Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The DGA noms - the HDTV squash n' stretch

January 10, 2011

The DGA noms were announced Monday.  The nominees are:

Darren Aronofsky, Black Swan
David Fincher, The Social Network
Tom Hooper, The King's Speech
Christopher Nolan, Inception
David O. Russell, The Fighter

All five nominees are deserving, most especially Mr. Nolan. And he could win, but The Social Network has collected just about every critic's award under the sun, and I have a growing feeling that this is Fincher's year. And what's wrong with that, as the song once said?

The surprise for most people here was the omission of the Coens for True Grit. And they could still make Oscar's cut, supplanting Russell. Both fir the profile of auteur directors that the Academy likes, but the Coens have a longer resume and are more highly regarded. I'm betting they get in with Oscar.

I was going to write about Exit Through the Gift Shop, which I watched on Sunday, but as the owner of a new HDTV, I feel compelled to speak out on a GIANT pet peeve of mine - people's insistence on "stretching" the picture to fill the TV frame.

This drives me NUTS , because it makes movies, especially old movies,  look terrible. A little education is in order here.

Movies come in 3 basic shapes. The first of these is the 1.33: 1 ratio, what's called the "Academy" ratio. Almost every movie made before the 1950s fit into this shape, which was a very modest rectangle and was the size of standard definition TVs. Casablanca, The Wizard of Oz and Singin in the Rain, to name a mere three, are examples.

Then there's the 1.85: 1 ratio, which came out in the 50s. This is about the size that HDTV's are now. Movies made this way include North by Northwest, E.T. and A Christmas Story, to be somewhat seasonal.

Finally, there's the 2.35: 1 ratio, or what's called Scope. Movies made this way include How to Marry a Millionaire, all the Star Wars movies, and Inception. HDTV's slightly letterbox Scope films, with small, unobtrusive black bars on the top and bottom.  Here's a comparison:

Blessedly, movies made in 1.85: 1 and 2.35: 1 typically don't suffer on HDTVs. But oh, the horrors that are done to 1.33: 1 movies. Here's a prime example:

This is the best musical of all time, Singin' in the Rain. The bottom frame is how it's supposed to look, with the bars on either side. This is the way Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen meant for us to see it. See how naturally proportioned the faces are, even with Donald O' Conner contorting his?

The middle image is zoomed in, which doesn't look horrible to me, but still isn't right. It's the top image that's the atrocity. 

Frustratingly, so many people feel they have to "stretch" the image to fill the frame which makes the actors look like linebackers, or like they had really horrible facelifts. Or maybe they're auditioning for Terry Gilliam's Brazil.

Whatever the case, it defeats the whole purpose of HDTV - to make the image look better. 

It's even worse when cable channels stretch the images on their own. AMC-HD is an egregious offender of this. They were showing John Ford's Fort Apache the other day. Fort Apache was NOT shot in widescreen. Yet AMC felt compelled to make it that way.

It's worse still when HD channels take a cropped version of a movie, like say, The Godfather, like the one that would get shown on a standard-def TV. Then, they stretch THAT image to fill the frame. It's comically, egregiously WRONG. 

I know some HDTVs have a mode that only stretches the outer image of the picture, keeping the center relatively intact. That looks kinda-sorta OK - unless the camera moves, in which people and objects on the outer edge of the frame  look like they're reflected in funhouse mirrors. This page explains the various modes pretty well. 

To my eyes, there's nothing fun about this. Whatever the case, it defeats the whole purpose of HDTV - to make the image look better. 

Let me put it this way. If Francis Ford Coppola came to your house and watched a cropped/stretched print of The Godfather, he'd probably shit his pants. And if you ask me, that's even worse than waking up next to a horse's head in your bed. 

PS - I know some plasma HDTV owners are concerned about the issue of a 4:3 picture causing "burn-in." This page addresses that issue. 

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