of aspect ratios seems like a product of the DVD and HDTV age, but there must be something generational to it, as well. Anyone who was of cinema-going age in the 1950s would remember Cinerama, CinemaScope, VistaVision, Todd-AO, etc. They would remember movie screens going wide. But Gen X’ers like me have no memory of movie screens ever changing shape. The movie theaters of my youth were a mix of picture palaces converted to duplexes and triplexes (often the balcony and orchestra were made into separate auditoriums, with a steep slope upstairs and a flatter grade downstairs) and shopping mall shoeboxes like Cineplex’s original multiplex at the Eaton Centre in Toronto. The old theaters had bigger screens and more comfortable seats. I was aware of IMAX and 70mm but these to me were merely bigger and better, not wider. I don’t think I was conscious of a difference in shape between movie and television images before my introduction to cinephile culture. I certainly was not aware that movies “formatted to fit your screen” had been cropped and radically reshaped, sometimes losing half the frame in the process. I was not aware that full-frame videos sometimes introduced edits or camera movements that weren’t in the theatrical version (“pan-and-scan”).
The millennials now coming of age cannot be as innocent as I was. Since 1997, DVD technology has been educating the public that there are versions of movies, wide and full. HDTVs distinguish themselves from their predecessors by being differently shaped, and everyone can see that—it’s more obvious even than the improvement in picture quality. Around 1999-2000, television programs started to letterbox their broadcasts even to 4:3 sets, and by this time many MTV videos and commercials had adopted a letterbox image, usually trying to look “cinematic.” ER was NBC’s first show to go widescreen in November, 2000, and many network shows soon followed. At this point, the general public was newly aware that not all moving images are the same shape. Everyone who cares as much about movies and TV as I do (and you too, I’m sure) had the experience around this time of trying to explain the black bands to a skeptical civilian. It might look to you like less, but actually it’s more! (As always, The Onion nailed it with its story, “Non-Widescreen Version of DVD Received as Hanukkah Gift.”)
Movies since the late 50s are generally shot in a wider aspect ratio than 4:3. Filmmakers have lots of reasons why they prefer widescreen ratios but distinguishing films from TV is a big one. Perhaps some even want to make films that will play badly on a small screen. Films shot in very wide ratios like 2.35:1 are mutilated when cropped down to 4:3. Films shot in today’s most common ratio for Hollywood movies, 1.85:1, sometimes also look terrible in 4:3, but not always. There are several reasons why a film exhibited at 1.85:1 might look fine in a fullscreen version. The filmmakers might be shooting in Super 35mm with two overlapping frames in mind, one wide for the theater, and the other more squarish for the small screen. The movie version is missing some of the top and bottom of the frame, and the video version is missing some of the sides. You probably aren’t missing anything crucial to understanding the story or appreciating the visuals watching the fullscreen version of a movie shot this way (e.g., Titanic).
(NTSC was established at a 4:3 aspect ratio in 1941 because that matched the standard cinematic frame of the time, which had been established a decade earlier as the "Academy ratio" of 1.37:1. The move to 16:9 TV may be seen as a more belated effort to keep television matching the movies' shape, especially important when the TV set is the most common way movies are seen. For more see Schubin in the references below.)
Cinephiles, technophiles and, more generally, snobs like to say that they prefer the version that best reproduces the artist’s intentions. This is the most commonly heard defense for preferring widescreen video. It sounds nice, but there are problems. Enough to make a list.
1. The artist’s intentions might not include watching a movie on a TV at all.
2. The artist’s intentions often cannot be known, and even if they tell you their intentions they might be wrong.
3. The artist is actually many people, not one. In a collaborative medium, different artists often have their own intentions. Whose do you follow? (The studio releasing a video is the “author” for legal purposes, and it is often the studio’s intentions for videos to fill the 4:3 screen.)
