The Wire

The Wire in HD (updated with video clips)

This tale begins and ends with a fellow named Bob Colesberry, who taught me as much as he could about filmmaking in the three or four years I was privileged to work with him. To those who knew Bob, it will provoke warm memories to say that he was not a language guy; he understood image, and story, and the delicate way in which those elements should meet.

Bob spent a too-short lifetime on film sets, working beside real filmmakers – Scorsese, Bertolucci, Pakula, Levinson, Ang Lee – helping to shepherd the ideas of many great directors and eschewing the limelight altogether for the chance. But, hey, if you don’t believe me about how substantial his resume was, go to imdb right now and trace the arc of his career. That he ended up tethered to some ex-police reporter in Baltimore was pure forbearance on his part; for my part, I can just say I got very lucky.

It is no exaggeration that Bob had to explain “crossing the line” to me a dozen times, often twice in the same day, before my brain could grasp a concept that first-year film students everywhere take for granted. If you go to the fourth episode of the first season of The Wire, and watch the camerawork on that long scene with Freamon and McNulty in the bar, you’ll be a bystander to the moment when the linear word-brain that I drag to set every day was finally allowed a few rays of cinematic light, courtesy of a patient mentor.

“See what happens when we cross over and everything flips?” he explained for the thirteenth time. “If you see the move happen, you aren’t disoriented, but if we were to cut that moment and then suddenly be on the other side…”

He paused, looked at me. Nothing. Dead crickets.

“So…the dialogue that they’re saying when we cross the line and reverse on them – those words –we can’t cut those. You good with that?”

“Yeah, I get it now.”

“Right. Then we’re good.”

Huh. The next day, I sauntered up to Bob at the video monitors and, in my best deadpan, asked him yet again to explain crossing the line. He looked on me sadly as a terminal case, until I started laughing. No, I had finally learned something about the camera and the credit was his. I just couldn’t resist pulling the man’s coat one more time.

In telling that story on myself, I’m trying to make clear that while I might have learned to put film in the can in a basic way before the marriage to Mr. Colesberry, I had no claim to anything remotely resembling a film auteur. It was Bob who created the visual template for The Corner and The Wire both, and having died suddenly after the latter drama’s second season, it is Bob who is remembered wistfully every time we begin to construct the visuals for some fresh narrative world. He would have reveled in Generation Kill, and knowing what I do about the visual palate that New Orleans offers the world, I am unsure that Bob Colesberry could have ever been pried from that city had he gone down there for Treme.

As devoted as he was to imagery and story, language was always a lesser currency in Bob’s life; he often made his arguments elliptically, curling in sentence-fragment circles until he got to where he needed to go. You had to lean in and listen a little harder, but it was always worthwhile and he was usually correct when he got to his point. Once, at a TCA panel on The Wire, Bob answered a reporter’s question in vague terms and at length. To lighten the moment, I tossed off a joke: “Now you can see why Bob’s in command of the visuals.” It was teasing and steeped in affection, but I regretted the remark as soon as I uttered it. Bob’s contributions to the storytelling were profound, and though he laughed it off, I had been heedless. His claim on The Wire and what it was trying to do was genuine and elemental; for years, before and after his death, I wanted that moment back to exalt my friend and colleague.

So when HBO sent out some promo ads about a conversion of The Wire to HD and a 16:9 ratio a few months ago, I reacted not merely as David Simon, showrunner and ink-stained scribbler, but as David Simon, the medium for Robert Colesberry, professional filmmaker. WWBD. What would Bob do?

*          *          *

Well, for one thing, he would make sure to be included in the process.

Nina Noble and I were told a year ago that HBO wanted to experiment with taking The Wire, filmed in standard definition and a 4:3 ratio, to the new industry standards. We endorsed the effort, but after we last spoke to folks on the production side, we had expected to be shown some work recast in high definition and wider screen and to begin discussions at that point. Instead, we heard nothing until on-air promos for The Wire in HD began to be broadcast and packaging material for a fresh release of the drama was forwarded to us in Yonkers, where we are shooting our current HBO project.

No offense was taken, particularly when the production people explained that the transfer to HD had been laborious and ornate, and it was simply assumed that we were too busy with current production to dive into the process in detail. And, too, there was a further assumption at HBO that as a transfer to HD could provide a fresh audience for the drama, there was no real disincentive to an HD transfer of The Wire on any terms; if it could be done, they reasoned, it should be done.

And yet, I still had Bob Colesberry in my ear. Moreover, Bob’s history with HD and a 16:9 ratio in regard to The Wire was a tortured one. His intentions, the limitations imposed on our production, and his resulting template for the drama were known to me, if not to the folks presently struggling with a retroactive transfer to HD and widescreen.

In fact, Bob had asked before filming The Wire pilot in late 2001 for a widescreen aspect ratio. He correctly saw television screens growing wider and 16:9 ratio becoming industry standard, and coming from the feature world, it was his inclination to be as filmic as possible. But, to be honest, The Wire was at its inception a bit of shoestring affair and expectations for the drama at HBO were certainly modest. Filming in letter-box was more expensive at the time, and we were told, despite Bob’s earnest appeals, that we should shoot the pilot and the ensuing season in 4:3.

At which point, Bob set about to work with 4:3 as the given. And while we were filming in 35mm and could have ostensibly “protected” ourselves by adopting wider shot composition in the event of some future change of heart by HBO, the problem with doing so is obvious: If you compose a shot for a wider 16:9 screen, then you are, by definition, failing to optimize the composition of the 4:3 image. Choose to serve one construct and at times you must impair the other.

Because we knew the show would be broadcast in 4:3, Bob chose to maximize the storytelling within that construct. As full wide shots in 4:3 rendered protagonists smaller, they couldn’t be sustained for quite as long as in a feature film, but neither did we go running too quickly to close-ups as a consequence. Instead, mid-shots became an essential weapon for Bob, and on those rare occasions when he was obliged to leave the set, he would remind me to ensure that the director covered scenes with mid-sized shots that allowed us to effectively keep the story in the wider world, and to resist playing too much of the story in close shots.

Similarly, Bob further embraced the 4:3 limitation by favoring gentle camera movements and a combination of track shots and hand-held work, implying a documentarian construct. If we weren’t going to be panoramic and omniscient in 4:3, then we were going to approach scenes with a camera that was intelligent and observant, but intimate. Crane shots didn’t often help, and anticipating a movement or a line of dialogue often revealed the filmmaking artifice. Better to have the camera react and acquire, coming late on a line now and then. Better to have the camera in the flow of a housing-project courtyard or squad room, calling less attention to itself as it nonetheless acquired the tale.

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. We got fancy at points, and whatever rules we had, we broke them now and again; sometimes the results were a delight, sometimes less so. But by and large, Bob had shaped a template that worked for the dystopian universe of The Wire, a world in which the environment was formidable and constricting, and the field of vision for so many of our characters was limited and even contradictory.

Bob Colesberry died during surgery while we were prepping season three of the drama. A short time later, HBO came to us with news that the world was going to HD and 16:9, as Bob had anticipated. We could, if we wanted, film the remaining seasons of  The Wire in HD and widescreen. But at 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 than shaped, and to imply a more journalistic rendering of Baltimore than a filmic one.

Just as important, we had conceived of The Wire as a single story that could stand on its own across the five seasons. To deliver the first two seasons in one template and then to switch-up and provide the remaining seasons in another format would undercut our purpose tremendously, simply by calling attention to the manipulation of the form itself. The whole story would become less real, and more obviously, a film that was suddenly being delivered in an altered aesthetic state. And story, to us, is more important than aesthetics.

We stayed put and honored what we had already created. As I believe Bob would have, at that late point, stayed put.

*          *         *

And now comes HBO with the opportunity to deliver the story to a new audience.

To their great credit, once we alerted HBO production executives to our absolute interest in the matter, they halted the fall HD release and allowed us to engage in detail. And over the past several months, looking at some of what the widescreen format offered, three things became entirely clear: 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 this one, 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 key two-shot of Bey and D’Angelo 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.

More fundamentally, there were still, upon our review, a good hundred or so scenes in which the widening revealed sync problems with actors who would otherwise have remained offscreen, or even the presence of crew or film equipment. These scenes, still evident in the version that HBO originally intended to broadcast several months ago, required redress. The high-definition transfer also made things such as Bubbles’ dental work, or certain computer-generated images vulnerable; other stuff held up pretty well in the transfer.

This is no poor reflection on HBO’s initial efforts. In traversing 60 hours of film, the HBO production team had done a metric ton of work painting out C-stands and production assistants, as well as solving a good many sync problems. They felt they had protected sufficiently to air the drama in HD and widescreen several months ago. However, for myself and Nina – examining even a small portion of the whole and finding light flares and sync issues that could be better corrected – we were confirmed in our need to slow the process and take a last, careful look.

