Sunday, August 16, 2009

The New Format Wars

Over the past few years we, as consumers, have been victims of several "format wars." First there was the MP3 vs. AAC (or MP4) struggle. That one is still kind of going on on the fringes, kept alive by desperate luddites who refuse to buy iPods because they hate all Apple products for some nebulous reasons. Next there was the first big format war: Digital Rights Management (DRM) vs. no Digital Rights Management for online music stores. We finally won that one when Apple finally beat the record labels into submission, on our behalf, to do away with DRM on all the major online music retailers. Progress.

Just last year the big Hi Def format war between HD DVD vs. Blu-Ray was decided in favor of Blu-Ray. Sadly, this particular format war benefited the movie studios much more than it did the consumer. But we are getting home video with better pictures for all our spiffy new Hi Def televisions. That's something for us movie fans.

The other day I came across an op-ed by director Steven Soderberg (Sex, Lies, and Videotape, Solaris) talking about how TV movie channels like HBO are destroying the the Original Aspect Ratios (OAR) of films when they are broadcast. Mr. Soderberg writes:
Television operators, the people who buy and produce things for people to watch on TV, are taking the position that films photographed in the 2.40:1 ratio should be blown up or chopped up to fit a 16:9 (1.78:1) ratio. They are taking the position that the viewers of television do not like watching 2.40 films letterboxed to fit their 16:9 screens, and that a film insisting on this is worth significantly less—or even nothing—to them. They are taking the position that no one will dare challenge them and risk losing revenue. The logic used to make you, the filmmaker, conform to this belief makes a pretzel look like a ruler: you are told you shouldn’t care whether your 2.40 film is turned into a 1.78 film because there really isn’t that much of a difference, while in the same breath you are told viewers notice the difference enough to complain about it.
As a movie fan I do enjoy watching films at home in their OAR, and because I now have a widescreen, Hi Def television this experience is enhanced because I can get so much more detail in the picture on the widescreen than I ever could watching a letter boxed DVD on an old, square CRT television. It is true that a movie photographed in 2.40:1 OAR is still letter boxed on my widescreen TV, but the picture is how the director intended it to be viewed. The aspect ratio is just as much part of the creative, story telling decisions a director makes as what kind of costumes the characters in the films wear. It's an integral part of the story.

When channels like HBO take a film like one of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, which they did recently, and blow it up to fill the screen and a significant portion of the left and right wings of the film frame are cut off, then HBO is mucking about with the story the director wanted to tell. And we, as viewers, are missing parts of what the directory intended us to see.

There are people who disagree with me on this, and want the film to fill the screen of their widescreen TVs. Frankly these people simply don't know what they are talking about. But if that's what they want then they should be watching movies on HBO. I won't.

That's not to say that some movies can't be "enhanced for 16x9 screens" as many new DVDs are proclaiming. Take, for example, the recent re-packaging of some of Stanley Kubrick's films by the Warner Bros. studio. Specifically his film Full Metal Jacket. For years the only version of this film available on DVD was a horrible full-screen transfer. If you were to watch this version of the film on a Widescreen TV you would not get any black bars across the top and bottom of the screen but you would get small, vertical black bars on the left and right of the screen. It was a terrible viewing experience. Finally home theater fans have the film in the aspect ratio Stanley Kubrick intended, and because the OAR is very close to the aspect ratio of Hi Def TVs the movie fills the screen. It's a very pleasant viewing experience.

So in closing I don't really have a sharp point to impart, but I would like to say "Booooo" to HBO and other movie channels that destroy films by modifying them from the original aspect ratios, just to fill the screens of their viewers. As Mr. Soderberg says in his op-ed, I hope the rights owners of new films will stand tight on maintaining the aspect ratios rights for their films when it comes time to negotiate the TV rights and allow views to see the films as they were intended to be seen.

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