Saturday, January 31, 2015

The Wire, Aspect Ratios, and Medium Specificity

In some corners of the internet, much hubbub was made a few months ago about HBO’s remastering of iconic show The Wire for TV marathons, digital, and DVD/Blu-Ray purchases. Essentially, during it’s original run, the show was broadcast in a 4:3 aspect ratio, but it has been be remastered to a 16:9 aspect ratio, more in line with today’s flat screen, laptop-watching, widescreen era.

Originally, Executive Producer Robert Colesberry asked HBO to shoot in 16:9, but HBO countered that it was too expensive. Colesberry and creator David Simon accepted 4:3 and ran with it, working within those parameters in a way that became artistically and thematically rich and original. After season 3, there was talk of moving to 16:9, as there was nascent trend in that direction for many TV shows at the time. The creative team fought to keep it at 4:3.

I’m no expert with aspect ratios. But the give-and-take with the aspect radio during shooting provides an interesting case study for not only cinematographic artistry and intentionality, but also medium specificity.  With regards to the latter, Simon reflects on the question of moving from 4:3 to 16:9: “ that point a collective decision then was made to complete the project using the template that we had honed, the construct that we felt we had used to good effect to make the story feel more stolen then shaped, and to imply a more journalistic rendering of Baltimore than a filmic one.” He highlights the journalistic vs. cinematic difference again with the statement: “In the beginning, we tried to protect for letterbox, but by the end of the second season, our eyes were focused on the story that could be told using 4:3, and we composed our shots to maximize a film style that suggested not the vistas of feature cinematography, but the capture and delicacy of documentarian camerawork.”

This also dovetails with the analysis that has been done about The Wire as a Dickensian piece of fiction. Or at the very least, epic in scope.  For many, The Wire is a documentary series about Baltimore(which is a whole other conversation, considering questions of race, reductiveness, etc). Thus, it’s very interesting to know that that is how Simon intended it (which I guess isn’t surprising, as Simon was a journalist in Baltimore). As a piece of journalistic fiction, one of the tools that shaped The Wire was its cinematography and presentation format.  The fact that to Simon and the creative team, journalism and realism was held in direct opposition of the cinematic form is an interesting one. Because, at the end of the day, The Wire was a fictional TV series on HBO. In Simon’s eyes, did the fact that The Wire was a TV show, rather than a film, impact it’s foundational characteristics? Was he conflating TV with journalism (and thus reverting back to TV’s origins?) And what does this mean, considering that The Wire is an epic TV show that is serial in nature?

For more information, I’ve included links below. There are original and remastered clips on some of them, and pictorial analyses on others.

David Simon. “The Wire in HD (updated with video clips).” The Audacity of Despair. December 3, 2014. Web. January 31, 2015.

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