Unfortunately, as we have spent the fall in production for HBO, there was no chance we could find time enough to attend to a complete review of the entire series. That fell to a film editor in whom we place great trust and who knows the The Wire well from his service to it over the years. Matthew Booras took the notes and concerns of the surviving filmmakers into an editing suite and began making hard decisions about what we might live with, what we might improve, and which choice did the least violence to the story when a scene became vulnerable. Narrowing the workload for Nina and myself, he made it possible for us to focus on the handful of essential problems in every episode. The hard work here on our part should actually be credited to him.

At HBO, Rosalie Camarda managed the synthesis of our late notes with the film edit, and long before Matthew weighed in on the remaining problems, Laurel Warbrick capably performed the lion’s share of the transfer, going scene by scene through the cuts and resizing and painting away problems throughout. The two then worked with Matthew, Nina and myself on the remaining issues, and we are grateful for their patience and commitment to the process.

At the last, I’m satisfied what while this new version of The Wire is not, in some specific ways, the film we first made, it has sufficient merit to exist as an alternate version. There are scenes that clearly improve in HD and in the widescreen format. But there are things that are not improved. And even with our best resizing, touchups and maneuver, there are some things that are simply not as good. That’s the inevitability: This new version, after all, exists in an aspect ratio that simply wasn’t intended or serviced by the filmmakers when the camera was rolling and the shot was framed.

Still, being equally honest here, there can be no denying that an ever-greater portion of the television audience has HD widescreen televisions staring at them from across the living room, and that they feel notably oppressed if all of their entertainments do not advantage themselves of the new hardware. It vexes them in the same way that many with color television sets were long ago bothered by the anachronism of black-and-white films, even carefully conceived black-and-white films. For them, The Wire seems frustrating or inaccessible – even more so than we intended it. And, hey, we are always in it to tell people a story, first and foremost. If a new format brings a few more thirsty critters to the water’s edge, then so be it.

Personally, I’m going to choose to believe that Bob Colesberry would forgive this trespass on what he built, and that he, too, would be more delighted at the notion of more folks seeing his film than distressed at the imprecisions and compromises required. If there is an afterlife, though, I may hear a good deal about this later. And in consideration of that possibility, I’m going to ask anyone who enjoys this new version of The Wire to join me in sending five or ten or twenty dollars to the following address:

The Robert F. Colesberry Scholarship

Tisch School For The Arts

New York University

721 Broadway, 12th Floor

New York, N.Y. 10003

As I’ve made clear, I’ve messed with a Bob Colesberry template here, and the man, when passionate, spoke in long coils, building slowly and inexorably to a summation. And yes, eternity is a long fucking time. So if you’ve long wanted The Wire in HD, unass a bit of coin for a scholarship that honors Bob and supports future filmmakers in his name. You’ll be doing me a small, karmic solid.

David Simon

Baltimore, Md.

December 1, 2014

337 Comments

  • Thanks for the very interesting explanation. The Wire was one of the last things I watched before finally buying an HD television in 2008-9. I’ve hesitated to rewatch it, as I would either have to expand the image or deal with the grey bars on my plasma set (not a big deal for a 2 hour film, but more of an issue when binge-watching hours of a series). That said, I’m with the many others in hoping the BD release features both versions. I assume HBO will air the new version on its various outlets (cable channels, HBOGO, OnDemand).

    • The grey bars on your plasma set will only be an issue when watching the 4:3 DVDs. If you were to watch a hypothetical 4:3 Blu-ray of The Wire, it would come with its own black bars to maintain the correct screen format, as all Blu-rays by default must fill a 16:9 space.

  • Hello David –

    Was quite pleased that I ran across this today after learning of the new release yesterday. As life can be busy, I often miss reading your words as often as I would like. It’s taken several hours for me to finish this one, as we had a last-minute set dropped on us, and a somewhat distant location from yesterday that had to be wrapped this morning.

    As always, I truly enjoy your words of wisdom and today was especially meaningful with your memories of Bob. I will always be glad that I had the opportunity to know and work with him, and sad that it was for an all to short time of our lives.

    Thanks also for reminding us all about the scholarship fund. I have a stack of end-of-year appeals on my desk at home, but this one will go on the top for payment this weekend.

    Missing you and Nina in Baltimore – hoping that perhaps there will be an opportunity to work together once again before I get too old to keep this madness up.

    Take care, and enjoy life –

  • I definitely have mixed feelings about this. Based on the above post, it sounds like David Simon has mixed feelings about the new transfer, too. On the one hand, The Wire is my favorite show of all time, so any excuse to re-watch it, particularly in HD, is welcome. In addition, since The Wire went off the air, I invested in a flat screen TV. so I can see the appeal of a story “filling the screen.” Yet, as a film school graduate, I also take aspect ratios seriously. If David Simon thinks that expanding the frame detracts from the viewing experience, and HBO has simply forced his hand, that’s not a good sign. But again, I can’t wait to relive Seasons 1 through 5.

  • […] So you may have heard that The Wire, often touted on the net as the greatest TV series of all time, is getting re-released in HD. While that should be news to celebrate, the problem comes from the revelation that the show would be remastered in 16:9 aspect ratio when it was only shot in 4:3. When The Simpsons was recently re-released in widescreen format, it was an unmitigated disaster as severe cropping and awkward resizing ruined several episodes. So will the same happen to The Wire? HBO claim no, that it will in fact make for a better, “tighter” experience, but I’m not getting the same confidence from the show’s creator David Simon. […]

  • […] Like super-sizing and smartphones, there can be a tendency in the consumer industry to assume bigger is better. The same is true of filmed content, where the resolution arms-race has seen TV manufacturers and movie producers push each other up through 720p, 1080p, and 4K resolutions in a relatively short matter of time. But with greatest-of-all-time TV series The Wire set to make its re-mastered, HD debut in the near future, it’s worth remembering that not all filmed material is ready for the high-def treatment, as show-creator David Simon explains on his blog. […]

  • I learned it as “crossing the axis”. I think it’s something you can only understand when actually blocking a scene, but once learned you realize just how fundamental it is to the language of visual storytelling.

  • Why don’t you just release it in 4:3 HD instead of messing with something everyone already loves? It just seems so fucking stupid.

  • […] Like super-sizing and smartphones, there can be a tendency in the consumer industry to assume bigger is better. The same is true of filmed content, where the resolution arms-race has seen TV manufacturers and movie producers push each other up through 720p, 1080p, and 4K resolutions in a relatively short matter of time. But with greatest-of-all-time TV series The Wire set to make its re-mastered, HD debut in the near future, it’s worth remembering that not all filmed material is ready for the high-def treatment, as show-creator David Simon explains on his blog. […]

  • […] Like super-sizing and smartphones, there can be a tendency in the consumer industry to assume bigger is better. The same is true of filmed content, where the resolution arms-race has seen TV manufacturers and movie producers push each other up through 720p, 1080p, and 4K resolutions in a relatively short matter of time. But with greatest-of-all-time TV series The Wire set to make its re-mastered, HD debut in the near future, it’s worth remembering that not all filmed material is ready for the high-def treatment, as show-creator David Simon explains on his blog. […]

  • […] Like super-sizing and smartphones, there can be a tendency in the consumer industry to assume bigger is better. The same is true of filmed content, where the resolution arms-race has seen TV manufacturers and movie producers push each other up through 720p, 1080p, and 4K resolutions in a relatively short matter of time. But with greatest-of-all-time TV series The Wire set to make its re-mastered, HD debut in the near future, it?s worth remembering that not all filmed material is ready for the high-def treatment, as show-creator David Simon explains on his blog. […]

  • […] Like super-sizing and smartphones, there can be a tendency in the consumer industry to assume bigger is better. The same is true of filmed content, where the resolution arms-race has seen TV manufacturers and movie producers push each other up through 720p, 1080p, and 4K resolutions in a relatively short matter of time. But with greatest-of-all-time TV series The Wire set to make its re-mastered, HD debut in the near future, it’s worth remembering that not all filmed material is ready for the high-def treatment, as show-creator David Simon explains on his blog. […]

  • Why re-release in 16:9? Why not?

    I really like the fact significant love and care has gone into this conversion. Most people wouldn’t have noticed and had they stuck to 4:3, a huge number of people would have been watching zoomed in so the black bars go away, spoiling the work of the film makers. Plus, my parents have a plasma TV that shows distracting grey bars when showing native 4:3 meaning I didn’t want to watch Seinfeld on it (and I LOVE Seinfeld). Artists can’t simply say “this is how you must watch it!”, they have to account for what people actually do. Re-mastering for 16:9 allows the non-diehards (and those with technical limitations) to enjoy the story with the equipment they have.

    Babylon 5 is a good comparison. It was filmed in the 4:3 SD era, but with 16:9 HD in mind. Unfortunately the CGI was seen as expendable. They thought they would just re-render the CGI for HD 16:9, but the ravages of time have seen the original files of the CGI lost and the equipment/software combination become obsolete meaning they would have no choice but completely remake the CGI to match the special effects to the film. The fans probably won’t care, but a generation used to HD won’t want to go back to SD, limiting sales.

