Thoughtful reviews, the Boulder film scene

Operation Condor

Jackie Chan meets Indiana Jones —Andrea Birgers (review...)

Chan borrows from Raiders

" The Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as the Westerner. Life is plentiful. Life is cheap in the Orient. And as the philosophy of the orient expresses it, life is not important. "
— General William Westmoreland, Hearts and Minds

MRQE Top Critic

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I recently upgraded my TV to a 16:9 LCD. After calibrating all the settings, it looks really good.

It’s almost enough to make me want to skip the theater and stay home.

A New Aspcect to TV

One right way and two wrong ways to show a square source
A “square” source should have black bars left and right (top). There are two ways to get a “square” source wrong: by smooshing the picture (middle) or by zooming in and cutting off the top and bottom (bottom).

I had been looking forward to a widescreen TV since the last time we bought one, in 1996. We wanted a widescreen TV, but we also wanted something big for our new movie room. The widescreen unit wouldn’t fit down our stairwell, so we went with big instead.

Besides, there were problems with widescreen TVs in 1996, and all of the salesmen were completely unhelpful. On the showroom floor, we’d look at the stretched or squished faces on the screen and ask how to correct it. Instead, they’d say “you get used to it after a while.”

Thanks, but I don’t want to get used to looking at movies the wrong way.

It turns out that aspect ratio is a hard thing to get right and an easy thing to get wrong. And the technology — even in 2007 — doesn’t really do much to help you get it right.

Early Days of Widescreen TV

Thanks to the good folks at Criterion, widescreen movies started becoming available on home video in letterboxed versions. Sure, you’d lose some screen real estate to the black bars at the top and bottom, but you’d see the full frame of the movie without distortion and without cropping.

Letterboxing was nice, but there was a better way to get a wide picture without wasting so much storage space on those black bars. The solution was to squeeze the picture when writing a DVD, and then unsqueeze it when playing it. Often both the TV and the DVD player were capable of unsqueezing.

Using the (over)simple description above, there are 4 ways a movie could come out of your TV: normal or unsqueezed from the DVD player, combined with normal or unsqueezed from the TV set. Given a random movie, you’d have at best a 50-50 chance of getting the right combination for your aspect ratio, at worst, 1-in-4.

So far, so bad, but it gets worse.

Zoom with a View

One right way and three wrong ways to show a widescreen source
A widescreen movie should fill the width of the TV (top). If the source is letterboxed, you can get the right aspect ratio but have black bars on all four sides (second from top). If the source is anamorphic, you could fail to unsqueeze it (third from top), and if the source is letterboxed, you could unsqueeze it rather than zooming (bottom).

Sometimes a widescreen movie is not encoded anamorpically. Sometimes it is letterboxed instead. In our simplified world from above, the correct aspect ratio of a letterboxed movie involves no unsqueezing because the source was never squeezed to begin with. But on a widescreen TV, a letterboxed movie now has black bars on all four sides. It has bars left and right because the TV — correctly — assumes that the source is “square”, and it has black bars top and bottom because the source is letterboxed.

To compensate, many TVs offer a “Zoom” mode, where our doubly-letterboxed picture is enlarged so that the width of the content fills the width of the TV screen. Doing so means that the top and bottom of our picture will be cut off, but in this case that’s okay because we’re only losing those black bars.

Now we can watch widescreen movies that fill our 16:9 TV, regardless of whether they are letterboxed or recorded anamorphically. We can still watch “square” movies and TV shows, but they will be letterboxed vertically (black bars left and right).

The problem is that the DVD players and TVs of today aren’t quite smart enough to keep track of all this. Given a random movie, you now have at best a 1-in-3 chance of guessing the right aspect ratio, at worst, 1-in-4.

Outsmarting the TV

On the other hand, “smart” electronics aren’t necessarily a good solution, either. In fact, the inspiration for this article came from the fact that my DVD player tried to outsmart my TV. The problem would occur with a letterboxed movie (not anamorphically squeezed). As described above, the Zoom mode should have filled the screen, cutting off the black bars. But my TV ended up double-stretching the movie, making everything look smooshed flat.

Enter the last bit of confusing technology, an HDMI cable. HDMI stands for High Definition Media Interface. Compared to a regular RCA cable, HDMI allows higher-resolution signals to pass from the DVD player to the TV. Apparently, it also allows some metadata to travel across the wire, because when I turned on the Zoom mode, my TV did something unexpected. What should have been a perfect widescreen picture looked smooshed.

When I ran the signal through a normal RCA cable, the Zoom mode on my TV worked perfectly, giving me the full width of the screen. Well, not “perfectly,” because the RCA cables have lower resolution. After an hour of fiddling, I finally found a menu on my DVD player that let me specify whether my TV was widescreen or not. When I lied to my DVD player, telling it that my TV was not widescreen, the TV’s Zoom feature worked correctly, filling the screen, while still passing the high-resolution signal though the HDMI cable.

Modern Times

After hours of frustration and several sheets of paper, I am finally in control of my widescreen TV. I can fill the screen without having to live with squeezed or smooshed movies. But you’d think that in 2007, technology would be smart enough so that you didn’t have to choose between frustration and compromise. I don’t think I should have to go deep into the DVD’s menu and lie to it to make everything work correctly. Luckily, I’m enough of a nerd to write a macro on my remote control.

It’s almost enough to make me want to skip the TV and go to the movie theater.