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
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Thank you so much for your incredible masterpiece, The Wire. I have read countless comments on many forums, blogs, and film websites arguing over what the definitive version of The Wire should be. Regardless of who is right or wrong, this is indicative that many people care deeply about your work. Thank you for your creating what I regard as the greatest television show ever made.
I’d be more than pleased to send a donation but do you accept Canadian currency?
[…] Year’s slumber so maybe. The reason it didn’t pop last September is because Simon wanted to work on re-mastering the high-def widescreen version. He’s written that portions work and some don’t. The series was obviously shot to be […]
As a The Wire fan, of course, I will buy this product, and I will also keep my 4:3 DVD Box-set. The simple answer is that if you are old school and prefer The Wire in an SD format and 4:3, get the DVD if you don’t already have it. If you’re a teenager or a young adult who is used to 16:9, get the Blu-Ray Box-Set. There’s no point giving David Simon shit about it because it’s not going to change.
I appreciate the fact that David even attempted to change the aspect ratio and such so it appeals more to the ‘next generation’ of people because The Wire is certainly worth it, and I thank him for that!!
Mr. Simon, thank you for the magnificent work of art that is, “The Wire” – I am in awe of your gift for authentic expression and clarity of vision, no less on vulnerable display here in your initial blog post and (many) thoughtful responses.
Illumination of the conceit that increased depth is always synonymous with increased adherence to an artist’s intended creation was a complete revelation to me, and leads me to wonder how often assumed, ‘upgrades’ to HD, despite retention of OAR, have nevertheless been a compromise of the original shot composition. If I’ve understood all that I’ve read here correctly, my former conceit would seem largely (if not exclusively) a danger to the, ‘purity’ of television history as opposed to film?
In any event, while I’ve impatiently held off on purchasing, “The Wire” on DVD, and was initially jubilant to learn the series was FINALLY making its debut on Blu-ray, I am now of the thinking that I will instead go purchase the DVD’s anyway. If they remain the best representation of your work, then so be it. Respect for your accomplishment feels paramount to me.
Thanks for sharing this information, and for correctly calibrating our expectations for this new version of The Wire. I’m one of the die hards who would like to own a HD version in 4:3 (with the new HD special effects shots, and other HD corrections from this version included), but I will do my best to embrace this alternate take.
I have to say that even in the example you posted of widescreen working better, there were a few shots in thst sequence that worked less well (specifically the shot of the tall dock worker placing his hands on the shoulders of the shorter one). That moment was intimate and about them coming together, reacting as a group (with the subsequent long shot showing how vulnerable and isolated that group was), but the widescreen version added too much to the sides, making them look alone and separate.
It’s a shame you and Nina didn’t have the available bandwidth to tackle all 80 hours yourselves, but I understand that going shot-by-shot, through each episode, and in several different passes, like the original editing would have had, would take hundreds and hundreds of hours. And even then it would have moments you would go back and forth over.
It seems this was the best compromise, and clearly it was still given a great deal of love, care, and attention, so huge thanks for that.
One question: Did you do anything about Stringer Bell’s corpse’s need to breathe? It always took me out of the moment, but I understand that you can’t expect an actors to get so method as to forgo such things 🙂
HD made it even more evident, of course. We threw a little CGI paint at it. Did the best we could.
Thanks, David. I look forward to enjoying this new version.
Thank you for your efforts.
I have watched both The Corner and The Wire many times and always pick up new details each time and I am looking forward to seeing the latter in 16:9 and 1080i (1080p when its presumably later released on BD) and seeing the new information on the sides. I’ll keep my DVDs and will watch those too in the future to not forget the 4:3 presentation as well.
What I am also excited about is the fact that this will capture a whole new audience who refuses to give content a try because its in SD resolution. I know quite a few people that despite my many nudgings absolutely refused to give this show a try for that reason. Now they can get on board.
All in all, I always felt that the DVDs suffered a bit from overcompression artifacts and so that is another area where this remastering will benefit the show.
[…] The process of converting the entire series from its original aspect ratio of 4:3 to the now common-to-TV 16:9 ratio raised some flags with creator and persistent show-runner David Simon. He broke down the entire process of the conversion and his initial apprehension in a lengthy blog post. […]
[…] The process of converting the entire series from its original aspect ratio of 4:3 to the now common-to-TV 16:9 ratio raised some flags with creator and persistent show-runner David Simon. He broke down the entire process of the conversion and his initial apprehension in a lengthy blog post. […]
This was very informative and educational. Could it have been been made at a higher resolution but also retain the 4:3 aspect ratio? I’m sure that is not what HBO would have wanted to market but I am curious none the less.
Old episodes of Star Trek from the 60’s have been remastered from the film it was shot on to HD while not going 16:9.
[…] of modern flatscreen televisions. The difference is notable. However, show creator David Simon has been somewhat cautious about treating it like the definitive version. Pointing out that the show wasn’t originally […]
At this point, I would like to humbly call on Sean Greenwood, Andrew L and other eloquent, informed commenters to perhaps consider drawing up an online petition that lays out the issues here, just something that can gather up signatures that is a tangible thing that HBO can see and choose (or not choose) to deal with. I am not sure there is much hope now, being that the HD version is going to play on HBO signature at the end of the month, but we have to try. I am at lorenzi dot logan at gmail dot com and I am in NYC and available to help in this endeavor if someone wants to meet and mobilize something. One thing is sure — there will never be another chance to do this right after the bluray is released in the summer.
First, I’d like to echo your compliments to the commenters and David for the illuminating discussion. It clarified the issues a great deal on topics that had not been previously covered. These include the concepts of “protection” and “reading.” It is now clear what David meant by statements like “We shot it in SD.” It’s not literally true; it means “We shot it with an SD final presentation format in mind.” It seems that Colesberry taught David so well that David had learned some of Bob’s ellipsoidal way with words.
Second, I’m not sure I’d fret about a future 4:3 release. The scan of the negative has been done–I doubt they throw away the raw scan or the intermediates. I’d guess they’re about one button push from rendering it in 4:3. Why would HBO not re-issue the alternative version a year later? It would seem to be easy money. I’d certainly buy both versions, and I’ve never even seen The Wire in any format.
Third, the timing of the internal announcement of the project a year ago puts it within a few weeks after my note to Nina K. Noble–at David’s suggestion–urging such a project. I don’t know whether there’s a causal connection, but “I’m just saying…”
David, thanks for the insight.
Did the transfer to HD and the work on the HD version happen in 2k or already in 4k? UHD-BR is on the horizon already, and I believe most new TVs sold in 2016 will be UHD.
[…] Simon, creator of The Wire, is one of those, and on Wednesday he penned a blog post that discussed HBO’s recent plans to remaster The Wire for HD re-release on Blu-Ray. In […]
[…] "A few more thirsty critters to the water’s edge…": […]
I’ll buy the HD version when it comes out on iTunes next year. What an interesting way to rewatch this astonishing series. And I look forward to learning more of your next project.
