Adventures in bad directing

For years movie directors had to deal with their films being converted from intended widescreen dimensions to the standard 4:3 ratio of conventional television sets. A method called “Pan and Scan” is used to make the adjustment, cropping sometimes up to 45% of the original picture. You could see why directors might not take too kindly to this. There’s also “Tilt and Scan” and “Reverse Pan and Scan” (but I think that one is actually a sexual position).

Movies used to have similar aspect ratios to television until the ‘50s when Cinemascope, Vista Vision, Jumbo Whizbang, and other big screen formats were introduced. So those old classics like CASABLANCA and ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN transfer to the small screen and the now-outdated VHS formats rather faithfully. But epics like LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, when adjusted for TV became LAWRENCE OF THE BORDER OF ARABIA.

Thus the letterbox format to preserve a big screen’s original composition. The trouble there was that on a standard TV you were wasting part of the screen and large-screen scenes were intact but shrunk.  Epic battle scenes became the blue ants vs. the red ants. 

Now that High-Definition TV is pretty much standard with it’s 16:9 aspect ratio movies are once again seen as they were intended. That’s fine for David Lean if he weren’t dead. But a few years ago it was problematic for us TV directors.

There was that long transition period where we had both HD television and the old standard. Not every show was even offered in HD. In fact, most weren’t. If a sporting event was in HD that was a big deal. I’m sure a lot of local newscasters dreaded the flip to HD because it brought out every wrinkle. HD probably shortened the career of many news anchors by five years.

Back in the ‘90s I was directing a lot of multi-camera shows. They were done on 35 mm and adhered to the standard 4:3 ratio. I would have four monitors (one for each camera) and would use those to compose my shots. In the early ‘00s shows began converting to HD. The four monitors were upgraded as well. They were now in the HD 16:9 ratio with an outline of the 4:3 ratio inside the screen. I had this on a number of shows including BECKER.

I was asked to frame my shots to accommodate both standard and HD formats. The trouble is many times if you framed right for one the other was weird. A shot would look good on HD but the bottom of someone’s head was cut off in standard. So you’d widen the shot to include the person’s head on the standard screen but on HD the shot was now so wide you could see a boom shadow in the top of the screen. Or worse, you could see off the set. So the picture would look fine on regular TV’s but on HD you’d think only Ed Wood could compose a shot that shoddy. If I tried to compromise, both shots looked awful.

So on those occasions I had to make a decision – one or the other. At the time most TV’s were still standard and BECKER going into syndication was not a certainty. So I opted for the standard option. Plus, I figured, if HD does take off the questionable shots could be fixed optically down the line. Consulting a lot of other multi-camera directors, they made the same decision as me.  I should have asked James Cameron. 

Well, HD did take off. BECKER did go into syndication. It’s probably showing somewhere right this moment. I’ve seen a few of my episodes on HD and every so often there will be a bad shot, a master so wide you can see tape on the floor for marks, the tip of a boom shadow, and in one case the edge of the set. When I first saw that I was pissed. How could the post production technician miss that? Jesus, doesn’t anybody take any pride in their work anymore?

Yeah… like it’s his fault.

The next time there’s a format change I’m going with the new one, even if the new ratio is 26:1. I’ll put it in 3D, 4D, Smartphone, postage stamp, IMAX, whatever. It took seven or eight years to complete the transition to HD. The next format – whatever it is – the transition will probably be the time it takes to go to the commissary for a burrito.

When you watch BECKER episodes that I directed in HD would you please do me a tiny favor?  Can I ask you to put black tape on the screen to crop it?   It’ll only take you about ten minutes.  Thank you.

This is a re-post from four years ago. 

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