    I was in two minds about the Star Trek TNG HD release. I thought the Star Trek original series HD special effects were really bad, but TNG appears to have had significantly more love and care put into it and I would happily watch it.

    Finally, from the sound of this blog post, this is not a George Lucas-style reworking of needlessly tinkering, but rather a re-visiting for a new format.

    • John,

      Curious as to what format you were talking about in your mention of Seinfeld. In the Atlanta market, reruns of the show are usually broadcast in 16 x 9, unlike its contemporaries. I think it’s one of the reasons the show holds up so well in syndication (albeit a small reason).

  • First thing I’d like to mention that I’ve never watched The Wire, although it has been on my list of ‘shows I really do need to check out’ for a while now. The cinephile in me would prefer to watch it for the first time OAR 4:3, although realistically my first viewing will probably involve grumbling at being stuck with this widescreen version at some point.

    That said, stumbling upon this blog and seeing all this talk about which version goes to blu-ray I’d just like to point something out. Universal just announced the original 1970s Battlestar Galactica coming to blu-ray next year with both a re-framed 16:9 AND the original 4:3 (two blu-ray sets on offer, the fancy expensive one includes both versions in HD and tons of extras while the cheaper one is more barebones and 16:9 only). If there is still more talk to be had with HBO regarding the blu-ray release and if they’re insistent on 16:9 going out on disc, maybe suggest that that shouldn’t necessarily preclude the 4:3 version ALSO showing up on blu-ray as well. That BSG release seems like devilishly simple template to offering the most ardent of fans exactly what they want while allowing the more general release to be geared more towards the less discerning public who may feel offended at the sight of black bars on their widescreen TVs, filmmaker’s intentions be damned.

    • If HBO wants my money — which I’m more than willing to fork over — they’ll exactly what you described, so that I can get my HD 4:3.

  • If you had to give your honest opinion, do you think more shots suffer or benefit from 16:9? What are some scenes that you’ve seen that you really love/hate in 16:9? Thanks again!

  • I agree, a 4:3 HD version would be much more sensible…
    I hope we won’t have to wait until Criterion does it. I was longing to acquire The wire in HD,I had no doubt it would be the original 4:3 scanned in HD. So sad it isn’t…

  • Hi Mr. Simon,

    I came to this post from an announcement about the Blu-ray release. Personally, as an avid home video collector, I am seeing the slippery slope effect here. We all suffered through years of 4:3 SD masters of widescreen films, and the privileged few owned LaserDisc and/or widescreen VHS editions.

    Now I am seeing the reverse. Since “everyone’s” TV is now 16:9, native 4:3 material now gets titled and scanned to 16:9. Regardless of HBO and their rather amusing justification of bringing in a “new audience” with the 16:9 broadcast, and, with immense respect, regardless of how you feel about it, releasing The Wire on Blu-ray in anything except its original format is just wrong. And that is regardless of how well a 16:9 conversion is done. Even if some shots look better, a 16:9 conversion is, essentially, where the person overseeing the conversion becomes the Director/DP/Editor, and creates a “new” series in the process. It would be like cutting Guernica into a series of smaller paintings to make it more portable, then taking the new, smaller works on a worldwide tour. Clearly, more museums and more people would see Guernica if it were cut into sections and displayed as a series, but no one would ever do that with a Picasso.

    Think about this: As much as this “new audience” is important, who, outside of the production, is responsible for making The Wire a success? The answer, of course, is fans of the series. Fans who watched the show, and bought the DVDs (always in 4:3), and then spread word of the show to others, who then did the same. I don’t think the series is coming to Blu-ray for any other reason, beyond the fact that millions have enjoyed it so far, and in doing so, have made money for HBO. Any “new audience” that HBO could bring in, is unlikely to match or exceed the present number of loyal viewers The Wire now has.

    I know that you have limited control over the situation, and that, in the end, the decision is up to HBO, but I would urge you to reconsider and ask them to present the Blu-ray in the original aspect ratio, to continue the legacy of the series. HBO can offer their 16:9 versions on TV, and wherever else they please, but I think that of all formats, the Blu-ray version should present the series in the best quality possible, while retaining the original look and feel of the series. I am a fan of The Wire, and I love that it is getting a Blu-ray release, but both you and I know that this will be the one shot to get this show in 1080p quality, and I think it should be done right. Those who wish to fill their screen when watching the Blu-ray can always use the “ZOOM” button. If HBO sees fit to offer only 16:9 versions on Blu-ray, then unfortunately, I would not be able to buy the set. And that would be a shame, because I really, really want to.

    Sorry for the long comment.

    • I agree with all of this. I’ve had a night to think about this, and I find myself getting more and more upset about it. I can’t emphasize enough just how important it is that the Blu-ray release make the 4:3 versions available in some form.

      Think about how a film that’s been released on VHS, but not DVD, Blu-Ray, or streaming is viewed today. It might as well not exist. If The Wire as originally conceived, shot, and broadcast is never released in any high definition format, then it too will disappear from existence over the course of the next decade or so. The 16:9 version won’t be viewed as an “alternative,” like Simon describes it, but it’ll be viewed as the de-facto version.

      David, if you have any interest in the show as you made it still being readily available for public consumption a decade from now, then this is something worth throwing a massive shit-fit over, worth issuing ultimatums to HBO over.

      For the life of me, I don’t understand how studios are able to get away with doing this to television shows. If a studio tried to release a Blu-ray of a classic film from the 40s retrofitted to 16:9 televisions, there would be a backlash for the ages from the critical community. Yet for television shows, people (critics and viewers) seem to place less importance on frame composition, and it’s having deplorable consequences.

      • Bingo Andrew. Television is still seen as second-class filmed entertainment, which can be changed or altered at the will of the broadcaster or production company.

      • “If a studio tried to release a Blu-ray of a classic film from the 40s retrofitted to 16:9 televisions, there would be a backlash for the ages from the critical community.”

        Good point, Andrew.

  • I remember how terrific the digital projection looked when we screened 501 in Baltimore and NY theaters.
    A whole layer of depth and detail emerged. I think we scanned in HD, but preserved our 4:3 aspect. Can’t wait to see these remasters, but I’m sure it reveals too much sometimes, as we relied on the limitations of standard def to hide the ragged edges!

    xo RF

  • I have always wondered how a journalist got so good at dramatic storytelling. Bob sounds like such an amazing, gifted man. How lucky you are to have known him. Again, I am struck by how much loss you have suffered while telling your stories. It points to the grueling nature of both the work and the hours spent. I will send a donation to the scholarship fund. I hope you raise a lot of money.

  • I love that you felt it important enough to not only be involved (as of course studios will often just shove these things through w/o such involvement) but that you wanted to take the time here to help the fans and future fans understand the history, process and some of the decisions.
    Personally, I am disappointed by the 16×9 decision just as much as when studios made the same decision, for the same type of audience to crop movies to 4×3 on home video. As others noted, Star Trek and other shows have retained the formatting they had and still received high quality HD releases. A lot of the explanation here almost feels like trying to convince yourself, not us of what we can assume was some suits personal assumptions in mandating the change.
    If at all possible, please try to get them to release the 4×3 version, not (only) the tilt and scan version on Blu-ray as the studio is making buyers wait an additional 6 months. We would really hope there is a great reason for this, like the OAR, instead of just screwing folks who want to own it by preventing Netflix, Redbox and others from being able to rent it until digital “purchases” (you don’t own shit if you buy it from a digital-only source) have a long run.

  • Must say I wasn’t expecting the second part, where HBO actually listened and worked things so they were improved. Good job done by whoever negotiated the contract I guess.

  • Disappointed at yet more of HBO messing with aspect ratios.

    Sad. This is literally my favorite show with the most brilliant film-making that has ever been on TV and I have to take a pass. Even with the impending HBO Go for cord cutters, what do I gain by subscribing? A neutered TV experience. We expect this from watching movies on HBO, not from their flagship show.

    Perhaps the Blu Ray release will allow for a true to the source material product just like Star Trek TNG does.

  • I am sorry for not knowing much about shooting television shows or the different formats that are used, but I thought I watched a HD version of The Wire on demand a few years ago. When I saw it, I assumed the exact same HD version on Bluray would shortly follow. Why didn’t HBO use its earlier HD version for Bluray?

  • David,
    I had a Bob Colesberry moment when you wrote “filmed in standard definition.” If you had shot with an SD video camera, your phrase would make sense. But you shot film.

    QUESTION: HBO will issue the title as 16:9. Will the center of the image be the original 4:3, i.e. 12:9?

    If so, the simple solution is to rip the blu-ray and use the Crop effect in VLC when viewing. Voila. Click Tools / Effects and Filters / Video Effects / Crop, and enter 240 px for Left and Right crop. Then the aspect ratio is exactly the way you intended it originally, just with much better resolution. Instead of roughly 640×480 SD, you’d have 1440×1080.

