Sunday, March 13, 2016

Adventures in bad 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So those old classics like CASABLANCA and ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN transfer to the small screen and the now-outdated VHS formats rather faithfully.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.

This is a re-post from four years ago. 


Joseph Scarbrough said...

Aw man, Ken, why, why, why did you have to bring this up? I hate widescreen, or 1.85, or 16:9, or "HD," or whatever you want to call it.

And the fact of the matter is all of this information is false, and I don't need other people to tell me otherwise, all I have to do is watch movies and TV shows for myself to know that the problem is actually the reverse: you don't gain extra picture in widescreen, you lose extra picture in widescreen. I've never been able to get people to see the reality of that, because they're all mindlessly lead to believe by consumerism that, "Nuh-uh! U lose 25% of da pictoor in fullscreen! Widescreen b da better! U gain pictoor!"

Really, just read this jaded and cynical, yet accurate NINJA PIRATE article and see for yourself:

Okay, see? That's what really happens when you transfer and crop something into widescreen, and this is what I've seen happen. It gets frustrating when you watch something in widescreen and see the tops of people's heads cut off by the cropping . . . or, to sort of mirror the complaint in this article, I was disappointed when RADIO was released on DVD only in widescreen because Debra Winger's legs were cut off in a shot where you could see them in full screen.

SEINFELD is the worst offender of this. That episode where Jerry and George try to sell their pilot to Japanese TV? Remember the bag of oranges they brought for the executives because Kramer told them oranges were a rare and exotic fruit in Japan? That bag of oranges is completely cropped out now that reruns are in widescreen, so they had to do this really clumsy edit where they cut to an insert of a close up of the bag of oranges when they're actually brought up in conversation. There was no need for that in the original full screen version where the bag of oranges were always in frame. Or the episode about Jerry's new couch: you can't get a good look at the pee stain Poppy left after he sat on it.

The only exception I've seen to the rule yet are Muppet movies . . . I don't know why, but Muppet movies are the only movies I've seen where, yes, you do actually gain more of the picture in widescreen versions than full screen versions; I guess maybe because of the true visionary genius of Jim Henson and his enthusiasm to try new things for the sake of advance the art of puppetry and filmmaking. No other movies I've seen that are presented in both full screen and widescreen have I seen this, and again, if you look at the NINJA PIRATE article, you'll see the truth.

That being said, while I do have an HD camera that films in 16:9, I always frame my shots for and edit them in 4:3 because I hate 16:9 that much. Not to mention I miss the days of 35mm film, and I try very had to achieve that film look in what I produce. Just an example, here's an experimental film I did last year that was filmed in 16:9 but framed and edited in 4:3 (and it still came out in HD because the height of the resolution was still 1080p, the resolution was just 1440x1080 instead of 1920x1080):
Not only do I add a hint of noise/grain for that film look, I also increase the brightness and contrast, and color saturation to get that rich, vibrant, technicolor look of the 60s.

Dave Creek said...

I don't know whether news anchors have lost their jobs or not after HD, but I know the transition behind the scenes can be painful. Some stations made the transition a little bit at a time, with newscasts seeing a mix of HD and SD material until all the old equipment was replaced.

The Louisville TV station I worked at made the entire transition at once, which required buying new cameras, live truck transmitters, and edit equipment as well as redesigning the control room, with a new video switcher, audio equipment, and graphics. Producers, reporters, anchors, directors, and the production crew were doing practice newscasts as well as the regular ones. It was painful for awhile, but at least we got it over with in a few weeks.

J Lee said...

CinemaScope/Super-Panavision aspect ratios from the 50s and early 60s still require some sort of black bars at the top and bottom of the screen if they're shown full-fame, because they were just so darn wide. Paramount's VistaVision aspect ratio comes the closest to mimicking the aspect ratio of current HDTVs.

(Also, while CinemaScape directors of feature films were give free reign to use the full screen of the new process, those further down the food chain weren't -- if you look at the handful of early short subjects/cartoons that were done in widescreen, all the action is kept within the 4:3 aspect ratio so that the outer edges of the image are almost superfluous, other than to make the movie theater a little brighter.)

RobW said...

