A Brief History of Widescreen, Part 2: Anamorphic

October 1st, 2009

Last week, I described the process of shooting a 1.85:1 widescreen film, and explained why the full screen version of such a film often exposes more image area than the widescreen version. However, a fair number of widescreen movies are shot with an even wider aspect ratio, 2.39:1. This is often called the “scope” format, short for CinemaScope, the forerunner to the current photographic process used to shoot films in that aspect ratio. The scope aspect ratio is sometimes listed as 2.35:1, which was the standard until 1970, or 2.40:1, which is simply the result of rounding, but don’t let this confuse you—all three figures refer to the same basic thing.

Contact, widescreen

Remember that 1:85:1 films are shot by exposing the entire frame of film, whose aspect ratio is 1.37:1, then extracting a smaller 1.85:1 area from within that frame. Unfortunately, 2.39:1 films can’t be shot that way, because too much of the frame would go unused. With 1.85:1 films, just over a quarter of the film’s resultion goes unused because it’s taken up by the extraneous areas above and below the 1.85:1 area. That’s a fair portion, but the remaining three-quarters can still produce an image of perfectly acceptable quality. However, shooting a 2.39:1 film that way would entail giving up more than fourty percent of the available resolution. That amount is not considered acceptable; the resultant image would lack detail, and would have to be blown up significantly, resulting in an excessively “grainy” image.

Ultimately, two different approaches were developed to solve the problem of shooting a 2.39:1 film on 1.37:1 film. One of these techniques, dubbed “Super 35,” actually works similarly to shooting a 1.85:1 film in that the 2.39:1 image is extracted from within a larger overall frame (I’ll describe the process more fully in the future). The more novel approach involves using an “anamorphic” lens to shoot the film. An anamorphic lens distorts the image by compressing it horizontally. In an image captured using an anamorphic lens, everything appears tall and skinny.

Contact, anamorphic

Films shot anamorphically are played back on a projector whose lens does exactly the opposite, stretching the image horizontally, back to its correct proportions. When this is done, the image, captured on film with an aspect ratio of 1.37:1, is now of course a lot wider: 2.39:1. This technique allows filmmakers to capture a wide 2.39:1 image while retaining the full resolution of the 1.37:1 frame of film.

As a result, an anamorphically-shot film doesn’t have any extraneous picture information that can be exposed in a full screen release. When an anamorphically-shot film is shown full-screen, it must be done via the much-maligned (and rightly so) “pan and scan” process, whereby the sides of the image are cropped to achieve the 1.33:1 aspect ratio (that of a standard television). The 1.33 area that remains is sometimes shifted around with respect to the original 2.39:1 frame in an attempt to capture the “most important” parts of the image, but the inescapable result is that more than fourty percent of the image as composed by the director and cinematographer is simply discarded, seriously compromising their work.

Contact, pan and scan

Penn & Teller Get Killed on DVD

September 29th, 2009

The Penn & Teller Get Killed DVD that I mentioned last week arrived over the weekend. Though I have not yet had the opportunity to sit down and enjoy the entire movie, I did take the time to briefly skip through the film and sample the quality of a few select scenes.

I’m happy to report that the DVD’s image quality is perfectly adequate, at least to my eyes. DVDs released through the burn-on-demand Warner Archive program are generally made with existing materials, which may be in need of remastering or otherwise not in the best condition, so quality can be a real concern. Fortunately, Penn & Teller appears to be in pretty good shape, ostensibly because a new high-definition transfer was prepared for the cable showing I mentioned previously.

Penn & Teller Get Killed screen capture

Everything else about the release is pretty basic. The audio is presented as a standard two-channel Dolby Surround track. The menu consists of a single generic screen with only one option: “play movie.” Chapter stops are placed at ten-minute intervals, rather than at the beginning of key scenes. There are no supplements, which isn’t particularly surprising for a burn-on-demand budget release, but some of the Warner Archive titles at least have a trailer. Penn & Teller has nothing.

Penn & Teller Get Killed DVD

Of course, the point of the Warner Archive program isn’t to get lesser-known films on DVD with a high-quality audio and video presentation; it’s to get them on DVD at all. All things considered, Penn & Teller Get Killed actually turned out quite well. I can finally retire my laserdisc and Asian video CD releases of the film.

NES Hard

September 25th, 2009

At the local shopping mall last week, I saw an ad for A Boy and His Blob, an upcoming Wii game. I became pretty excited, because I quite enjoyed the original NES version of A Boy and His Blob when I was younger, and I had no idea that a new version was in the works.

As I thought about it, I realized that A Boy and His Blob is the perfect candidate for a modern remake, because it features novel gameplay that still holds up well, yet has some issues that could be addressed in a new take on the concept.