4. The artist’s intentions at the time of production might be different from those of the time of a video release.
5. The artist may have multiple intentions, and these might run up against one another. For instance, let’s say filmmakers intend for small details in the frame to be visible. Let’s say they also intend for the whole 1.85:1 frame to be preserved. When I watch their movie letterboxed on a 4:3 television, some of the details they intended me to see are not visible because the image is quite small. When I watch the same movie in a fullscreen version and the image is bigger, the details become noticeable and I recognize what I had missed, but now I can’t see the sides of the frame and the compositions seem weaker. Neither option follows all of the artists’ intentions; each one is the result of a tradeoff. Those who favor widescreen in every instance should keep this in mind.
Cinematographers often say that you cannot frame effectively for more than one ratio, but they typically “shoot-and-protect” for 4:3 because they know that many viewers will see a 4:3 crop. This means that the sides of the frame, which are visible only in the theater and in a letterbox video, are treated as less significant than the center. Filmmakers call the areas that won’t show up on a 4:3 TV screen “fluff.” Even if they intend for the widescreen version to be the better option, it would be wrong to say they don’t intend for their work to be seen in 4:3.
Since the mid-1990s, some television programs, like many movies, have been shooting for multiple aspect ratios. This began in anticipation of HDTV sets with their 16:9 (1.78:1) frames. Television producers knew that their shows would be seen in syndication or on video in the future, and that the televisions of the future would be widescreen. (16:9 was established as the aspect ratio for HDTV in 1983, though filmmakers would have preferred if a wider standard had been adopted.) The X-Files was among the early examples of a show to frame in widescreen in anticipation of the future. By 2000, when ER began to letterbox its images for the 4:3 broadcast, DVDs had introduced viewers to the variability of aspect ratios and the “cinematic” connotations of this look were well established in the general public. Within a couple of years, television programs were letterboxing all over the schedule, on major networks and boutique cable outlets and netlets like the WB. Critics often greeted the widescreen ratio as an obvious improvement on the boxy traditional television frame. Tom Shales, for instance, wrote that widescreen more accurately reproduces natural human vision. Networks were apparently wary of taking this step, worrying about alienating the average viewer and anyone with a small set. So the shows that got letterboxed were much more likely to be upscale, quality shows like The Sopranos and ER. John Wells, ER's showrunner, explained the move to letterboxing as a strategy for distinguishing his show as a "classy project."
When TV on DVD became such a huge phenomenon, episodes of programs that had originally aired fullscreen became available in a different format. For instance, the first season of ER is on DVD only in 16:9 widescreen although it was not seen that way originally. Perhaps the creators of ER always hoped to be able to show the widescreen version but I doubt it. This is speculation (I haven't found a description of the gauge and framing of ER in its early years yet), but I’m educated-guessing the way ER was shot was on Super 35mm film (a standard gauge in TV production in the 90s) framing principally for 4:3 and protecting for 16:9. The “common top” aperture below means that both the 4:3 and 16:9 framing have the same frame top, but that the (green) 4:3 frame is slightly longer vertically and the (red) 16:9 frame includes the fluff on the sides.
The shots below from the pilot episode seem to have extraneous lateral space, and at the same time, the bottom often seems unfortunately truncated. In medium shots, often a pair of hands is near the bottom frame line. If I'm correct about the way ER was shot in the beginning, more of these hands would have been onscreen in the original broadcast. Regardless, on the 16:9 DVD image, they're not well framed. In all three of the scenes here, a doctor-patient encounter is unfolding in which the doctor's hands are working, caring for or comforting. The hands are important to the way the scene's story is being told. In the middle scene with Dr. Lewis (Sherry Stringfield), she has just told the patient that he has cancer and will probably not survive. Composed for 4:3, the figures would fill the frame more and there would be more balance between two areas of interest--their eyes and hands. We might focus more of our attention on the framing of the patient against the hot light illuminating the X-ray of his diseased lung. So why was this show released on DVD in a widescreen version? Maybe the artists intended it that way.
