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TV Trends: 2.35:1 matte strikes again

Robert Weedon | Television | Sunday 28th August 2011

Some time ago (September 2009 to be precise), Image Dissectors noticed that programme makers were beginning to feature pretend widescreen cinema aspect ratios more frequently as part of their programmes, usually in the form of the 2.35:1 matte, where a programme shot on video in the standard 16:9 aspect ratio is matted (blocked out) in post-production to make it look more cinematic.

This association between the "black bars" and the cinema came about primarily because audiences have become used to seeing feature films presented in this "letterboxed" format on DVD and Blu-Ray releases and more recently on TV channels such as Film4 or even the BBC (ITV and 5 still stick rigidly to pan-and-scanning widescreen films for some reason).

Knowing that this is the ratio in which the films were supposed to be seen on a cinema screen by their respective directors, people came to realise that despite losing roughly 20% of their widescreen television's screen space, they were actually seeing more on screen; perhaps a character's reaction at the side, a bit more of a landscape, or what the director meant them to see lurking in the background before the hero does.

However, this isn't the case on TV, where programmes are usually shot on video cameras with fairly standard non-anamorphic lenses and are almost always recorded in 16:9; even HD is formatted in 1.77:1. TV programmes these days are very rarely shot on 35mm film, as it's too expensive to shoot on and edit, and anyway, making a TV programme in super widescreen would seem pointless given that hardly anybody has a television in an aspect wider than 16:9.

No, instead, on TV 2.35:1 mattes were used to make things look like a cinema film, often for parodic purposes, often just as segments of 16:9 shows which were attempting to ape a cinematic genre; Top Gear used it for its arty car reviews and TV programme trailers used it for making their shows look more exciting, for example the absurdly letterboxed trailer for Ashes to Ashes, which gives the (false) impression that it is wider than Ben Hur; it's like watching television on a blackboard ruler.

In addition to "proper" TV programmes, music videos used it so that MTV didn't spew their instrusive Digital Onscreen Graphics all over their work (every music video director really wants to be a film director), and the same thing goes for TV commercials, half of which are now presented in this format. In the case of adverts, the black lines also give banks and insurance companies a useful place to shoehorn (or hide) all of the disclaimers that they legally have to display under their much bolder torrent of meaningless percentages flashing in the interesting part above.

Since 2009, however, a new blossoming of the 2.35:1 matte has emerged on BBC Two for their prestigious drama slots, and in this instance these programmes are entirely presented in this format. Let's get this clear; these TV dramas were never shot with the intention to be shown in a cinema, they are simply shot in this format to make them stand out from your average TV drama/soap.

John Hurt, as seen through a letterbox.

So far in the last year or so I've spotted The Song of Lunch, Whistle and I'll Come to You, United, The Special Relationship, (the latter two which, to be fair, may be sold as films abroad) and now tonight's big drama premiere Page Eight. What unifies all of these programmes is that they feature actors who are more familiar from the big screen; Alan Rickman, Emma Thompson, John Hurt, Dougray Scott, Bill Nighy, Ralph Fiennes, Michael Gambon, and so forth. They also have directors or writers who often work in films, or if they don't, certainly aspire to.

The main thing that binds these dramas together, though, is that they must have cost a lot of money, and are very much intended to be the channel's 'flagship' dramas; they're even preceded by a little ident heralding "original British drama". I've watched most of this strand so far, and they've all been pretty good - visually interesting, certainly, with some strong acting. However, in all cases have perhaps felt like they have placed more emphasis on looking lovely than telling a good story; I wonder whether that unquantifiable "dryness" that BBC Films seem to suffer (that, for example, BBC Radio dramas don't) has crept in here.

Maybe it is down to the visuals? Does the extreme widescreen prevent us focussing on the characters perhaps? After all, if eyes are a window on the soul, why would you want to lose the fuller picture in deference to peripheral flowerpots, laptops and lampshades?

Bill, Mike and a lampshade.

The other issue I wondered about is whether audiences might start to think something is wrong with their television sets. After all, most people don't really know anything about aspect ratios, and if you're watching these dramas on an old, small 4:3 TV - and there are a surprising number of people who still do - then you're going to think your television is playing up. I know my parents generally dislike letterboxed films, and even more so old 4:3 programmes displayed "pillarboxed" on their 16:9 TV; people do like their screens to be filled up. Really, this type of framing only works well on a large widescreen television, and even then, unless watching in full HD, the resolution is likely to be reduced.

Now, personally, I quite like this "2.35:1" look (I must admit to using it myself in our first video article), but I do wonder whether at some point it will lose its freshness. At the moment, making a drama in 2.35:1 is an artistic choice by the director to make their work stand out from the flock, to differentiate it from the Casualties, Eastenders and other hospital/detective/soapy churn made by BBC Two's more populist elder brother and ITV.

Interestingly, though, nearly half of today's cinematic films are still happily made and shown in 1.85:1, which is just like 16:9 under another name. Directors don't feel it to be an embarrassment to shoot a modern motion picture in this format; the film that won Best Picture at the Academy Awards last year - The King's Speech - was in this aspect ratio, as was 2009's winner The Hurt Locker.

The irony is, though, that now 16:9 presentation is so pervasive across television, losing 20% of the screen to blankness is what directors feel is required to make their dramas 'feel' expensive. Perhaps the next daring director will be one to shoot something in 4:3; they'll lose 30% of screen space then...



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