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David Simon discusses new HD aspect ratio for ‘The Wire’

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Cinematography discussion in TV criticism can be all too rare. It lends the perception that TV is all about story and acting, when really there are a number of creative television auteurs who devote careful cinematic craft to shot composition, what’s in the frame, and what is out.

David Simon, creator of The Wire, is one of those, and on Wednesday he penned a blog post that discussed HBO’s recent plans to remaster The Wire for HD re-release on Blu-Ray. In talking about memories of his old filmmaking partner Robert Colesberry, he begged the question “What Would Bob Do” and approached HBO with an invested interest in making sure the show would look appropriate in the new HD format.

As Collider points out, the conversion to HD has been unkind to TV shows made prior to it. Prior to HD, shows were shot in 4:3 aspect ratio to adhere to the sizes of most at-home televisions. But current flat screens are designed for the 1:85 or 2:35 formats of widescreen films, eliminating the “This movie has been adjusted to fit the size of your at-home television” you would see before most cable showings of movies, but complicating the HD conversion process for legacy shows.

In fact, the aspect ratio dilemma reared its ugly head during FXX’s Every Simpsons Ever Marathon, in which the old shows now displayed in HD formats ended up cropping many of the show’s visual gags, including the iconic headline “Old Man Yells at Cloud.”

Regardless, Simon took involvement with the remastering process and provided some examples of some of the choices made. Here’s one example he provides where he feels the scene actually plays better in 4:3 over the new aspect ratio.

But there are other scenes, composed for 4:3, that lose some of their purpose and power, to be sure. An early example that caught my eye is a scene from the pilot episode, carefully composed by Bob, in which Wee Bey delivers to D’Angelo a homily on established Barksdale crew tactics. “Don’t talk in the car,” D’Angelo reluctantly offers to Wee Bey, who stands below a neon sign that declares, “burgers” while D’Angelo, less certain in his standing and performance within the gang, stands beneath a neon label of “chicken”…That shot composition was purposed, and clever, and it works better in the 4:3 version than when the screen is suddenly widened to pick up additional neon to the left of Bey:

Watch the different examples over at Simon’s blog. The HD version of The Wire will be available December 26 on HBO Go, on January 5 for digital purchase, and on Blu-Ray and DVD this summer.


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