Posted by: thewearyprofessor | June 7, 2012

Seeing All of John Wayne’s Hat : Widescreen Presentation vs. Original Negative Contents

Back during my college filmmaking days, the instructor had us perform an interesting experiment. He had us run the full frame films we had shot masked off at the top and bottom with a widescreen projection matte. Suddenly all of the compositions we had carefully crafted were changed, as the top and bottom of the image shrank. We all oohed and aahed at first. Our work suddenly looked like bigscreen movies you might see in a real theater. Then, as the novelty wore off, we began to lament the loss of our original framing and directorial choices. Where was that idyllic blue sky that set off the foreground character’s gloomy words? Why were so many characters’ hands missing? Why did nobody have a full head in a close-up?

I was reminded of this after my viewing of the classic John Wayne western HONDO on blu-ray this week. The film was originally shot in the more or less full frame aspect ratio of 1.37:1, which is roughly the same image you might see on an older non-widescreen television. The new blu-ray was released at 1.85:1, which means the top and bottom of the image are missing and the picture is magnified to fill current widescreen televisions. That’s right, part of the originally filmed image is missing from Paramount’s new blu-ray.

To me this is an abomination, yet there are film scholars rallying to Paramount’s defense. Some say most of the theaters in 1953 had already converted to widescreen and this is how the movie would have been shown. Whether this is true or not, and frankly seeing the output of Hollywood in the early fifties I have severe doubts, the fact remains that the director framed a full-screen 1.37:1 image each day on set, edited a full-screen image in the editing room, and presented a full-screen image to the studio upon completion. If we truly believe in the auteur theory and that film is a work of art, then regardless of what a theater did afterwards in terms of display, the movie the director shot should be considered the definitive form.

One site even presents a source from 1954 to say that the film was shot in widescreen (below). That is not what the source says. It says the absolute MAXIMUM width this film can be shown is 1.85:1 widescreen. Any more and too much of the picture information is lost.

If presentation is to be taken into account, why aren’t we watching classic TV shows with all four sides cropped and the corners rounded like those old television sets? Because that’s not the way they were shot.

Yes, there are stories of later directors getting sloppy and including hanging boom microphones and other elements because they knew you would never see them in theaters after the films were matted—but I have never heard a director say this himself. Certainly it would not have been the case with any of our great cinema directors, the ones who designed each frame meticulously.

My plea is simple: Give us what the director shot, edited and submitted. Give us his original vision. We’ll figure out how we want to show it. Let people who MUST see movies with every inch of their widescreen TVs filled use their Zoom control. Me, I’d rather see the full original camera image.

I think most people like seeing all of John Wayne’s hat. I know I do.



  1. I couldn’t agree with you more. Why does anyone ever change the directors vision? You might as well watch a movie edited for TV. In fact if we continue like this, company’s will start releasing shortened versions of movies because viewers don’t want to watch long movies anymore. Ben-Hur or Spartacus cut down to two hours. It’s scary to think these things could happen!

  2. It’s amazing to me just how willing the studios are to dumb down their releases to meet the expectations of the least knowledgeable consumers of recorded video. Haven’t they learned from past experience? When they tried shoving pan-and-scan and cropped widescreen films to consumers there was an outcry from film enthusiasts, and nowadays it’s hard to find DVDs released in this manner. Now studios are assuming the opposite and mutilating films in a different way, and my bet is that they will be forced to drop this practice as well. Don’t forget that the public also rejected Colorization many years ago and pressed for Anamorphic transfers of widescreen films in recent years. We’re not stupid.

  3. This is for the dumbed down general public that doesn’t know any better. I’ve seen so many blogs and message boards that are loaded with the inane thinking that “we” don’t know any better as to what the “film maker’s” vision was. In today’s world, as most economic students realize, the aim of most film makers is to make money. Those that want to use the film as an art form can use Cannes, Sundance, Toronto, etc. The general public only cares that the “movie” is appealing & not for what size in which it’s shot. Hence we have a dearth of Batman, Spiderman, Saw, Madagascar, Ice Age, Transporter & Super Hero movies. The public likes action & baby sitting (family) movies. And with the obscene cost of movie theaters it’s no wonder that most people would rather wait for the DVD, Blu-Ray or download to see the movie. That being said, people have been led by technology to widescreen Plasma, LCD, LED, 3D TVs to view these film makers “renderings”. “We” (the general public), in many cases, invested huge amounts of money to obtain large (50” to 80” and larger) screens, multi-speaker configurations & yes even $200 3D glasses to watch & listen in awe at these epic art works. And now they’re wondering why after 2 bank loans & a refinance why their TV screen is blank at the top & bottom. If there is a different size for works of art surely the TV manufacturers knew about it. Oh yes, I forgot, they’re in China, Japan & Korea. They probably didn’t know. Why then haven’t they created a screen that widens & lengthens to address all size formats much the same way curtains at theaters move so there are no black (dead) areas. Too expensive, I doubt it. It can’t be any more expensive than 3D technology without 3D glasses. Using the widen control on most TVs makes the picture blurry & less HD. That’s not why “we” purchased an HD widescreen TV. Most movie watchers do not buy into the auteur theory (work of art crap) but see only the financial gain for the directors. If TV manufacturers really want to make both worlds happy maybe new TV size concepts need to be developed.

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