One question: would there be a soundtrack album released for seasons 3 and 4 of Treme?
I think the situation is very simple. The Sopranos looks great en bluray, because the show always pretend to be a modern-rock-n-roll-gangster thing. The same case in Deadwood, with this gold colour present in all the series. But other series like The Wire, Oz, The Corner, you cannot watch in a powerful colour Bluray, and neither change the aspec ratio. It’s blasphemy.
You have to realese a 4:3 Bluray (i don’t know when or if you can) like in other cases happend. For example, with the Sorcerer DVD this year William Friedkin himself realese a new one, with an authenticity mark, and practically do a boikot for the other dvd.
PD: For all the seasons, I always think the four season looks a little bad, comparing the others. The second is the most atracttive visually, and is my favorite season too.
Out of curiosity I looked that up. The situation with THE SORCERER is not a comparable one. The main issue there is that the director did not have a good quality print of the film and had trouble obtaining one from the studios involved, as they had leased it to another entity that subsequently went bankrupt, and were claiming not to even own the film nor know who did. It is also misleading to say Friedkin released the DVD “himself”. He oversaw the process — being the only truly interested party, frankly — but ultimately he did so with funding from Warner Brothers and distribution rights split between WB/Paramount/Universal.
I am not clear on who owns the copyright to the film at this point, but it is likely not Friedkin. Simply because all of these entities ultimately cooperated in this release does not mean that the director owns the film or that he released it “himself”.
Anyway that has nothing to do with the situation here. None of THE WIRE prints have been lost or damaged and there are no disputes over the rights. Mr. Simon has stated clearly in these comments that HBO owns the show. He cannot release or refuse to release anything. Again, if you want a particular format to be released you must ask HBO for it. I assure you they are releasing it widescreen because enough people asked for it.
Technically are not comparable but is an intervention in a situation when, in this case, the film are fuck up in a way. OK in The Wire are some scenes when the 16:9 aspect works, but there is others when doesn’t, like you see in the second video, so if you see all series or an entire season en HD or Bluray, the experience goes wrong. I’m not a nostalgic DVD fan or something, I love the releases of Criterion or Master of Cinema, so this is very disappointing to me, I love the show and I don’t want to see disadvantaged in any way. I think The people who enjoyed this new release is the same who loves only the gunshots and Omar appears in the show, like Indiewire critics.
[…] producer David Simon has chimed in about what we can expect to see this time around. Surprisingly, according to his blog post he hadn’t even seen the reformatted version until after the promo started running in […]
[…] basic differences between the original presentation, and the new remasters. Those images come from videos provided by David Simon. (via The Playlist.) Here’s some more […]
[…] wrote all of this out on his blog, and I’ll position it in a similar way here. I won’t clutter this with my own […]
Thank you David for your explanation on the process. While some of the discussions you’ve had in the comments look frustrating to have its certainly given me some food for thought about the issues involved and proved quite useful in making me think more about what is a “true version” of a production, from a viewers perspective at least.
It seems like I’ll want to keep my DVDs for now but I don’t begrudge anyone who wants the HD version.
These new video clips are so helpful, and they raise a new question for me: how was the show originally shot and composed?
35mm film negatives have an aspect ratio of 1.37:1, and Super 35mm is 1.33:1. Before today, I assumed what we’ve been watching on DVD was the full 35mm camera negative as shot, and this new 16:9 version would be achieved by digitally zooming in on that image until it fills the width of widescreen TVs – cropping the top & bottom of the frame in the process. But now I see that we’ve been watching a “cropped” version all this time.
I quickly threw together a graphic aid to help with my question: http://imgur.com/IBDDNwH
Going back to the moment of photographing a scene on set, does the image at the bottom of my graphic represent what the filmmakers would see on their monitors? Essentially, Bob’s eye was focused on the 4:3 frame within a 16:9 crop of the negative?
As a cameraman, I know all about “protect for 4:3” when shooting a 16:9 frame (you’re basically shooting 4:3 at that point, and making sure no gear is visible in that extra real estate you have on the sides of the frame), so to frame for 4:3 and protect for 16:9 within a 4:3 frame would be a small brain teaser – and obviously affect your lens choices.
Trent, you should’ve read these comments more thoroughly instead of makin that graphic aid. This is a two day, complex conversation going on here. We’re well beyond this now.
Don’t assume I haven’t read every single comment and been following this “complex conversation” as long as you have. My question about the original camera negative and the crop-within-a-crop is valid.
We shot on 35mm and we optimized, framed and composed for 4:3. But more remains to the negative outside of the 4:3 template.
In the early years of the show, before it became evident that HBO was confirmed in their desire to broadcast us in 4:3, we did try to protect somewhat for wider screen, but as the show began to air in 4:3 we focused more and more on composing the best shot in that aspect-ratio.
That means that more often, there was less meaning to what we had to the left and right of the 4:3 frame, and to an extent, more equipment and crew, although we never got so lazy that we were not at the least trying to keep the 16:9 margins clear of that stuff. Mostly, we just made sure that 4:3 framing captured the fullest possible intention in terms of composition. As opposed to servicing the 16:9.
But no, we are not panning and scanning, or stretching the image as a matter of course. There are plenty of times when we have to resize because we can’t fix a composition or sync problem in the 16:9 and so need to enlarge the imagery to some extent for that reason. Maybe half the shots would be a good guess. But most of those are at a fraction of some portion of the otherwise unused 16:9 material. As I said, some shots benefit, many more are neutral, and some shots are impaired by the transfer.
But we are not just taking the 4:3 frame and stretching it, then cutting off heads and feet. That would indeed be awful on every level, and unworkable as coherent visual storytelling.
Mr S, The Wire, and pretty much all of your body of work has made me experience emotions in HD. Peace out, and thanks for doing your best to preserve the integrity of the show as it moves to 16:9.
I’m surprised that nobody, not even David Simon, has pointed out the falsehood in the centre of your question. Film stock does not have an “aspect ratio”, only a width, so you cannot infer anything from the fact that they used 35mm, or even Super 35mm.
One of The Wire’s cinematographers, David Insley, has revealed that the first three seasons used 4-perf, while the last two used Super 35mm 3-perf (creating a 1.85:1 frame in that case). If they shot anamorphic in the first three seasons, then it’s possible it also had a 1.85:1 frame (or, if not, your diagram might be correct).
I’d still like to know more about how it was shot and cropped, myself, but perhaps one of the cinematographers would be a better source for the technical details.
Thank you so much for your thoughtful and informative responses. I respect that HBO is best able to increase their revenue stream by the move to HD, and am thankful they allowed you to do the show to begin with. Do you know if the DVDs in their original aspect ratio will remain in print? As someone who watched the show when it premiered through to the end, I just hope the ability to watch the show in 4:3 remains an option as well. Looking forward to your next project.
