Maybe it's just me, but I've always thought that professionally created content ought to stand on its own—by its artistry, technique, and moving images—without having to deliver the biggest or widest picture possible on a given screen. I've never liked the inadequate feeling that comes with being told, "This film has been modified from its original version. It has been formatted to fit your TV." Although, frankly, I'm not quite sure who that required modification suggests is inadequate, the film or my TV.
Still, I'd rather see the content for what it was meant to be. When I rent movies, I get the original version and aspect ratio whenever possible. That usually means widescreen, be it 1.85:1 (16:9) or 2.35:1, although movies from before 1950 or so are almost all 4:3 Academy Standard, or 1.33:1. The black letterbox bars don't bother me at all, whether they are from watching wide aspect ratio content on a 4:3 monitor or 4:3 content on a wide monitor. In fact, there's nothing worse, in my opinion, than stretching content to fill a widescreen monitor.
I was at a trade show press presentation not too long ago for a company that manufactures plasma monitors. There was an impressive wall of at least a half dozen panels, and, during the press conference, PowerPoint slides were simultaneously distributed to all of them. Blue background and white text slides were stretched to fill the extra width of the 16:9 plasmas, but here I was not offended. After all, burn-in is a serious problem on plasmas and letterboxing too much leads to uneven wear and potential letterbox-shaped burn-in.
However, there was video content, video that was consciously created in widescreen mode for showing it at this press conference and filling the width of the lovely plasma monitors without vertical bars on the sides. Unfortunately, to stretch the PowerPoint slides the panels had been set up in the "full" mode, and no one bothered to change that when the source switched to widescreen video. The result was that the widescreen content was fed to the panels as if it were 4:3 content and, thus, stretched to remove the vertical bars from the side. So, not only was the video content awkwardly stretched, it also had letterbox bars along the top and bottom.
It's easy to see how consumers could be confused about aspect ratios. We live in a world of predominantly 4:3 television sets and mostly 4:3 content, but there's a migration now toward bigger widescreen flat panels and rear-projection TVs. Indeed, those wider monitors are seen as desirable, even prestigious. The trouble is that the TV itself too often dictates the presentation of the content.
Interestingly, shrewd movie directors are trying to balance artistic production and cinematography with the reality of the consuming marketplace by shooting footage with Pan & Scan in mind. Pan & Scan is the (most popular) technique for cropping widescreen content to a 4:3 aspect ratio. Since the most action-specific part of any given frame is not necessarily the center, it's often completely impractical just to crop off the sides. Panning & Scanning effectively moves the 4:3 cropping rectangular to follow the action within a frame. Historically, that's been done after the fact to "modify" widescreen movies to "fit" 4:3 TVs.
These days—and in something of an ironic twist against the direction of the display industry—it's increasingly common to shoot in 4:3 with an eye toward Panning & Scanning or just vertically cropping to create a widescreen cinema version. In some cases, that can mean that 4:3 VHS or "Full Screen" DVD releases of some Hollywood movies may actually have more vertical visual information in a given frame than the widescreen version of the same. Although it's more common that frames are overshot in the camera, then cropped vertically for the theater and widescreen DVD release and cropped differently, horizontally, for the 4:3 version.
In Hollywood, this visual agility is made easier by shooting on very high-resolution (for example, Super 35) film. Shooting on lower-resolution video makes this technique far less viable because you rarely want to give away the resolution and image quality in either direction. However, video makers may yet have an affordable solution in the forthcoming HDV format [see Philip De Lancie's March article, "HDV Exposure," pp. 26-30], which will support higher resolutions of 720p and 1080i on standard MiniDV tape stock.
JVC launched HDV a year ago to mild critical and consumer acclaim, but since then several heavy-hitting camcorder and editing systems manufacturers have formed an alliance to help optimize and standardize a format. While at the moment JVC remains the only company with an HDV product on the market (and that JY-HD10 is not completely compliant with the emerging standard), in March Sony demonstrated a 3-CCD European PAL version that is expected to sell for less than $5,000. No announcement has yet been made by Sony for the North American market, or from HDV partners Sharp or Canon, but several editing software makers have cited HDV support. More camcorders are sure to follow.
Does HDV solve the industry's size problem? Not by itself. But bigger resolution does offer producers better choices, whether that means simply shooting in higher resolution for future HD distribution or with astute Pan & Scan in mind for legacy 4:3 screens.