Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Adventures in bad directing

Staying on yesterday’s topic of directing…

For years movie directors had to deal with their films being converted from intended widescreen dimensions to the standard 4:3 ratio of conventional television sets. A method called “Pan and Scan” is used to make the adjustment, cropping sometimes up to 45% of the original picture. You could see why directors might not take too kindly to this. There’s also “Tilt and Scan” and “Reverse Pan and Scan” (but I think that one is actually a sexual position).

Movies used to have similar aspect ratios to television until the ‘50s when Cinemascope, Vista Vision, Jumbo Whizbang, and other big screen formats were introduced. So those old classics like CASABLANCA and ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN transfer to the small screen and the now-outdated VHS formats rather faithfully. But epics like LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, when adjusted for TV became LAWRENCE OF THE BORDER OF ARABIA.

Thus the letterbox format to preserve a big screen’s original composition. The trouble there was that on a standard TV you were wasting part of the screen and large-screen scenes were intact but shrunk.  Epic battle scenes became the blue ants vs. the red ants. 

Now that High-Definition TV is pretty much standard with it’s 16:9 aspect ratio movies are once again seen as they were intended. That’s fine for David Lean if he weren't dead. But a few years ago it was problematic for us TV directors.

There was that long transition period where we had both HD television and the old standard. Not every show was even offered in HD. In fact, most weren’t. If a sporting event was in HD that was a big deal. I’m sure a lot of local newscasters dreaded the flip to HD because it brought out every wrinkle. HD probably shortened the career of many news anchors by five years.

Back in the ‘90s I was directing a lot of multi-camera shows. They were done on 35 mm and adhered to the standard 4:3 ratio. I would have four monitors (one for each camera) and would use those to compose my shots. In the early ‘00s shows began converting to HD. The four monitors were upgraded as well. They were now in the HD 16:9 ratio with an outline of the 4:3 ratio inside the screen. I had this on a number of shows including BECKER.

I was asked to frame my shots to accommodate both standard and HD formats. The trouble is many times if you framed right for one the other was weird. A shot would look good on HD but the bottom of someone’s head was cut off in standard. So you’d widen the shot to include the person’s head on the standard screen but on HD the shot was now so wide you could see a boom shadow in the top of the screen. Or worse, you could see off the set. So the picture would look fine on regular TV’s but on HD you’d think only Ed Wood could compose a shot that shoddy. If I tried to compromise, both shots looked awful.

So on those occasions I had to make a decision – one or the other. At the time most TV’s were still standard and BECKER going into syndication was not a certainty. So I opted for the standard option. Plus, I figured, if HD does take off the questionable shots could be fixed optically down the line. Consulting a lot of other multi-camera directors, they made the same decision as me.  I should have asked James Cameron. 

Well, HD did take off. BECKER did go into syndication. It’s probably showing somewhere right this moment. I’ve seen a few of my episodes on HD and every so often there will be a bad shot, a master so wide you can see tape on the floor for marks, the tip of a boom shadow, and in one case the edge of the set. When I first saw that I was pissed. How could the post production technician miss that? Jesus, doesn’t anybody take any pride in their work anymore?

Yeah… like it’s his fault.

The next time there’s a format change I’m going with the new one, even if the new ratio is 26:1. I’ll put it in 3D, 4D, Smartphone, postage stamp, IMAX, whatever. It took seven or eight years to complete the transition to HD. The next format – whatever it is – the transition will probably be the time it takes to go to the commissary for a burrito.

When you watch BECKER episodes that I directed in HD would you please do me a tiny favor?  Can I ask you to put black tape on the screen to crop it?   It'll only take you about ten minutes.  Thank you.

26 comments:

Johnny Walker said...

Sometimes shows are formatted against the director's wishes for DVD. For the UK DVD release of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the show was widened to 16:9, even though it was only ever shot for 4:3.

Season one of the Buffy spin-off Angel suffered the same fate in all territories (although the rest of the seasons were shot wide). This means you can sometimes see David Boreanaz waiting at the side of the screen for his cue to appear.

I'm sure both of these things keep Joss Whedon awake some nights.

Jonathan said...

A lot of the movies made when widescreen was coming in circa 1953/54 were made to be projected in both Academy and 1.85:1. Most memorable was, to my mind, On The Waterfront. For decades after Europe hadn't fully made the switch and many films like The Seven Seal were also shot for both.

My point is, you're in good company.

Dodgerbobble said...

Welcome to my world. I run a broadcast mastering lab here in LA, and I deal with this on a daily basis. It's hard to believe, but there are still systems around the world and even here in the U.S. that will only take 4:3 full frame video, even though everything is shot in HD now. I'm chopping heads off all day long!

I'm not sure what the numbers are, but there are so many people that still don't own HDTV sets. Hell, we still run a ton of VHS(thank you Huell Howser).

