“The Wire” is finally entering the world of high-definition – even if it's not the way the series was originally meant to look.
HBO announced today that they had completed the high-definition re-mastering of all five seasons of “The Wire,” which will debut in December on HBO Signature and HBO Go, be sold in digital HD (through iTunes, Google Play, etc.) starting January 5, and on Blu-ray starting next summer. As the press release notes, “The entire series has been beautifully re-mastered in 16×9 Full-Frame HD from more than 8,000 reels of original 35mm camera negative, allowing for a tighter fit on widescreen TVs and computer/tablet screens. The original negatives were scanned, edited, dust-busted and color-corrected with great care and attention taken to stay true to the look and feel of the original Standard-Definition 4×3 version.”
This was a more complicated process than most re-masterings from that period. “The Wire” debuted in 2002, at a time when the TV business was starting to push hard into both high-def imagery and a widescreen 16:9 aspect ratio. Many series that weren't yet broadcast in HD were still being shot 16:9 (leading to a letterboxed look on old projection TV sets, which I got a lot of complaints about from Star-Ledger readers back in the day), and even the ones that weren't were often being framed in such a way that the image could easily work as either 4:3 or 16:9 without any of the important imagery being lost. (If you watch a lot of TV dramas from the early part of the century, you'll notice almost all of the relevant action happens in the center of the frame for that reason. Directors were trying to serve two masters at all times.)
“The Wire,” though, wasn't shot that way. David Simon and company had requested that “The Wire” be shot in 16:9, but HBO executives instead insisted on 4:3 and standard-def (possibly as a cost-controlling measure). Simon, the late Robert Colesberry and the show's directors quickly learned to make that frame and the lower-quality image work for the series, giving it a rawer immediacy than might have been possible at the time in a widescreen, high-def image. Where other series were framing for both aspect ratios at once, “Wire” directors weren't even worrying about 16:9, and instead sought to create the best 4:3 image they could. By the time HBO offered to let them do a changeover to 16:9 and high-def after the third season, the show's producers declined, with Simon preferring to stick with one visual template the whole way through.
Because of that, and because of other creative and technical decisions made over the course of those five seasons, “The Wire” proved an especially tricky beast to tame for this new format. HBO has been teasing this re-mastering for months now, with an HBO Signature marathon of the altered episodes listed in various programming schedules in late summer/early fall. At a certain point, Simon himself got involved, along with some other “Wire” alums, to be sure it was done right. If he wasn't happy with the finished product, HBO wouldn't have made the announcement today.
And, indeed, Simon writes at length (as he does) on his blog about the process, and seems at peace with how it looks.
I've been asked about this process for a long time, well before HBO began hinting it might actually happen. And I get it. I'm an HD snob who's reluctant to watch almost anything in standard-def anymore. In this case, though, I understood that the old look was the way “The Wire” was designed to be seen, even at the dawn of the HDTV age, and was fine watching it that way. But if Simon's on board with this version, I'm at a minimum very curious to see what the show looks like. Will Herc and Carver constantly be goofing off on the edge of every frame now? Will Bubbles put the red hat on twice as many men? How many more beer cans will we be able to see on the Western District roof?