September 3, 2014

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.

'The Wire' pillarboxed. HBO
The Wire pillarboxed. HBO

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.

'The Wire' center cropped. HBO
The Wire center cropped. HBO

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.

'The Wire' cropped & reframed for 16:9. HBO
The Wire cropped & reframed for 16:9. HBO

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:

Aspect ratios from hell. Courtesy CMT and NFS's Joe Marine
Gazing into the layers of Hell, from innermost outward: 2.35 letterboxed within 16:9 letterboxed within 4:3 pillarboxed within 16:9. Courtesy Joe Marine's nightmares & CMT

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.

Your Comment

35 Comments

I imagine the Wire was shot film and as has been the norm, it's probably scanned at 4K and then 2K/HD versions are being mastered from that 4K source. If they shot 4:3 using the whole film frame and not 3 perf or 2 perf, then HBO cropping 16:9 would be similar to how any spherical film motion picture is cropped but with film it's generally cropped 2.39. HBO has a history of being rigid with aspects ratios and they most always conform to the standard, in this case 16:9.

September 3, 2014 at 2:38AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Nick G

Yes the 35 film is cropped to 16:9 or 2.35:1/2.39:1 later but if the director and DOP framed for 4:3 (as is the case here) it should be presented in 4:3.

September 3, 2014 at 5:19AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Stephen Rangott

I agree. I'll stick with the 4:3 version

September 3, 2014 at 7:32AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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The Wire : Top 3 of the best TV shows ever!

September 3, 2014 at 5:14PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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cJay

Favorite series ever, love the 4:3 format too.

September 4, 2014 at 6:05AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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hansd

It was scanned 2K, 4K would be over kill for a show that is not an effects driven show. There would be no difference to the viewer between a 2K vs. 4K scan. There is no up converting the SD version. Every single shot was painstakinly compared to the SD to find the best compromise to be as faithful the SD framing. There was NO one size fits all when it came to the framing. The framing was not the only thing that was considered, the colour correction was also faithful to the original look of the show.

September 5, 2014 at 8:25PM

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bobbie
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September 3, 2014 at 2:51AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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paul

Wouldn't this be a bit like Seinfeld when that was remastered? I remember they shot in 35mm frame but they didn't use the whole frame when they went 35mm to 4:3, so this mean there was some cropping, but they had some extra width to play with from the original negatives.

September 3, 2014 at 2:57AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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James D

I remember watching FRIENDS pilot episode in HD, and what they did was to leave the original aspect ratio (looks like they chopped the right and left part of the frame to fit the 4:3 in the 90s).
But they didn't seem to notice there were big continuity fails that were not visible before! Like Joey reacting to Monica's phrase but we see Phoebe siting next to him instead!
So funny to realize how they used the cropped 4:3 to fix continuity and now the trick is visible!

September 3, 2014 at 2:58AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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When the DVD's first came out, I watched the whole thing in 4:3 and then cropped to 16:9 on a CRT TV.

It looks fine - if it's done properly there'll be no need to worry.

A reasonable example here: http://youtu.be/1FWvpvGqwBM

September 3, 2014 at 3:11AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Al

The Wire was originally shot in 16:9, which was cropped for 4:3 broadcast.

So I expect this new HD version to NOT be a cropped version, but rather the original 16:9 aspect it was shot in.

http://library.creativecow.net/articles/griffin_nick/hbo_the_wire.php

September 3, 2014 at 5:56AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Guy McLoughlin

Shot 4-perf 35mm 4:3 until late in the life of the show, though they do mention that tried to frame for 16:9 early on:

The Wire is shot entirely with Panavision cameras. David Insley let us know that, "These later episodes of the show are shot Super 35, 3-perf, and that saves a lot of money because that means we're shooting about three quarters of the film we used to. But we're only using the 4 x 3 part, so we're losing the edges of the 16x 9, but it's less than we were using when it was 4-perf, so (the image is) somewhere between a Super 16 image and a standard 35 (mm) image."