I have read some of your responses, and it seems to me that you are a victim of the thinking that HD means 16:9, and that somehow, something in 4:3 is not HD, or is “worse” HD. Respectfully, I think you have it wrong.
For me, Blu-ray has always been about getting the most out of the cinema and TV experience. To me, that simply means the highest-possible quality presentation of the program, that also respects the format it was intended to be shown in at the time of its broadcast.
Now, since The Wire was shot on 35mm film, the ideal original presentation would have been a movie theater, but since people did not watch TV programs in theaters, the natural solution was to finish the series on SD video for broadcast. Surely this was a compromise, yes? After all, the image you see on set, through the viewfinder, and in the raw scans offers much higher quality than the SD video masters that were sent out for broadcast. There are other, better ways to give film certain looks, and I don’t believe anyone who worked with film ever felt that the low resolution of SD video was an ideal stage for their work to be presented on.
Now, all re-scanning the film does is bring the resultant HD video master closer to that ideal I mentioned earlier. Are there things that are off in the raw HD scan, like brightness levels or color? Of course, and that is why you or other creative personnel should advise and sign off on this kind of work.
However, changing the aspect ratio of the show is another matter, one that veers away from being artistically faithful, and towards…something else. Make no mistake, the only reason HBO is doing it is because HDTV sets are 99% in the 1.78:1 ratio. Remember also that HBO alters movies that are wider than 1.78:1 by cropping out the “black bars” or using an un-matted 1.78:1 master for almost every single screening on its networks. This is a practice only some networks now indulge in, and in this day and age, we are simply more sensitive to this kind of tampering,
I know you feel that because HD was not considered at the time of the show, that changing the shape of the series so that it plays “better” for some in HD is justified, but for me, it goes beyond remastering into needlessly altering the series from its original format. By all means, re-master the video and the audio. Visually and aurally alter the series if absolutely necessary, but, like the Blu-rays of Star Trek: The Next Generation (which themselves are not absolutely perfect) keep the modifications in line with the original broadcast and home video versions that we, the fans of the series, watched and loved for many years.
In summation, I would ask that you stop this half-hearted-defense of HBO and their 16:9 versions of your show. I think many of us can read between the lines that you don’t really like the whole situation, and I’m sure your ultimate preference would be that this HD remastering never happened. Again, I know there is little you can do to stop it, but you can stand up for the series that you (and many others) created, and that millions of people enjoyed, and ask that it be respected and brought to high definition in its original composition. High definition does not automatically mean 16:9 and standard definition does not mean 4:3, and for The Wire, even if only on Blu-ray, 4:3 HD is the way to go, period. That might not be the “best” version, but it’s certainly the truest version.
David Simon can defend himself, but he has NOT confused HD with 16×9 as though they were the same. It is you who cannot or will not read fairly what he has written about this multiple times. I’ll repeat it again. Yes, the series was shot on 35mm film, but the composition was not based on that. It was based on what they knew the broadcast medium would be, which was NTSC SD 4×3. He has stated over and over that the original composition was done the way it was explicitly because they were delivering the product in a SD medium. The fact that it was shot using an HD technology (35 mm film) was irrelevant to artistic intent, because they never expected anyone to see it that way.
So, yes, 16×9 changes the original format, but no more so than HD also changes the original format. Yet you object to one but not the other. This is despite the fact that the 16×9 format will suffer from NONE of the standard technical drawbacks associated with changes to the OAR. There will be no cropping of content, no pan and scan, and no anamorphic stretching or compression.
The only remaining complaint is that 16×9 compromises the artist’s original vision, but in this case you have the ACTUAL ARTIST telling you that, while not perfect, he is basically OK with this presentation–in some ways it is worse, in some ways better, and in most ways it just doesn’t make a lot of difference, other than the fact that it will likely expose the work to a larger audience, which is a good thing.
I disagree. Fundamentally.
I am completely aware that HD and 16:9 are different technological enhancements. And I am neither defending nor attacking HBO here, save for acknowledging — because it is the absolute truth — that they own The Wire, having paid more than $100 million to complete the project when ratings were so insubstantial that its completion was improbable. It is their product to display. You would do well to give yourself less credit for reading between the lines and instead assume that I have taken pains to say exactly what I intend.
If you are a filmmaker, then you cannot overlook the empty hole at the center of your argument — the fact that you refuse to acknowledge that choices are made at the point of composing every shot and filming every shot that do not merely involve the width and length of the frame, but the depth and definition of the image. You are oblivious to the thousands of times in the actual filming of The Wire that the crew stood around the monitors, watching playback, and trying to assess whether something in background that we didn’t want to “read” would in fact “read” upon broadcast. Decisions were then made that the SD presentation would ensure that we would never pick up, say, the black ink over Andre Royo’s teeth, or a street sign that actually doesn’t comport to dialogue about the claimed location, or the fact that Stringer Bell is breathing in frame after being shot to death. Film is artifice. We are lying at every fucking moment, trying to conjure fictional imagery and suspend disbelief, and we are doing so with finite time and resources. Choices must be made about how much daylight and money can be spent protecting in background and deep background against dozens of falsities in every single shot. We must, as filmmakers, prioritize, moving on to fresh work when we feel we have covered a scene sufficiently without so great a fraud embedded in the frame that the film is undercut. And we make every one of those calculations knowing the format in which the film is to be broadcast and released.
Now, years later, technology advances and what was once “safe” in small details and background material becomes more visible to the eye. Now one of the film’s most important assets as a means of storytelling — its ability to suspend the viewer’s disbelief — is made vulnerable in many, many different ways. Not merely by the change in aspect-ratio, but by the introduction of HD display on television. Is there a gain for the viewer in seeing things more clearly defined? Of course. But there is also corresponding cost in credibility elsewhere. And I can tell you, being internal to the HD transfer process, that decisions were made in every episode about how much time and money we had to fix all of the myriad “flaws” that were exposed in that transfer. We did the best we could. We focused on the more egregious exposures. But make no mistake, the transfer of the film to HD revealed unintended problems that would not have been problems otherwise, in the same way that a change in aspect-ratio does.
Is it worth upgrading the film? Maybe so. Certainly as a financial question, it is worth it to HBO. But the hypocrisy of people now claiming HD as the “truest” form of the film, merely because it can be achieved using the original film and present technology, while wailing jeremiads about a change in aspect-ratio, which in the case of The Wire can also be achieved using the original film without pan-and-scan, is profound. The filmmakers’ intention was to tell a story that would be acquired in 4:3 with standard definition. Those were our givens. We executed every decision with complete awareness of those givens. We protected our imagery with those specifications guiding us. And indeed, when on occasions such as premiere showings, we displayed episodes of the drama in a film theater rather than on television — a scenario that you use to premise your argument above — we did indeed have to sit and wince to see some of our artifice exposed. But of course, we were not making the film for theater distribution and display, so these rare occasions were hardly disconcerting. We knew that we had protected for the actual medium in which our work was to be acquired by its audience.
