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.

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.”

Film Four's Sykes counters that the requirements of broadcasters carry little weight with filmmakers. “As their funding comes mostly from film studios, not TV companies, those concerns are more important.” True for Hollywood, certainly, but even true, he says, for features that his own company makes with the likes of Working Title, where the bulk of the money comes from Polygram.

It'll be a long time until films are routinely transmitted in widescreen. And though the advent of hidef in the US this year may increase the number of widescreen prints available from Hollywood, until enough viewers have digital widescreen TV sets, films will go on being shown in full-screen 4:3.

But that won't stop film-makers choosing the format they prefer - and their day will come.

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