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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A deal with Cinemascope originator Fox, however, means that from next month there'll be plenty of widescreen material, including the likes of The Inn of the Sixth Happiness. For these films - closer to 21:9 than 16:9 - he'll demand scope masters, says McGhee, and transmit them letterbox where he can. His secret of showing films in the optimum format is: “if 1 don't like the master I get, I send it back.”

Relative to the amount it shows, Sky Digital's widescreen film output is a lot smaller. Out of four Sky Moviemax signals, five Sky Premier and two Sky Cinema, only one of Sky Premier's is widescreen, and only between 6pm and midnight. Anyone signed up to On Digital with a Sky Premier option doesn't get that; they get what analogue Sky subscribers get - strictly 4:3. Whether that's because Sky isn't sending the widescreen signal or On isn't signalling it correctly isn't clear.

Sky says it “shows films as and where widescreen is available.” And one reason that doesn't amount to much, it complains, is that “studios aren't keen to put them out.” And when they do, half of them aren't true widescreen but letterbox, and “so we have to give them the heave-ho.”

For the pay-per-view market, however, this month Skylaunches two digital channels for widescreen films on Sky Box Office. The new channels will be showing one or two widescreen films each week for Sky Digital subscribers.

But you don't have to pay to watch films wide. All BBC2 films have been widescreen for six years, albeit in the unpopular letterbox format. Not so on BBC1, but that's a demographics thing, says the BBC: BBC2 viewers like letterbox, while BBCI viewers are more conservative.

So the BBC has a sizeable stash of widescreen transmission copies, initially kept on D3. but for more than a year now on DigiBeta. These transmit full digital widescreen to BBC2 film viewers who can receive it. Most are from material supplied by the distributor, but some are from the BBC's equally sizeable stash of 35mm prints acquired over the years. Because, as the BBC's manager of technical operations for acquisitions Terry Smith agrees, distributors could try harder.

Smith is part of pan-broadcaster group Bugs (Broadcasters' User Group) through which broadcasters from Channel 5 to Sky are lobbying distributors to cater more to widescreen broadcasting. Some are better than others, he says, and are gradually converting back-catalogues, but “what they tend to supply is full-scope 21:9 masters semi squeezed to 16:9, which is more suited to DVD. We usually have to work on a master to get proper 16:9.” But that's the BBC; many other channels don't have its generous resources to hand.

So how does this patchy support for widescreen go down with the film-makers? “Mv philosophy.” says Chris Jones of independent Living Spirit, “is just to compose the image the way you want to compose it. Frankly, it doesn't make any difference as long as you're not shooting in full anamorphic.

”It's the sort of thing anal cameramen and telecine operators get worked up about. With 16:9, you just zoom into the middle of the shot for TV. If I could, I'd shootevery film in full Cinemascope but you have to have more set, you have to have more light...- you have to have more budget.

Jones feels neither distributors nor broadcasters “give a damn. Star Wars is awful in 4:3; no one should be subjected to it. And look at any standard Channel 5 film, it's just horrible. But it's out of your control, there's nothing you can do about it.”

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