Sorry, Joseph, but you're in the wrong when you insist that films from the mid 50's forward shot 1:33 and matted to 1:85 is incorrect. Just because the information is there doesn't mean you were intended to see it. Feature films have been composed to be shown in the 1:85 ratio for over 60 years now, and those that are matted down to 1:85 are being seen the way the D.P. intended. Take a look at the first video transfer for Pee-Wee's Big Adventure. The gag with Pee-Wee pulling the endless chain out of his bicycle's side compartment is totally ruined, since it's not matted at the top and bottom and you can clearly see the chain is being fed through a hole in the bottom of the compartment. I've seen multiple instances when a sloppy projectionist misframes a film that was designed to be cropped to 1:85 during projection and suddenly things like boom mikes appear near the top of the projected frame. Sure, plenty of cinematographers compose well enough that a scene will work in both 1:33 and 1:85, but that was always as a protection for the old tv formats rather than the definitive composition.

Poor Ed Wood has taken a lot of shit for this issue. If you matte Plan 9 From Outer Space to 1:85 ( it's intended theatrical projection ratio ) an awful lot of those huge gaffes with half finished or shoddy sets that he's been ridiculed for suddenly disappear - because Ed knew enough about projection technology that these 'errors' at the top and bottom of the frame would not be seen when they were run in theatres.

There are plenty of films out there that have the actual mattes for 1:85 printed onto the print so it can't be run in any other ratio ( like the Muppet Movies ) in order to guarantee you only see what the DP and director intended ( or possibly to hide the technicians in the case of the Muppets ). Films like Back To The Future have the basic sequences open-matte in 1:33 on the print ( designed to be cropped in projection to 1:85) mixed in with effects sequences hard matted ( black bars on top and bottom ) on the actual prints to 1:85 with no top or bottom information available, since effects sequences are intensive enough without having to waste time and money on screen area that will not be seen.

Ask yourself another question - why are the titles for these features always within the 1:85-safe area if the fuller frame was designed to be seen ?

Digital projection has changed this completely now - films come formatted to be in a set, non- adjustable ratio and that's pretty much that .

Ask anyone who actually works in the industry or exhibition and they will verify what I've just told you.

B.A. said...

The full cinema widescreen of 1971's PRETTY MAIDS ALL IN A ROW allows the science-minded viewer to see June Fairchild's muff in a brief scene; TCM's rebroadcast a couple years ago enlarges the picture just enough to conceal the shrubbery.

David said...

Tim Burton talked about seeing EDWARD SCISSORHANDS during a plane trip. The film was shown unmatted. There's a bit in the film where Edward is clipping a dog's hair. The dog is below the frame and all you see is dog hair flying around. Burton was horrified to see, shown unmatted on the plane, Edward clipping absolutely nothing over a hose that was blowing dog hair up into the shot. (He arranged for that and other shots to be released correctly on home video.)

There's a bit in one of Jerry Lewis's movies where he does a pantomime routine to a Leroy Anderson musical number called "The Typewriter." There's no typewriter. Just Jerry pretending to type to the music. The closing gag has Jerry, to his surprise, pulling a real sheet of paper out of this imaginary typewriter. Shown unmatted on television for years, that closing bit is somewhat spoiled by the fact that the sheet of paper is clearly visible in that last shot, lying on the desk in front of him. If you ever see the routine shown, properly matted, you don't see that piece of paper until he pulls it up, apparently out of nowhere.

I remember WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT also being a mix of hard matte and open matte when we ran it back in the '80s.

Rich Shealer said...

@Rob W. Thank you. I remember watching 9 to 5 and seeing boom mikes galore. This wasn't hints through shadows they were fully visible at the top of the screen. I saw it on TV later and I did not see it. Now I understand how that could happen.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Personally, I prefer to watch both movies and TV in the aspect ratio the director intended when they were shot. If that means black bars on the screen, so be it.


Darryl H. said...

I've never understood people who set their televisions to stretch everything to fit the screen. It's their TV, and they can watch it however they want, but personally, it drives me nuts. I prefer to watch whatever I watch in the aspect ratio it was originally intended for. If that's 4:3, fine. If it's 16:9, fine. Just don't ask me to watch a 4:3 image stretched to fit a 16:9 frame, or a 16:9 image chopped to fit a 4:3 frame.

