Widescreen Stretches Hype to New Limits

SOMEWHERE OUT THERE You might not have noticed that Philips has done it again. I ain't talking about the Philips that's now part of Thomson, the one that used to be Philips, which used to be BTS, which used to be Philips, which used to be – in the United States, anyhow – Norelco.

That one's mighty fine Philips. It gave us such nice things as Plumbicons and triax and Dave Bancroft. Fine company, that Philips.

No, the one I'm talking about is the consumer electronics part of Philips, which is also pretty danged wonderful, giving us ghost canceling and some of the best ways of displaying interlaced pix that have yet been invented. And it obviously ain't their products I'm ticked off about, but their hypesters.

Perhaps you may recall something of my rant three years ago or so about the Philips-sponsored "DTV For Dummies" book. Just in case you don't, and in case you've already burned it with the rest of your trash, I will attempt to describe, as best I can, Figure 2-2 from page 23, a comparison of the 4:3 and 16:9 aspect ratios. I'd show you a copy here, but there are laws, you know.


Anyhow, the top of Figure 2-2 shows a rectangle about 33.5mm wide and 23.5mm high, an aspect ratio of about 1.42:1. It is very clearly labeled "4:3 Ratio." Below it is another rectangle. It's a touch over 45mm wide and about 31.5mm high, also an aspect ratio of about 1.42:1. It is very clearly labeled "16:9 Ratio." Conclusion for Dummies: 4:3 and 16:9 are exactly the same shape, but 16:9 is bigger. Clear?

Well, it seems that someone at Philips has determined that, Figure 2-2 notwithstanding, widescreen sets just aren't selling as well as they might. So they turned to director Martin Scorsese to help them push the concept. Here's his pitch:

"Widescreen films – particularly anamorphic or scope films – really suffer a great deal when they're altered for broadcast on standard television. A director works painstakingly to set up a shot or scene – the whole meaning of which is lost when a film is cropped or panned and scanned to fit a standard television screen."

So far, I ain't got any complaints. Who wants her masterpiece butchered by boorish TV techs, eh? But then he continues:

"When a film is viewed on a widescreen-formatted set, the audience is able to experience the original film intact, the way the director intended."

As River City Mayor Shinn might have noted, that's pretty interesting "phrase-ology." I wonder what a "widescreen-formatted" set is. Methinks it's one that shrinks a picture to fit so that nothing is cut off – what we ultra-sophisticated vision scientists call "letterbox." Philips, methinks, disagrees with me. Here's a line from their press release, comparing 16:9 and 4:3 aspect ratios:

"Widescreen television, however, displays a more rectangular image in a 16:9 aspect ratio, with most widescreen movies filling the entire screen without distortion and without losing any of the film footage, providing the consumer with the opportunity to see the movie as the director intended." "Filling the entire screen" surely ain't the same thing as letterbox.


Well, now, there's a conundrum. Who's right? Gigantic Philips Electronics, one of the world's biggest manufacturers of TV sets, or little old non-existent me?

Hey – I'd never be able to figure it out, but fortunately the press release offers even more:

"In addition to participating in a global media campaign, and in support of the educational efforts, Mr. Scorsese issued a top 10 list of the best movies to watch in widescreen, including such films as Lawrence of Arabia (1962, dir. David Lean), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968, dir. Stanley Kubrick), East of Eden (1955, dir. Elia Kazan) and Bladerunner (1982, dir. Ridley Scott). A copy of the full list can be obtained on the Philips Web site at www.news.philips.com."

Well, it wasn't there when I checked, but I got a copy of the list anyhow (my secret source is the Philips press release):

2001: A Space Odyssey, Bladerunner, Ben-Hur, East Of Eden, High and Low, Lawrence Of Arabia, Lola Montes, Once Upon a Time in the West, Some Came Running and Zulu.

What do all those movies have in common? Let us turn to the source of all knowledge, the Philips press release:

"The movies on this list have aspect ratios of 2.21:1, 2.35:1 or higher. In order to preserve the integrity of the films, they will appear with small black bars above and below the image on Philips and other manufacturers' widescreen televisions."

Whoopsie! Looks like I was right for once. To view Martin Scorsese's movies properly on even a widescreen set, you've got to use letterboxing.


"But, Mario, won't there be less letterboxing on a 16:9 set than on a 4:3 set?"

That all depends. Let me pick a nice convenient size for a 16:9 TV set. How about a screen 32 inches wide? That's twice 16, which means the height is going to be twice 9, or 18 inches. Are you with me so far? That's roughly the size of some direct-view widescreen TVs being sold – close to a 37-inch diagonal.

