Stretching the truth

I have a major pet peeve when it comes to people and HDTVs. In last Saturday’s (09/22/07) Wall Street Journal, film critic Joe Morgenstern described that problem exactly (click here to read the full article). His words reassured me that it’s not a burden I carry alone. And I was greatly comforted.

Wherever I go these days — homes, bars, restaurants, airports, hotel rooms — I see beautiful flat-panel TVs displaying awful, distorted pictures. Yet no one seems to notice, or care. I feel like a guy spouting off about the emperor’s new clothes, except this emperor’s problem is that his wardrobe doesn’t fit.

It’s so true. I have yet to see a single flat-panel television set in a public place that is set to display pictures properly. And I’m absolutely dumbfounded that others don’t pick up on it too.

Morgenstern explains why this is so:

Almost all flat-panel TVs are tailored to the proportions of hi-def transmission — they have screens with 16:9 aspect ratios — but they don’t all receive hi-def signals, and most programs are still being beamed conventionally, in a squarish 4:3 format that was never meant to fill a wide screen.

Many owners of wide-screen TVs don’t make the distinction. Since they paid a premium for the width, they want their programs to fill the screen; never mind that 4:3 programs are correctly displayed on 16:9 panels only with black bars flanking the image. So people set their TVs to stretch the picture, or allow their TVs to set themselves. Either way, the result is distortion — compact cars resemble stretch limos, puffy faces look like their cheeks have been pulled out in opposite directions.

Understanding aspect ratios is the key here. To that end, for my MBA 509 class I prepared two five-minute presentations on the subject. (To which one might respond, "You were allowed to do that for an MBA-level advanced communications class?" To which I respond, "Yes, and it was one of the few things which made that class bearable.") I’ve greatly simplified the issue, but I think they’re quite effective at communicating the point.

  • In this first presentation, I define a few of the "standard" aspect ratios using screenshots from movies like "Gone With the Wind," "It’s a Wonderful Life," "Toy Story," "Lawrence of Arabia," "Star Wars," and "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King." I explain the origin of "black bars" and the difference between Widescreen and "Full Screen" DVDs.

  • In the second presentation I change to a more activist stance, arguing that modified aspect ratios violates the artistic intent of the filmmaker and compromises the audience’s viewing experience. I begin by drawing an analogy to an art curator in the Louvre who, upon realizing that the frame for the Mona Lisa is too small for the painting, brandishes a pair of scissors and trims off the "unimportant parts," like the background scenery and her torso.

As part of my second presentation, I showed a 45-second clip from Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report. Imagine viewing the movie’s signature two-shot (with actors Tom Cruise and Samantha Morton facing opposite directions) in a pan-and-scan format. It ruins the power of Spielberg’s composition. And this is just one of many examples I could cite. Here’s the clip:

Funny story: Back in July, Cassia and I visited an aunt of hers living in Salt Lake City. She had some old baby clothes to give away, so we came to sort through it and take the stuff we liked before it all went to the D.I. While we were there, her husband walked through the door and asked if I wanted to see the "Man Room." It was a nicely equipped home theater, with comfortable leather recliners, surround sound, and a lovely HDTV that stretched the picture we were watching to fill the whole frame. I tried not to shudder too noticeably. After a few minutes, he declared that he had to go to work but that I was welcome to stay and watch whatever I wanted.

As we pulled away from the house, I told Cassia all about the Man Room, including the high-def TV set. I couldn’t contain my self-satisfied smile.

"The picture was wrong. So I fixed it."

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