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.
December 1, 2014