Why films on TV in their original widescreen ratio is good for you

Why films on TV in their original widescreen ratio is good for you

Well, the reason it’s good for you is because you’re seeing the film as it was originally intended by the director. In times gone by, some people would baulk at the thought of black bars on their screen, but this has thankfully waned somewhat, thanks to the home cinemas that have taken over our living rooms.

For many years, seeing a film with a ratio of around 2.35:1 being shown on a conventional TV channel has been rather a rarity, even in the early ’90s when Alex Cox’s Moviewatch series would claim to show films for film buff, yet he was hampered by the BBC sticking to their guns by never doing justice to his selections.

I’ve been a proponent of this for as long as I can remember and, in the early days of this website, I also started a list of all the widescreen videos which were released in their original format, as most were cropped to 4:3 and generally looked horrendous. Slowly, but surely, the studios released that there was demand for widescreen and companies like 20th Century Fox led the charge in the early ’90s with five widescreen videos: Alien, Die Hard, Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.

Over time, these were joined by more titles from both Fox and other studios and this became an accepted reality. The advent of laserdisc boosted the demand for widescreen, but that format’s popularity lost footing when DVDs were first made available and eventually became the most preferable buying format we have today, with videos long since dying out and Blu-rays now chipping away at the DVD market at an increasing rate.

Widescreen has also become the accepted norm in the last few years with TVs mostly being only available in a 16:9 format and, if you have the money and the space, a Cinemascope 2.35:1 TV from Phillips, costing several thousand pounds.

It’s been a long slog to get TV stations to accept this, though, and when the Sky Movies channels, and also Film4, got into the habit of showing these films correctly, it still didn’t filter through to any terrestrial ones, even Channel 4 itself.

All that changed on December 1st, 2007, when Channel 4, and all of its offshoots, finally grabbed the bull by the horns and replaced almost all of its tired old 16:9-cropped prints with new ones in their correct ratio. There are still the occasional lapses, though, as they’ve never obtained correct prints for Eraser, Annie and Enemy at the Gates, and the first time they showed the Lord of the Rings trilogy in its correct ratio, the second film, The Two Towers was still cropped to 16:9. I enquired about this at the time and they blamed it on a dodgy print, but would correct it for subsequent screenings, which they did.

One thing that’s also important about seeing films in their correct ratio is getting rid of the old prints. While The Sound of Music, for example, was originally shot in 2.20:1, a 2.35:1 print had been struck for cinemas at the time, and until recently, BBC HD had been showing the latter. The print doing the rounds on BBC1 at the same time was a terrible 16:9-cropped version of the 2.35:1 print, so not only were you losing picture information from the sides, but they compounded the problem by losing some from the top and bottom, effectively ‘windowboxing’ it.

Also, the BBC were apparently contractually-forbidden from showing a 16:9 print of the first three Indiana Jones films, so had been recycling the aged 4:3 prints which looked older than the films themselves! Meanwhile, BBC HD was showing them in 2.35:1.

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