widescreen There is a hysterical debate going on between supporters and opponents of widescreen (16/9 ratio) versus traditional (4/3 ratio) video screen sizes. Traditional-ratio supporters decry ‘black bars’ (at top and bottom, when you view a widescreen film on a traditional screen) as wasted space. Widescreen-ratio supporters decry ‘picture jag’ (caused by the editor panning and scanning a film made in 16/9 so that it fills a 4/3 screen without missing important peripheral events) as destroying the filmmakers’ artistry. Both sides completely miss the point.

The point is that movie-makers started filming in widescreen for a reason a long time ago. The reason was not because this is the natural analogue of the human field of vision. Yes, we have two eyes side by side, and our total field of vision is widescreen. But that was likely a Darwinian evolution so we could catch sight of predators coming from the side. The reality is that our focused field of vision is much closer to the traditional 4/3 ratio.

The real reason movies are filmed in widescreen is a commercial one. You can fit more theatre seats around a wide screen than around a 4/3 screen. Of course, the seats at the side are often crappy, especially if you’re trying to see something at the other end of the screen. Tough: you should have got to the theatre earlier. The problem is, most movies today get more of their viewership and revenues from television watchers than from theatre-goers. There is no such constraint in your living room. In fact, you have to scan your eyes (or your head, depending on the size of your TV and your proximity to it) from side to side when you watch a widescreen film on TV anyway. You are put, unnecessarily, in exactly in the same position as the person in the theatre. But if the media conglomerates can get you to buy your TV in a widescreen format, then they win two ways: They don’t have to spend money on pan-and-scan editing to fit the movie on the standard screen, and they shut up the ‘black bar’ complainers as ‘old-technology luddites’. No matter that the widescreen format doesn’t make sense from a consumer perspective.

Now I’m sure that someone reading this will say that it’s undemocratic to deprive people of the right to scan across the screen to see whatever they want to look at, instead of having the pan-and-scan editor make that choice for them. But that’s easy to accomplish in any format: we just need to reward filmmakers who put interesting things in the background of their films and pan back far enough that the viewer who is not interested in the close-up can look at them instead. The answer isn’t to make television screens wider, it’s to make movie screens taller.

But what about the new cameras with panorama view, I hear someone saying? Don’t they support the logic of widescreen as the ‘natural’ viewing ratio? I would argue that most photographers take the vast majority of their shots in normal mode rather than panorama mode because widescreen is rarely the most visually interesting or useful format. In fact I would guess photographers shoot photos in portrait mode (turning the camera sideways) far more often than they shoot in panorama mode. Ever watched something go up or down (an airplane or a stunt jumper) on a widescreen? Not pretty.

monitor Next argument: Take a look at the screen you’re reading this on. Now look at something written on letter-size paper. Now look at something written on legal-size paper. Finally, take a look at a book page.  Which do you find easiest to read? There is a reason that books and magazines are almost invariably in portrait (taller-than-wide) orientation (and why newspapers still use ‘column’ format). It’s because it’s difficult to read blocks of text wider than about 5-6″. So portrait format is the most economical way to get the most legible text into the smallest area. So why are most computer screens still in landscape format? No, not so you can watch movies on them. It’s because of the keyboard. For the ever-more-dominant laptop, it’s easier to put an awkward-shaped screen on a comfortable keyboard than the other way around. The best answer for this, of course, is a hinged monitor .

So by all means spend your money on plasma screens or HDTV-ready screens. But don’t let the economics of movie theatre design dictate the shape of your television. And next time you’re in the market for a new PC, ask the seller (or your company’s purchaser) whether you can have that screen sideways, please. And if your blog text is wider than 6″, please widen your margins, you’re giving me a headache.

Postscript: Chris at Glacial Erratics has sold me on bifurcated square screens and square paper (see comments).

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  1. Susan says:

    I have a copy of Kurosawa’s Dreams in widescreen, and the perfect composition of each frame is breathtaking. Saying it would be just as good in TV format is sort of like saying Van Gogh’s Sunflowers would look just as good if it were a foot wider. It’s a different canvas, and the artist would have made different choices had he been forced to fit to a different sized screen. A sonnet doesn’t sound the same when it’s written as a limerick.The editing of widescreen format movies is often akin to butchery, in my opinion, leaving out key visual information that is just too far to one side to fit. The full screen version of Minority Report ruined the visual composition of the film (which, big budget or no, I thought was excellent). Some visual clues to the plotline were actually left out. Even when the director/producer has the power of Steven Spielberg, it seems, he still can’t cut off a third of his movie and maintain artistic integrity.And that is what we’re talking about, isn’t it–art. Perhaps some cynics don’t see modern filmmaking as an art form, and others deride any film that makes too much money or gets too “popular”. But I’ve watched the fullscreen version of Lord of the Rings, and the widescreen version too (on a television monitor), and I just don’t feel the grand scale in the lunchbox version. It takes away from the film.Perhaps because widescreen is NOT natural, watching a film in that format makes it a special, even majestic experience in the hands of a good director. Lawrence of Arabia 4:3? Forget it. I like my deserts endless and wide.

  2. Chris Dent says:

    I think high ratio wide screens for computers are probably a bad idea but I think the same thing is true for tall screens.We need square or round screens where our focus (the fovea of our vision) is on the center of the screen but there is a huge expanse of additional space that is providing information that is okay to have on the periphery of our vision (mail notifiers, news aggregators, visual indicators of whatever).Then, down the road we can have very large interfaces with eye tracking that brings where we focus to the center of the screen.Or to sum: sure text needs to be narrow, but we want more on the screen than just that.

  3. Dave Pollard says:

    Susan: No argument, really. Movies are meant to be seen in the format in which they were made, and to convert a fine film made in 16:9 to 4:3 will obviously make it worse. I’m just saying that movies should be made in 4:3, to correspond to our focus of vision. As for Lawrence of Arabia, I’ve spend nights in the desert and the plains, and it’s the sky as much as the vast sweep of the desert that makes it spectacular. If Lawrence of Arabia has been made in 4:3 I think it would have been just as remarkable.

  4. Dave Pollard says:

    Chris: OK, let’s think this through. It seems to me that what we want in the centre of the screen or page, most often, is visuals, and the text we want to wrap around it. Although I like the idea of less-important stuff on the side (side-notes instead of foot-notes?), I’m not sure that you can get enough in less than another 5-6″ column to make good use of the real estate. Then you’re up to a two wide-column spread, and, with enough pixel resolution you’re up to a 14-15″ wide screen again, which is what we have today. The screen would ‘default’ to two columns and allow graphics and other super-wide stuff to straddle both columns when necessary. Then ideally it would be legal length, 14″ long, to minimize scrolling/page-turning. So the ideal screen and page is 14″ square, which solves the problem of landscape vs portrait orientation as well. So when/how do we go to Dell & Compaq and sell them on it? Of course we’ll need to get all the computer briefcases reengineered to hold them as well. Unless…we get them to design a vertically bifurcated (fold-out) monitor to sit on a 14″x7″ keyboard. That would be the best of all worlds. Someone call the patent office…

  5. This is one of those debates I can remain enthusiastically neutral on. I can’t recall another one since VHS vs. Beta. You can improve the screen until the cows come home, but if you don’t improve the content it’s a waste of technology. So far, I haven’t seen any evidence of the latter.

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