David Simon’s landmark series, The Wire, is making a return to the screen later this month in high definition. The series will be offered by digital download and on HBO Go to start, making the move to Blu-Ray soon after. A move that’s sure to make fans of the show very happy over the holidays.
There is one problem, though. The Wire wasn’t shot for 16×9 widescreen presentations, making its impact in the days before an HD television found its way into every home. This caused quite a headache for the folks at HBO, Simon himself, and, most importantly, the fans of the show. From Slash Film:
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.
Russ Fischer notes the similar issues with the recent re-release of The Simpsons on FX and the Simpsons World app. Folks were upset when they realized the show had been stretched to fit their televisions, with some visual gags and elements being ruined by the slight upgrade.
Luckily, David Simon came out to defend HBO in a very lengthy, detailed look at the process behind The Wire remaster. He also attempted to calm the worries of fans, particularly on the topic of the HD upgrade:
First, there were many scenes in which the shot composition is not impaired by the transfer to 16:9, and there are a notable number of scenes that acquire real benefit from playing wide. An example of a scene that benefits would be, say, from the final episode of season two, when an apostolic semicircle of longshoremen forms around the body of Frank Sobotka. Fine as far as it goes, but the dockworkers are all that much more vulnerable, and that much more isolated by the death of their leader when we have the ability to go wider in that rare crane shot.
But there are other scenes, composed for 4:3, that lose some of their purpose and power, to be sure. An early example that caught my eye is a scene from the pilot episode, carefully composed by Bob, in which Wee Bey delivers to D’Angelo a homily on established Barksdale crew tactics. “Don’t talk in the car,” D’Angelo reluctantly offers to Wee Bey, who stands below a neon sign that declares, “burgers” while D’Angelo, less certain in his standing and performance within the gang, stands beneath a neon label of “chicken.”
That shot composition was purposed, and clever, and it works better in the 4:3 version than when the screen is suddenly widened to pick up additional neon to the left of Bey. In such a case, the new aspect ratio’s ability to acquire more of the world actually detracts from the intention of the scene and the composition of the shot. For that reason, we elected in the new version to go tighter on the shot in order to maintain some of the previous composition, albeit while coming closer to our backlit characters than the scene requires. It is, indeed, an arguable trade-off, but one that reveals the cost of taking something made in one construct and recasting it for another format. And this scene isn’t unique; there are a good number of similar losses in the transfer, as could be expected. (via)
His entire piece is a damn fine read and I highly recommend it. He’s a lengthy, wordy guy, but it is worth it. I think having his direct involvement and blessing is more important than anything on this project. If he was against it, I would say that folks should stay away.
His presence gives it that authority that this is important and this show is worth revisiting. Not that I didn’t already know it’s worth the visit, it’s just nice to have an excuse to do so. I’ll gladly exchange some changes in framing and shot construction for another stroll down the streets with Omar.