Now you want to talk about the “true” form of our film and make after-the-fact declarations about what the new givens should be? And you don’t see that you’re simply valuing the “enhancements” that you do, and not valuing those that you don’t? You don’t see that you are no more a film purist than any hack who wants the black bars off his widescreen? Sorry, no. We made the film when we made it and every single decision was made with the specifications of 4:3 and SD in mind. You want to stay pure, you watch the DVDs. You want to play around with the film beyond that, then be honest about your role. And maybe think twice before you lecture someone else about what they should and shouldn’t do on behalf of your personal values and priorities.
HBO is choosing to apply today’s standard technologies to a film made to different specifications with regard to not only width or length, but to depth as well. Having paid to complete that 60-hour film when it had little audience, they are now attempting to enhance their revenue stream. They have that absolute right. As one of the filmmakers, I believe my role is to do my best to protect the integrity of the film within that process and to influence the process for the better. If HBO decides to offer the film in other formats or other venues, it will remain my role. There is nothing written between those lines, much as you might think yourself possessed of such insight that you imagine some additional words there.
Any right-minded film purist has to be swayed significantly by your argument here, Mr. Simon. And I do hope that the discussion here can either end with your detailed comment here, or advance from it. In interest of the latter, and in an attempt to radically simplify the conversation, may I offer this — The Wire was square. Now, and forever, it will be rectangle shape. The square DVDs are flawed. We’d like The Wire in it’s original shape because (although much needs to be altered for the transformation to this new format as you painstakingly explained over and over) nothing is as big a change in the viewing experience as the presentation shape. But, on the same coin, nothing is as easily deliverable by HBO. You are rightfully calling bullshit on us purists. There is a certain hypocrisy here that you beautifully explained. And I am thankful you did, because it is complicated and unusual. But you need to understand, if EVERY SINGLE FRAME is enhanced, altered, manipulated, and yet it remains in 4:3 — the changes will seem justified. If that work occurs and it is released in 16:9, thousands of people will call this a new version, not a preservation of the original. And yes, that might be bullshit, holding one alteration high above the others, but you must try to understand, the presentation shape of any work in a visual art medium has to have more significance than other factors.
I hope I am not going over old things here that you explained away already. I am trying to simplify the discussion and not rehash it.
I understand that if the aspect-ratio stays 4:3 but the film is transferred to HD, this would be optimum for you and others who agree with you, that “the changes will seem justified.” To you. And those who agree with you. Just as I understand that the shape of a film matters to you and others who agree with you to a greater degree than its field of depth and definition. To you. And others who agree with you.
There’s at least a small part of you that agrees with that too, no?
My great granddaughter is going to come upon some digital text archive and see that you wrote about how we have your original intention with The Wire in SD — “You have to DVDs.” She will turn to my grandson and say “What’s a DVD?”
I’d be happy if The Wire was available in all formats, across all mediums, all the time. Generation Kill, too. And Treme. And whatever else I manage to get filmed. There are people watching television dramas on phones at present. If that’s how they roll, I hope they enjoy some of the storytelling that I had the opportunity to film.
I take comfort in the fact that if HBO suddenly had a change of heart and decided to release the series in 4:3 HD, you would be happy and you would believe that it would have made Robert Colesberry happy.
I think it’s time for us, the people who will be shelling out a lot of money for this release, to take this conversation to HBO and stop pestering you about it.
Just so. Thanks.
You’ve done a very good job explaining why remastering for HD and remastering for 16:9 are both transformational, but I’m hoping you can clarify something: Do you personally consider both types of changes (aspect ratio and resolution) to be equally transformational? If in a hypothetical scenario you were given the choice of The Wire being converted either to HD or widescreen (but not both), would you have no preference?
I think I know your answer based on how you’ve been equating them in these comments, but you also did spend a lot more time talking about the changes brought on by new aspect ratio in your initial post, which makes me think you might consider that change more significant.
It would depend on the original content, wouldn’t it?
If the filmmakers had protected heavily for the possibility of 16:9 release — or even optimized less at 4:3 in anticipation of a wider construct — then the aspect-ratio transfer of that particular film might be relatively painless, or even preferable. Similarly, if a filmmaker gave much less attention to detail in the composition of his background staging, location and action and then found himself exposed by higher definition, then in that instance the transfer to HD might be problematic.
I’m filming something right now that is set in the late 1980s. We are filming in Yonkers, N.Y. in 2014. Our team is trying to keep as much of the present reality out of the background of every shot as humanly possible. It is of course much more challenging now that we are shooting in HD; our background goes deeper than it once did. Can you imagine how much CGI paint and resizing might be necessary to cover a 35-year-old historical drama filmed for SD delivery and later transfered for HD? Shit, I’d be painting out 2004 Toyotas and 2010 Hondas until HBO was out of money.
Like I said earlier…I don’t understand tech stuff, but I do understand licensing and contracts!
You guys are complaining to the wrong person. When a creator of intellectual property signs over the rights to distribute something, generally, as a standard, they’re signing over the rights to publish and republish in all mediums and formats. (Of course contracts can contain clauses allowing the creator to retain certain rights or to have them revert back to them at a certain point — but no offense to Mr. Simon or Ms. Noble, I doubt they had the juice before THE WIRE was filmed to demand that they be negotiated with every time a new technological format crops up.)
Technically, HBO did not even have to consult with them. It is considerate and diplomatic of them to do so — you don’t want to piss off people that are working on another show for you, nor do you particularly want to agitate a creator who is notoriously vocal and whom the media loves to quote.
But again, you guys are complaining to the wrong person. If you want a 4:3 HD release, you have to ask HBO for it. I have no doubt they would make such a thing available if enough people asked for it. They want to make money.
While you’re at it could you please ask them to keep the SD DVDs in print forever? That’s all I care about.
I’m curious, then. If the market had moved to HD, but maintained the 4:3 ratio, how would you handle this? You again fail to acknowledge that the change to 16:9 is being motivated solely by the change in shape (not size, or level of definition) of consumer TV sets.
As to “mistakes” or errors in your show, which would have been glossed over in SD but become apparent in HD, this again has very little to do with the aspect ratio of the program, as there are various methods to correct these errors anyway. I fail to see, for example, how the change to 16:9 is going to hide the black ink over Andre Royo’s teeth, and as for Stringer Bell, that “mistake” is obvious even on the DVD.
It seems that most of your issues stem from the quality of the remastered film. I’m sorry that you were on a TV budget and that you couldn’t get everything done to complete satisfaction the first time around, but the HD remaster should not be viewed as some sort of opportunity to redo the entire series as if it were made today. The Wire is a product of its time, as trivial as that may sound given the amount of time away from it, and it should be preserved as such.
And again, the sad argument is trotted out by someone that a “purist” would stick with DVD, because your show was originally composed for SD video broadcast. Again, I go back to my opening question, if HD had remained 4:3, what would you do? I know what HBO would very likely do, which is that they would re-transfer the film, and keep the original framing. And that is the “enhancement” that should be made here, not because it allows me to cherry-pick what I like and don’t like about the show, but because A 4:3 HD version, and only a 4:3 HD version, successfully marries today’s technology with the original presentation of the series.
