Monday, June 30, 2008

The Jupiter Effect

Ever since widescreen TVs became fixtures in bars and cafes, we've been exposed to countless images that were intended to be displayed in 4:3 ratio but are stretched horizontally to fill a 16:9 screen. My informal survey reveals that nearly everyone would rather see an elongated image than deal with black space to the left and right of a properly projected 4:3 image. Something about wasted space bothers a lot of people.

I've been afraid for years now that the public would become acclimated to stretched images, and there's some evidence to support that fear. This weekend I watched a digital projection of Ryuichi Hiroki's Love on Sunday 2: Last Words at the IFC Center, as part of the New York Asian Film Festival. As near as I can figure, the tape was letterboxed, but the projectionist screened it 16:9 anyway. Anyway, the effect was much like all those widescreen TVs in bars that make everyone look like an endomorph. I ran out to the lobby twice to object, but the management didn't take me seriously, and I had to watch the film that way. I didn't see any other patrons complaining, so I guess they figured I was a lone nut.

So why don't these elongated images drive everyone crazy?


Anonymous said...

Dan, I'm happy someone comments on this spreading, ever-increasing fear of void (or waste?) that makes a lot of people (I really cannot understand why, I feel only comfortable when I'm sure I'm watching everything there is to see) prefer to see either flat, mutilated images or (now most TV-screen are 16:9) stretched and distorted (people are fatter, cars longer but seem crushed). There seems to be a mysterious lack of sensitivity or reaction to manipulations of film, nobody worries. I recall when I protested in a theater because they were projecting the film out of focus, and was not the only one, now it is the rest of the audience, not the unexisting usher, who tells you to shut up. But then, neither directors nor cinematographers complain when their work is mutilated or distorted on VHS before, on DVD or on TV or theaters now... Something should be done. May be they have a right to feel "agoraphobia" if they see black areas on their screen, but I feel "claustrophobia" and cheated when I can't see the image whole and AS IT IS, AS IT WAS MADE.
Miguel MarĂ­as

Harmanjit Singh said...

Some reasons come to mind:

- People think the 4:3 aspect ratio is old and TV-ish and they want to watch cinema, which to them means 16:9 or better.

- They have gotten used to 16:9 because the eyes have to move less vertically and it is therefore more comfortable for a large projection area to have it wider than taller (our eyes are more horizontal than vertical), 16:9 ratio mimics the eye surface area.

- They don't mind the elongation of the bad aspect ratio they are more interested in the narrative aspects than in the visual aspects. Just a guess. Or maybe they are not interested at all.

- They have gotten used to elongated images on TV, which they had in the first place because it would crush their egos to have 4:3 images on 16:9 expensive TVs which they bought. Another illustration of the sunk-cost bias:

Anonymous said...

I think those are good explanations. The "we want to watch cinema" one accounts for the people who claim to want CITIZEN KANE in widescreen.

You often see the stretching effect on TVs in bars, which are tuned to one setting no matter what the channel or programming is at the moment. Even a restaurant-bar in this town called "Icon" with a classic-movies theme does this.

A related issue is "tilt-and-scan," which is when Academy ratio films and TV shows are "reformatted" and then mucked with to accommodate (that is, fill) widescreen televisions. An example is the recent box set of episodes from the series ROUTE 66. I'm shocked that anything like this has happened, given the opprobrium with which "pan-and-scan" has been greeted by almost everybody for some years.

I'd guess most people's understanding of film history and aesthetics is only skin deep -- it amounts to following trends (widescreen versus Academy ratio) rather than real knowledge.

Indifference on the part of venues is less forgivable, though (based on my limited experience) increasingly common.

Daniel Kasman said...


Thanks so much for complaining twice, that's more than I had the guts to do! For this screening, it seemed to be very slightly off. I don't know anything of the technicalities of aspect rations, but I feel like it must have been a 1.66 image blown to 1.78 or something---the distortion was there but very minor.

Dan Sallitt said...

Danny - the Love on Sunday movies were shot on video, so 1.66:1 seems unlikely - my impression is that 16:9 (1.78:1) is a standard video ratio. Video projectors can stretch or shrink the image incrementally, so any distortion is possible. And, if the tape was in fact letterboxed (which looked like the case, and which one of the managers said), that can also produce different ratios, if the letterboxer doesn't care about the edges of the frame. I felt that the distortion was fairly substantial - but maybe I'm just unusually touchy about this problem.

Anonymous said...

Dan, someday we'll all just have to retire to our homes. People are being systematically desensitized, and this is not unintentional. Sadly, people are going for it.