Ray Barrington said...

Hey, don't knock us 4:3 holdouts. Love to get a snazzy new HD set but I want to get my use out of the old one first.

My main complaint is that the networks have all decided we all have HD, and have shrunk their sports graphics. They may look good in HD, but I have a 36-inch analog set, and I can stand right in front of it - I mean a foot away - and while soaking up the radiation, I STILL can't read the graphics!

Bill White said...

On sitcoms, I really don't mind seeing a peek at the "backstage" on screen. I'm sure it doesn't register with "regular" viewers, but for folks "in the know" like me, it makes us feel like insiders!

Jaime J. Weinman said...

It's been a while, but I recall that the pilot of Arrested Development had a gag that worked better in 4:3. It's the bit where there are drums in the background that you think are part of the score, until the camera swings around and shows Buster is drumming in another room. In 16:9, you actually see Buster in the corner of the screen before the punchline.

Tom Quigley said...

Can't wait to hear what some of the issues will be once directors have to start dealing with a 3-dimensional format as a standard...

"Hey, Angelina! You want to move about four feet closer to the camera AWAY from that army tank? I can't see any space between you!... Yeah, that's it.... And hold the rifle a little farther from your body!"

Craig Edwards said...

I worked on Dawson's Creek in that same transitional period and if it makes you feel any better Mr. Levine our DP Frank Perl did the same - composed and lit for 4:3. There were definitely stands and lights in the 16:9. The DVD releases were 4:3, so no worries there. Not sure if anybody will air the show in HD but it will make the whole show look like one of Dawson's student productions.

Anonymous said...

I'll take the occasion to point out the obvious, which is you're continuously mixing up format and resolution here. Granted, right now there is no HD resolution TV set sold that's not in (at least) 16:9 format, but still: HD is the RESOLUTION, 16:9 is the PICTURE FORMAT. (Fer krissakes.) The "transition period" you're talking about wasn't 4:3 to HD, it was (and in many parts of the world is, and will be for plenty of years) 4:3 to 16:9. And suffice it to say, you still run the risk of watching blue ants vs. red ants when it comes to classic movies on a 16:9 set, since plenty of those classics weren't shot in 1.78:1 (i.e. 16:9), but something much wider, like 2.35:1. I'm sure there's a Wikipedia page about image formats somewhere.

Also, as far as image composition in the TV business goes, i.e. what the guy with the camera does when he decides where to point it and how far to zoom in, 16:9 is in fact quite a bit of a sham. You'd think all TV pictures have become "wider" than in 4:3 days. But the reality is that horizontal framing isn't taken so much in account as vertical framing. In other words, the average framed-for-live-TV picture the viewer is getting these days doesn't have more width, it actually tends to have less height than in the past.

Cap'n Bob said...

I saw an old Lone Ranger episode in which the boom mike's shadow was clearly visible on the rock behind the actors. I guess technical problems have always been there and probably always will be.

Johnny Walker said...

@Anonymous: I think everyone, including Ken, understood what was meant.

For the record, US TV didn't make the "transition" from 4:3 to 16:9 to HD (the way we did here in the UK), they went straight from SDTV to HDTV.

In the US, that meant more than just an increase in resolution, it meant a change in screen width, too.

While it's true a HDTV show could be shot in 4:3, "FULL HD" is 1920x1080 pixels, i.e. 16:9. Likewise, in the US, SDTV was only ever 640x480 pixels, i.e. 4:3.

So much like 16:9 is often used as shorthand for 1.85:1, it's perfectly understandable to talk about US HDTV and it be understood that you're referring to regular Widescreen HDTV -- even though it may not be entirely correct in a tiny minority of situations.

Also: Not sure what you're talking about regarding blue ants versus red ants on widescreen TVs. The black bars are MASSIVELY reduced for 2.35:1 movies. There's no comparison between watching a 2.35:1 film on a 28" 4:3, and the same film on a widescreen set!

Jake Mabe said...

I have literally been laughing out loud (to the point I started crying) for the last five minutes at this line:

"So the picture would look fine on regular TV’s but on HD you’d think only Ed Wood could compose a shot that shoddy."

Eric said...

When Babylon 5 was being filmed, JMS was very careful to properly frame scenes for both 4:3 and 16:9 (or at least he claimed to be doing so on the Internet.)

Unfortunately, the special effects were all done in 4:3, and at resolutions appropriate to the then-current lo-def TVs. From what I understand, this makes it prohibitively expensive to release the series on Blu-Ray. All the SFX would need to be redone.

On the other hand, Star Trek: The Next Generation actually is redoing all of their SFX for the Blu-Ray release, so I guess prohibitively expensive is relative.

Dave said...