    Then we’re good?

    A second solution is to issue both versions.

    • From what has been written here (and someone who knows more please feel free to correct me), it sounds like they’ve reframed some shots. So simply using a crop on the 16×9 masters won’t get you back to how it originally looked, perhaps for some shots, but not all of them. That neon sign shot David mentions is an example of a shot that is changed for the 16×9 framing.

      And yes, technically the show was shot on film, so it wasn’t filmed in standard definition. It was simply broadcast in standard definition. Most shows in 2002 were shot on film, meaning they would all look better in high-definition than on DVD.

  • Why not just release it in HD as a full frame image? You shot on film, so the information is there, so to speak. It’ll be MUCH better than the standard definition version even if it’s the same exact framing. This is how most classic films are presented in HD. They didn’t crop/expand Casablanca or Citizen Kane to create a 16×9 image, they left it at 1.37:1, but man oh man do they look incredible on blu-ray.

    Anyway, sounds like the 16×9 presentation is getting an incredible amount of attention and work put into it, and I can’t wait to see it. I was always especially bothered by how awful season 4 (my favorite season) looked on DVD – it was a terrible transfer that looks like a screener – so this is good news indeed. However, there’s nothing wrong with releasing something in full frame HD. Any aspect ratio will look better at a higher resolution. You’ve even got movies like The Grand Budapest Hotel which use a variety of different aspect ratios, and they all look great in high-definition, whether 1.37, 1.85 or 2.35.

    • Reread the post.

      “More fundamentally, there were still, upon our review, a good hundred or so scenes in which the widening revealed sync problems with actors who would otherwise have remained offscreen, or even the presence of crew or film equipment.”

      Simply releasing full frame wasn’t an option, unless you wanted to (and it’d be an interesting experiment) go uncompromisingly meta.

      • Sorry, I guess I’m using an old school term. By ‘full frame’ I mean 4:3 ie 1.37:1, as it was originally broadcast. ‘Wide frame’ would be 16×9. You’re right, though, that full frame in 2014 suggests a widescreen format since most people have widescreen TVs now.

        Confused yet?

        Anyway, it sounds like in order to create that 16×9 ‘wide frame’ they needed to basically go through shot by shot of every episode in every season and adjust as necessary. It also means basic visual effects have been employed for some shots in the later seasons. So it’s a big process!

        I understand that they want the show to look ‘modern’, but I think they could have avoided all this work by simply releasing the 4:3 frame in high-definition. I doubt it would greatly affect sales, I mean I’ve never heard of anyone whining that The Treasure of Sierra Madre on blu-ray has bars on the sides.

        Ultimately, though, I’m just glad this show is finally coming out in HD.

        • No full frame mean the entire exposed frame of film, regardless of the intended framed aspect ratio. When shooting on film and protecting for 4:3 or 16:9 images, there is usually still more of the frame beyond these framing lines exposed.

          When scanning for digital these areas are included, and since they weren’t planned or protected for, items like equipment, crew and original off screen actors with sync problems will occur.

          • As I said, it’s an old and outdated term from the DVD era when you had ‘full frame’ or ‘full screen’ 4×3 pan and scan versions of widescreen movies. I literally have DVDs that say “FULL FRAME EDITION” and what they mean is the film has been cropped down to 1.33:1 to fit a then standard non-widescreen TV. It’s completely a consumer term, not a production one.

            Yes, I’m showing my age here. Back in the 90s I was a teenager and that was when I was introduced to these terms. Now that I work as a film and video editor a lot of the same words have very different meanings. Honestly, I never liked the terms standard definition or high definition because it’s all arbitrary. Technically you could say 1080p is standard and 2k is high-definition. If you were using computers in the 90s you could be working in HD resolutions, but nobody called it that back then. It’s all really marketing stuff in the end, it’s a way to sell people things. “Look, now 4K! No point in having any Ks unless you got 4 of ’em!”

            Ultimately, I’m glad to get The Wire in HD, but I do hope that the blu-ray editions include a 4×3 version as it was originally broadcast. You don’t need to be 16×9 to see the vast improvement that a higher resolution will give you. There’s no reason something has to be expanded to 16×9 in order to be ‘upgraded’ to HD and I doubt it will have a major effect on sales if $$$ is the endgame here. It sounds like Mr. Simon didn’t really get a say, and once the decision was made he decided he wanted them to take more time to do it right.

            A lot of shows on Netflix that have been ‘opened up’ from their original broadcast aspect ratios show stuff like boom mics and set PAs on the sides of the screen. I honestly don’t see the reason for it. One of my favorite shows from that era, Twin Peaks, thankfully was left alone.

  • First of all, i have to say that i just can’t stand HD in TV-Series; probably it’s because all the best TV-Series of all times were created in the SD and i grew up with that imprinted on my eyes but it’s also because television marks time much more than cinema and TV-Series are much more contemporary and linked up to their own era. As the biggest The X-Files fan in the world, i can’t imagine the idea of watching Mulder and Scully in HD when the beautiful Vancouver still gives amazing chills and atmospheres in spectacular early-mid 90s SD and so i can’t imagine the idea of watching The Wire on HD since i’ve been watching it on SD for the past ten years. Could i ever watch 2001: A Space Odyssey without its 2.2:1 aspect ratio? No, that’s how Stanley Kubrick shot it.

    In regards to The Wire’s directing and Mr. Colesberry, i have to say that The Wire created some of the best shots in TV History. In the fifth or sixth episode of Season 2, shortly before D’Angelo gets killed, we have that magnificent Vertigo Effect shot on Avon and D in the prison’s hallway, showing us how much distance there is between the two characters, how much they’re growing apart, foreshadowing D’Angelo’s death at the same time.
    I don’t remember who directed that episode(probably Thomas J. Wright, one of the best TV directors of all time, a man who brilliantly directed two of the most legendary Millennium episodes: Powers, Principalities, Thrones and Dominions and Luminary) but at the end of Season 2 there’s another fantastic shot in the season finale i think, which was directed by Bob Colesberry himself. The shot i’m talking about is the one where Nick Sobotka is telling everything he knows to the police and while the scene is focused on him the camera starts to ignore him, slowly zooming in on Frank Sobotka’s picture on the evidence board. The camera stays there on that picture for a few seconds while Nick keeps talking in the background and that shot is just so hunting, so meaningful and so focused on making Frank the “hero” of Season 2. Maybe some people desperately need HD to increase their attention span but for me that artistic brilliancy is enough, for me watching the best TV-Series ever made, using my DVDs box set to do it and watching it as it was intended by its authors, writers and directors, is absolute perfection.

    • The Wire was shot on FILM, so you’re incorrect in saying that it was shot in SD; that’s merely how it was broadcast. We all want the 4:3 ratio; we just want the quality to match the FILM because the show was shot on FILM.

      • Have you thought about the notion that the filmmakers also did not intend an HD release and that our shot composition, in terms of depth and background, was optimized for SD? Or that our depiction of the environment in total relied on what SD achieves — or fails to achieve — in terms of focus and detail?

        It’s funny to me how presumed defenders of filmic purity are so strident in demanding that the film remain 4:3 while in the same breath clamoring for a different equation with regard to depth and focus. That’s not purity. That’s simply arguing for a re-edit of the film to your particular satisfaction.

        • You’re reaching here. Are you really implying that the DEPTH and FOCUS were chosen/selected/arrived at with crappy TVs in mind? And secondly, this is not about OUR satisfaction. It’s about yours. If i hadn’t read your post here, I would be fine with seeing the full frame. But you illustrate how, in many instances, it compromises the intention of the makers of this show! YOU illustrated that in this post. And now panic is breaking out in the comments and you’re belittling those you’ve stirred to panic. Mr. Simon, you are a very conflicted man. And that is likely why you are a great artist. But perhaps you are not the best choice to be at the helm of this new release. Because you feel more indebted to HBO and their foolish decisions than to the true fans of this show.

          • I’m not reaching at all. We shot the film we shot — dressing background, doing wigs and makeup and blacking out teeth — with a certain degree of definition in mind. If HD was the intention of the filmmakers, then why did I just spend so many hours cleaning up things that were exposed in order to accomodate new technology.

            You want an example? The scenes of Bubbles touring the hell of Hamsterdam for the first time were over-lit in production and we were never entirely happy with how much you could see in background. More horror should have been implied rather than seen. The transfer to HD compounds the problem by making everything in background distinct and overt, so much so that we spent considerable time trying to darken every frame so we could go back to seeing less in HD, not more. The transfer to HD not only doesn’t serve the filmmaker’s original vision in that sequence, it confounds and inhibits our efforts to achieve that vision.

            But you consider HD to be technologically an enhancement to the existing film, whereas the change in aspect ratio is not.