All of what you say can also be said by anyone who worked on any feature film (and especially, TV series) back before widescreen became the standard. Am I to believe that the people who created The Dick Van Dyke show, or I Love Lucy or The Twilight Zone are Masters of Film Technology, and keenly anticipated that half a century later, we would be watching their shows in 1080p on Blu-ray Disc, remastered from the 35mm elements? Am I to believe that they do not have to resist the temptation to tinker (as HBO is doing here) with their series? Of course not. I know that there are probably some people, on any 4:3 HD Blu-ray, who would prefer it was re framed to widescreen, even if only to eliminate a few mistakes they made. Shit happens. Just as you did, these people made decisions based on what was available to them at the time.
As much as you try to polish it up with artistic intent, you cannot deny the fact that this HD remastering is being done at 16:9 purely because of the shape of today’s TVs, and nothing more.
I’m confused: Did television sets go from SD to HD because of some triumph of artistic integrity on the part of Panasonic and Sony and everywhere else? Did Cinemascope happen because the American film industry believed in the artistic merit of large, widescreen production? I believe all enhancement to film or television imagery — and the resulting effort to pull content that was rooted in prior specifications through the new technological keyhole — is rooted in cash money.
How would I handle a market that moved to HD and 4:3 as industry standard? I would film current projects in that format and compose shot and protect shot for that format, and not for 16:9 or for SD. How would I adjust older projects to conform to that product and find fresh audience? I would do no such thing. First of all, I don’t own any such product. In this case, HBO does own such a product. And the market for their product has not moved to HD and 4:3 as industry standard. It’s gone to 16:9. Your question, while moot, is for them to consider. Perhaps HBO would say, simply, that the market is demanding what it is demanding, and we are responding to that. They would certainly be telling it true, if so.
Personally, I believe my role is to protect the film as much as possible as it makes the necessary transition to new industry standards and venues. In that sense, I would be just as willing to see The Wire offered in HD and 4:3 as an alternate version to the original. But as someone who wants the story to be told to the most people just as much, or more, than he wants the aesthetics of the story perfectly preserved, I can’t credibly make an argument against HBO seeking to service those people who won’t watch the drama if it doesn’t fill their widescreens. Shit, I hope that HBO does its level best to reach anyone who wants to acquire the story. There are people who actually insist on watching television drama on their phones; I hope those people are served, too.
All that said, I am going to note the intellectual dishonesty in your reply: “I am sorry that you were on a TV budget and that you couldn’t get everything done to complete satisfaction the first time around…”
That is not what I said, and frankly, I think you know it. I carefully laid out a reality of filmmaking for you — not merely TV production, but all filmmaking is on a budget and subject to the attritive nature of money and time. You have compressed that into a dishonest, calculating statement that I think reveals your unwillingness to actually address the fundamental point. On The Wire, we were, in fact, absolutely capable of achieving fundamental satisfaction within the given resources, for the given specifications in which our film was broadcast, and later, for the given specifications for home-entertainment technology at the time. And we did so. And if you want to view that film, you still can.
If you want to view some other film that has enhanced specifications for width or length or depth, then you are in the business of seeking to change the film. And then, all you have is an argument lodged entirely in the subjective. You like this, but not that. I get it. And, hey, you can ignore the actual consequences of HD transfer on previous generations of filmmaking, or not. But in ignoring it, and then waxing hyperbolic about the affronts of aspect-ratio transfer, you are not merely pretending to false artistic integrity, you are being something of a luftmenschen, pontificating on the actual process of film production from a great remove without regard to the actual necessity and reality of how shots must be framed, composed and focused in a singular, historical moment. Personally, you want your imagery to be clearer and with more depth than the filmmakers intended, but you don’t want that imagery expanded on the sides to a greater width than the filmmakers intended. Good for you. But your stance is no more legitimate to me than that of someone who doesn’t like black bars on the sides of the screen and wants to see more than we composed for shot. You, too, want to see other stuff that we didn’t want you to see at the time we made the movie and that you wouldn’t have seen without a technological transformation. You prize your own opinion highly, and hold the arguments of others willing to compromise aspect-ratio in lower regard to be sure. But you’re both playing the same game with the original work.
By contrast, I am polishing nothing, and denying nothing. The new release of The Wire is designed to comport to the new industry standards for acquiring story, and as HBO serves that market and seeks profit, they are going there. I am once again presented with those facts as the givens, and further, as I want the story acquired by the most number of people, I am content to see it acquired in any possible format that the market drives. Ergo, my role here is not rail against the givens. I didn’t do that when I filmed the drama in the first place, I worked carefully within the resources and reality of the moment. Here, too, my role is to instead to help achieve a transfer to new standards which — if it does not enhance the work at all points, or remain neutral with regard to the work — at least does a minimum of damage.
Well what grates on me most, Mr . Simon, is this:
” Personally, you want your imagery to be clearer and with more depth than the filmmakers intended, but you don’t want that imagery expanded on the sides to a greater width than the filmmakers intended. Good for you. But your stance is no more legitimate to me than that of someone who doesn’t like black bars on the sides of the screen and wants to see more than we composed for shot. You, too, want to see other stuff that we didn’t want you to see at the time we made the movie and that you wouldn’t have seen without a technological transformation.”
The home video industry, and any serious collector of that product, would have to disagree with this. Original Aspect Ratios have been preserved as a matter of course on most major releases, and the ones that do not preserve OAR (like Criterion’s BD of The Last Emperor, just as an example) are hotly contested. In terms of TV releases, 4:3 was the gold standard up through the 2000s, and shows and episodes were mastered and released, and remastered (often in HD) and released again, on various formats throughout the decades. If any creative personnel complained about these remasters, they were in the extreme minority, so again, it is difficult for me to believe that you could take issue with the HD remastering. Your comments about “enhanced depth” are bewildering, as most creative people are overjoyed by the clarity and detail in HD masters of their work, and as you’ve pointed out, most of this 16:9 conversion features no cropping or loss of the original image information, so the depth of the HD image is just as “enhanced” in either 16:9 or 4:3. Again, I fail to see how you can be against an HD remastering, but then paradoxically, for a 16:9 conversion should the series get an HD remastering. If the series is going to be remastered in HD anyway (and you cannot stop that) then why not take a stand and at least protect the image you composed–which will have “enhanced depth” either way– on the Blu-ray rather than sheepishly allowing HBO to trot out a Blu-ray that is too good, too detailed, AND has altered compositions?
Again, the reason many like me are upset, is because we have long fought against those who don’t care about aspect ratio preservation. The black bar-haters drove many film fans crazy up until a few years ago, with piss-poor fullscreen DVD releases and of course, fullscreen VHS tapes. Now the reverse is happening–again, all for money. That’s nice for the haters, nice for HBO, and nice for you, but it’s not that great for us.
