Friday, July 24, 2020

The impossible widescreen

Even though streaming services still sometimes struggle with the concept, it's so much easier to see films as they're meant to be seen - in the proper ratio and everything, with televisions specifically designed for the widescreen experience. But it doesn't feel that long ago that the only way you could watch movies was in dreaded pan and scan, with the composition shot to hell and key information sliced off the sides.

Up until the late nineties, it was ridiculously hard to find widescreen on video, it was all formatted for square TVs, which could seriously mess up the film experience.  But you could never convince people that the black bands weren't stopping them from seeing everything, when the exact opposite was true. When film studios were asked why everything had to be in a square format, they consistently put up this argument, deciding to eviscerate their strongest movies instead of fighting that ignorance.

So I coveted and snapped up every widescreen movie that ever showed up, every copy of the Wild Bunch or Unforgiven or Speed that would show up at the local chain bookstore was gratefully received. The only copy of True Romance that I could get in widescreen came with Cantonese subtitles, but that was worth it for the right ratio.

Sometimes it would be an absolute revelation, finding out how much pan and scanning cut out. When I finally saw Die Hard, I also finally saw how much danger Al was in when he first enters the Nakatomi Plaza, with the wider ratio revealing that one of the best henchmen in cinema is waiting right around the corner, gun ready to fire.

In all changed when DVDs came along, and TVs got a lot bigger, and you could see the whole thing at a decent size, in crisp quality, and most releases came out looking at the universe intended.

That's carried over to streaming services, for the most part. The ratio problem is still not sorted, even now, and there still issues with aspect ratios that can drive people crazy, and watching something as simple as the Simpsons as its meant to be seen turned out to be hard.

But even most TV shows are given that cinematic ratio now, and the idea that those dreaded black bars aren't cutting things off is largely overcome. It just shouldn't have been this bloody hard to see these things the way they were made to be seen.

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