Is HBO ruining movies?

One of the more subtle facets of filmmaking is the choice of aspect ratio, or the width-to-height ratio, of films. The most commonly used aspect ratio, 1.85:1, is similar enough to the screen shape of HD TVs and laptops, so the film image can pretty much fill them in their entirety.

However, when a film is shot in a wider aspect ratio than 1.85:1, those same viewing tools becomes less compatible, and rather than the image filling the whole screen, there are typically black bars placed above and below the frame to ensure that the entire shot is visible.

As explained in a new video essay by Patrick Willems, cable channels (now also streaming services) HBO and Starz actually scale their film presentations to ensure that they fill the entire screen, rather than include those black bars. And by doing this, they’re ruining movies.

 

As Willems says, “what drives me nuts about this is that with every movie, the filmmaker chose that aspect ratio for a reason, and they framed every shot for that specific shape. So chopping off the sides of the image is going against their wishes, and damaging their work.”

Willems makes a good point. Consider films where aspect ratio works as a method of storytelling. For his film Mommy, Xavier Dolan chose to use a very unique 1:1 ratio, which he stated allowed for “a more humble and private format.” Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel uses three separate aspect ratios to represent the passage of time. To alter these artistic choices, or to remove them entirely, takes away from the core of the film’s artistic quality.

And some of those artists do notice and do complain. Here’s a conversation on Twitter from last fall between directors Jordan Vogt-Roberts and Peter Atencio about the HBO presentation of their respective movies Kong: Skull Island and Keanu:

 

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