"4x3 feels more like real life and real television and not like a movie."
And perhaps the final contrast to the rest of high-end episodic television, The Wire for each of its five seasons has been produced in good old fashioned 4 x 3 standard definition. DP Dave Insley recalled, "The reason the show has stayed 4x3 is because David Simon thinks that 4x3 feels more like real life and real television and not like a movie. The show's never been HD, even 4x3 HD and that (SD) is how it is on the DVDs. There is no 16x9 version anywhere." As a viewer with an HD set I will point out that like much of SD television that makes its way to HD channels, it appears that HBO utilizes state-of-the-art line doubling technology. It may still be standard definition, but line doubled it looks considerably better on a high definition set than it would on a standard definition set.

Insley explained, "When the show started 2001 / 2002 they framed it for 16 x 9 as a way of future-proofing. Then a couple of seasons ago, right before Season 4 began shooting, there was a big discussion about it and after much discussion -- David, Nina, Joe Chappelle, the Producers, the DPs -- and we discussed what should be the style of the show. David made the decision that we would stay with 4x3. The DPs pretty much defined the look to be what it is now. And it's been consistent for the past two seasons."

September 3, 2014 at 6:09AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Joe Marine
Camera Department

“When the show started 2001 / 2002 they framed it for 16 x 9 as a way of future-proofing."

So every episode was framed for 16:9, despite some seasons being shot with a 4:3 film format. So the earlier episodes would have to be cropped from the 4:3 format, while the later episodes were shot on the 16:9 Super 35 format and would have to be uncropped ( from their 4:3 crop of the 16:9 frame ).

September 3, 2014 at 9:16AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Guy McLoughlin

but why are they butchering the film? This "remaster" is a sure way to not have the fans buy the bluray disks

cowboy bebop is getting a BluRay release this month here in Europe, its a full 1080p remaster, yet they kept the 4:3 aspect ratio of the original release.

September 3, 2014 at 7:34AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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palu

Whoa, crazy, I just finished the series finale last night after off and on binging for weeks... (didn't see it first time around)

Interesting watching the progression... as opposed to other greatly written shows like Breaking Bad, in The Wire the characters don't really change. It's like they are set on a journey by circumstance, and it's about how it will play out and what moves theyll make rather than any sort of inner character change. Strange to think how that could lead to some really great writing..

September 3, 2014 at 7:47AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Good observation. Also notice how the show shows you how someone became Omar or Bubbles or McNulty. The show is more an exploration of institutions and institutional failure.

I will say

September 3, 2014 at 12:14PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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They cite Greek tragedies as an inspiration, so it makes sense.

September 3, 2014 at 3:47PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Colin

I'm not sure exactly how HBO plans to roll out this remaster of The Wire, but I wanted to chime in with my recent experiences watching the show on Amazon Prime.

First, full disclosure: I've never seen The Wire. Shocking, I know. I've never had HBO. Everyone tells me not only to watch The Wire, but they are jealous of me because when I do eventually watch The Wire, I'll get to experience it for the first time -- an experience they apparently wish they could have again with virgin eyes.

Way back this spring, I watched the pilot on Amazon Prime and cursed at my TV when I had to force the TV to stop stretching the 4:3 aspect ratio and pillarbox it so I could watch the pilot properly.

Life happened and I didn't get around to continuing season 1 of The Wire until a few weeks ago on Amazon Prime. To my surprise and delight, I discovered that Amazon Prime now had The Wire, Season 1 in 16:9 and, to my eyes, in HD. This did not look like a cropped version of the original 4:3 or an uprezzed version, but rather a version created from the original film elements. It was very clean and framed naturally in 16:9.

I watched episodes 2-6 of Season 1 in 16:9 on Amazon Prime and then half of episode 7 on my iPad, which I had to pause midway through. The next day, when I pulled up episode 7, still in freezeframe in 16:9 on my iPad, Amazon rebuffered and suddenly reverted the episode to 4:3 SD. Looks like Amazon got its hands on the remastered episodes a little early and somebody flipped the switch on Prime before HBO even had a chance to air the remastered episodes.

