Never Mind 1920x1080: Let’s Repeal July 1776!

You might not have noticed that Kerns Powers is American. Heck, you might not have noticed Kerns Powers at all recently, which is a pretty danged big shame, on account of his being one of the greatest engineers our industry has ever produced.

SMPTE has noticed him. Powers retired in 1987, and won the SMPTE Progress Medal the following year. Still retired, he won SMPTE’s Sarnoff Medal in 2003. Heck, if he continues not to do any more work, he’ll probably sweep all their awards!

Here’s one of the main reasons he keeps winning awards: widescreen TV. I’ve heard tell that SMPTE (or, as it was at the time, SMPE) actually accidentally invented the 16:9 aspect ratio around 1930. I’ve heard tell that some dude at Philips invented 16:9 to sell TV sets.

Maybe so, but 16:9 wouldn’t have become the global standard for the shape of TV pix if not for Kerns Powers. He did a bunch of math and proved, conclusively and beyond a shadow of a doubt, that 16:9 is absolutely the best possible shape for shooting. Around 10 years after that, he apologized for his mistake, but by then it was too late. Everyone had already adopted the aspect ratio.


Maybe I shouldn’t use the word “adopted.” When you adopt a kid, you need to commit to being a parent and doing work. The global selection of 16:9 was more like picking a spot for lunch: If it’s convenient, tasty, and cheap, great. If there’s effort involved, forget it.

Maybe I also shouldn’t have used the word “everyone.” In Europe and a few other parts of the world, folks really did adopt 16:9. They figured out ways to get TV sets to detect whether stuff was 16:9 or 4:3, and they figured out how to make 16:9 stuff work okay on 4:3 TV sets.

I mean, have a look at the mother country. I’m serious. Get on a plane and go to Britain. You don’t need to spend much time there; the electronics shops at the airport are good enough. On all the TVs, the screens will be wide, but the folks depicted on them will not. Do the same thing on the shores of the good old U.S. of A., and chances are really good that the skinniest of actors will apparently be in desperate need of a diet.

Heck, I ain’t got any defense for the way Brits spell defence, and I know they drive on the wrong side of the road, print the spines of their books upside down, drink warm beer, and think 9/11 means Nov. 9. But, when it comes to TV, they’ve always done a better job than us.

Never mind “The Office,” which we blatantly stole from our cousins across the pond (ditto “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” and, with title changes, even shows like “Sanford & Son” and “All in the Family”). Never mind all the PBS programming that comes from “over there.” This here sad excuse for a rag (how can you properly wrap fish with glossy, small pages?) is called TV Technology, so I’ll try to restrict myself to that.


From roughly World War II into The Sixties, Yanks had 525 lines and 30 fps in their television, and Brits had 405 lines and 25 frames. So, who had better looking pix? According to an American delegation of engineers that went on a fact-finding tour—again, that was an American delegation—the Brits won.

There were a bunch of different opinions about exactly why the folks with fewer lines and fewer frames beat us, but they were all related to the care they took in everything from designing transmitter filters to cleaning lenses and training technicians. Come to think of it, when’s the last time you cleaned your lenses (front and back) and trained your technicians, eh?

Anyhow, that’s not what I wanted to rant about. Let me go back to Kerns’s apology.

Like any good engineer, he solved an engineering problem in coming up with a 1.77:1 aspect ratio (a wee mite shy of 16:9) as the ideal for production. If you look for the shape that will lose the least area when shooting for shapes ranging from ordinary TV’s 4:3 all the way out to CinemaScope, it turns out to be 1.77:1 (depending on exactly what shape you attribute to CinemaScope).

Too bad it wasn’t an engineering problem. When you edit, you often do that based on when folks enter or leave the frame. In a minimum-loss-of-area system, they’ll do that at a different moment in time for each frame shape. That’s why cinematographers have long used “common sides” shooting, where all screen shapes share common sides (so editing works for any aspect ratio), and only the picture height changes.


As soon as Kerns realized that, great engineer that he is, he gave a presentation pointing out his mistake. But it was too late, especially on our side of the pond, where the most-watched networks were transmitting pictures cut out of the center of widescreen images. The editing was screwed up, and either important stuff got cut off on the sides of the picture or “protected” pictures had “fluff” on the sides.

Automatic format description, if and when everyone from the manufacturers of cameras to the manufacturers of TV sets agrees on what it is, what it’s supposed to do, and how to implement it, helps. It’ll keep letterboxed widescreen and pillarboxed “normal” shapes from turning into eensy “postage stamps” on some screens, but it ain’t about to prevent that chopping or fluffing of your video.

Meanwhile, in Britain, they’ve used 14:9. That’s less than 9 percent of cutoff per edge, which is within safe title. Likewise, the black bars above and below the pix get lost in overscan (I know that overscan increases the 9 percent, but I’m making a perfect argument here; don’t bother me with facts).

Rule Britannia!