I was channel-hopping last night and came upon a comparative rarity; one of the digital channels, could have been ITV2, was showing a modern movie in 4X3 format, the almost-square 'Academy' ratio that was phased out in the cinema about 40 years ago and in TV at the beginning of this century.
Like a Chav faced with subtitles, I skipped right on by.
I've no problem with the Academy ratio, which was good enough for some of the greatest cinema ever made, but this wasn't that. This was a widescreen film in a cropped 'TV version' at least a decade old. Rather than source an up-to-date transfer, I'm guessing that the broadcaster had used the version supplied to them on tape when they made a deal for the rights. I mean, come on, guys. Cheat if you have to. Run out and buy a DVD.
Format can be problematical. The widescreen of your widescreen TV is not the widescreen of Ben Hur. Like most things in life, it's a compromise. The viewfinder on a modern film camera includes an element with the 'safety zones' of the different viewing formats etched into the glass, so the operator can ensure that whatever the composition, the essential information will fall within the frame and the shot will always make some kind of sense. Hi-Def video assist systems offer the same facility in the monitor display.
In the early days of widescreen cinema, feature film makers saw TV as the enemy and went out of their way to ensure that their images would exceed the capabilities of the smaller screen. Panning and scanning was TV's response to that. It was an alternative to 'letterboxing' the image, which preserved the composition but invariably triggered a stream of phoned complaints to the TV station's duty officer.
Panning and scanning involved continually reframing the film in telecine. This could go way beyond the cranking of a frame to the left or right to squeeze the action in - a small section of a shot could be selected and enlarged to fabricate a closeup from a medium shot, for example.
The end result would, in essence, undo the work of cameraman and director and sometimes the editor as well. Grain, contrast, focus, and framing would be all over the place. I recall a scene which, in the original, was a single long take of two people talking. The telecine operator had reframed each person in a separate, enlarged closeup and then cut back and forth between them as they spoke. Didn't match, didn't work, looked appalling. Used to be quite common.
'97 was the awkward pre-pubescent time for widescreen TV. The first sets were around, but almost nobody (apart from my dad) had one. Broadcasters hedged their bets, shooting new material in 16X9 widescreen but putting it out in a bastardised 14X9 shape that looked bad on both kinds of display.
I can place it so precisely because '97 is the year I made Oktober for ITV. The three-hour miniseries was shot on Super 16, a format that originated (if I recall my American Cinematographer correctly) with the Aaton camera company in Sweden. It used a customised camera gate to utilise more of the 16mm negative area. In the case of Oktober, the broadcast master was scanned directly from the camera negative and electronically converted to a positive image, eliminating the loss of quality you get when making a print.
ITV were hovering over when to 'go wide' so after the grading we made two complete transfers, one in full widescreen and the other in the half-cropped, half-letterboxed 14X9 ratio. I watched the widescreen version going through. Bruce McGowan's photography looked rich and wonderful, the high Alpine locations spectacular.
Guess which version went out.
The Betacam master of the widescreen transfer went into storage at NBC-owned Carnival Films, where I cross my fingers that it's survived their office moves of recent years. I last checked on it when Revelation produced their full-series DVD (for the UK only; the US release is a 96 minute 'feature cut'). I tracked it down, hooked everybody up, but there was some glitch with distributor approval and it was the 14X9 master that went onto the disc.
And so I remain the only person on the planet who's seen the three-hour show in its full 16X9 ratio, on a big plasma screen in a windowless editing suite that misty afternoon in Soho.
But someday... maybe someday.
Though probably not, I'm guessing, anytime soon on ITV2.