Charles Petzold

Aspect (Ir)ratio(nality)

November 3, 2007
New York, N.Y.

Last weekend we stayed at the Radisson Hotel in Utica, which recently installed 32" flat-panel High-Definition Television (HDTV) displays in all the rooms. As you probably know, HDTVs have widescreen displays with an aspect ratio of 16:9 (also known as 1.78:1):

This would have been great if the cable connected to the TVs in the Radisson Hotel actually delivered high-definition content. However, all 40 channels or so were definitely Standard-Definition Television (SDTV) signals with an aspect ratio of 4:3 (also known as 1.33:1):

The proper way to display SDTV pictures on an HDTV screen is sometimes called pillar-boxing:

But that's not what the Radisson Hotel decided we wanted. Instead, the images were stretched 33% horizontally to fit the screen:

Moreover, the menu for the TV was disabled so we couldn't put the screen into its proper display mode. Apparently somebody decided that seeing two bars on the sides of the image was more disturbing that chubby faces.

Is anyone surprised? We've all seen many, many widescreen televisions in public places displaying distorted images, and only a sense of decorum prevents us from demanding the remote and fixing them. I've even seen stores attempting to sell widescreen HDTVs by showing SDTV programming stretched inappropriately.

We are now in a transition period from SDTV to HDTV, but the predominant state of mind seems to be confusion rather than enthusiasm. How did we get here?

The 4:3 aspect ratio was apparently invented by one of Thomas Edison's engineers and used for motion pictures until about 1932, when it was replaced with a nearby aspect ratio of 1.37:1. Beginning in the early 1950s, Hollywood shifted to various widescreen aspect ratios, in part to compete with television. Although the widescreen aspect ratios better approximate the field of view of the human visual system, some directors (particularly those in Europe) resisted the trend. (Isn't there a Godard film where a famous director complains that widescreen is good only for shooting parades and snakes? Anyone?)

Eventually widescreen became well used by talented directors and cinematographers. Some people cite Ben Hur as the archtypal widescreen movie, but for me there's nothing quite like seeing Roman Polanski's masterpiece Chinatown on the big screen in its glorious 2:35:1 aspect ratio.

Of course, the use of widescreen didn't stop TV networks from broadcasting movies. They invented a technique called pan-and-scan to "convert" a widescreen movie to the 4:3 aspect ratio of the television by chopping off the sides of the frame. And movie studios engaged in similar idiocy: In 1955, MGM re-released The Wizard of Oz in a "Now in Widescreen!" version, which was accomplished by someone lopping off the tops and bottoms of the frames.

Some theatres still reveal clutziness in displaying movies at the correct aspect ratio. Not too long ago I saw Claude Chabrol's The Bridesmaid at the Angelica — well known in New York as one of the most poorly managed theaters in the city — and the picture was framed so that the second lines of subtitles were cut off. After I complained, the projectionist adjusted the frame so that the tops of character's heads were missing. (Isn't there a Truffaut film from the late 60s where Jean-Pierre LĂ©aud complains to a projectionist about incorrect aspect ratios? Anyone?)

For those of us who prefer to watch movies in the correct aspect ratio, some sanity in home video came with laser disks. These were generally consumed by cinephiles and hence often featured widescreen movies in a letterboxed format. Fortunately DVDs have continued this trend. (However, I know someone who has their DVD player connected to an SDTV but the DVD player is set to Widescreen so that Anamorphic Widescreen DVDs are vertically stretched rather than letterboxed.)

With the slow transition to HDTV, confusion seems to reign. Anyone who has an HDTV knows about the various modes to stretch SDTV programming, sometimes legitimately, sometimes ridiculously. For example, when an SDTV program is displayed in a letterboxed format, you probably want to use the Zoom setting to increase it uniformly. And when you're watching an Anamorphic Widescreen DVD, you want to use the Stretch setting to stretch it horizontally. (However, most Anamorphic Widescreen DVDs I've encountered don't use the technique for extra features or previews!)

It just doesn't make sense to pretend that something is widescreen when it really isn't. At least one "high-definition" station — I won't mention any names but it's based in Atlanta and show lots of Law & Order reruns — does a non-linear horizontal stretch of SDTV content to fill the widescreen width. It certainly doesn't help the cause of HDTV when most people who've seen widescreen TVs must figure that HDTV is just SDTV stretched wide, and hence some kind of scam.

There are very few situations in modern life where one alternative is obviously right, and the other is clearly wrong. But this is one of them. Displaying movies and other programming at the aspect ratio originally chosen by the director and cinematographer is right. Panning, scanning, editing, chopping, cropping, dicing, stretching, and otherwise distorting are just plain wrong. Distorting the picture insults the creator of the movie or television program, and lessens its impact.

Now that I've explained all this, I want everyone to spend some time over the weekend setting their TVs correctly, and going out into the world and making adjustments to all the TVs found in public places.

(And don't forget to put your clocks back an hour.)