Now, as long as I'm hypothesizing, I'm going to pick a 4:3 TV set with a screen that's also 32 inches wide. It'll be 24 inches high. But, if you want to watch something 16:9 on it, you'd need to letterbox. After letterboxing, the image height will be – (drum roll, please) – 18 inches. Ayup, as long as the image width is the same, the size of the letterboxed images will be the same. A 2.2:1 or 2.35:1 image will be exactly the same size on the two sets – as long as the image aspect ratio is at least as wide as the screen aspect ratio.

Scorcese's list has some great widescreen movies by some great directors. Kubrick's 2001 is gonna look tiny even on a 16:9 (1.78:1) TV set when it's letterboxed to the 2.2:1 aspect ratio the Widescreen Museum says it had (www.widescreenmuseum.com). And, remember, the image will be the exact same size on a 4:3 or a 16:9 screen. But what if you want to watch a different Kubrick masterpiece?

Paths of Glory ought to be seen at 1.375:1. That's probably close enough to 4:3 that you don't need to do any letterboxing on a 4:3 screen (the Philips press release says 16:9 is roughly 1.85:1). So, on that 4:3 screen, the image is going to be about 24 x 32; on the 16:9 screen, it'll be only about 18 x 24. Score a big one for the 4:3 TV set.

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb is another Kubrick masterpiece. I ain't entirely sure what the aspect ratio on it is supposed to be, but my sources whisper 1.66:1. So, on the 4:3 screen, that'll be a letterboxed picture 32 inches wide and a little over 19 inches high. On the 16:9 set it'll be a pillarboxed picture 18 inches high and not quite 30 inches wide. Score two for the 4:3 screen.


Now, then, in the interests of fairness, I suppose I ought to point out that the consensus of opinion in the TV-set industry is that the manufacturing cost of 4:3 and 16:9 screens gets comparable at equal diagonal, not equal width (but it surely doesn't look that way in stores). Anyhow, there ain't one whole heck of a lot of difference.

A 32-inch wide 4:3 set has a 40-inch diagonal; a 40-inch diagonal 16:9 set would be 19.6 x 34.9 instead of 18 x 32. 2001 and Dr. Strangelove would both be a smidgen bigger on the 16:9 screen, but Paths of Glory would still be a lot bigger on the 4:3 screen.

So would Gone with the Wind. So would The Wizard of Oz. So would (going down Scorsese's list by director) Elia Kazan's On the Waterfront, Akira Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai, David Lean's Oliver Twist, Vincente Minnelli's Meet Me in St. Louis and William Wyler's Wuthering Heights – all of them masterpieces, all of them visible full-screen on a 4:3 TV, and all of them either pillarboxed or butchered on a 16:9 screen. But let us not let facts get in the way of hype, eh?

Speaking of which, an esteemed trade-press colleague of mine (who might be steamed when he reads this), who shall remain nameless (but whose initials are Mark Schubin), seems to think that now is the time to buy HDTV equipment. How come? He learned that Sony's cheapest HDCAM recorder lists for a wee mite less than their cheapest Digital Betacam recorder.

Well, that's nice, dear, but a recorder does not a system make. Methinks Quartz's cheapest HD router goes for around four times what their equivalent SD router goes for. Sony's HD Xpri editor costs one whole heck of a lot more than their SD version; ditto their monitors. And, anyhow, who says the comparison ought to be between Digital Betacam and HDCAM?


I'll buy the idea of comparing prices within one manufacturer's line, but there's a lot more to Sony's SD digital-component line than D-Beta. The Betacam SX DNW-75 goes for about half of the nearest HDCAM equivalent, and that's 4:2:2. HDCAM is 3:1:1-ish in the HD domain, so how about comparing it to Sony's 4:1:1 DVCAM? You could buy seven DSR-1500 decks for the cost of one HDCAM deck.

Now I've done it! Based on what I've ranted about this lunar cycle, no doubt I'm going to be pegged as anti-HD and anti-widescreen, to which I say, "male bovine patooties!"

I think HD is beautiful. I think it's gotten better and cheaper over the years, and I even go along with the idea that downconverted HD looks better shot SD in the first place. But, if you're going to buy HD equipment, do it because you want HD equipment, not because some hypester pretends it's now cheaper than SD. It ain't.

As for widescreen, I love movies, and I'll grant that 1.85:1 movies, which is most of what comes out of Hollywood these days, fit in 16:9 pretty well. But don't try to sell me on the idea that classic movies fit 16:9 better than 4:3. That's more male bovine patooties! Most of what's on anyone's list of the greatest movies ever made will fit on a 4:3 screen better than 16:9, and I'll bet Martin Scorsese agrees.

But, knowing the kinds of movies he makes and the tough-guy contacts he must have, if he doesn't agree, I am certainly willing to reconsider my position. Is that all right with you, Mr. Scorsese, sir?