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Occasional ramblings by an anesthesiologist/mother (and sometimes her husband).

Friday, July 06, 2007

The Great Aspect Ratio Rant

I have always been bothered by the problem of aspect ratio. There is confusion. There are expert attempts at compromise. There are clueless distortions that annoy anyone paying attention. Above all, the issue of aspect ratio is a complicated one. Recent events have served to make it even more complicated.

For those who don't know what I'm talking about, the basic problem is this: old movies, new movies, movie screens tv shows, and tvs have different shapes. Something that fits a movie screen perfectly will be the wrong shape for a standard tv screen. New televisions are moving to widescreen, but that's the wrong shape for most things that are on tv.

Basic aspect ratio guide:

4:3 - television & old movies
1.78:1 - widescreen; many movies, many new tv shows, many new computer screens
2.35:1 - really widescreen; generally epic movies, action movies, sci-fi, etc.

The biggest aspect ratio problem used to be getting movies onto a tv screen. There were 3 options:
1 - Chop off the edges of the movie so that it fits the screen, potentially losing 1/3 of the picture
2 - Stretch the picture so that it fits, thereby making everyone look like aliens
3 - Fit the width to the screen, resulting in black bars on the top and bottom of the screen.

The most common solution for decades was to simply cut off the sides, resulting in what was called "fullscreen." When most tv screens were pretty small, this made perfect sense. With the advent of video tapes and DVDs, as well as people getting bigger, higher-quality screens and audio setups, people wanted better ways to reproduce the theater experience.

Movies began to be sold in widescreen. With Videotapes and early DVDs, they were "letterboxed." That is to say that they were showing a 4:3 picture. The top and bottom of that picture, however, was black bars. If you're putting that on a 4:3 screen, there's no problem.

What if you have a widescreen tv? Well, you could live with black bars on all 4 sides - ick! You could also zoom in so that the width fits, and the top and bottom are cut off (since they're just black bars of nothing, that's okay)

Then someone came up with the idea of anamorphic widescreen on DVDs. The gist is that it automatically expands to the right width, losing top and bottom if necessary. Since the top and bottom, again, are shorter, with a blank space, this was the ideal. The same signal will fit every tv shape perfectly! Everyone's happy!

But, there are other issues. The widescreen tv issue is that more and more people are buying widescreen tvs. You can barely go into a bar or restaurant without seeing them. Lots of people have big, shiny, expensive ones in their house.

Unfortunately, most people can't set them up right. The overwhelming majority of what's on tv is in the 4:3 aspect ratio. These tvs have the option of stretching the image to fit the screen.

So, let me get this straight: You spend north of a grand for a tv with great image quality, and then the first thing you do is to distort the image. I understand wanting to use all of the screen, but tv won't fit there. It's inappropriate as well as visually offensive.

Then, these people will keep this distortion even when widescreen content comes on! So, you could fit it properly, but choose to distort anyway. Brilliant.

Unfortunately, proper viewing of tv will require you to switch modes on the tv from time to time, depending on what you're watching. It's a pain, yes. But why buy fancy equipment capable of high quality without bothering to use it properly.

Enter the YouTube issue! In recent years flash video has become a de facto web standard for showing video on web pages. To standardize the display, everything on YouTube is designed to fit in a 320 by 240 pixel box. The same box for every video. Standard and simple.

Unfortunately, that means widescreen content is letterboxed. If you download the videos, there will be black bars on the top and bottom. If you're just showing it fullscreen on a 4:3 screen, it's fine. If you have a widescreen, however, you have to put up with black bars on 4 sides (unless you use QuickTime's handy-dandy Masking feature; it's a lot easier than it looks.)

Again, more complexity. I began thinking of this more and more when going to the movie theater. Prior to the formal previews and trailers, theaters have been showing commericals and featurettes of upcoming movies or tv shows. This is compiled into 1.78:1 picture. Unfortuntately, some dolt threw in 2.35:1 clips, resulting in a tiny picture. Idiots.

Once again, about the only people actually putting some thought and care into this is Apple. Front Row, iTunes and Quicktime all have fullscreen modes. The fullscreen mode will simply conform to whatever screen you're on. There is no distortion. The black bars will either be on the side or the top and bottom if necessary - never both. It just plain works.

Furthermore, if the commercials for the Apple TV and the iPhone are correct, YouTube content on them is actually fit to the proper aspect ratio for the movie, not just forced into 4:3.

Bottom line? Yeah, it's a bit of a pain. We need someone like Apple to get it right. For now, however, you just have to live with making compromises. Just please, for the love of Anchor Steam:






Anonymous Anonymous said...

I completely agree, except for one thing: Apple doesn't have it right. I have a widescreen monitor on my Apple, and any uncompressed avi or .mov files generated from Final Cut Pro are stretched drastically vertically when played back from front row. Very annoying, and after much research online, there is no fix.

11:01 PM  
Blogger Obi-Wandreas, The Funky Viking said...

Thanks for the comment!

I agree that Front Row definitely has some issues. I think after the release of AppleTV, Front Row got relegated to the back-burner. I have also seen that stretching problem with certain video files, but not others. This appears to be a legitimate bug in Front Row. Something tells me there's one little setting buried somewhere in the program that got fscked up. Not being a programmer, however, I couldn't tell you what it is. For those things not physically broken, however, I think Apple does get it right.

What bugs me about Front Row is that it will play my podcasts from iTunes, but the playback position will not sync back to iTunes. That, and not being able to specify Front Row (or iTunes Full Screen) to open in the secondary display. Geez, it's like they want me to buy an AppleTV or something. With a 6-week old daughter we really can't justify the expenditure right now. It would, however, save us the hassle of running cables across the living room from my MacBook Pro when we want to watch a rented flick or show off photos.

9:50 AM  
Blogger white_rotten_rabbit said...

Thank you for this site! Pardon my French here, but it pisses me off, when people mess up the aspect ratio. And what really brings my piss to a boil is that many people don't even notice the distorted picture. And very special examples of dumbasses will even argue that the picture looks fine, even if the goddamn Moon looks like a fucking ellipse!

1:56 PM  

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