I am not asking you to “rail against the givens”, sir. I accept that for those who want to watch this on a phone, or who would pay for an intangible virtual copy, or who want their screen filled watching HBO, that the 16:9 conversions are there for them. However, on the other hand, those who want the show in 4:3 HD have no guarantees, assurances, or even hints that they will get what they want.
What I am asking you to do is to throw your weight behind a Blu-ray release that DOES respect the original compositions you and your team made. The Blu-ray release is all that I am interested in, and all that I need. Yes, HBO could release both 4:3 and 16:9 versions on BD, but let’s be real, with the Blu-ray market for TV being small, do you really think that could happen? I don’t. I have a terrible feeling that HBO will give me no choice but to avoid the Blu-ray, because all they will release is the new 16:9 version.
I understand your desire to have your show reach as many as possible, even on phones, but please understand, as badly as you want your show to be seen, that is how badly as I want to see it in HD as it was originally composed. Please, show some support for the fans that have enjoyed your show, paid for it via HBO and on DVD, and want the show to retains its original compositions on Blu-ray. Surely, this is the lesser of two evils, yes?
I understand your purposes. And I can even agree that a 4:3 HD version of The Wire would be an admirable alternative version. I have said so to HBO. And further, I have been assured that a 4:3 version will certainly remain available on DVDs. But having done these things, I’m not sure I have the weight you ascribe to me. At least, not professional gravitas. I am the guy who has made a lot of hours of television at HBO without ever gleaning an audience. I’m not David Chase, or Alan Ball. I’m the guy who is required, if he understands anything at all about his own circumstance, to rightly regard HBO and Time Warner as a bunch of modern Medicis when it comes to my work.
I am not “for” or “against” HD or 16:9. I am not an advocate for either, and I am not complaining about either. I am committed to the notion that we made our film already and it continues to exist and be available to those who want it in the original form. As to what other filmmakers think of the HD transfers of their film, I can’t say. I can tell you that the transfer enhanced many aspects of my film, but also exposed vulnerabilities that were not a problem in standard definition. I have been told that this is quite common and often requires careful CGI and resize corrections where possible, and otherwise, a willingness on the part of filmmakers to accept the trade-offs.
Now comes a moment when HBO attempts to achieve a belated revenue stream from one of my loss leaders, and by your assessment, I am supposed to do what, exactly? Throw a tantrum, or stand in the Walmart doorway with my arms raised in defiance until they issue a version of the material that pleases every quarter of the potential viewership for the show? Clearly, HBO has calculated presently that a 16:9 HD version of The Wire will find a meaningful market. If those advocating for a 4:3 HD format make themselves heard, then perhaps such a version will follow. I have already inquired about 4:3 HD, to be sure. And if such a format is to be produced, I will again perform due diligence and do my best to make sure the possible benefits of such a presentation accrue and the liabilities are minimized.
But, Sean, brother, this is decidedly not my call. Nor is it my place to critique HBO’s product line. Privately, I have made my suggestions and my inquiries. Now, my role is such that I need to react to the planned versions and do my best to protect the product as it is transformed. At least, I see it so.
Thank you, Mr. Simon. I do respect your position as a creator of TV shows, and in your position, I might find myself amenable to anything HBO offered as well. I appreciate you doing what you can, and I think I understand better the position you are in here. I hope that we can both get what we want next summer.
Now I’m off to browbeat HBO into giving me that 4:3 HD Blu-ray.
“I have already inquired about 4:3 HD, to be sure. And if such a format is to be produced, I will again perform due diligence and do my best to make sure the possible benefits of such a presentation accrue and the liabilities are minimized.”
Just curious, since the 16:9 HD conversion has already been completed, how much more work would a 4:3 HD version entail at this stage? My (admittedly ignorant) assumption is that it would be relatively straightforward and just a matter of re-framing the work you’ve already done for the 16:9 version.
I don’t know. But certainly the work done on the 16:9 HD would provide a roadmap.
I assume you’re being humble when you write: “I am the guy who has made a lot of hours of television at HBO without ever gleaning an audience.” While the audience during The Wire’s original run may have been small, that audience has most certainly grown to a substantial number- which will only increase w/ these new HD transfers.
I laud HBO for recognizing the great merit in this series and completing it regardless of the criminally small audience it originally garnered. In this case, it would appear, they recognized that the high quality of the work would eventually pay off. I would hope that they would recognize the true artist that you are and give you the corresponding “professional gravitas.” The Wire is widely regarded as one of the finest- if not THE best- TV shows ever made. I had never even seen it until I engaged in a thread debating whether it, The Sopranos or Breaking Bad was the best TV show ever (I’ve never had HBO). I bought the DVD set and was astounded. It may have lacked the thrills of BB, but there was so much more meat on the bones- it’s really apples to oranges, but if I had to pick, TW would be my #1 (w/ Hill St Blues 3rd behind BB).
It’s a shame that quality does not correspond to commerciality. (Treme is also criminally under-appreciated, imho) But hopefully, w/ a wider audience that will be reached w/ the HD release, this show of shows will receive even more praise and recognition. And HBO will realize even more fully what a treasure they have in David Simon.
You refer often to “telling a story,” which you do very well, but from my perspective, what you do is tell the truth- which so many “stories” today do not do very well, if at all. Of course, this explains why your work is not as successful as it deserves to be, since many people don’t want their illusions challenged by viewing the way things really are.
I hope you are able to keep up the high standards you have set for yourself for many years to come and look forward to your next offering.
David, please ignore my last comment, as I hadn’t read your full explanation yet (which I recommend integrating into your main article to clear up the confusion). So the you and the crew actually used 35mm film but shot it in a way that it would look good on an SD broadcast rather than a projector…wow. That’s a trip! Your stance makes complete sense now…guess I’m stickin with my DVDs. 😛
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The example of “crossing the line” was interesting. Do you have any other details about the scene? I checked it out and it seems like in the bar scene with McNulty and Freamon near the end of the episode (S01E04) they take their seats at the bar and don’t move until Freamon heads off to the bathroom, after which there’s no dialog. Was there originally movement during that scene, or am I missing something?
It’s not about them moving at all. It’s about how the camera revolves around them.
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[…] they are going to rebroadcast The Wire in HD and reformatted to 16:9. (Wire creator David Simon has stated that, while the episodes were composed for 4:3, he’s basically okay with the new […]
Great piece, after hearing your commitment to 4:3 with The Wire in the past, I was hoping that this remastering had gone through you, so I’m happy it largely has.
I’ve watched The Wire entirely through, twice. For me this remastering is an opportunity to view it a third time, and introduce it to more people who are apprehensive about dedicating themselves to a 4:3 series on their 16:9 television. Many of these people would have artificially stretched the image to fill their screens, which I imagine most filmmakers agree is the absolute worst way to view anything.
