HBO Remastering 'The Wire' in HD: When Aspect Ratios Attack
As the saying more or less goes, it's not fun trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.
The same goes for changing aspect ratios in motion picture media, even though you're really only moving from one rectangle to another. Cinema has seen a wide variety of aspect ratios throughout its history; sometimes dictated by a range of film processes and formats, sometimes not. Put TV into the picture, so to speak, and things can get even more complicated.
Recently FXX was criticized for cutting off-key pieces of visual information in its Simpsons marathon, cropping in to the original 4:3 frame to fill a 16:9 broadcast. Now, there is talk of HBO potentially doing something similar for an HD remastering of renowned cop drama The Wire — which was itself shot in 4:3 on 35mm film. As with any aspect ratio conversion, the question is: will it get the crop, or will it get 'boxed' in?
As in the controversial Simpsons story, it's pretty likely The Wire will get the crop. To some, this is a disappointment that partially overshadows what would otherwise be joyous news — the long-overdue presentation of an important series in high-definition. Here's a teaser-promo via HBOWatch:
The crop is basically equivalent to those good ole full screen DVD releases. If the movie was originally shot 'widescreen,' its original frame would necessarily lose horizontal visual area when placed into the 4:3 aspect ratio native to standard definition television screens. In other words, you had to cut off the sides of a 1.85 or 2.35 film to fit into 4:3 without any black bars.
The letterbox, on the other hand, maintains the original aspect ratio of the film. Placing a widescreen image into a taller frame results in unoccupied space within the new viewing format — it has been "letterboxed," meaning there are black bars at the top and bottom of the display. Many of us became used to selecting only the letterboxed DVD release of a given film, because, well, we wanted to see the whole movie without any of it cut off spatially, damnit, blacks bars or not.
But... we're not talking about movies, we're talking about television. And there's just a lot less flexibility in the variety of acceptable aspect ratios in TV than in cinema.
In the case of The Wire, as with The Simpsons, remastering to HD poses a problem opposite from that of movies going to home video. These shows were originally shot, framed, designed, and otherwise made for a taller 4:3 frame. So fitting all of that frame into the wider 16:9 aspect ratio native to today's HDTVs would produce black bars on the left and right sides of the frame, instead of the top and bottom. This is known as pillarboxing, and we are arguably less comfortable watching things in this way as compared to letterboxing. DVDs rarely if ever helped condition us into that particular viewing expectation.
Pillarboxing would be a bold, and honestly pretty unlikely solution (even though it would preserve the whole frame). This brings us back to the crop — which is apparently what HBO has decided to do, according to a Kottke reader:
My friend who works at HBO says they are chopping the top and bottom off the 4 x 3 frame for the early seasons to "fit" 16 x 9. We saw this with FX's Simpsons Marathon and I really wish companies would stop doing this. It wasn't cool to chop the sides off Lawrence of Arabia and it is likewise not cool to chop the head and neck off of Stringer Bell.
Cropping is a compromise that will remove some portions of The Wire's visual content, no two ways about it. Whether it will in fact 'ruin' the show is another matter entirely. It depends a lot on how HBO goes about the process. If the network simply 'center crops' indiscriminately, you may end up with some awkward compositions, and potentially miss key things going on in the frame (or out of frame, at that point). This is apparently the way FXX went about it with The Simpsons.
However, if HBO takes the time to reposition the cropped image from the original full 4:3 frame to optimize its composition for 16:9, things may turn out acceptable to say the least.
It's currently unclear if HBO is taking the time to rescan the original film, although this would be the ideal way of deriving full-HD resolution for the remastered show. The alternative is *gulp* upscaling from SD. A show like The Wire deserves better than that, and it's unlikely that fact is lost on HBO. As such going back to the source seems the likelier method. And after going through that much trouble, it logically follows that HBO would perfect the new presentation by reframing for 16:9. We don't know for sure, but I for one am hopeful that HBO is going this way with it.
One thing we can be sure of, beyond the shadow of a doubt, is that it won't be as horrifically bad as this:
For those interested in more on the topic, Kottke also pointed to a great writeup on shooting The Wire. In the post, among many other things, DP Dave Insley talks about how the 4:3 aspect ratio was integral to the show's look and feel. Whether it still is has yet to be seen.