Premium HD Channels & Aspect Ratios

July 24, 2006

2.35:1Many of you no doubt subscribe to one or more of the various premium HD channels, via cable or satellite and while I agree the more hi-def the better, some channels do a much better job at presenting the directors vision than others.

In my opinion altering the original aspect ratio of films is just as bad as colorization or editing out objectionable content by the broadcaster. The cinematographer’s original vision should be depicted on-screen, not some variation or adaptation of that vision.

At the risk of turning this into an original aspect ratio only lecture, I do have to mention some of the most common aspect ratios as they directly affect the rest of the post. By and large the two most common aspect ratios in use today are 1.85:1 and *2.35:1, obviously 1.85:1 fits into our 16:9 HDTV’s much easier than 2.35:1 (Cinemascope or Panavision)

Not surprisingly it’s those super-wide or scope films that are the crux of my problem with the premium HD channels. As mentioned the transition from 1.85:1 to 16:9 isn’t all that worrisome, while technically not correct it’s far from the annoying mess that cropping/squeezing a 2.35:1 film into a 16:9 frame creates.

Obviously (at least to me) the only proper way to achieve this is to letterbox the scope images into our 16:9 HD televisions, yes letterbox. I know some may loathe the very sight those black bars above and below your HDTV images but this is a simple matter of available virtual real-estate versus the films original aspect ratio.

It’s just not possible to squeeze a 2.35:1 image into a 16:9 field without cropping the sides, horizontally squeezing the image or some combination of the two. I’ve gone into this before so I won’t bore you with all those details again, my real point here was to illustrate the differences in how well certain HD channels are addressing the problem.

Take the image below for example; this shot of iRobot was taken from a recent airing on HBO HD. Notice the forward left robot in the shot, all we can really make out is its left arm, also notice the dark right-angled object in the far right, that’s actually Will Smith’s right shoulder.

robot1.jpg

Now compare the above shot to one I grabbed from the iRobot DVD in it’s original aspect ratio of 2:35.1. Instead of just the forward left robot’s right arm you can make out significantly more. Also take a look at the forward right robot, instead of just being able to make out its left shoulder you can now see the robots torso and head.

robot2.jpg

I picked this particular frame for its symmetry but the same pretty much goes for any shot in the film. Anytime two actors, background shot, or pertinent imagery are spread across the frame, you’re going to lose something in the extreme left and right corners.

Now I don’t want to single out HBO HD, all of the major pay subscription channels are guilty of this transgression from time to time, however some are worse than others. I understand that HBO is probably just catering to the ‘why do I still have black bars on my HDTV’ crowd and that’s fine, I recognize that some folks will always view this as somehow wrong. What I’d like to see however (and really expect from a pay channel) is an alternative.

Why not air both versions throughout the month, give us a choice, I don’t know maybe make every Thursday and Sunday Cinemascope nights. Or better yet just note the 2:35.1 airings on the website or program guide, that way everyone gets what they want.

Now if your like me and want as much original aspect ratio HD as you can get, I do have some good news. Both Showtime HD and The Movie Channel HD consistently offer more OAR programming than HBO, however as I’m sure you know, you rarely get the same programming across all three channels so this isn’t a failsafe alterative for all movies.

Also note that both SHOHD and TMCHD list which films are presented in their original aspect ratio on their respective schedules.

If this re-direction of your HD programming annoys you as much as it does me, then I encourage you to contact these premium programming providers and request fair time for OAR. After all the squeaky wheel gets the grease and this one is definitely squeaking.

*2.40:1 technicaly, I just haven’t completely broken myself of the 2.35:1 designation.



Posted by Bryan Greenway | | Filed Under HDTV Programming


Comments

  • Desi Bravo

    I currently have a 40″ Samsung LCD HDTV with aspect ratio of 4:3 and 16:9 with a contrast ratio of 2000:1. I purchased this hdtv for the reason of technology how tv will be seen from now to the near future that all channels are to be seen in full HDTV. However, I am watching HD channels, and some channels I have to watch a movie with a letterbox effect, especially watching the news in channel fox HDTV. Wondering why is that. Got a hold of my cable provider and they told me it depends on the channel I am watching that they will air it in letterbox or HDTV widescreen. It is frustating watching a movie with borders and the only thing I can do is stretch it but then it becomes a little distorted and this is on HDTV channels.