The Wire has been a large influence on me getting into filmmaking, not to mention raised the bar in terms of what I can stomach on television. I have yet to come across characters and dialogue as authentic, as real, as true to the source as your work has. I’m currently working on a documentary, and even through this process I’m staying mindful – to just be real, to showcase the subject as is, not just because that’s what an audience relates to, but because that is the only way to do proper service to the subject.
I think a petition is in order. HBO needs to know that we will NOT buy this set unless there is a 4:3 option. This is not 1994. Viewers are very sophisticated as illustrated in most of these comments. And this show is not Stargate SKG. It is perhaps the greatest show ever made. It needs to be preserved and available in the way it was shot and intended to be seen. Period. There might not be another chance to do this right.
“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.”
Thoughtful, intelligent viewers are unlikely to hold this view, I’d suggest. Casual viewers may well do so, but – as Dave’s made clear on many occasions – The Wire’s strength has always been that it didn’t worry much about them. If only there were some short, pithy phrase (ideally one crafted by Dave Simon himself) that summed up that entirely admirable attitude…
[…] Simon wrote a piece about The Wire’s conversion to high-definition and a 16:9 aspect ratio. I remember watching the series while it was airing and reading about the intentional preservation […]
A wonderful discussion but It reminds me of the unavailability
of “Homicide”. I am always looking for it on Netflix or Amazon Prime
but am still disappointed. I’ve noticed that when “Law & Order”
plays a crossover episode we never seem to get the back end as well.
It’s curious in that both were NBC shows. Does NBC Universal not have
any rights for “Homicide? I miss it!
It is available for purchase on DVD and on Itunes.
Thanks for much for sharing your thoughts on this and on the wonderful Bob Colesberry and how he so thoughtfully brought a visual experience that was the rhythm and melody to your words.
The scene between D’Angelo and Wee Bey is such a perfect illustration of how the edit changes how the scene feels. For me as it was originally shot I have an experience of what it would be like to follow and watch and record. That distance is what does it though it’s not something I would ever be aware of. Brilliant. That experience is missing in the HD version.
Just as some of us pay more attention more to the rhythm and melody for others it’s all about the words, so not to worry – I think the Wire consistently gives us the best of both.
[…] his analysis of why one scene is not better while the other is not is just fascinating to read. Read it here Reply With […]
Thank you for posting these clips. Any chance we can get both versions on blu-ray?
[…] 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 think a lot of potential buyers would like the updated picture and sound quality but won’t be picking these up because of the change in aspect ratio. Is there no way to get the 4:3 version on those blu-rays, too? Can’t be that hard.
This brings to mind the controversial first blu-ray issue of The French Connection in which director Billy Friedkin went off the rails with image adjustments, much to the dismay of DP Owen Roizman who hadn’t been consulted and said it looked dreadful after its release. The studio then reworked it with Roizmen and Friedkin and issued a second version that was true to its original theatrical look. In the end, everyone was happy. A similar thing should happen with two versions of The Wire. The scan is already in the can and could easily be issued in 4:3, offering a second round of sales.
To me “The Wire” is the quintessential 4:3 experience and I pity the new generation who will discover your series in this new version.
As a young filmmaker (shooting my first short in a week!) I find that ratios are not standards but rather serves as a canvas to tell your story as effectively as possible, just like a painter would decide to use one sort of paint over another, the decision become one that straddle both the artistic and the technical, thus becoming a integral part of the whole.
So changing it it just to be “hip” is awfully misguided and ranks way up there with other stupid decisions such as coloring Casablanca or replacing words in great American novels.
[…] Wire creator David Simon explains in this blog post , The Wire, to keep to a lower budget, filmed in standard definition from its first episode. When […]
I must say, I am disappointed.
I have waited a long time for this series (which I think might be the greatest achievement in television, if not in motion pictures at large, of this young century) to come out in HD on BluRay disc. I had to suffer through spinets (perhaps they were rumors) of reports saying you liked the ‘gritty’ look and didn’t want to have it available in a glossy way (paraphrasing, sorry), and I thought just having in available in the BEST possible quality was not looking good. But with the resent news that it indeed was going to be released in HD, I got my hope back. But now, I must say, you’ve just dashed that hope in a new way.
Why on earth wouldn’t you just insist that HBO release this series in the aspect ratio it was shot in? Like Criterion, or other respectable distributors would for films shot in 4:3? I don’t understand this. This is a masterpiece. People who will be buying this aren’t going to return it when they see that it is in the aspect ratio that they first watched it in. Who, in God’s name, believes that? “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.” Mr. Simon, do you know your own audience? Naturally they would love something that advantages their full, giant screen, but at the cost of knowing that the filmmaker’s intention is compromised as a result? I dare say your audience would NOT want that. You just spent many words and paragraphs here describing myriad reservations you have with presenting this masterwork of art in a way it was not intended. You even go so far as to ask us to donate to a fund to appease a guilt you have over going against the wishes of someone no longer with us who is responsible for this look. Were you bullied into this decision? It seems like it.
I just don’t understand why we can’t have this series in the highest quality possible and EXACTLY as you intended it to be. It seems like that should be relatively simple. You should not have let HBO treat us like children who need our toys to be tricked out all the time, or something like that. So insulting. Maybe I am in the minority. And, if so, then that is sad. But I know for sure there are a LOT of people who feel this way. And I just wanted to express it.
Many thanks for reading.
All this technical stuff is beyond me — HD hurts my eyes and I don’t watch it if I have any other choice — but I don’t believe he has the right to insist. HBO has distribution rights for the show, and unless there is something a-typical in the contract they have the right to re-release it in different formats.
I don’t know that “bullied” is warranted either. It is not unethical for a company to want to make something available in a newer format. We lost a lot of sound quality when the predominant music technology went from vinyl to CD, and even more when it went to digital files. But if that’s the way most people want to listen to music now and you want people to listen to your music, you’re not going to insist it be released only in vinyl.
“I just don’t understand why we can’t have this series in the highest quality possible and EXACTLY as you intended it to be.”
You can. Purchase the current DVDs.
“Why on earth wouldn’t you just insist that HBO release this series in the aspect ratio it was shot in?”
HBO has already done that–the current DVDs. As to the “why” it is being released in 16×9 HD Blu-ray, Mr. Simon went to great lengths to explain that in some detail.
Regarding your insipid response regarding the current DVDs, Peter Rinaldi isn’t alone in this. I was fucking ecstatic when I found out that it was going to be released in HD; but there was no way in hell that I expected it to be reformatted.
Like David Simon says, the production was all done with the 4:3 format in mind, so there’s no need to even dwell on the question of whether to keep it as is. The only thing that we wanted changed was for picture quality to rival that of any of Roger Deakins’ works.
The production was also done with SD in mind. But you like HD, so never mind with our intention in that case, right?
And Mr. Kim, let’s tone it down. This is not a blogsite where we want to toss words like insipid at others’ opinions. I grant that you attacked an argument rather than a person, and that’s permitted. But hey, insipid is a fairly high standard of moronity. I don’t think you mean to be so hyperbolic here.