What's particularly irksome about this trend, from the p.o.v. of a part-time academic, is that celluloid (esp. 16mm) is being phased out because it is so "unreliable." It breaks, it goes out of focus, whereas supposedly the digital image, like Minute Rice, is Perfect Every Time. But like anything else, if it's being operated by (and for) people who don't know what they're supposed to be seeing, video is every bit as fallible. And, based on classroom experience, at least, the equipment breaks down just as much as film projectors to boot.

NOBODY CARES. Maybe in time, we will evolve as a species, to look more and more like Dora the Explorer, with football-shaped heads, so that our bodies will fall in line with the anamophically squashed TV images we're being assaulted with.

D Cairns said...

I think it's just like people resisted letterboxing on TV for ages, preferring pan-and-scanned, ruined movies. They would say they found black bars at the top and bottom "distracting" -- though why should they be more distracting than the LED on the DVD player? There does seem to be a desire to fill the screen at all costs, but I think it's because people are uneducated about the other valies that might trump the "neat" appearance of a nicely filled screen. Some class on visual awareness for video in elementary school is necessary.

FDW said...

The sensibilty of the cultivated (everyday life with dignity and common sense of preceeding generations especially, etc.)is been overwhelmed by the conditional posture of the consumer.
Simply put what was a customer, an audience, etc is now been replaced with quite dire results and affects by the cosumer. A creature of habit and expectations where a sense of "value" has been substituted with a subconscous (to say the least) identifaction with the means of exchange and ownership of experience at the expense of the experience itself.
That even a distortion even onto the degree of corruption "fills up" space and time is the be all end all of the consumer and consumerism. And the satisfaction of that no matter how temporary is the exclusive object of all consumer desire (really hunger, whereas individual sensible desire is suppressed and warped ) instead of the gratification say of "watching" cinematic art and product potential always might and often will, as and if INTENDED.

Dan Sallitt said...

Hmmm...Blogger seems to have lost a response I made earlier to Miguel and Harmanjit. I'll try to find a copy when I get home.

Michael and Frank: I can't help but wonder if what we're seeing is the democratization of the image! Maybe working stiffs everywhere are seizing control of the means of image production, thanks to video and cheaper home technology, and are sending a message to the stodgy cinema elite: we want a bigger field of visual input, by any means necessary.

David and Jonah: what the heck, I'm game to start an education program. We need to get Scorsese to make a ten-minute educational short, to show as filler on Turner Classic Movies.

Okay, I'm off to watch a pan-and-scan tape of Luciano Salce's El Greco (rather good, if memory serves), because I've been waiting 35 years for a Salce retrospective, and it doesn't seem to be any closer.

FDW said...

Well if you put it that way then I hope you're right. So yes them democratization which is a process and a progressive one and so the processing of the "cinematic" image is a demoratic one in turn. However as the processing as expressed and noted as is in the discussion is one of "distortion" and an effect of the conditions then of the process of democratization not limited or in other words not arisinf from the process as defined necessarily but an effect perhaps arising from outside but only related to the d. process. An effect that is distinctly within the d. process in comparison would be I would say education as a characterization of the process where aesthetic sensibility would be the effect proper. Where education and cultivation would be equivalent operative concepts here. But given the state of public or even higher education public or private and their trend to ignore or by- pass civic mindedness, critical and creative thinking,and the diciplines and practices of attention and concentration in an everyday as well as more "advanced" application in favor of whatever the hell the education and civil system is doing these days in this country, it is a small wonder...
Yet like I sd. I take your cue and yes that's of course what the public wants is a larger visual field forthwith or everybody's gonna have to pay and the purists who don't want to eat the ambrosia with their meat and potatoes are going to have to grin and bear the groundlings discontent until some wing-nut pulls the plug on the projector and "the miracle of Cinemascope " ushers in a "new" age for the masses ?!
Jeeze, I should've been watching the time!

C. Mason Wells said...


Let me assure you that the letterboxing was the only method of presentation available to us. The tapes came with the English subtitles burned BELOW the image, so if any non-Japanese speakers wanted to understand the dialogue, the films (unfortunately) had to be presented in this manner.

As for the aspect ratio, the screenings I attended for LOVE ON SUNDAY and LOVE ON SUNDAY 2 were both correct with no distortion. I asked our projectionist on duty and technical director about the screening you attended, and both informed me the projection was correct. Further, one of the head directors and programmers of NYAFF (and a huge fan of Hirocki's work, to boot) sat through the same screening as you, and he also said the film was projected without error.

