The Long And The Short Of It

“Aspect ratio” is a common enough term, I think, even if a little technical. It’s simply the ratio of the width of something to its height. For me, that’s about 1:3.4 because I’m a tall, thin shape like most humans.

The early movie industry, back in the silent era, used a 35mm film with a ratio of 4:3 which also is supposed to reflect a person’s central field of vision. Television inherited 4:3 and used that format up until relatively recent times, but movie-makers decided to offer something which television couldn’t: widescreen.

The first wide movie standard was CinemaScope from 1953. It was 8:3 or twice as wide as television. The film industry scales the numbers so that the height figure is 1, making CinemaScope 2.66:1 in their terms. Common commercial formats today are 1.85:1 and 2.40:1. Television, meanwhile, has adopted 16:9 or what the movie industry would call 1.78:1.

Now that I’ve introduced aspect ratio, I’ll get to the point, which is that some people don’t get it. A common situation is that “old” 4:3 television is shown on a “new” 16:9 set, and there are a few options. In fact, my own set has several. Probably the best in most cases is simply to place the 4:3 image in the middle of the screen, with black bars down each side. You’re not using some of the set’s expensive pixels, but at least you can see the full original image.

Because an alternate option is to spread the image across the whole width and crop off the top and bottom. Since 4:3 is the same as 16:12 (multiply by 4) on 16:9 you only see 9/12 or 3/4 of the vertical — rarely what you want. One freaky-looking alternative on my television set is to fill the whole screen with an image which is stretched more the further horizontally you get from the centre. I don’t really use that.

But those people who don’t get it (and I know they exist, in fact I’m related to some of them) are quite happy to watch a 4:3 programme simply stretched across the wider, 16:9 screen. It makes everything look short and squat, and basically just wrong. Well, it does to me, instantly. In fact, it distresses me and I can’t watch it.

One place you come across the people blind to aspect ratio is on YouTube. Many a time I’ve looked for a video of one of my favourite bands, only to find that some idiot has converted it or uploaded it wrong. And does anyone add a comment to say that it’s incorrect, or even that the band concerned seems to have put on a lot of weight? Not ever.

So I went to YouTube to get you examples of what I’m talking about. The first “old” television show I thought of which would likely be uploaded was the BBC’s music programme The Old Grey Whistle Test. Sure enough, a proportion (sorry) of the clips featured short, fat musicians in a low-ceiling studio.

For example, here are squat Lynyrd Skynyrd live on stage. You see that logo on the wall at the right? It’s supposed to be circular.
Squat Lynyrd Skynyrd

And here are Gary Moore and Phil Lynott under the same, egg-shaped logo. Hardly looking their best.
Gary Moore and friends

But finally, here’s how it should be done. Bob Marley (no, his hair is supposed to look like that) nicely framed and in the correct proportions.
Bob Marley

If you can’t instantly see that the first two are wrong and the last one right, then you have the aspect ratio disability. I’m not sure if there’s a cure.


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