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TV trends: Televisual letterboxes

Robert Weedon | Television | Wednesday 23rd September 2009

Nearly all British television programmes are filmed in 16:9 widescreen these days. Even cheap daytime programmes are made in this aspect ratio. Therefore, widescreen no longer has the glamour it once had, and as a result, a new phenomenon has begun to grace our screens - the fake 2.35:1 matte.

Years ago, when a 4:3 programme pretended to be a film, it added black bars to the top and bottom to matte the screen to give the effect of widescreen. Programmes such as Red Dwarf Remastered tried this effect some time ago, slightly unsuccessfully when, in a rather pathetic attempt to make the studio sitcom look like a film, they added some film-grading effects to the videotape and slightly cropped the picture.

During the late 1990s there was a weird transition phase when TV dramas (particularly those that cost a lot of money) were often filmed in 14:9 (1.66:1-ish). This was to "future-proof" them so that they could be cropped to be shown in either 4:3 or 16:9, the most notable examples being the BBC's 1995 Pride and Prejudice (the one in which Colin Firth jumps in a lake), some episodes of Jonathan Creek and ITV dramas such as Coming Home and Cracker. This compromise ratio also allowed them to be easily sold overseas, especially in the US, where the transition to widescreen has been slower. In the UK, widescreen was launched in 1998, although it was only with "C-Day" or "Commercial Day" on 1st July 2000, after which all adverts submitted had to be 16:9, that widescreen became the standard delivery format, and even now, BBC delivery guidelines suggest keeping all of the important visual information within the 14:9 frame.

Now that everything on TV is in widescreen, TV producers have realised that to make something look like a film on TV (and therefore more expensive and visually artistic) they now have to matte the 16:9 image to give it a visual comparison to the presentation of widescreen cinema films on DVD. It's highly unlikely that TV will ever switch to 2.35:1 (despite Philips's absurd-but-covetable 21:9 television), and as a result the "look" of the cinema is what these programmes are trying to achieve.

John Hurt, as seen through a letterbox.

Purely as an observation, this effect has begun to appear with higher frequency in the last year or so, and has become particularly prevalant in commercials and trailers for TV shows; examples I've seen in 2009 include Torchwood, Emmerdale and the BBC Proms, to quote three otherwise totally isolated programmes. TV programmes themselves have also begun to use this look inside the actual broadcast, the most common being Top Gear, admittedly one of the most visually interesting shows on television at the moment.

While this effect can often add a nice "cinematic" feel to what would perhaps otherwise be rather dull visuals, one wonders whether it has become somewhat over-used in recent months, to the point where it's beginning to become something of a cliché. One could speculate, almost cynically, that it's almost as if there is a secret desire on the part of television and advert directors to pretend they are making cinema films...

What is annoying is that the very channels this effect appears on most frequently, BBC and ITV, both have a policy that means films that were shot in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio have to be cropped to 16:9 to be shown on TV. As the old expression goes, you can't put the cart before the horse. Now that's not a cliché at all.



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