Saturday, 17 May 2008

Life is not widescreen

I can remember the thrill of seeing the Cinemascope version of The Robe. When it opened the screen got wider and wider and we all gasped in amazement as we turned our heads from side to side to scan the stunning panorama. However, after 135 minutes of Richard Burtonism and Victor Maturity, with only Jean Simmons and Ernest Thesiger (as Tiberius) to relieve the boredom, we had stopped feeling the width and were minding the quality of what was really just another slab of epic piffle.

The super-wide Cinemascope on the New Miracle Curved Screen didn't last. Here there is comprehensive note on widescreens generally and here is a detailed list of film formats from 1888 to the present.

It is a complicated story, but the sad fact is that the 4:3 format which largely dominated the first two-thirds of the history of the cinema and the whole of TV history except for the last few years is now dead, and 16:9 rules, whether we like it or not.

I don't like it, much. It seems to me obvious that widescreen is best suited for showing either vast prairies or scenes where one or two people are lying prone or dozens are marching or standing still facing the camera in a long line (it's significant that formats in photography called portrait and landscape).

For almost anything other than corpses, the Last Supper or Alberta, 4
:3 is artistically, dramatically and practically much better. For one or two talking heads, which after all account for a high proportion of what goes on drama, widescreen is pointless and distracting. It's not as if the format can be adjusted to suit the action: letterboxing and pan-and-scan can only be applied to the whole film.

However, one gets used to 16:9 after a bit, and when it comes to watching old films at least the format can be changed at the press of a button. I find I am offered a choice of seven ways of handling 4:3, though if you leave it on Auto you get the one that simply stretches it sideways, so that everyone looks like the late Stubby Kaye.

[Computer monitors have always had something like a 4:3 format and the screen is the wrong way round if you are working with documents, which most of us are, most of the time; ideally, you need to turn it round to portrait and have a widescreen one as well.]


Grumio said...

I agree with you excepting only in the underlying points you make, the general thrust of your argument and the conclusions you draw. By leaping into Cinemascope (2.55:1) as though it were the first and pre-eminent widescreen format you ignore the fact that it is an extreme version of widescreen (though not as extreme, admittedly, as "looney" Abel Gance's 4:1 Polyvision for the last reels of "I may be short but I sure am wide "NAPOLEON"). 4:3, which you appear to favour, was born out of the practical limitation of the size of film negatives and, like other widespread-but-not-because-they–are–good standards (VHS, first past the post democracy, Windows etc.), its adoption has nothing to do with the user's satisfaction.

The human field of vision, being binocular along a horizontal plane, is wider than it is high by a proportion greater than 4:3 but not as great as 2.55:1. I suppose it varies according to how close together your eyes are but for most people it is around 1.7:1, a little less for Edward G. Robinson. It is therefore more natural and comfortable to have moving images framed in that proportion. 1.7 is remarkably close to 16:9, yer widescreen television. Put another way, watching a 4:3 image means that there will tend to be greater distracting areas in your field of vision to the sides of the image you are watching than there would be with a 16:9 image – your curtains, your bottle of Bailey's, the cat etc.. So I would take issue with the very basis of your post and say that Life actually is widescreen – though not Cinemascope.

You are quite wrong in the examples you give. 16:9 is wide enough to allow for much greater choice of shot composition for the cinematographer than 4:3 whether he or she is composing a one-shot, a two-shot or a landscape. Yet it is not so wide as Cinemascope and its ilk so as to force every shot to be a wide shot and to contain vast swathes of redundant imagery. Equally, for the news studio or the interview format, 16:9 retains the natural balance of the human field of vision without being so wide as to maroon Sir Trevor MacDonald in acres of wasted screen. Where Cinemascope comes into its own is indeed in the cinema if the epic scale of the presentation calls for the cinematographer to go beyond a natural ratio to an image which indeed is not human in its scale. There are trade offs, of course, in that even a film with 50,000 orcs streaming over Brodwib's Glabe (or whatever) will need occasionally to close up on a single orc sweating. The cinematographer's challenge is in doing this without giving the audience Wimbledon Neck. Successful examples of such wide aspect ratios in stories that are not epic in nature are few, but include 1967's THE GRADUATE – Robert Surtees earned his Oscar for achieving startling imagery in 2.35:1 without ever alienating the audience or leaving suburbia.

