Why aspect ratios matter…

What is the difference between 16:9 and 4:3? Let Leonardo Da Vinci (and Jonathan Holmes) explain...

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The resizing of classic shows including The Simpsons and Buffy the Vampire Slayer to fit modern HD televisions has fans up in arms. They were originally designed to be broadcast on older, squarer sets, and devotees claim the remasters look terrible, miss the point and more or less insult the original creators.

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But what’s the problem? You own a widescreen television, and even your laptop screen is downright panoramic. Why should you have to suffer black bars at either side of the image? Well, we’ll show you.

Many guides to ‘aspect ratios’ use screencaps from films and TV shows, and expect you to immediately prefer the original. But if that were the case, people wouldn’t demand reformatted images in the first place. No, to really demonstrate the issue, let’s use two of the most recognisable images in history.

16:9 (widescreen)

4:3 (square screen)

For our Da Vinci test, the Last Supper is in widescreen, and the Mona Lisa is in the old style 4:3 format.

[Please note, I have recropped the paintings to fit the aspect ratios because I am a hypocrite.]


The Old Days: Pan and Scan

In the good old days, your television set and everything else in your life was square (or near enough). The news was square, soap operas were square and even movies shown on TV were square, despite originally being shown on a big, wide silver screen.

The issue was, how do you make a wide (16:9) image fit on a square (4:3) screen? One of the most common solutions was called ‘Pan and Scan’. Essentially you zoomed in on a small area of the picture, then moved around to reveal the rest of the scene like a nearsighted jigsaw enthusiast. Thus instead of seeing everything at once….

…you scuttled around like so.

Slow, isn’t it? Notice how long it takes Jesus to show up? And what is happening at the other end of the table? You don’t know. You can’t see. It was a pretty horrible system and was quickly abandoned with the advent of DVD and widescreens in the early 2000s. 

Except by George Lucas who, in what feels to me a fit of utter madness, insisted that the original unmodified versions of Star Wars (without the CGI effects he added later) could only be purchased in this terrible P&S format.

George Lucas is no longer in charge of Star Wars.


Square-go: the jump to widescreen

Now we have the opposite issue. Movies look great on our widescreens, as our living rooms are essentially mini movie theatres. But what about all of those brilliant old television shows designed for square televisions? 

One solution is to ignore the black bars at either side of the picture and simply watch The Simpsons et al in their original format. (Spoiler warning: this is the correct solution).

Another is to crop the image….

… making Mona looking like she’s starring in a Spaghetti Western. By zooming in, you lose a lot of the image. When it came to The Simpsons remastering for a new cable channel, this often removed the best gags.

Another possibility is stretching the image to fill up the extra space. This is a built-in feature of many televisions. It is not flattering to humans.

Go back to the source

But what if you don’t just recrop the finished episodes, but go back to the material? The recent upgrade of Buffy the Vampire Slayer used the original footage to reframe sequences. With no stretching, surely you’re seeing more than you did before? 

Sometimes, yes, that’s true. And that brings its own problems.Television is essentially an illusion, so when you accidentally reframe a shot to reveal, say, that cameraman on the left…

….it tends to ruin the magic. This Facebook group documents many of the flubs that crept into the remaster, from crewmembers hoving into view to vampires romping around in the daytime. Joss Whedon himself has come out against the change.

To stay with our Da Vinci example, instead of a nicely framed portrait, you get something like this:


The Future of Rectangles

It’s not all doom and gloom. An upcoming HD remaster of The Wire, while controversial, at least has creator David Simon onside. Sort of.

“I’m satisfied what [sic] while this new version of The Wire is not, in some specific ways, the film we first made, it has sufficient merit to exist as an alternate version,” he wrote on his blog. Hardly a ringing endorsement, but not sackcloth and ashes either.

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Yet, doesn’t this all seem like a lot of effort, simply to eliminate a couple of black bars at the side of your TV screen? Why not enjoy the shows as they were originally intended? After all, it’s hip to be square.