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.

Over the past couple of years, however, the other terrestrial channels have been slowly getting a clue. In early January 2009, for example, BBC2 broadcast Dances With Wolves in 2.35:1, albeit in its 3-hour version, a print that’s since been broadcast three times more, generally around Christmas and New Year, but also in October 2011. They did the same with Blade Runner: The Final Cut.

ITV, forever being as dumb as a chimp and putting out cropped 16:9 films on their HD channels as well as their main ones, have occasionally pushed the boat out with 2.35:1 versions of the Gone in 60 Seconds remake, End of Days, Mrs Doubtfire, Nevada Smith, an old Steve McQueen film on ITV4, and Ocean’s Twelve, although neither its prequel or sequel. They’re still not quite getting it, though, as they’re missing so many opportunities since then – particularly anything featuring James Bond, where most of the films were made wider than 1.85:1 – and it’s clearly not a priority for them. That said, we did get a 2.35:1 screening of Happy Feet over the 2010 Christmas period.

It’s a similar situation for Channel 5. They got it right with the Jet Li movie, War, Danny Dyer in Outlaw and The Fifth Element (that one on Five USA), but are still trailing in joint last place with ITV, missing out with films such as 300 and 10,000 B.C. and many more.

Clearly, the advent of HD TV has helped with this change. As film rights are renewed, the channels are generally obtaining new widescreen masters that they can show in high defintion. Without emblazoning such films as requiring black bars onscreen, I thought some of these channels would start trying to put something out there to explain why these films were shown in that format, but they’ve just gone for it and broadcast them in the hope they’ll be accepted, and thankfully it seems that they are.

The channel that did its best over Christmas 2010 to bring 2.35:1 films to the masses was the BBC. They put out almost all of their major films in the correct ratio, including The Sound of Music and the latest movie from the aforementioned franchise, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. However, they bottled it when it came to their 90-minute drama shown in prime-time, Toast, clearly shot in 2.35:1 from the clips, but shown in 16:9 on BBC1 and BBC1HD. Conversely, the 9pm screenings on BBC2 of the near-hour-long dramas, The Song of Lunch and Whistle And I’ll Come To You *were* shown in 2.35:1. It does seem a bit odd for a short film to be made that way, but each director must do as he pleases.

As an aside, the trailers for the BBC1 dramas Zen, starring Rufus Sewell, and Hidden were presented in 2.35:1, but the programmes themselves were actually in 16:9 and it just showed they’d been a bit arty with the trailer. Perhaps, in the case of Zen, they needed some way to drag us in when it was clearly the most tedious drama I’ve quickly switched off after 10 minutes.

However, at the time of this sea change, their list in November and December 2010 was an impressive one, showing some films correctly that hadn’t been shown that way before on BBC1 and BBC2 (same goes for any repeats on BBC3 and BBC4), as well as some premieres. This list includes: Wonder Boys, The Mission, Goal!, Youth Without Youth, The Wackness, The Guns of Navarone, The Cardinal, The Chronicles Of Narnia: The Lion The Witch and the Wardrobe, The Chronicles Of Narnia: Prince Caspian, The Incredibles, Miss Potter, Hard Rain, Wall-E and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, although, oddly, not the sequel, the following night.

Note that January 2011 also saw the first time that the BBC have broadcast the original Indiana Jones trilogy in 2.35:1, both on BBC1 and in HD. Previously, only the first and third films were shown correctly, but Temple of Doom was bumped from BBC HD for something else at the time. These broadcasts, and at prime time, show that the BBC have finally take a definitive step to setting matters right.

During 2011 as a whole, screenings have still been hit and miss with all of the usual suspects. ITV and Channel 5 rarely bother, while the BBC do an increasing amount of times, but there are still some failings in their presentations.

Back in May, while the films Absolute Power and Deja Vu were shown in 2.35:1 on most BBC1 variants, they were shown in 16:9 on BBC1 Scotland, which were both broadcast later than the other BBC1s. I didn’t see why they couldn’t send a copy of the HD print over to BBC1 Scotland, though.

Their email response to my complaint was:

“Thank you for your e-mail. Your comments were passed to the Scheduling Manager, who has asked that I forward his response as follows:

“In both instances, Network BBC One transmitted copies of HD masters of both films – both HD versions had the picture format of 2.35:1. Thus, these versions were transmitted on both BBC One HD and BBC One SD, and subsequently any other nation transmitting the same output as network.

The versions transmitted on BBC1 Scotland originated from the SD versions of both films – these versions were in 16:9”

September 2011 update:

I complained again and finally got a reply in September:

“Dear Mr Robinson,

I am the BBC Complaints Advisor who handles audience comments about BBC Scheduling and Programme Acquisitions. I am writing with regards to an issue you raised some time ago about the film Absolute Power. I’m sorry for the long delay in responding, we’ve been experiencing somewhat of a backlog with our audience contacts lately but I appreciate this is not the service our audience would or should expect from the BBC.

I’ve had an opportunity to review the previous correspondence and I’m sorry that the crux of your original complaint was misunderstood. Having investigated your concerns and spoken to our Programme Acquisitions department I would like to explain what happened. We generally aim to broadcast our films, and other material, in a 16:9 ratio. However, on this occasion Absolute Power was a late delivery to the BBC on the very day of broadcast in a 21:9 ratio – or as you quite rightly expressed, 2.35:1 format. We therefore didn’t have time to prepare the film for a 16:9 broadcast on network and had to go with it as it was delivered. While the nations and regions will usually use the same feed as network, on this occasion BBC Scotland were able to prepare the film to 16:9 format which is why you noticed a difference in the two broadcasts. I’d like to apologise for any confusion over this matter and thank you for raising this with us. I hope my response goes some way to explaining the situation.

Thanks again for taking the time to contact us and I appreciate your patience in awaiting my response.

Yours sincerely,
Paul Kettle
BBC Audience Services”

So they actively create 16:9 versions when they have the correct version to hand?! Clearly the man replying didn’t get what I was after, but even when you complement them on 2.35:1 broadcasts, they still say that they prefer 16:9(!)

I’m keeping an eye on this, so follow me on Twitter and look out for the hashtag #widescreenwatch on which I’ll announce whenever I spot a film, wider than the usual 16:9, being shown in its correct ratio.

You can also see an article I wrote in 1996 about The Whys of Widescreen by clicking on that link.