            That is inconsistent, and your arguments are premised on your own predispositions, not on a consistent principle. If you want the filmmakers’ original intent, it’s right there in the SD, 4:3 DVDs. If you want to enhance the product beyond that, fine. But don’t claim a purity that ceases to exist once you decide to go back in and change stuff in a manner that you value, while savaging others who change stuff in a manner that you disdain. That’s kinda bullshit, no?

            • I must say, this kind of changes things a bit in my mind. That’s actually fascinating. You must understand that this is odd, and not common at all. I mean, no offense, but, there wasn’t much forethought there. I guess because you guys knew what the platform was exactly and built it just for that. It would be like if George Martin recorded the Beatles (adjusted the dials and such, like the actual recording) JUST for the record player my grandma had back in ’66. I mean, I know the OUTPUT of those records had grandmas player in mind, but the RECORDING?

              • Because the show was shot of film (which is the ultimate HD) we were not calling for an “enhancement” of the image, but a preservation and presentation of that image at the closest it can be TO that image. But what you are illustrating here changes things for me. It is like you are shooting in High Quality knowing you are going low, so things were left a certain way, or adjusted (or not adjusted) with that in mind. So, in essence, when we are all on here calling for the highest quality, it is like the people in the restaurant calling for the raw ingredients. And you, as the cook, are frustrated with that. If this is correct. I get it now.

              • It’s not odd at all. All film production is predicated on budgetary constraint. We could attend to so much background, so much depth, so much imperfection in the makeup of wounds, or the blackening of teeth, or the legibility of graffiti or street signs or a million other things in the shot. And then we spent limited money elsewhere, knowing that certain things would play or be illegible or negligible in background. With the advent of HD, our choices are confounded and exposed. And we have spent time and effort repairing stuff — painting out, painting in, using resizes to hide problems — stuff that would not need to be changed in SD.

                Why are we doing this? Because viewers like HD on their big screens. They want more depth. Same reason that HBO is expanding width and length of shot for this version. You advocate for more depth, but not more width and length. Ok. But if new technology allowed me to see deeper into Rick’s Cafe or the Sevastopal stairs of Potemkin, I wouldn’t want that. I’ll view those films as the filmmaker’s eyes viewed them and be content.

                So, I’m sorry, the passion for 4:3 HD contains a latent hypocrisy. Not that it wouldn’t also be an interesting version of the film; hey, it might prove to be the optimal version. Or not. But it’s just as subjective as anything else here. The original version is 4:3 SD. And. That. Already. Exists.

                • But if I take those SD dvds and play them on my giant TV through the HDMI cable, then there is sure to be crap on the screen that wouldn’t be there if i played them on an older TV, through a cable that wasn’t HDMI (or I just wouldn’t see that crap). So, the only way to reach what you, Mr. Simon, actually intended, is to get a 2001 TV and play the SD discs through RCA cables? Or maybe even get the VHS tapes? But if i walk into Walter Reade Theater and watch Casablanca on the big screen in a BRAND NEW 35 print, I feel like I watched it in the way it was intended. Are you really going on the record here saying that if we really want to watch this show, again perhaps the greatest ever to be made by people on Earth, we need to go back one generation to the SD discs?

                  • And if you play it on a black and white monitor it will resemble the Andy Griffith Show in aesthetic, I’m sure.

                    Yes, film purity is rooted in a certain amount of bullshit. That’s my point. Folks are willing to let technology prevail at certain points, but not at others. There can be debate about what transfers are optimal or valuable, and what transfers are more problematic. But invoking the standing of purity is a little bit farcical. For purity, the closest I can offer is 4:3 SD. If you prefer something else, okay. But don’t think your choice to be somehow more righteous.

                    • Just take away this one point from all this talk — these fans would not care as much if this was any other show. This is THE show. Maybe, dare I say it, you don’t even fully know what it means to us or what it will mean to those who haven’t seen it yet. We just want to make sure this gets done right. And by “right” most of us mean what YOU intended. That’s all we want. And we want it in a format that we can preserve and enjoy for the future. That is not DVD, unfortunately. Regardless, it’s invaluable and gracious that you’ve shared your thoughts and been so open about it.

                • Very interesting to see a filmmaker passionately defend their decisions and explain their thoughts in such detail. That shows care not only for your show but also your fans.

                  To defend Peter, though, I would say – have you watched the DVDs of the show? They are wildly inconsistent as far as video quality goes. Season 3, for example, looks great on DVD, but Season 4 is a mess of blurry images with a lot less clarity than the season before it. I doubt it’s on the production end simply because more episodes are crammed onto a single disk, so that’s probably why it doesn’t look as good. Consistency will beat out pretty much anything else in my book. Once these HD versions come out, they will pretty much become the definitive version of the show for better or for worse. Very few people will choose to go back to the DVDs.

                  Hmm… is it frustrating or relieving to argue over technical details rather than politics?

                  • Maybe so. But if there is a problem with the DVD quality, that is a manufacturing issue, is it not? It will either be addressed by HBO or not, independent of whether more people come to the story in some other format, or whether that format becomes predominant for reasons that have nothing to do with the quality of the DVD manufacture.

                    Some measure of the viewership will acquire this story if it is in a new format (16:9 HD). Some measure wants to acquire it in another format that is a change from the original but less dramatically so (4:3 HD). And some measure wants it to remain available, if not predominant, in its original form. (4:3 SD). If it were up to me, I would have all three available to recruit and appease the maximum number of eyeballs. I am in it for storytelling first, aesthetics second, especially since my aesthetic preference already exists. If it were up to me, too, all versions would not suffer any lapses in manufacturing quality at any point, of course.

                    It is not up to me. And it wouldn’t be right for me to claim such standing, given how much money HBO laid out to achieve the completed work, despite marginal ratings.

                    • You say 4:3 SD is the original format. This is where some of us are frustrated. That was the original broadcast format. It was shot on film and, presumeably, transfered to a high quality digital or tape format for editing. So there is an edited version that is not yet compressed to SD. As illustrated here by others, those DVDs are flawed. So we do not have the ‘original’ The Wire, as you intended. Now is the chance to get that.

                      Look, TWIN PEAKS, that was just released in HD. Shot on film. Broadcast in 4:3 SD. What did they do there? Kept it 4:3. The quality now approaches the original because the original is film. This doesn’t seem very hard to do. Bad ratings there too. Worse. But they now see the fan base. Same with The Wire. Please stop talking about the old ratngs. There was a different head of HBO then too. All that is the past. The Wire has nearly 2 million likes on facebook. True Detective (a huge hit) has less than that, to just put it in one petty perspective.

                    • You’re frustrated? I keep explaining the same thing over and over.

                      You are singularly focused on the capability of the technology used — on the hardware, on the film. Yes, it was shot using equipment and material that can indeed be transferred to HD and 16:9. However, the human beings who were using that equipment, they made specific choices in shot composition — not just in the width and length of the frame, but in the depth of the content, the visibility of background materials, the maneuver of moving elements — that were done at a particular moment and cannot be undone. And their decisions at that critical and fixed moment were optimized for broadcast in 4:3 and SD.

                      The entire process of making the original version of The Wire palatable and presentable for a different format has involved:

                      1) Exposing the film at a width for which the content of the story was never properly arrayed at all points.
                      2) Exposing the film at a depth and higher definition for which the content of the story was never properly arrayed.

                      Sometimes, it’s no problem. Sometimes, the new ratio aspect offers a better storytelling moment. Sometimes, there isn’t much difference. Sometimes, it is worse. And sometimes, when it is worse, the problems can be mitigated in some way by editing, resizing, CGI painting, etc. Likewise, sometimes the HD exposes errors in background and composition, or in artifice, against which the filmmakers were not required to protect in SD. That too requires additional work to mitigate the problems, and sometimes the problems can’t be mitigated.

                      Mr. Logan, you are in the unenviable position of trying to convince me I wanted something that I know I did not want, simply because you, in fact, want it. You can certainly attempt to do so if it makes the world more a la carte for you. But I’m afraid I can’t join you in asserting against what I know our original intentions to be. I just spent too many hours dealing with the composition problems that resulted from the transfer from SD to HD to believe that we ever intended to expose that much deep background, detail and depth in our composed shots. We did not. And now, we have spent a lot of time mitigating the damage to the extent that we can — not merely from aspect ratio issues, but from changes in definition as well.

                      End result: Sometimes the shot will be better in HD. Sometimes it will not be what we wanted to show when telling this story. Sometimes it won’t matter. Likewise, sometimes the shot will be better in 16:9 and sometimes it will be better in 4:3. And the only way to solve this permanent inconsistency is to have the filmmakers film in one format and then leave that format intact. Absent that — and this modern world of ours is decidedly absent that — the work needs to be compromised in the best possible ways between the demands and virtues of the differing formats. That was my role in this process. My only practical role. Making The Wire a la carte for those who value the original aspect ratio, but not the original definition and depth is a matter for HBO to contemplate, if they wish. It is not a fight in which I have any real standing, other than to say, I’d be happy if 4:3 HD, too, were an alternate opportunity to view the show. But as the “original” Wire? No, gotta call bullshit on that.