Of course the Greeks predated even Edison in understanding all this. The Golden Rectangle (1.62:1) has been understood since their times as being particularly harmonious. It can only be because they didn't need the extra width for rolling news tickers that their plasma screens weren't 16:9. Or because they were thinking of Edward G. Robinson.

Tony said...

After Father Copleston, the big gun of the Jesuits, had opened a radio discussion with Bertrand Russell some years ago, Russell responded in his prissy aristocratic tones: "You have raised a great many points, and I am not sure where to begin..."

So it is with me and your comment, though I do not think either of us have much in common with those two, and they were arguing about The Existence of God, a far less complex matter than screen formats.

So you must bear with me while I prepare a response to what you have written. I am off shortly to the Charleston Festival to hear a discussion between the authors of two recent social histories; I shall reply to you tomorrow.

Grumio said...

Sure. I'll look at it when I get back from church.

Or the pub, whichever comes first.

Tony said...

Your first sentence, Grumio, is a sly way of saying that everything I wrote is total rubbish, and I can only retort that I did make it clear that I was merely expressing my taste which, I would be the first to admit, is that of an aged Luddite whose views on everything hardened into narrow-minded prejudice round about the time that King George V's life moved peacefully toward its close.

So I accept your comments in their entirety except for the assertions which are totally false. You could say that I take issue with some of the points you make, or, if you prefer, that I want to make a point about some of the issues that you raise.

I know that Cinemascope was an aberration; I mentioned it merely as a reminiscence to start off the piece.

I cannot see how 4:3 was imposed by the size of film negatives: this makes no sense. It must have been based on someone's concept of a reasonable proportion, which it is.

The balance of the human field of vision is irrelevant. We can see side to side more than up and down simply because that is what primitive men needed: their predators and their game were more likely to come from one side than from above or below.

Above all, your talk of the Golden Mean and the problems of composition does not support your theory of the inherent rightness of 16:9, because if what you say were true then most painters would be using something like these proportions; go round any picture gallery and you will see that most of the pictures are nearer 4:3.

But I suppose that we differ mainly because nearly all the films I want to see again are old ones and my cinematic tastes are stuck in the middle third of the last century. I do, however, accept that the coming of colour to our screens was a substantial advance, though I can think of a dozen classics that would not have been improved by it, and none to which widescreen would have added anything.

Grumio said...

Actually no, the 4:3 ratio was not chosen for aesthetic reasons but is related to the physical size of film as I previously made clear. Film is/was, as you know, 35mm wide and to alight on a reasonable use of the available width per frame Edison and Dickson chose a spacing of four perforations. This gave a space per frame of 24.89mmx18.67mm – 1.33:1 that is 4:3. (When sound was added thus taking up some of the width, the width of each frame was slightly reduced to make space while keeping the same, or nearly the same, ratio).

I am not sure where you are going with our primitive visual needs. You imply that less successful branches of homo sapiens whose eyes were one above the other avoided eagles only to be savaged by sabre-toothed tigers and hence died out. I think that theory needs work. Binocular creatures who exist in a world where their predators may arrive along any plane (I am thinking here principally of sea creatures) also have eyes better suited to landscape than portrait. I suppose turbot is a strange case, I grant you.

My father, whose company I think you would greatly enjoy, by the way, first secured us a colour television as a small second set in a promotional offer with our new 26" black and white from Radio Rentals. The whole family found the colour too garish and we sent it back. There's a bit of a Luddite in all of us, I suppose. And a part of every turbot which longs for an HDTV.

Tony said...

Your admirable exposition of the technical background of the choice of 4:3 in no way refutes my refutation of your proposition that 16:9 is in some way superior to 4:3. If Edison and Dixon thought that widescreen would have been aesthetically better (unlikely, as they were not artists) they could have used three perforations instead of four.

What you say about fish is unconvincing, and in my experience the introduction of turbot anatomy into an argument is always a sign of desperation, or at least a red herring.

You may be right in saying that I would enjoy the company of your father, but I doubt it. He was once pointed out to me at one of those noisy parties you used to give at the Rambocus Club in Frith Street—I remember dear old Bix was there with that awful Farnsbarns woman—but your father was being sick into someone's hat at the time and I felt it would be inappropriate to introduce myself,

Grumio said...

Oh yes he always does that if people are boring him, helps to "move the conversation on" as he puts it. He'd probably been cornered by Odoreida.