  • Desi Bravo

    I currently have a 40″ Samsung LCD HDTV with aspect ratio of 4:3 and 16:9 with a contrast ratio of 2000:1. I purchased this hdtv for the reason of technology how tv will be seen from now to the near future that all channels are to be seen in full HDTV. However, I am watching HD channels, and some channels I have to watch a movie with a letterbox effect, especially watching the news in channel fox HDTV. Wondering why is that. Got a hold of my cable provider and they told me it depends on the channel I am watching that they will air it in letterbox or HDTV widescreen. It is frustating watching a movie with borders and the only thing I can do is stretch it but then it becomes a little distorted and this is on HDTV channels.

  • Jim

    I’m surprised at how little of the picture is lost. I’d say the difference would only be noticeable when you freeze frame the two screens side by side.
    I’d rather not lose a quarter of my screen to black bars for that – or put another way, the HBO picture on a 32″ screen would be the same height as an OAR picture on a 42″ screen!

  • Jim

    I’m surprised at how little of the picture is lost. I’d say the difference would only be noticeable when you freeze frame the two screens side by side.
    I’d rather not lose a quarter of my screen to black bars for that – or put another way, the HBO picture on a 32″ screen would be the same height as an OAR picture on a 42″ screen!

  • Dan

    I’m having a difficult time with about 3 DVD’s that I have purchased. The one I will ask about is the widescreen version of Armageddon ((the other two are Dirty dancing and Days of thunder) although the new, remastered version of Dirty Dancing does display correctly). When playing this movie on my widescreen TV (16:9) it starts in the 4:3 aspect ratio with black borders on all four sides. When I select wide screen on my TV, the side borders disappear, but the images are stretched from right to left making everyone look wider than reality. All other widescreen DVD’s fill the screen from right to left and may have black borders on the top and bottom (depending on the filmed ratio),but they don’t stretch the image. But this movie and the two other DVD’s I am referring to, do not fill the entire screen from right to left without stretching the image. I’ve tried zooming, changing the settings on my TV and DVD player and for some reason on these 3 movies, the only way to watch them without any distortion on my wide screen TV is to set the TV to 4:3 and watch it with borders along all 4 sides. Thus making my 16:9 TV into a full screen TV, and not able to use the entire screen area to view the movie. Anyone have an explanation as to why this is? BTW, I am using an HDMI cable from my up converting DVD player to my widescreen TV.

  • Dan

    I’m having a difficult time with about 3 DVD’s that I have purchased. The one I will ask about is the widescreen version of Armageddon ((the other two are Dirty dancing and Days of thunder) although the new, remastered version of Dirty Dancing does display correctly). When playing this movie on my widescreen TV (16:9) it starts in the 4:3 aspect ratio with black borders on all four sides. When I select wide screen on my TV, the side borders disappear, but the images are stretched from right to left making everyone look wider than reality. All other widescreen DVD’s fill the screen from right to left and may have black borders on the top and bottom (depending on the filmed ratio),but they don’t stretch the image. But this movie and the two other DVD’s I am referring to, do not fill the entire screen from right to left without stretching the image. I’ve tried zooming, changing the settings on my TV and DVD player and for some reason on these 3 movies, the only way to watch them without any distortion on my wide screen TV is to set the TV to 4:3 and watch it with borders along all 4 sides. Thus making my 16:9 TV into a full screen TV, and not able to use the entire screen area to view the movie. Anyone have an explanation as to why this is? BTW, I am using an HDMI cable from my up converting DVD player to my widescreen TV.

  • JaxJD2B

    I’m so glad you pointed this out. I was watching “A Few Good Men” last weekend on TNT-HD and noticed that the courtroom scenes were PAN&SCAN. I really couldn’t believe this. Here’s a great film that was killed due to a miserable Pan&Scan release, and the TNT high def, while having gorgeous resolution, suffered the SAME problems. Ugh!

  • JaxJD2B

    I’m so glad you pointed this out. I was watching “A Few Good Men” last weekend on TNT-HD and noticed that the courtroom scenes were PAN&SCAN.; I really couldn’t believe this. Here’s a great film that was killed due to a miserable Pan&Scan; release, and the TNT high def, while having gorgeous resolution, suffered the SAME problems. Ugh!