widescreen.org - The Letterbox and Widescreen Advocacy page Defending the visions and intentions of filmmakers

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We're Still Plebes

August 2008

I know that quite a bit of time has passed since my last article, but allow me to use this opportunity to push you towards my podcast. I’ve discovered that making a podcast can actually be a lot easier than writing a commentary, particularly now that I’m getting more comfortable with being behind a microphone. Regardless, the time has come to mention some things that are more closely related to the core function of widescreen.org.

I know that I’ve not updated the web site with any new information for a while, but I plan on changing that. The other day I realized that my widescreen examples are still comparing the original aspect ratios of widescreen movies against 4:3 TVs; however, 4:3 TVs are effectively gone.

In fact, I looked through the web site for Best Buy, an electronics and media chain here in the U.S. Of all of the TVs that had a 20-inch or smaller screen, only one of them had a 4:3 screen. I have always said that widescreen is going to be uncomfortable for many who try to watch on a screen that is less than 27-inches, so I looked at their larger screens. Out of more than 100 TVs with screens that are larger than 21-inches, I only found only one that had a 4:3 aspect ratio. Every other TV was 16:9.

4:3 comparisons on the web site are now outdated and it’s time to adjust for 16:9 TVs. I plan on getting more examples on the web site that compare against 16:9 TVs in the near future.

On a similar topic, there is a significant amount of people who still expect 16:9 TVs to eliminate the dreaded "black bars". I just received yet another e-mail a few days ago from someone who still doesn’t understand that there are many movies out there that are wider than 16:9. Sometimes my response is a rather snarky link to whichever page on my site answers their question, which the person would have read had he bothered to go through the site. Unfortunately, none of my examples specifically cover widescreen movies on 16:9 TVs. The only part of the site that shows a comparison on 16:9 TVs is my animation, which let’s face it not everyone has the attention span to watch all of the way through.

This desire to update the web site is also rather timely because I had the (mis)fortune of seeing The Return of the King on the high-definition version of U.S. cable channel TNT. Don’t get me wrong. The movie looked absolutely gorgeous in HD. Unfortunately, the arrogance of the American media outlets was again on full display because they showed the movie in 1.78:1 (the “full screen” version of 16:9) instead of its correct aspect ratio of 2.35:1. As a result, the movie lost 25.2% of its intended visuals.

(All three movies were filmed in Super35; however, The Return of the King was the only one of the three to be subjected to a true pan-and-scan process for the "full screen" version. The Fellowship of the Rings and The Two Towers were subjected to a pseudo-open matte, "full screen" version released, but they still contained a significant amount of lost visuals in the "full frame" version.)

Even with the HD quality of the movie, not being able to see the entire frame forced me to turn it off. Too many elements that I knew should have been there were missing. I would much rather see the movie from an upconverted DVD in its proper aspect ratio than see a high-definition, pan-and-scan version.

I understand that 16:9 is the new standard for TVs and that 16:9 TVs are no longer restricted to the home theatre enthusiast. This still does not excuse TNT from their decision to pander to the lowest common denominator by showing Return of the King in MAR.

That we in the U.S. are still so far behind the rest of the world is staggering. We are now more than 25 years into widescreen as an option for home viewing. Yet, even though the average TV is larger than ever and 16:9 is now the standard aspect ratio for all new televisions, the major U.S. networks still refuse to show movies that are wider than 16:9 in the correct aspect ratio. Meanwhile, the rest of the world, particularly Europe, is astonished when they hear this because their TV stations have been showing movies in widescreen for many years.

Whereas I will not go so far as to call this a “national embarrassment” (I think our current political climate more accurately deserves that title), I do find it insulting that TV stations still insist on treating the American public with such a plebian attitude.

Extreme Widescreen

Most of you are familiar with the 2.35:1 aspect ratio that has been a standard for decades; however, a few movies have been even wider than that. For example the correct aspect ratio for Ben Hur is 2.66:1 exactly twice the width of a 4:3 TV.

Those of us in the U.S. now have the opportunity to see a movie that is even wider than that!

Warner Brothers has remastered How the West Was Won back into its original 2.89:1 aspect ratio. (For comparison, a "full frame" version would lose 38.1% of the visual frame on a 16:9 TV and a whopping 54% on a 4:3 TV.) The movie, which runs more than 2.5 hours, was filmed in Cinerama. When shown theatrically, three projectors were run simultaneously onto three different screens to form the complete image. It took WB technicians more than six years to completely restore the movie.

Those of you who own Blu-ray players will be able to own this remastered version on 9 September. If you want a more complete experience and you live in the Los Angeles area, you’ll be able to see it in all of its widescreen glory at the Cinerama Dome on 7 September. West will be shown just like it originally was shown - on three screens with three projectors in true Cinerama format.

This is definitely going to be my first Blu-ray movie purchase now that I’ve gone purple, meaning that I now own both an HD-DVD player (Toshiba HD-A3) and a Blu-ray player (Playstation 3). I’d love to go to the Cinerama Dome to see the movie in its theatrical glory, but sadly I’m roughly 2,600 miles from LA. If any of you get a chance to see the LA showing, please send me an e-mail to let me know what you thought of it.

Until next time...