Here's what I can say based on my own viewing experience of what Amazon Prime had for a glorious 2 weeks: The Wire in 16:9 HD looked great. It didn't look uprezzed. It didn't look like a horrible crop job. The 16:9 framing didn't look weird even though the show was shot to be shown in 4:3. It looked good. It looked the way you wanted the frame to look. That said, I only watched the first half of Season 1, not the later seasons when David Simon was adamant about keeping the 4:3 aspect ratio according to articles I have read.

BTW, I'm not the only one who caught the 16:9 episodes on Amazon Prime: http://www.tivocommunity.com/tivo-vb/showthread.php?t=520019

I realize there are many doubters out there, and that's fine. I'm just telling you what I saw with my own eyes. For those of you who are fans of The Wire, I hope you get to see the remastered episodes presented the way I saw them. I think you will be pleased.

September 3, 2014 at 8:01AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Christopher Boone
Writer
Writer/Director

Dude. Keep watching. So good.

September 3, 2014 at 10:30AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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I saw the 16:9 episodes of season 2 as well!! They didn't seem to be HD when I viewed it though, and so I'm sure this new remaster will look even better

September 3, 2014 at 11:52PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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criles

They should just stretch it. I don't know what you guys are talking about...

September 3, 2014 at 8:43AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Will

HBO has done so much to bring world-class filmmakers to television and ultimately the web. In the process, they have told stories that could never have been told in the cinema. A lot of this comes down to their reputation for respecting the creative integrity of their artists. Here's hoping they uphold that reputation.

September 3, 2014 at 9:17AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Well I could be wrong, but I doubt that this remastering is taking place without the consent of the original creators and producers.

For my mind, it makes sense to remaster it at HD - after all, the rationale for cropping it at 4:3 and mastering in SD, was that it made it feel more TV-like, more doco-like. That may have been true ten years ago, but it doesn't hold true anymore. On my 50" plasma, watching The Wire feels more like watching Youtube or a crappy Vine - it doesn't feel like TV as we now know it.

And at the end of the day, I don't think that resolution or aspect ratio will make that much of a difference to the creative flow of the show - I'm sure the brilliant writing, acting and directing will stay as amazing as they ever were.

September 3, 2014 at 10:58PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Stephen

This is in some ways, a lesson in future proofing your work. Lots of great content shot today, will have to be upscaled in the future to fit devices and televisions. Those who have higher than hd resolutions as master will shrug their shoulders and put out content that won't make the kids, who by then will see hd as old school the way we see 4:3 low rez content, skip out on watching.

September 3, 2014 at 9:36AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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t.cal

That's right. So, for all folks screaming that 4K isn't here yet and won't be until 2020, this is another warning shot. Do the best the current tech allows you because you can be darn sure that the future tech is going to be tons and tons better.
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Of course, if you go back to the 1960's, there was a fairly slow and inconsistent movement from black&white to color. Producers realized sometime in the 1980's that it was very hard to syndicate the B&W shows, even those as popular as "Leave it to Beaver" or the "Beverly Hillbillies". People wanted their entertainment in the same quality they watched any new material.

September 3, 2014 at 12:05PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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DLD

That's interesting. I was born in the mid-eighties and I never really had a problem with B&W television.

I will, however, state my preference for a 16:9 or wider aspect ratio under most circumstances.

I think the problem with the Simpsons example is that I already KNOW that there's more to the scene that's missing. I go into the experience knowing full well that there's missing visual information and that fact drives me CRAZY. And I also feel as if the entire series should be remastered with an additional .45 (or whatever) added to the aspect ratio either manually or (undoubtedly preferably for FOX) with computer animation. Most of the time it would take little effort, although, for a few scenes, it would undoubtedly pose huge problems. For the Simpsons, I don't think it would matter, though-- the show is so huge that they'd make their money back. The fact that the show is animated means that they can actually ADD visual info to shots rather than take it away in order to achieve that 16:9 ratio.

