A festive guide to aspect ratios

Widescreen televisions showing 4:3 TV shows? Why Christmas is the season of family aspect ratio arguments...

It’s well into December, so we can finally talk about Christmas.

Granted, many people – most notably those with commercial interests – have been talking about Christmas for quite some time already. However, I’m one of those crazy types that prefer to condense ‘the most wonderful time of the year’ into an adequately concentrated period of time, that it maintains its joy-giving potency up to and including Jesus’ birthday.

But as far as I’m concerned, once you’ve opened that first door on your advent calendar and retrieved the first indistinguishably-shaped chocolate from its plastic mould (or simply appreciated the hand drawn illustration if you’ve got a classy one) then we can talk about something festive.

And I would very much like to talk about aspect ratios.

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You see, Christmas should be a time of warm fuzzy feelings, familial affection, generosity of spirit, and a healthy dollop of love and understanding. And nothing, my friends, nothing can undermine such noble aspirations as that moment when the father-in-law sticks an Only Fools And Horses Christmas special on the telly and refuses to adjust his high-definition widescreen TV to the correct aspect ratio.

Peace on Earth? Please…

Unfortunately our population is split between those that prefer a film or television show to be presented in the aspect ratio for which it was intended, and those that have an almost pathological dislike of black bars. And at no time is this divide in our nation more frequently revealed than at the time of Christmas time.

Why? Well, for a start many of us spend a great deal of the festive season sequestered in other people’s homes: a grateful guest of family members or friends who wish to host us during the holidays. And their televisual set-up will be their own, the homeowner’s hand gripped tightly around the remote should you even be brave enough to consider tinkering.

Then there are the classic televisual treats on offer during the Yuletide; conceived and committed to tape when the idea of a high-definition widescreen telly at home would be rejected as the musings of a madman. I mean, who doesn’t like to watch a classic Christmas episode of an old favourite? And you don’t even have to switch to UKTV Gold to get a nostalgia hit: all the major networks like to slip in the odd square-shaped treat throughout the schedules.

Yet the seemingly disparate joys of classic programming and modern AV technology – much like that binary liquid explosive in Die Hard With A Vengeance – can have disastrous consequences when mixed.

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Before we delve into the socio-political ramifications, let’s get back to basics. What do we actually mean by ‘aspect ratios’? Simply put, it’s the relationship between the height of an image and its width, essentially dictating the shape of the frame. Cinema and television have experimented over the decades with different formats and standards, and while you’ll often hear a rather simplified delineation between ‘widescreen’ and ‘full frame’, there are actually far more than you would perhaps imagine. Below is just a small selection of examples and – since this is a festive guide – we’ve put IMAX at the bottom so that it looks like a Christmas tree.

The standard aspect ratios used respectively in cinema and television have diverged and subsequently come closer over the decades. Silent movies and all the major studio pictures up until the early 1950’s were shot in the so-called ‘Academy ratio’ of 11:8, so the 4:3 screen of a vintage cathode ray television set could contain the picture quite nicely.

That all changed with the widescreen revolution, in which cinema tried to combat dwindling ticket sales by introducing panoramic formats such as VistaVision and CinemaScope. From that point on, displaying a feature film on TV required either the presence of black bars at the top and bottom of the screen or – to sate a viewing public who generally felt ill at ease with such distractions – a ‘pan and scanned’ version where over a third of the picture was chopped out entirely.

It’s only relatively recently that television has caught up, thanks to the advent of affordable widescreen tellies. The new TV standard is 16:9 – much closer to the widescreen goodness of modern flicks.

Closer, but not necessarily identical; you’ll notice when viewing the majority of your Blu-rays that narrow black bars are still present at the top and bottom. That’s because most modern films are shot at 2.35:1 or 2.39:1, which is still a bit wider than our domestic flat-screens. Indeed, on the rare occasion a filmmaker shoots 16:9 – as Joss Whedon did with his first Avengers flick – a lot of people complain that the result looks a bit ‘televisual’ (Whedon chose the more cinematic 2.35:1 ratio for his sequel).

All of which brings us back to that awkward moment when – whilst sat around the goggle box at Christmas – your insistence on adjusting the picture is met with scepticism and, sometimes, downright hostility.

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So let’s lay bare the problem. Not for your benefit, dear reader – I’m confident that frequent visitors to this site need no education of the sort – but so that you may hand your smartphone or tablet to a family member, possibly one from an older generation, and bestow upon them the gift of elucidation.