I imagine these shots the way they were seen originally looking something like this:
I imagine that the red-tinted portion was on my 4:3 screen in 1994, including that thin strip on the bottom that I imagine has been lost in the new transfer. The non-red areas on the sides were certainly not seen originally. If I had access to the original broadcast image, of course, I would do a comparison but I'm not even sure that the fullscreen image is the one being seen in repeats, and I don't know when to expect this episode to air again. (As far as I can tell, only TNT has repeats in my area, and right now they're on 2005 episodes. If I'm wrong, then the bottom frame line wasn't cropped from the original transfer, and the difference is just that the sides have been added.) The easy availability of the DVD version and the difficulty of accessing the 1994 broadcast version mean that the 16:9 image will endure as the one most people see for as long as DVD and 16:9 are standard formats. It will be the way the show is most available to scholars and fans alike. Yet my desire to recapture lost time (among other things) tells me that this new version is not improved.
As a case for comparison, consider another quality drama trying to look cinematic, but one which began after the 16:9 frame had emerged as a consumer option and aesthetic standard. Lost debuted in 2004, the same year as the ER season one DVD was released. It is shot on 3-perf Super 35mm film, which is standard Super 35 film but with a frame three instead of four perforations high. This is a format ideal for shooting film to be seen on HDTV because its aspect ratio is precisely 16:9. (Super 35mm exposes a wider frame than regular 35 because it doesn't save space for an optical soundtrack. Since TV has no need of this, Super 35 is a standard format for TV shot on film.) The widescreen image suffers no vertical cropping when converting 3-perf from film to widescreen video. But in airing the show on its standard def broadcast, ABC prefers full frame, which means we lose the portion of the image on the sides if we don't have HDTV. In considering these frames from the first episode of Lost, it's obvious that the production was very careful to keep significant information in the 4:3 frame. It's hard to say which is the primary aspect ratio and which they're "protecting" for. The characters who are the subjects of a shot are never framed against the edges. Everything you need to see is in the safe zone. Which aspect ratio you prefer might be dictated by the shape of your television. It's hard to say what the 16:9 adds aside from that cinematic feeling and the satisfaction that every pixel in your expensive new set is being put to work. I suppose seeing more of the space of a scene adds something, but more isn't necessarily more.
There are no inherently good or bad aspect ratios. Beautiful and horrid pictures can be composed in any shape. But the shifts in conventions of picture shape over time are fascinating evidence of the way social, aesthetic, and technological developments intersect and influence each other. New media technologies make different ratios into viable options for producers, but these technologies are products of social and aesthetic forces and in turn influence the culture of image-making and reception. ER won praise in the 90s for being unconventional, for being more cinematic than the typical TV show. Its steadicam shooting by Thomas Del Ruth certainly influenced many movies and TV shows. It did this working in the 4:3 shape. Retransferring it at 16:9 is supposed to add aesthetic value, but this only works if you buy into the aesthetic and technological superiority of one ratio over another, willy-nilly. The choice to release the video in this format may have as much to do with a sense of audience demand for images to fill their new 16:9 TVs--16:9 to better reproduce a cinematic frame--as with an aesthetic consideration about the value of one framing or another absent external constraints. It may be the product of a preference for one shape over another for reasons that probably have less to do with the possibilities of expressivity in widescreen than with the prestige and legitimacy that have been attached to cinema ever since television replaced it as the dominant mass medium.
References (that aren't links):
John Belton, Widescreen Cinema (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1992).
John Calhoun, "Treachery in the Tropics," American Cinematographer (February 2005), 44-48. (re Lost)
Chris Probst, "Darkness Descends on The X-Files," American Cinematographer (June 1995), 28-32.
Mark Schubin, "Searching for the Perfect Aspect Ratio," SMPTE Journal (August 1996), 460-478.
Tom Shales, "Vital Signs: 'ER' Still Full of Life" Washington Post (16 November 2000).