With a live-action show like The Wire, though, that isn't possible or realistic. I'm definitely heartened that the early seasons of the show were definitely shot with 16:9 in mind for posterity. I'm very disheartened that the show's producers were well-aware that the show should be future-proofed then decided against it later in the show's life and began to ignore 16:9 entirely. Still, the fact that earlier episodes had that 16:9 composition mean that the cropping will only be half as bad and maybe even worth it.

I wonder if modern television series take this into account and optimize for 16:9 but future-proof for 21:9 given the recent proliferation of 21:9 4K TVs on the market?

That would be a very wise move... although my personal preference is for 16:9-- there's no denying that 21:9 is the best aspect ratio for watching film. Not because film is BETTER in 21:9, per se (although I think good arguments can be made on both sides) but because so many awesome films were originally shot in 21:9.

January 1, 2015 at 5:16AM

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Sorry, but this article is really badly researched.
HBO are remastering The Wire, rescanning for a full HD release, not using the SD version as the source.
And the DP for the show has already said it was shot protected for widscreen.
A little research would be nice instead of pure assumption and conjecture.

September 3, 2014 at 10:46AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Mark

Spare a thought for Babylon 5. All the live action was shot on 35mm film in 16:9 aspect ratio, but they made a decision that "computing power" would be cheaper in the future so all effects work and final rendering was at 4:3 NTSC. When the petition launched for widescreen releases of the DVD, you can guess what happened can't you ? Un-remastered film sequences at 16:9 edited with 4:3 video sequences, zoomed in to 16:9 for every single effects shot. Dreadful, and certainly no blu-ray on the cards since every single effect would have to be redone from scratch. Then again, maybe no one cares about the show anymore. Oh well.

September 3, 2014 at 11:44AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Saied

I still watch StarTrek TNG with Pillarboxing. Love it man. All about the story.

September 3, 2014 at 12:03PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Kent

I just watched the entire series from beginning to end over the past two months. I did not watch the show when it originally aired and I was consistently impressed by the beautifully framed 4:3 shots. I found it interesting to learn that the producers and DPs of the series thought ahead and planned for it to look good in 16:9 as well. That said - I really appreciated watching this series in the 4:3 format. Also - I can't remember any other series with as many well used dolly-zooms.

September 3, 2014 at 9:54PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Myke

People aren't used to pillar boxing? Do people not watch classic movies? Or classic TV?

Doctor Who? Star Trek? Citizen Cane? The Wizard of Oz? Gone With the Wind? Metropolis?

Pillarboxing is just an everyday thing for me. And, at least here in Australia, it's actually more common that letterboxing on TV broadcasts.

September 3, 2014 at 10:48PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Tim Green

You do realize that some of the "classic movies" (as u put it) were shot cinemaScope. There are audio recordings from great directors and dp's of the "classic movies" (as u put it) era that shows that some of them were not fans of the 4:3 scale that was common at that time. Everyone doesn't share your aesthetic, sir Einstein!

September 3, 2014 at 11:09PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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t.cal

Wow...did you not notice that Tim Green didn't mention a single cinemascope movie in the 6 movies/shows he mentioned?

I think he's talking about viewing content in the format that it was originally intended. Pillarboxing/letterboxing is the only way to maintain the correct dimensions of films/shows that aren't at a 1:1 ratio of your television. "Einstein"? Come on. Tim Green is making a point completely lost on you.

September 17, 2014 at 8:54PM

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Daniel Mimura
DP, cam op, steadicam op
2275

When I wrote this, I had no idea.

http://stumaschwitz.com/blog/wire

September 4, 2014 at 12:51AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Stu

That's pretty funny. HBO is one of the worst offenders though, they crop 2.39 movies to 16:9, for absolutely no reason.

September 4, 2014 at 1:22AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Joe Marine
Camera Department

hehe, nice!

September 4, 2014 at 3:09AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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