Anvil! & The 16:9 Stretch (Ugh!)

First, a friend highly recommended the documentary Anvil! The Story of Anvil after seeing it in the theater (with the band Anvil! performing), then there was the outrage about Anvil! not being nominated for the Academy Award for best feature documentary. Naturally, I couldn't wait to see it as soon as it came out on DVD.

And the verdict: yes, it's a great documentary.


The title alone is fantastic. It's got all the elements of the popular documentary of recent years: it's personal (in this case two people as the subjects whom we can follow on their journey just like a "hero" in a fictional film); suspense (neither subject, filmmaker nor audience know where this story is going); vérité footage (so real - as if the audience is right there with the film crew); celebrity (short interviews and sightings of famous people who've been influenced by the band); personable and interesting characters, underdog story, cult following, 3-act structure, reversals, American dream (or Canadian for that matter), insight into unique culture, international appeal, etc... and of course the overall message that pulls at all creative people's heartstrings who still haven't had their big breakthrough: even if you don't get the fame'n'fortune, you know you are doing it for the love of creating and the joy it brings to you and others! (Maybe people who've had a big break feel the same - who knows...)

Here's the trailer



But oh no, what did I just see there when they cut to old (presumably VHS) footage of Anvil! back in the day? Why does everyone look so short and wide? Is it possible that the editor just took the footage shot in 4:3 and stretched it to fit in with all the current HD footage shot in 16:9? Nooooo!

(BTW, I very much wanted to believe that I had set something wrong on my TV, but even the trailer on the film's website and YouTube Channel shows the same distortion... Most importantly though, this technical issue does not by any means diminish the value of the film!)

Ever since I first saw an HD 16:9 TV set at my friend John's place and our friend Rob and I tried to fiddle with the settings to make sure all the people on TV appeared in the same proportions as the rest of the people in the world (resulting in John asking us to please return the TV to his preferred setting), the distorted image of 3:4 footage stretched to fill out the 16:9 frame has been a major pet peeve of mine. Major. So excuse me, while I go on a rant...

When watching anything made to fit a standard TV (ignoring widescreen for a moment, that's pretty much everything that's been on TV, VHS or DVD until very recently) on your fancy new HD 16:9 TV, the inevitable question comes up: "would you rather see people the way all humans look and have bars on the left and right or would you prefer to have your entire screen filled with image but then everyone/everything is stretched into surreal proportions?" (Of course, there is also the option to zoom in on the image in the correct proportions and thus loose the top & bottom of the image.)

This question has come up many times when we've attended screenings of All God's Children (which is in 4:3) and also apparently during the post-production of the  documentary Anvil!. I'm an adamant proponent of using the correct aspect ratio no matter what (which includes, watching anything that was shot "in widescreen" in the letterboxed widescreen format) - and I don't quite get why some people prefer a cropped or even more startling, a stretched image - especially in their own film. Is it possible that some people actually do not see the difference?

Enough of my opinionated tirade - here are some explanations and examples that hopefully will help distinguish between the different ratios. If you want to read more details on the history and basics check out Aspect Ratio on wikipedia.

First of all: aspect ratio is the relationship between width and height.

Television and SD (standard definition) video have been shot and shown in 4:3 (or 1.33:1) since the beginning of television:



Films (in the US) have been mostly shot in 1.85:1 (standard 35mm)



... or 2.39:1 (anamorphic widescreen 35mm / CinemaScope - although there are variations on this):



The relatively new HD TV sets, TV channels and digital video are in 16:9. This ratio was chosen by SMPTE based on various existing ratios.



Above you can see the difference of the four common formats if we were to set the widths all the same. Below you can see the difference if you set the height all the same (in essence, with the face remaining the exact same size, 4:3 shows the least amount of background image, whereas widescreen/CinemaScope/2.39:1 shows the most additional background).



To show an image shot in one aspect ratio on a screen that has been built for a different aspect ratio, there are three options: 1- distort the image to make it fit, 2 - add bars to the top (letterboxing) or sides (pillarboxing), 3 - crop the image (zoom in).

These are the three options of showing the common 4:3 image on your brand new 16:9 TV set:







Choose wisely...

Just like I'm trying to make a wise choice right now as I'm looking at all of my 4:3 footage for All's Well and Fair and determining how it will fit best into a 16:9 world... Because just like the guys working on Anvil!, I'll have to figure out: do I want to zoom & crop (which will make everything look more blurry unless I uprez my SD footage) or do I keep it in 4:3 and envision pillarboxing... one thing is for sure I will not stretch/distort the 4:3 image into 16:9.

And if you still don't have enough, this is what the two most common US film formats would look like on your 16:9 TV if you were going for the letterbox option (which might make obvious why 16:9 makes film lovers so happy):






So one of the beauties of the new 16:9 TVs is that there should be no more "pan & scan" in our future, since the film format now fits almost perfectly.