Here's how the makers of My Name is Earl handled it back in 2005: http://hd.engadget.com/2005/10/04/my-name-is-earl-in-hd-rocks/ :)

Matt said...

Actually, Ken, you can occasionally see the edge of the set, tape on the floor, the front edge of the set's floor, etc., in old three camera sitcoms when you watch them these days. Back in the day all TV sets had a certain amount of overscan on all four sides of the picture which obscured those things. Directors knew that and counted on it. I believe it's on one of the Dick Van Dyke Show DVDs where they spotlight an example of that. Rob crosses the room to answer the phone and on the far right side of the screen you can catch a quick glimpse of one of the cameras pulling back out of the way. On an old tube-type TV, with its overscan, you never would have seen that.

Anonymous said...

David Lee here. Oh, how I'm with you on this one Ken. Framing for both formats used to drive me crazy. What the wider format did on FRASIER was eliminate a couple of my favorite shots. Roy Christopher designed the set so that we could get long raking masters from the kitchen to the front door and the reverse. These shots were very useful, visually interesting and helped define a unique style for the show. Once we had to cover for 16:9 we pretty much had to get rid of them as they forced us to shoot off the set.

Johnny Walker said...

I have a really geeky question for anyone who can answer it: Who was show runner on each of Frasier's seasons? Wikipedia's answer seems to contradict the show's credits.

Thanks!

Anonymous said...

The "ask James Cameron" line is pretty accurate. When he worked in the Super-35 format, he could pull widescreen and 4:3 standard versions from the same negative.

One of his trick was to frame for the top of the film frame. A widescreen version would be fine, but a 4:3 version would simply incorporate the lower area of the film frame, which was usually actors' midsections and lower parts of the set.

Brian Siano

VP81955 said...

My main complaint is that the networks have all decided we all have HD, and have shrunk their sports graphics. They may look good in HD, but I have a 36-inch analog set, and I can stand right in front of it -- I mean a foot away -- and while soaking up the radiation, I STILL can't read the graphics!

Or they are placed in a 16:9 corner where someone with a 4:3 set can't read the graphics (so on a Fox telecast, you'll see how many runs the home team has scored, but not the visitor). Really absurd, and I don't know whether it's being done out of ignorance or to coerce people to buy 16:9 sets.

It's interesting that for many younger viewers, the 4:3 ratio used on "The Artist" was as big an issue as being in black and white or (mostly) lacking dialogue. But what many don't know is that in the late 1920s, Fox (pre-Twentieth Century) developed a widescreen process it called "Grandeur" and used it on a number of films, most notably 1930's "The Big Trail," the first notable movie John Wayne made. (Fox shot it in both wide and standard screen.) However, theaters had just spent plenty of money adapting their houses for sound, and few wanted to spend more money for another technical advance; moreover, when the bottom fell out of the economy in 1931, it became moot. (The Depression also doomed several experiments in the recording industry about that time, including early efforts at long-playing records and stereophonic sound.) When the DVD of "The Big Trail" was released a year or two back, it included both the standard and restored widescreen versions.

Lou H. said...

Anonymous, IIRC, the HDTV standard, the one that was implemented 20 years ago, mandated a 16:9 aspect ratio.

Ken, would it have been possible for you to shoot with both SD and HD cameras simultaneously, and come up with both SD and HD edits? Without completely exhausting yourself, that is.

chuckcd said...

So what size TV do you need to have the 2.35:1 movies fill the screen with no black bars?

(Without having to zoom up the image)

1.78:1 and 1.85:1 show perfect on a 16:9 TV, but the 2.35:1 movies are still letterboxed. Is there a TV larger than 16:9?

Eduardo Jencarelli said...

This is why I only watch shows on DVD and Blu-Ray. To me, whether it's 16:9 or 4:3, I want to see the show or film the way the director intended.

Recently, I caught a rerun of Friends on TV. It was being broadcast in HD widescreen. And I'm pretty sure they upscaled the source, and cropped the top and bottom of the frame to get that aspect ratio, because it looked way too weird. You couldn't make out the set, and David Schwimmer's head was partially cut.

Mike said...

I have to say, whoever filmed "Seinfeld" must have been thinking ahead. The syndicated HD transfers look stunning. As someone who had memorized virtually all the episodes in SD, it took a while for me to get used to seeing the new versions, because the framing is off in many scenes (mainly people's legs get chopped off, and they seem to be a little too close to the camera), but once I got over that, the show doesn't look very different from current first run shows.

Sebastian said...

You know the joke here really is that How I Met Your Mother's first season, though most definitely filmed in HD, was put out 4:3 on DVD in Season 1.

And reading this post I have to assume that the directors on Season 1 followed your route of blocking the show, even though it was in 2005.

I mean it couldn't be that they simply put out a shoddy 4:3 version first to re-release it later on in HD, right?

Right?

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