                    • Wow, this thread is getting skinny!

                      “But if there is a problem with the DVD quality, that is a manufacturing issue, is it not?”

                      I think it’s a cheapness issue. It obviously costs less money to print fewer disks, and around 2006 (I believe when season 4 came out) a lot of companies starting cramming more footage onto fewer disks, meaning you had to reduce the quality of the footage in order to fit it onto the same sized disk. You’ll still see this on blu-ray sometimes when they don’t go dual layer or they go with fewer disks, so you’ve got a lower bitrate and sometimes you’ll see artifacts.

                      This is of course all very nitpicky stuff that’s the definition of First World Problems (kind of ironic), but the drop in visual quality between season 3 and season 4 on DVD was very noticeable. Even my wife – who couldn’t care less about these things – remarked how terrible Season 4 looked (and she wasn’t talking about the quality of the show!)

                      It sounds like HBO sure isn’t being cheap right now, though!

                      “…given how much money HBO laid out to achieve the completed work, despite marginal ratings.”

                      I think you have to be fair, though, The Wire has been beloved for a long time. I started watching when Season 4 aired only because so many people had recommended it to me. It may not have gotten CSI ratings but even in the mid-2000s The Wire had a pretty big cultural impact.

                      Anyway, I think you’ve more than sufficiently explained your opinion here, you’ve certainly answered my questions and any other questions I’ve seen people ask. This might be the first time a creator of a show has actually responded to people’s opinions in such depth.

                      HBO should probably add something to the blu-rays, either as a printout or extra material on the disks, that says what you’ve said here on this forum, just for the record. Otherwise you’ll be repeating yourself until the end of time.

                      You could always CG in some aliens wandering around in the background for no real reason, George Lucas-style, too. I’m sure people would be happy about that.

            • No, no. Mr. Rinaldi is as entitled to an opinion as anyone here. And I have no greater standing than the merit of my argument warrants. That’s the democracy of an open discussion.

              • Of course, I did not mean to imply that he has no right to a critical opinion, I just did not want to see the discussion regressing to personal attacks. I might have been overzealous.

        • This is an interesting point that I never really considered. I’ve made the comparison to older movies a couple of times, but older movies were generally shot with 35 mm projection in mind. And the closest we can presently come to approximating the clarity of 35 mm projection is with HD.

          For TV shows though, that is definitely not the case. They’re being made for the purpose of being seen on televisions. Although I do still have a bit of trouble wrapping my head around what it would even mean to compose the frame for SD. Does it mean you don’t bother do any set decoration on a desk or something if it’s far enough in the background (this may be bad example since I don’t think SD vs. HD really makes any difference as to what’s in focus)? When the director and DP are setting up a shot and looking through the camera lens or a monitor, are they seeing an approximation of what it’ll look like in an SD broadcast?

          What I would also wonder is if you never had any intention of the show being seen in higher quality format, why shoot on 35 mm film at all? Lots of shows from 70s, 80s, and 90s were shot on videotape to save money, after all. The rationale was, “Sure, it’s lower quality than film, but nobody will ever notice it on a TV screen.” What benefit do you get from shooting in a format that has six times more resolution than you ever intend it to be seen, especially when such a format is more expensive?

          • Video was just coming into use when we started The Wire. Bob wanted to shoot 35mm and try for something more filmic with this drama, given that The Corner was shot all hand-held, in 16mm. But when HBO argued him down to 4:3, we adjusted to the given terrain and marched forward.

            But again, everyone is offering such passion with regard to the length and width of the film presentation. And all of those folks hungering for HD seem entirely oblivious to the fact that depth is also a fundamental of shot composition. We prepped and shot The Wire for what 35mm film would show at the time; we did not compose shot with regard to an HD future. And if it wasn’t an elemental change, then we wouldn’t have had to deal with painting out or painting in so much to achieve this transfer. The hypocrisy of people arguing against one change for the sake of purist motives, and then ignoring the other is notable.

            • An absolute purist would claim that no film made prior to 1945 or so should ever be seen in a manner other than via film projection on a big screen, because no director ever would’ve considered the possibility of it being seen on a medium-sized box. Such a claim would be ridiculous, though.

              So yeah, there’s an inherent compromise (can call it hypocrisy if you like) to all home video purists. But here’s the thing, motion pictures being adapted to new formats is both inevitable and necessary. To be against such adaptation is to essentially advocate for great works disappearing from the public eye, becoming only footnotes (watch any VHS’s lately?). So most rational purists take on an attitude of make the changes that are required of the format, but leave everything else the same. A higher resolution is necessary for a higher resolution format, but there’s nothing about Blu-ray that necessitates changing the shape of the frame. There are countless Blu-rays out there that have black bars either to the sides or top & bottom of their images for the specific purpose of preserving original aspect ratio. It is something that’s a standard practice for the format that is nevertheless being rejected bases on reasons I’m having trouble understanding.

              • Again, you want the original shape of the frame, even if the film itself can be treated for greater width and length without a loss of imagery — only a change in composition. Yet you eschew the original depth of the shot — the background composition, the detail work in so many filmmaking aspects — for the new technological benefit of being able to read more detail, deeper in the precision of HD. What makes you think, other than your own sense of what is valuable and what is not, that you have optimized the film by making any change whatsoever, or your particular array of changes?

                If the shape of the frame is altered, composition could be gained or lost on a shot-by-shot basis. If the clarity or depth of the frame is altered, composition can be gained or lost on a shot-by-shot basis. I get that you accept the inevitability of HD Blue-ray in order to keep films in circulation, but the fact that you think going to 16:9 won’t achieve that exact result, or that the change is too destructive to be allowed to serve that exact result is contradictory.

                If the film needs to be seen as originally intended, then it should be seen in 4:3 and SD. If there are formats that you think can enhance the experience and you advocate for them, I think you are on shaky ground arguing against other changes that you find more instrusive or destructive. You’ve crossed the rubicon and now it’s all subjective.

                This is not an argument against change, or for change. It’s just me, pointing out the double-speak hypocrisy that seems to wrap itself around the entire discussion.

                • I think “advocate” is a bit of a mischaracterization of my position. I don’t particularly crave having the show in HD (although I would prefer a less compressed season four DVD that’s spread out over five discs rather than four), but I recognize it as an inevitability.

                  You seemed to asking for an explanation for why someone would draw a distinction between added depth and clarity and altering the shape of the frame. They’re both going against original intent, after all. My explanation was that the former is a requirement the format while the latter is completely avoidable.

                  To put it another way, if I were to go home and look at my DVD/BR shelf, I would find works in many different aspect ratios (1.19, 1.33, 1.66, 1.85, 2.20, 2.35, etc.). Black bars accompanying the image is a standard that the home video physical media market has shown a willingness to accept, so I have trouble understanding why 16:9 has been determined to be necessary in this case.

                  Anyway, I think I’m going to check out now. My workday has been unproductive enough already. As stated earlier, I really appreciate how transparent you’re being with all this. And for all the disagreeing I’ve been doing, I’ll probably end up buying it anyway.

  • People who wanted old films colorized were in the wrong and people who want Academy-ratio productions cropped for widescreen are wrong too. Not apologizing for not joining in the love-in here.

  • What better excuse than to do a second “Wire” bingewatch? And I will lift a glass to Detective Ray Cole with respect and love (and yes, will send a donation too!)

    PS I still like to console myself with the wackadoodle theory that if there were a Wire afterlife, Randy would have inherited Prop Joe’s estate since he’d be the closest living relative after Cheese dies. I need Randy to have a happy ending.

    PPS By the way, if you’re still shooting in Yonkers, I hope you’ve had a chance to check out the Greyston Bakery … aside from the best brownies I’ve ever tasted, a really wonderful organization that I think you’d appreciate (they provide jobs for local folks who might otherwise find it hard to get them … their slogan: “We don’t hire people to bake brownies, we bake brownies to hire people” … but the brownies are AMAZING).

  • That was fascinating. I’m not as familiar with the show as many fans, but it would be cool to see some side by side comparisons of the examples you discussed above. Especially where you had gak in the original frame that was cropped out for 4×3, but would now have to be painted out.

    Is that possible? I have not seen the promos for these versions, but do they show some of those side by side?

    Also, will you be adding back in the original Jabba the Hut scene?

  • “Unass a bit of coin”, my new favorite phrase.

    I had never considered, prior to this, the extent to which aspect ratio affects how you approach the story. Closest I’ve been in the theater is scaling down the proscenium for a more intimate show.

    Interesting that you think this is an ‘alternate’ version of the original. As a philosophical matter, given that the words and acting is the same, how big a split in the family tree does this represent?

    It’s always nice to see art approached with respect to those who collaborated on it. I doubt you have to spend much time in purgatory explaining this one to Mr. Colesberry.

