The other day, John talked about the difficulties of putting 24Hz material on a 120Hz display. While helping out a bit with that, I was reading up on telecine, which is an interesting read if you want to know yet another way in which TV channels butcher the movies they show. Steven Soderbergh, whom I will presume you know of, is angry at them for another reason, though: aspect ratios. A man after my own heart, he can’t stand seeing good movies broadcast in pan & scan, or stretched, or cropped. He rates some of the big movie channels, and HBO gets the worst of it — “the poster child for stupidity.”
His curse-laden criticism is in an official capacity, as the national vice president of the Director’s Guild of America. His complaint is that the HD and 16:9 improvements made to TVs have done nothing to change the habits of TV operators, who for 50 years have been dismembering films to cram them into a different aspect ratio. The latest is that 2.40:1 (AKA 2.39:1) movies, a format which directors like Soderbergh and Spielberg (all the bergs, really) often work in, is still getting squeezed and cut. And the TV guys say it doesn’t matter to the director, but it does to the consumer.
The logic used to make you, the filmmaker, conform to this belief makes a pretzel look like a ruler: you are told you shouldn’t care whether your 2.40 film is turned into a 1.78 film because there really isn’t that much of a difference, while in the same breath you are told viewers notice the difference enough to complain about it.
If you ask me (not sure why you would when Soderbergh is perfectly happy to), I’d tell you to letterbox everything. I’d rather throw away a little definition in return for a lot of content. Besides, I think there’s a certain amount of disrespect in watching a movie modified from its original form. Like listening to a great album through a mono speaker, or appraising art while wearing really dark sunglasses.
His solution: man up, directors! Band together and demand that purchasers of TV rights retain the original format, or at the very least leave final cut to the director or cinematographer. I’m all for it.