Logo Rob Buckley – Freelance Journalist and Editor

A 16:9 shelf life?

A 16:9 shelf life?

Ever tried fitting a square peg in a roundhole? Since digital TV now gives them the chance, Robert Buckley asks why digital broadcasters don't show more widescreen films in widescreen

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I f there's one thing guaranteed to chill a cinephile's blood, it's the question of widescreen films on TV. And it's no consolation that cinema only adopted the likes of Cinemascope and Panavision to hit back at the small square box in the corner.

Since then, the bane of the dedicated TV moviewatcher has been “panning-and-scanning” - forcing an image intended for the cinema screen to fit into a TV screen by only showing parts of it - not something that would happen to a painting in an art gallery. Now digital TV offers a lifeline to the film buff; it can transmit both conventional and widescreen images - and occasionally does.

The virtues of widescreen are also clear to most directors and cameramen. “People don't like going back to 4:3 after using widescreen,” claims Bill Budman, a former BBC cameraman and now consultant DOP for Sony. “There's too much redundant information in 4:3.” Peter Parks, chief executive of Imax company Imagequest 3D, agrees. “A lot of people don't think about what stereovision is. Our eyes are horizontal, not vertical; we have a widescreen view of the world.”

Unfortunately, barring the pickiest of film fans, the public has so far remained unimpressed by widescreen - at least when it's letterboxed. “The majority of people who complain do not like looking at 16:9 instead of 4:3,” says Budman. “They don't mind 14:9 though.” 14:9 is the compromise size broadcasters have decided on for transmitting digital widescreen material to an analogue world: pictures are composed wide enough for 16:9 viewers not to feel cheated, yet narrow enough that letterbox bars are not too obtrusive on 4:3 screens.

Viewers with widescreen sets also have a 14:9 option, alongside 16:9, if they decide to zoom up the movie-cutdowns that are still the predominant TV fare. But it's a very blunt instrument, sacrificing a lot of quality, as well as the top and bottom of a picture that's already been chopped to fit 4:3.

And, with sales of widescreen TV sets soaring in the UK, an increasing number of viewers are going to resent making these compromises to fill their costly new screens. So, now that they have the ability to transmit films somewhat closer to how the director intended, how hard are the broadcasters trying?

One of the most promising places to find widescreen movies is Film Four. “Whenever we can get hold of widescreen in the original format, that's what we'll show,” says Tom Sykes, Film Four's channel manager. “We won't pan-and-scan anything. For example, we're showing Sid and Nancy this month - we remastered it in 16:9, and director Alex Cox came to supervise.”

Ironically, Film Four's tied with its parent and long-time UK film champion, Channel 4 means it can't show as much of its output in widescreen as it would like: the film channel has not been able to get further versions of films originally premiered on its parent channel.

Sykes estimates about 45% of Film Four films are shown widescreen, with 60% shown in their correct aspect ratios - “but we're always working to increase that.” Of course, there are plenty of films not made in anything much wider than 4:3 (films shot in Academy), but that doesn't stop viewers complaining when these aren't shown widescreen.

At Carlton Cinema, controller George McGhee is also something of a purist, with a policy of running films as close as possible to the original (in length as well as width; he's twice put out an announcement that this may not be the best print available, but it's the longest). But chances are the movie-fan turning to Carlton Cinema may not see anything wider than 14:9: the channel transmits widescreen, but much of its classic fare is Academy.

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