In the dark times of home video, before DVDs, movie fans were plagued by “pan-and-scan” transfers of movies. Instead of seeing the full image, as the filmmaker shot it, you got a square slice of the movie, which often made film shot in widescreen formats borderline incomprehensible. Pan-and-scan largely died at the turn of the century, as widescreen transfers of movies became popular and televisions became rectangles instead of squares. But now, Netflix, already called out for cropping movies it streams, might be bringing it back.
Neil Hunt, one of Netflix’s top executives, has noted that they’re considering this with their original movies and TV shows. If you stream on a TV, you see the whole thing, but stream on a mobile device and you might see 75% of it.
To a degree, Netflix is just proposing a solution to a problem bedeviling the entire entertainment industry. Film and TV directors are struggling with the fact that their work will be viewed on screens from six to one hundred inches, and it was difficult to balance the demands of art and executives who don’t care about your carefully framed shot before that happened. A huge, detail-packed panoramic shot can be breathtaking on a movie screen, but feel dinky and fuzzy on a smartphone. Where do you pitch your shots?
Still, considering Netflix’s role these days as savior of lost television shows and its increasing role as a film distributor, it owes a debt to art as well as commerce. Cinephiles hated pan-and-scan because it second-guessed the hours of work that go into every shot of a movie. It’s like abridging a book by scratching out random words. While Netflix’s “mobile cuts” don’t seem to be nearly as bad, they’re still treating the art they’ve funded as a product instead of a piece of culture. Granted, nobody is going to die on the hill that is Fuller House‘s proper aspect ratio, but we don’t go down to the studio and tell the cameraman how to frame the shot, either. Decisions were made with care, and the proper aspect ratio respects those decisions.
Of course, an advantage of technology is that it offers options. Instead of just doing this, Netflix could offer viewers a choice between a “mobile cut” and seeing the work as it was intended. And it’d be nice if Netflix took a moment to educate its viewers on why widescreen is so important. Increasingly, Netflix is how we consume the majority of film, and is even opening up a whole world of film to viewers who might never see it otherwise. Whether it wants to the job or not, that means it’s a cultural steward as well as a business. It should ensure it’s taking care to protect film even as it expands access to it.