When widescreen movies began hitting movie screens in the 1950s, one problem that many older theaters ran into is that their buildings were configured in such a way that wider screens couldn't be installed. These theaters ran widescreen movies "letterboxed" in exactly the way that these films were letterboxed for 4:3 television sets. You can read amusing complaints in industry magazines from the '50s, from frustrated theater owners who were hampered by their buildings and unable to install the wider screens they needed to accommodate these films, and who had to deal with very annoyed audiences who didn't understand what the big deal was about widescreen. All they were seeing was the same old 4:3 screen with the widescreen image occupying a relatively small strip across the middle, and black bars at the top and bottom.

Paul Duca said...

David...if you're talking about WHO'S MINDING THE STORE?, the bit ends with Jerry looking at the imaginary paper, then "pulling" it out of the "machine" and crumpling it up--all with the proper sound effects.

MikeN said...

You could just activate the shrink screen setting on your TV to see SD.

Hal said...

Paul Duca said...
David...if you're talking about WHO'S MINDING THE STORE?, the bit ends with Jerry looking at the imaginary paper, then "pulling" it out of the "machine" and crumpling it up--all with the proper sound effects.

No, David's right about Jerry's "Typewriter" routine. I just watched it on YouTube. He pulls up a real sheet of paper out of the imaginary typewriter, does a take, then crumples it up.

Phil In Phoenix said...

Not too long ago, I was watching an early episode of "Cheers", when Cliff used to sit on the side of the bar closest to the door.

Cliff gets up from the bar and takes a step away from the bar downstage. The edge of the set became visible. You could see a black curtain and what looked like a Paramount page standing there.

Never noticed this before or since in any episode.

BD Johnson said...

I was shooting (Director of Photography) episodic TV shows during this transition of SD to HD. We had to compose for 4:3 but protect for 16:9. On a couple of shows that I shot, it was more work on us to frame out the boom shadows and light stands. We would also work to fill the 16:9 frame so that the extra amount on the sides wouldn't look empty when it eventually would go to HD. All this extra work paid off. The HD transfers that I see on iTunes and Netflix look really good and as the DP, I am very pleased with results.

As a side note, I also was working with a Post facility during this time who was helping one of its clients with the problematic reconversion of the CHEERS episodes from SD to HD. Even though CHEERS was shot on film, all of the original master were SD. When the HD conversion was starting, for cost reasons, the decision was made to use those SD masters instead of going back to the original film elements. This helps explain the (lack of) quality of CHEERS in HD. Conversely, Paramount chose to go back to the film elements for STAR TREK TNG for the HD conversion. Including the re-making (from scratch) of all the VFX shots since they originally done in SD.

More than anyone wanted to know I'm sure...

James Van Hise said...

It used to be fun seeing films shown on tv in the wrong aspect ratio. The best was seeing North By Northwest when they are on the face of Mount Rushmore and you could see the surrounding sound stage they were on like it was a behind the scenes clip.

Widescreen is still not presented honestly on most channels. Unless you're watching Turner Classic movies or a couple others, Cinemascope is still cropped but presented in what I call fake widescreen where there are black bars at the top and bottom but the picture is still cropped on the sides, but we're not supposed to notice. True Cinemascope on TV has very wide black bars on the top and bottom with the picture occupying only half the screen. Some people don't like that, but it is the complete image.

Andy Rose said...

Actually the original video transfer of The Muppet Movie was improperly matted, and there are several shots where you can see that there are no legs below Kermit's waist. And in the climactic scene where Kermit confronts Charles Durning with all the other Muppets lined up behind him, you can see the head and/or arm of almost every single puppeteer.

Back in the early-90s, the producers of Northern Exposure planned ahead for HD. Electronic editing had become standard for television by that point, but they hired a second editor to splice the original film together to match the SD master. Those reels were kept in storage, and once an HD standard was finally agreed upon, all they had to do was digitize the interpositive and create new HD titles. It saved a lot of time compared to finding all the original camera elements and piecing them back together years after the fact.

BruceB said...

I remember being told by an older fellow, who remembered when theater projection switched to widescreen, that,"no existing theater could widen their building," meaning that all the screens that were in use in theaters dating back to silents, stretched from one side of the building to the other, and were two stories high. There were exits on each side, mandated by the fire marshall that could not be changed, and usually buildings owned by other businesses on either side as well. So, they had to mask the top of the screen, making "widescreen" actually "SHORTSCREEN." The balcony became a rotten place to watch the feature, and the image was simply much smaller. He insisted upon calling widescreen shortscreen the rest of his life.