Here is a still from Knowing Me Knowing Yule With Alan Partridge displayed on a classic telly. It was filmed in television’s then standard aspect ratio of 4:3. That’s because back in the day, everyone’s TV set was 4:3 too. Needless to say, the picture fits perfectly.

Here is how a classic TV show should be displayed on a modern widescreen TV set that accommodates the new standard aspect ratio of 16:9. Yes, there are black bars at the sides. The frame is wider than the picture. Deal with it.

Here is what happens when an irrational fear of black bars overrides common sense. The picture is stretched, misshapen, ugly and – simply put – wrong. At this stage in his career, Alan had not taken to binging on Toblerone.

Now here’s what happens when – as a compromise – someone suggests using the zoom function on the remote control. The picture is no longer misshapen, but a huge amount of the picture is being lost to the top and bottom of the screen.

Again, this is wrong. Now, please hand the phone/tablet back to your friend/relative. And remember, they love you and are just trying to help you.

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As with most things in life, education really is key – and the younger you get family members on-board, the better. I remember sitting down to watch the Back To The Future widescreen VHS on an old fashioned telly back in the day and being initially perturbed by the seemingly wasted space. “Better get used to these bars, kid,” an older relative pointed out. And indeed, I soon came to appreciate the superiority of this format over the panned and scanned version that had been shown on TV. Far from seeing less, I was actually seeing more!

At this point I should make it clear that while I have a keen interest in preventing Alan Partridge’s face from being stretched in an unsightly manner across my mum’s television screen, I’m not some kind of expert on aspect ratios.

Thankfully, I have the email address of a man who is.

Dave Norris has been described – most notably by eminent film critic Mark Kermode – as ‘The Last Projectionist Standing’ thanks to his erstwhile efforts as projection manager at The Empire Leicester Square: one of the last human beings to occupy this kind of role. Since his departure in 2012, the rise of automated digital projection has rung the death knell for his rarefied profession and led to many of his peers being made redundant. But it hasn’t dampened his enthusiasm for the medium. Currently overlord at Universal Pictures’ London screening rooms, if anyone can give us some advice about how to cope with what I’m now calling ‘the greatest televisual threat to the stability of the family unit that we’ve ever faced’… then it’s this man.

But first I thought I’d better butter him up with some shoptalk, so I asked him what his favourite aspect ratio was. He looked wistfully into the middle-distance as a half smile happened upon his face (I imagined this to be the case, anyway – we were corresponding by email):

“My favourite ratio is MGM Camera 65. This was later renamed as Ultra Panavision 70 and most recently used for The Hateful Eight, but I can remember seeing the ’59 version of Ben Hur (on a reissue, of course, I’m not that old) and seeing this get its own credit on screen. This would have been before I was even old enough to appreciate what exactly an aspect ratio was – but it made it sound really important. That made quite an impression to a 10 year old.”

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Clearly I’m talking to the right man. Indeed, as the conversation turns to the thorny subject matter at hand, palpable pain bubbles to the surface:

“Over the years I have reset more TVs to the correct aspect ratios than I care to remember. I stayed in the Sheraton Hotel at Heathrow a couple of weeks ago and spent the half hour before I went down to the function I was attending resetting the ratio on the TV.”

I wipe away a tear of recognition. So what does the ‘Last Projectionist Standing’ do when faced with this dilemma of the ages?

“If at a friend’s or relative’s house, I will calmly drop ‘what’s wrong with that picture?’ into the conversation before seizing the remote.”

Bold. And admirable. But what if the relative is elderly? Or stubborn? Or both?

“Turn their chair to the wall.”

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Thanks Dave. I think.

The tragedy of this situation – one destined to be repeated within so many households this December – is that if you eventually manage to persuade an obstinate ‘stretcher’ to take the plunge and start viewing a 4:3 TV show in the correct aspect ratio, the several minutes you have already spent watching David Jason and Nicholas Lyndhurst warped beyond recognition will have re-calibrated everyone’s brains to the extent that the correct format now looks wrong. And you’ll question yourself as your gloating opponent decries how odd the picture looks, while everyone agrees. Being right isn’t always easy.

So this Christmas, when visiting friends and loved ones, remember: once the greetings and hugs and present exchanges have taken place, find the time to locate and familiarise yourself with the household’s remote control. You may also want to bookmark this page. The continuing strength of your familial bonds might just depend on it.

Together we can save Christmas!