The gameplay mechanics were done right the first time around, and are actually rather novel. The player controls an ordinary-looking boy who’s followed around by a shape-shifting alien blob. The boy carries a pouch of jellybeans of various flavors. Feeding one to the blob causes him to transform into one of several different objects, depending on the flavor of the jellybean. Feed the blob a licorice-flavored jellybean, and he transforms into a ladder, allowing the boy to climb up to high ledges. Feed him a punch-flavored jellybean, and he transforms into a hole, through which the boy can drop into underground passageways. There are thirteen flavors altogether. Solving the game requires figuring out which objects to use in various situations, and feeding the blob the appropriate jellybeans.

A Boy and His Blob

Unfortunately, despite its fun gameplay, A Boy and His Blob is frustratingly difficult in places. Often, it is unclear where the player should go or what he should do to proceed. There’s nothing wrong with difficult puzzles, but A Boy and His Blob is artificially hard in the way that a lot of old NES games are. It presents the player with obstacles but not even the slightest hint as to how to progress past them. That’s more than mere difficulty; it’s outright unfairness. It’s practically impossible to beat that kind of game without using a walkthrough, and forcing the player to resort to external references to progress indicates a fundamental design flaw.

A friend of mine coined the term “NES hard” to describe this kind of faulty gameplay. I like that description, because it’s the kind of problem that was sadly prevalent among games of the NES console generation. Even the best and most enduring games of that era succumbed to this phenomenon at times. The Legend of Zelda launched one of the all-time great video game franchises, spawning over a dozen sequels to date, yet even it forced the player to somehow divine which specific bush out of thousands in the game he had to burn in order to reveal the hidden entrance to a particular level.

The Legend of Zelda

In spite of its flaws, The Legend of Zelda is now considered a classic, and the series has since produced even better games by combining the time-tested adventure elements of the original with more sensible level designs. A Boy and His Blob has the potential to be a great game by coupling the same sensible design philosophy with the basic mechanics of the original. That’s why I’m looking forward to the new Wii version, which is being released on October 13.

A Brief History of Widescreen

September 24th, 2009

The classic film Penn & Teller Get Killed has finally been released on DVD thanks to the “Warner Archive” program, through which Warner Bros. sells smaller catalogue titles on DVD-R media via their web site.

Penn & Teller Get Killed

What I found most interesting about the release is that it is in widescreen, whereas all previous home video releases of the title—even the laserdisc—were in full screen. Since the Warner Archive program is aimed at releasing titles on the cheap, I wouldn’t expect Warner Bros. to have created a widescreen transfer of the film especially for this release. Some of the Warner Archive titles (though not Penn & Teller, specifically) even include an “Important Note” on their product page: “This film has been manufactured from the best-quality video master currently available and has not been remastered or restored specifically for this DVD…release.”

When I asked about the issue on the official Penn & Teller bulletin board, another fan informed me about a recent widescreen presentation of the film on cable television. In describing this version, she explained that “what they actually did was crop the top and bottom off the 4:3 version,” then pondered whether the new DVD featured a “genuine 16:9” version.

That’s a reasonable question. Conventional wisdom holds that a widescreen image offers more picture information, revealing parts of the image that are cropped out of its full-screen equivalent. Actually, the situation is more complicated than that. Understanding why requires a brief primer on film history.

Movies were historically shot in a 1.37:1 aspect ratio, about the same as that of a standard television, until the mid-1950s, when the introduction of television inspired studios to adopt the “widescreen” process as a gimmick to persuade people to watch movies in theaters instead of at home.

However, they didn’t develop new cameras or film stock to achieve the wider aspect ratio. Instead, they continued to capture an image on the entirety of the standard 1.37:1 frame of film, while actually composing the shot for a smaller 1.85:1 area within that frame (wider 2.39:1 “scope” films are shot differently, an even more complicated topic about which I’ll write in the future).

This practice continues today. The monitor that a director or cinematographer uses to frame his shot typically has markings on it to indicate the 1.85:1 area that will be displayed in theaters, but there is extraneous picture information above and below that area that does find its way onto the film. When a movie is released on DVD or shown on television in full screen, the frame is usually just “opened up” to expose this additional area.

So the viewer will indeed see more picture information in the full screen version than in the widescreen one, but the important point is that only with the widescreen version will he see the image as it was composed by the director and his cinematographer.

Sometimes, opening up the frame can lead to revealing mistakes. A Fish Called Wanda features one of the most famous examples of this, wherein a supposedly naked John Cleese is shown to actually be wearing shorts, which are hidden just off-screen in the properly-framed widescreen version.

A Fish Called Wanda, widescreen

A Fish Called Wanda, full screen

If you know a little bit about film history and the way films are shot, it’s not surprising that the widescreen version of Penn & Teller Get Killed reveals less of the image than the full screen version. But that’s the way it was exhibited in theaters, and more importantly, the way it was meant to be seen, so I’m quite glad that the widescreen version is the one being included on the DVD.

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