  • David, do you know if HBO will make a 4:3 HD version of the show available too? I don’t know if it’s in any way practical because I have no idea about the production’s workflow, but for purists it would represent the most perfect and uncompromised version of the show.

    Would the demolition of the Towers be one of the ‘vulnerable’ CG images to which you refer? If so, has that been improved in this version at all? I recall that shot(s) striking me as jarringly artificial, but maybe I haven’t seen enough real buildings being levelled.

    By the way, metric tonne, surely. 😉

  • Why not keep the 4:3 but rescan the film at a HD resolution, keeping the original aspect intact but with the benefit of the extra detail?!

  • Hi Mr. Simon –

    Like, I’m sure, many other “The Wire” fans, I appreciate your explanation of this process, and was delighted by your reminiscences about working with Mr. Colesberry. Regarding the new 16×9 versions of the show, I was hoping you could clear something up. Whenever this change has been discussed, it’s presented as a given that any HD transfer must be 16×9. Why can’t the show be available in high-definition while retaining its original aspect ratio? At the very least, why can’t this be an OPTION for viewers? If the HD transfer heading to Blu-ray were going to be available in 1.33:1, I’d most certainly buy it – but that seems not to be the case. Why is HBO making it an either/or scenario? Why can’t it be in HD *and* preserve the compositions you and Mr. Colesberry and the other directors shot? It seems sadly ironic that HBO is reacting to the alienation of some viewers (those who can’t handle the fact that at a show doesn’t fill their whole screen) by overtly alienating a whole other group of viewers – especially given that the newly alienated group is probably the most passionate about the product in question. I know many fans of “The Wire” but, with only the rare exception, none are interested in a version with an altered aspect ratio. If you could provide any insight into this, or let us know if HBO will be providing any alternative to those of us who want nothing to do with an alternate version of the show (beyond watching the DVDs we already own), it would be much appreciated. Thank you.

  • I’d love to see a better representation of The Wire’s 35mm based nature via the medium of HD, but I have no interest in seeing it opened up and reframed for 16×9. Whilst TV audiences may insist on having their screens filled, that is not necessarily the case with home video enthusiasts, going by how well Star Trek: TNG has sold on Blu-ray, in perfect 4:3.

    I hope come the eventual Blu-ray release of The Wire, HBO will see fit to release their HD version pre-reframing, or to at least offer a choice.

      • Most of the reports I’ve read today have been saying that the Blu-ray won’t be coming out until the summer, so I hope that means no firm decision has been made yet on that front and there’s still time to go with 4:3. And I hope you push hard for that, David.

        I can understand making it available in 16:9 for streaming and repeat airings. Casual TV viewers want their screen filled and broadcast/streaming are definitely mediums that belong to the casual viewer. Attracting casual viewers means making concessions.

        Home video, on the other hand, has always been a medium that’s belonged to the cinephile. It’s for the people that would rather spend $200 on a boxset and actually own the program rather than just stream it, which depends on content owners negotiating streaming contracts that are constantly expiring. It’s for people who care deeply about things like preserving a film or TV show’s original presentation.

        To put it another way, there’s not anybody interested in shelling out a bunch of money a complete series Blu-ray box set of The Wire who’ll become less interested upon being informed it’s in 4:3. People willing to make that kind of investment care about seeing it in the best possible form, else.

        • I have made it known.

          But understand, they own the work. And I respect that. After all, they paid millions to continue telling that story when broadcast ratings clearly called for its cancellation. Now, they are entitled to manage the post-broadcast and post-DVD release revenue stream to their own purposes.

          Those who want to view The Wire in its original form have the DVDs.

  • Was 4:3 HD not considered a viable possibility? Plenty of older movies that were shot in such a ratio have been released on Blu-ray in their their original ratios, after all.

    I also know that plenty of TV shows and films have kind of split the difference, allowing 16:9 for TV airings and streaming but maintaining the original ratio for home video (some of Star Trek shows, for example). So is there any chance that the eventual Blu-ray release will remain 4:3?

    • I think HBO is committed to this as a means of reaching more audience. And, to be fair, they financed its production and production — and did so for five years without much of an audience. They own it.

      I’m grateful that they made room in the process for the filmmakers to the extent that they did.

      • “HBO is committed to this as a means of reaching more audience”

        Is there any verifiable research showing how aspect ratio influences sales?

        Anyways, of they REALLY want to reach more audience, they should know that the best way to do it is to give people choice of how they want to watch it – either in the original or widescreen AR. Otherwise there will be an unhappy group that may hold off on the purchase.

        • They are aware of those arguments. And they will proceed as they think appropriate.

          HBO funded The Wire for five seasons when broadcast ratings clearly called for its cancellation. They are entitled to manage the product in its present state as they see fit, given that they supported its production, and achieved a DVD release of the original version of that production.

  • Hi David. Thank you for this explanation. Many fans were worried your vision for the show was being ignored by HBO when the HD upgrade were announced, given your previous defense of the 4:3 ratio on this site.

    I was hoping you could speak to the actual image’s improvement going from SD to HD, aside from the new ratio. Was the improved resolution a worthwhile trade-off for shots that suffered going to 16:9? Did HBO go back to the original film elements for the remaster?

    Thank you kindly,
    Julian Cymbalista-Clapp

  • Given Clark Johnson’s involvement with the pilot, I can’t help but wonder how he feels about this process.

  • […] HBO Remasters “The Wire” For HD With David Simon’s Supervision And Approval “There are scenes that clearly improve in HD and in the widescreen format. But there are things that are not improved. That’s the inevitability here: This new version, is, after all, is one that is presented in an aspect ratio that simply wasn’t intended or serviced by the filmmakers. Still, there can be no denying that an ever-greater portion of the television audience has HD widescreen televisions, and that they feel notably oppressed if all of their entertainments do not advantage themselves of the new hardware.” And – Simon Blogs At Length […]

    • Good piece. Nice that you took the time to explain the justification of the remaster. I generally don’t mind when work is remastered (providing George Lucas is nowhere near it) and I will maybe sit down and watch The Wire HD in a few years time. The reason I say a few years time is I am just coming to end of watching it through for the third while it’s on Sky TV Box-sets here in the UK. It’s honestly a show that I enjoy in SD 4:3, I think it adds to the character of it and for me, that is how I will always remember it.

    • Thank you, David.

      I’ve been looking forward to a Blu-Ray release of The Wire for years – it was shot beautifully on 35mm, and therefore deserves an HD transfer that will represent the film source better than overly-compressed DVDs. Lately, HBO has been churning out near-perfect transfers for their series, so my excitement only grew. And perhaps most importantly, there would finally be a better version of Season Four to watch – the DVD has horrible compression and dull colors, just an ugly transfer.

      ….But now, with this aspect ratio nonsense, I don’t even want to buy this anymore. I’m glad that you and Nina could at least get your say and fix the several problems we would have ended up with, but that doesn’t change the fact that this show, like classic films, was framed in 4×3 and is intended to be shown that way. When I first heard this news, the “Chicken” and “Burger” shot was the first that came to my mind, and sure enough by this blog post, that shot, and several others like it, has been compromised. Bummer – though I’m glad that a few shots ended up working, at least (really liked the dock scene in widescreen).

      Black bars on the side aren’t that big of a deal, people. I watched all sixty episodes on a 16×9 HDTV – never once did those black bars effect my viewing of this brilliant series. But when a shot composition is awkward and removed from the original intention? Sorry, I’ll stick with my DVDs, unless HBO eventually decides to release The Wire on Blu-Ray in its proper 4×3 framing…

      • Your choice, to be sure. On the other hand, why do you assert for purity in aspect-ratio, yet welcome the transfer to HD? Is it not probable that the filmmakers constructed their shot, with regard to background and depth, with an understanding of what SD would show and not show, and that now, HD — for better in some respects, for worse in others — offers an altered version of the filmmakers’ intentions.

        Sounds like you are editing the original film to your own specifications and technological preferences, rather than following any actual preservationist ethic.

        • Mr. Simon,
          You’ve written hundreds of words in your post that sum up, to me, an apprehension at the change in aspect ratio that this show will now have for the rest of it’s long life. Why are you sparring with others who share that apprehension? We simply want what you, the creator, intended. And we want that released in the best possible quality. As it stands, this will be a major disappointment to hundreds of thousands of fans. HBO needs to know that.

          • Sparring with others? I’m participating in a conversation on this site. Do you only want my comments when they are agreeable with your own views? Or should the conversation be free and clear of boundaries that, if imposed, will make you more comfortable with the message?

            I accept your view that the change to HD is a valued enhancement and the change in aspect-ratio is not. Those views are welcome here, and feel free to advocate for them. Is it permissible for me to think otherwise. As to what you believe the words in my post sum up, to you, I’ll let the post speak for itself. I tried for something more nuanced, in my opinion. But everyone takes what they value and discards the rest; that’s a common dynamic in these sorts of debates.