Besides the projection, though, I'm definitely sorry for the lack of attention you received; word of your complaint never reached our manager. That's certainly a problem, and I've passed along your post to my coworkers.

Chris Wells
IFC Center

Dan Sallitt said...

Chris - I wasn't bothered at all by the letterboxing. I'm surprised, though, that experts would say that there was no distortion at that June 29 screening of Love on Sunday 2 - it's not the sort of problem that one can conjure up out of imagination. The first Love on Sunday film that same day looked fine.

It occurs to me that it's difficult to provide proof of the Jupiter Effect to a projectionist or manager. If a film is shown in the wrong aspect ratio, often there's a side effect that changes the narrative: heads are cut off, boom microphones appear. But a stretched or squashed image gives all the same information as a proper one. Barring a scientific inquiry, it's one person's word against another's.

Thanks for passing my complaint along.

Anonymous said...

It mystifies me that so many people claim to be "distracted" by black bars on their TV screens, but don't seem similarly distracted by all the visual space surrounding their TV. All that "wasted" space!

Personally, I only feel comfortable watching 2.35:1 images that have been pan-and-scanned to fit a 16:9 monitor and had digital noise reduction performed on them by George Lucas himself.

Dan Sallitt said...

Well, there are some pretty big TV screens out there these days. Maybe people are distracted by the visual space around the TV, and are slowly eliminating it.

Anonymous said...

Dan, I am a bit late commenting and won't expatiate on the weird phenomenon of the general public's apparent preference for grotesquely elongated and distorted images, since many fine points have already be made. I have, however, my own personal pet peeve about 16:9 screens and I would assume most film buffs would share it so that I am rather surprised that I haven't seen it mentioned here or anywhere else.

My experience is not in bars or cafes but at home. Three months ago I purchased two fairly expensive (about $1,200 each)Sony Bravia 32" flat-screen LCD sets. They offer four screen setting options, rather bizarrely and misleadingly labelled: "Wide Zoom," "Normal," "Full" and "Zoom". Wide Zoom and Full are useless, their only purpose being to elongate and stretch out the image (Wide Zoom seems merely to be an exagerated version of "Full"). "Normal" displays the 4:3 picture in its original aspect ratio with black bars right and left. It also shows wide screen films in the proper aspect ratio in a letterbox format. If you want the watch a wide-screen film full screen your option is "Zoom."

This sounds fine and most of the time it looks fine. What I soon discovered to my dismay, however, is that the 16:9 format doesn't work for very tightly framed shots, especially closeups. Invariably, in such shots, the top of the picture is cropped out of frame. In close-ups of an actor, very often the top of his/her hat, or of his/her head is cut off. The closer the close-up, the more of the head is left out, the framing being sometimes just above the eyes.This happens no matter what the film's original aspect ratio was.

I find this flaw extremely distracting and frustrating. Evidently, those sophisticated TVs have been devised carelessly enough so that they cannot show a movie the way it was shot and was intended to be seen. In other words, there has been little actual progress since the era of pan-and-scanning.

Fortunately most directors use extreme closeups sparingly, and many films come through entirely or almost entirely unscathed, but in some cases entire scenes, or even an entire movie, become unwatchable. The scene of Elizabeth Taylor's long monologue in "Suddenly Last Summer" has many huge close-ups of the three characters with their faces cropped just above the eyes (I watched it on TCM and a couple of weeks later on DVD: same thing). I tried to watch the DVD of Peter Watkins's "Edvard Munch": the movie is filmed almost entirely in very close shots of
the characters, and again, the tops of their heads have vanished. After twenty minutes or so I couldn't take it anymore.

Another problem with 16:9 is that there also seems to be insufficient space at the bottom of the screen. Although that flaw very seldom damages the picture the way it does at the top of the screen, it becomes annoyingly obvious with wide-screen subtitled films, in which the subtitles often turn out to be partly or completely invisible.I have witnessed the following possibilities: only top half of the subtitle line visible; first line of subtitle visible but second line (if any) invisible; no subtitles visible at all. In the later case, the only way to access the subtitles is to revert to the "Normal" option and watch the film in letterbox format.

The irony is that these problems did not exist with my old TV sets, which I an sorry I have discarded after buying the new ones.

Jean-Pierre Coursodon

Dan Sallitt said...

Jean-Pierre - I don't know much about widescreen TVs, myself. Do you feel pretty confident that the problem is a design issue, and not configuration or something else? Is Sony tech support available?