        • This may have been covered somewhere in these 200 replies, but I obviously don’t have time to read em all so I’ll state my point here, replying to both David and to TomH’s posts:

          TomH said: “What makes it even more ridiculous is that–as Mr. Simon has pointed out many times–the mere release in HD changes the original intent to the artists involved. Even now, watching the DVDs on a high-quality digital display I am much more aware of the black caps that Andre Royo wore on his teeth to simulate missing teeth than I was when originally broadcast on HBO (DVD has slightly higher resolution than SD NTSC broadcast). With an HD Blu-ray release this will become even more pronounced, which surely is not consistent with the original artistic intent, yet no one seems to argue against a high-definition release per se. I suppose this is because the catechisms of the OAR faith allow for some departures from artistic integrity, but not others.”

          No, the conversion to HD does NOT change the artist’s vision, for a very simple, clear reason: the show was shot on 35mm, which has a higher resolution than HD. If you were to watch these episodes on a film projector, all of those details sticking out like Bubbles’ teeth and the CGI towers would be even *more* noticeable than on the HD version.

          If the filmmakers wanted the show to resemble DVDs/SD broadcasts, then why shoot it in high-resolution 35mm in the first place? Why not cut the costs and shoot on 16mm like The Shield? Makes no sense.

          It’s this odd misconception I run into all the time on the internet: that HD/Blu-Ray is somehow introducing details that weren’t meant to be seen, which in the case of 35mm filmstock or higher, is pure bullshit. In reality, high definition actually depicts less details than a 35mm source, as stated. Blu-Ray isn’t “more” of anything when compared to DVDs/SD, it’s simply *less* compression.

          For these reasons, the HD conversion is actually closer to the filmmaker’s intent than the SD versions…which is why I’m not a fan of this shift in aspect ratio. Good discussion going here, thanks for the replies (especially yours, David…cuz you’re my favorite writer). 😛

          • J, your point is an excellent one, but, yes, it was already discussed and Mr. Simon replied to that point. The gist of it is this– it is pointless to discuss film as the ‘master’ because they had the SD deliverable version constantly in mind, even during the actual production, and made production decisions not in the interest of the negative, but knowing it would be SD. This was not like your usual film production where every shot is done to the fullness of film . It took me some time to get my arms around this.
            A perhaps strange, modern example of this is Gone Girl. That was shot in 6K only because they knew it would be going to a 4K master that would play in 4K theaters (most theaters are actually still 2K). A lot of work was done on the 6K image (stitching, moving in on parts of the image, etc) that makes it undetectable on the 4K master. But if in the future, say 6K is available for some home viewing format (a wild example, but just follow me here), David Fincher might put up a similar fight that Mr. Simon is doing here because people won’t understand why they weren’t getting the 6K master if he shot on it. The reason for that, of course, is because the ‘master’ of Gone Girl is 4K despite shooting in 6K because of the work that was done on it. So, he will insist that they use the 4K master to strike ‘prints’ from, in the same (but more crude) way that Mr. Simon is trying to explain to us that, despite shooting on film, lots was left in the image knowing it would not show up on the deliverable SD, and therefor calling film the master is not quite true. The real question now should be — what is The Wire’s equivalent of Gone Girl’s 4K master?

            • I don’t think Gone Girl is a matching example. Fincher produced an image that would hold up to a 6K viewing… that’s how he was able to reframe the shot later. He just didn’t want to get it absolutely right on the set, he thought it’d be nicer to be able to change the composition when editing. Get a even more perfect composition.

              What was done on The Wire is basically they did shoot 4K material, but knowing (expecting) that it would only be presented at “0.72K”, i.e. PAL/NTSC resolution, they didn’t put in the effort to make it actually viewable at even 2K. Plenty of little mistakes.

              Perhaps a good comparison is Star Trek: The Next Generation. They shot it for PAL/NTSC. For some reason, the sets, and the costumes and make-up are really well done, they went far above what was _necessary_ for a convincing PAL/NTSC airing. But they did add in plenty of in-jokes etc. that they thought the audience would never get to see. Panels listing the names of crew members… which have the names of anime characters for example. They didn’t leave those in for the HD transfer and fixed it (sadly). And despite the care they took in creating the sets etc., some things just don’t look right. The turbolift for example looks a bit like it is made out of wood, covered in some fabrics etc. The seams aren’t perfect etc.

    • This discussion has taken a bizarre turn. Those who seem to have a single-minded obsession about artistic integrity simply cannot accept the judgment of the artist who composed the work.

      OAS is certainly a legitimate subject for discussion, but it is not a religion. I recall the discussions about this fondly in the 1980s and 1990s popularized by Siskel and Ebert (see http://siskelandebert.org/video/9G895Y45RX48/Robocop–Snow-White–The-Squeeze-1987 at the 14:00 mark). They had specific technical arguments in support of maintaining the OAR, which primarily focused on the opposite problem: widescreen material being adapted for a 4:3 display, though, interestingly, not in the case cited above.
      1) It crops essential material out of the image.
      2) It results in a pan-and-scan workaround, which is visually unappealing.
      3) It fails to respect the artistic integrity of the artist.
      In the current case, going from 4:3 to 16×9, we could add one additional technical argument:
      4) It can stretch the image to fit the screen.

      In this particular case NONE of the technical arguments have merit. None of the original image is removed. Only additional image content is added. No pan-and-scan is used. No stretching is used. All that you are left with is the artistic integrity argument, but here you have the artist reporting that, while not perfect, he is basically fine with the HD 16×9 release, and yet the OAR ayatollahs refuse to accept this, citing apostasy to the one, true path.

      What makes it even more ridiculous is that–as Mr. Simon has pointed out many times–the mere release in HD changes the original intent to the artists involved. Even now, watching the DVDs on a high-quality digital display I am much more aware of the black caps that Andre Royo wore on his teeth to simulate missing teeth than I was when originally broadcast on HBO (DVD has slightly higher resolution than SD NTSC broadcast). With an HD Blu-ray release this will become even more pronounced, which surely is not consistent with the original artistic intent, yet no one seems to argue against a high-definition release per se. I suppose this is because the catechisms of the OAR faith allow for some departures from artistic integrity, but not others.

    • It’s a great discussion here, and very interesting. What I’d like to know, as someone who hasn’t watched The Wire yet, what would you recommend? Which version should I get, the 4:3 DVD or the 16:9 HD transfer? Which version do you, personally, think represents your work best? (You have repeatedly mentioned that some shots gain from 16:9, some suffer, many are indifferent).

      As for some people bringing up Star Trek: The Next Generation… there the filmmakers, the people doing the transfer said they clearly couldn’t do 16:9. The compositions are very much done for 4:3, and the little they had to the side of the frame that was captured on the negative was littered with filming equipment. Keep in mind that most of TNG was filmed on a small, confined set, with them struggling to find place for the light, mics etc. There are also many very layered shots, with 3, 4 actors standing behind each other so they could fit into one frame. Also, the special effects, and there are a ton of them, where not done for the wider frame. Basically, redoing TNG in 16:9 would be nearly impossible, and the framing was very much done for 4:3 and couldn’t be changed to 16:9 (or wouldn’t look good).

      I suppose redoing The Wire in 16:9, by nature of the show and how it was made, wasn’t as difficult to do.

    • At one point in this fascinating discussion, Mr. Simon, you accurately analogize HBO and Time Warner as “modern Medicis” for your work. It made me realize this is the first time in human history when this discussion has even been possible, the first time when works of art could be placed in such a position. Imagine the Medicis calling Michelangelo or Leonardo in for a little chat and saying, “You know, we’ve been thinking we might be able to sell a few more copies of those cute sculptures you do if we make them a little bigger. Or maybe throw some paint on them — what do you think?” Kind of gives you pause, doesn’t it?

      • I was speaking to funding and the less-than-perfectly-commercial aspect of my television fare. Not sure I’m ready to call anything I’ve been involved with an approximation of actual fine art.

        • Mr. Simon, your humility is admirable, but I think unnecessary. Using the broad definition of “art” and including television and all similar offspring and cousins that have appeared since the advent of motion pictures, I go back to whomever first said movies are the art form of our age, and I wholeheartedly consider your work to be art. I doubt that few with any appreciation of “art” would disagree. But my point was that it’s quite a different world from what the world has ever previously been, when any form of art, “fine” or otherwise, already complete, intact, sufficient unto itself, beautiful, and existing in the world as it was meant to exist, is actually subject to the never-before known possibility of being altered, redesigned, reimagined, repackaged, repurposed, and even made to exist in the world as a thing with an identity that was not meant to be. I am being hyperbolic here, but there are instances in film history that justify as extreme a judgment as that. And now let me take this opportunity to say the first time I saw The Wire, it took all of maybe 39 seconds for my jaw to drop through the floor at how astoundingly, shockingly, good it was (is). Just… thank you.

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