Nonetheless, there must be many viewers or potential consumers that are requesting this show in wide-screen format. HBO is not in the business of spending a lot of money and time converting something that they don’t think is going to sell.
DVD is not the highest possible quality. If it were, there would not be all these frustrated fans on here right now.
Why do you presume that the highest possible technical quality is the framework and construct by which all narrative must be displayed? The Wire was executed in SD and 4:3. The manner in which we framed the shots, but also established depth of field, background and executed a level of detail on everything from wall graffiti to the makeup work on gunshot wounds and such, was posited on SD. Are you asserting for the highest possible quality as a greater value than the filmmaker’s intent and execution at the point of filming? Why? Other than you like looking at it that way, I mean.
I have a couple works of folk art at home that I treasure. One is painted on the side of a picket fence, and the other on the back of a washboard. If they were painted on carefully stretched canvas then certainly the images would be more distinct and pristine, and more in keeping with the advantages of the highest quality for visual art. I’m glad they are as they are, though.
The filmmakers saw what they saw, with knowledge of the present technology, when they filmed The Wire in SD. Now, offered a more precise and perfected technology, you don’t value that eye over the technology when it comes to depth of field. But you value it with regard to the width and length of the shot. Understood. And perhaps you are right. Or perhaps not.
Regardless, you are not consistent.
“The Wire was executed in SD and 4:3”
One question I have about this – you shot on film, correct? It wasn’t actually shot on an SD digital camera, or was it? So the framing of 4:3 is what you intended, but technically when you watched dailies and put the episode together, you were seeing it at the higher resolution afforded by film, and then it was down coverted to SD before broadcast. I assume you didn’t shoot film and then edit in SD, otherwise you’d have to recut every episode right now to ‘convert’ it to HD.
So this means that HD should perfectly suit The Wire, as you’re just going to get a truer image of what was captured when it was originally made.
Or am I wrong, was the show shot in SD? It looked like film to me but it can be hard to tell on DVDs.
I personally thought the DVDs were of inconsistent quality. The last two seasons look quite a bit worse than the first three because more episodes are crammed onto a single disk. Can’t wait to see it in HD.
You are speaking singularly of the technology. The Wire was shot on 35mm. It is amenable to HD transfer and to 16:9 without bottom-top, pan-scan cropping except in cases in which unacceptable content can’t be painted from the margins. But you are mistaking what I am saying for a technological choice. It is not technological, it is aesthetic.
I am speaking of the filmmaker’s intention: We composed our shots for broadcast in 4:3 and in SD. We arranged our content for length, width, depth with that format in mind. We optimized our shots based on what would be seen in 4:3 aspect ratio and with a depth of field and background detail that suited SD, not HD. Now, for this new version, we are using the same film in a new construct. Sometimes, as I have indicated, there is a benefit. Sometimes, it doesn’t matter much. Sometimes, the shot composition is worse. This is true for the quality of the definition as for the size of the frame.
I appreciate how transparent you’re being about this. After watching the clips, my opinion (shared in the previous post) remains unchanged. I hope HBO can be convinced to include the episodes in 4:3 for the Blu-ray release.
More generally, I think the television community needs to start adapting the kind of absolutist attitude towards frame composition that’s become the standard for movie-making. No studio could ever dream of releasing new 16:9 version of some classic 1940s movie without receiving a massive amount of blowback.
BTW, there are two ways to release a 4×3 composition in 16×9.
1. Cut off the top and bottom of the image.
2. Extend the sides of the image.
This release is thankfully doing the latter. The former is an abomination. I, for one, look forward to seeing a widescreen HD version. I still have the4x3 SD DVDs if I prefer those. I doubt that I will.
I don’t consider those two ways to be all that different. Whether you’re adding or removing information, you’re still altering the image in a fundamental way.
Nobody cares about your precious widescreen. It doesn’t take precedence over the intended product that was put out BECAUSE HBO DIDN’T PROPERLY FUND THE PROJECT TO BEGIN WITH.
And how should they have funded a 60-hour film with poor ratings for five years? You give HBO no credit. It’s unfair.
I think it bears remembering (though Mr. Simon may be too modest) that The Wire is one of very few genuinely important shows on TV. We’d all be better off if more people would watch it, even the ones who can’t tell good cinematography from a Xeroxed buttprint that’s framed wrong. If the cost is some aesthetic appeal for the rest of us, I have to concede it might be worth it.
Now of course, artistic integrity is also important. Perhaps it’s not my place to decide which of these things matters more. (If Mr. Simon weren’t capable of putting integrity before accessibility, we wouldn’t be where we are). But they seem to align here, and viewers should be glad for that. It’s good to hear that nobody ran roughshod over Simon et al., and I too now hope Bob Colesberry would have approved.
I also appreciate the explanation of the process and the inherent trade offs. It must be crushing to not be able to bring the original DOP into the process, but it’s clearly in good hands. For me the most important point is that while the original intent of the 4:3 ratio was to evoke a documentary feel, that is no longer a valid point. At the time most verite documentary productions would have been shot on 16mm or beta SP, with a 4:3 ratio. In that respect it was the right decision at the time. However during the run of the production HD video came into it’s own, and today most documentaries are shot in digital 16:9, rendering the original decision and intent obsolete. Since 35mm is inherently a widescreen format, it does make sense to me to attempt a widescreen version of the series, as the audience no longer needs a 4:3 ratio to subliminally suggest the feel of a documentary. Of course there will be trade offs, but the constriction of 4:3 on set must have been a limitation to the camera for some scenes, as Mr. Simon explains.
At the end of the day I’m very happy that there will be an alternate 16:9 version of the series, especially knowing that everything has been overseen by the creators to keep it in line with the original vision and intent. The fact is that the 4:3 ratio is the only factor that dates the series. I look forward to a new generation of viewers experiencing the finest series ever made if that is the price we must pay. I only hope that the post pipeline allows for an HD 4:3 version alongside the widescreen on the BluRay release. Failing that, an in depth featurette explaining the process and the trade offs of the aspect ratio change would be most welcome and appreciated. There is a great video on YouTube of Mike Nichols explaining the perils of pan and scan that I used to show my film students that would be a good start.
How to you figure that 35mm is inherently a widescreen format? It has been used for everything from Movietone (1.19:1, e.g. used for the silent movie, Sunrise, which is now playing on one of my other monitors in its original aspect ratio on a blu-ray disc) to Ultra Panavision (2.76:1, e.g. used for Ben Hur, which I just switched to, playing in its original aspect ratio, also on blu-ray).
Moreover, from an image quality perspective, 35mm in cinema was used the wrong way. I.e. the long dimension was transverse, so wider formats used less film area. In contrast, IMAX used 70mm film with the long dimension running longitudinally to maximize film area and thus image quality.
So if anything, they way 35mm film was used made it inherently a narrow-screen format.
That brings us to the Mona Lisa. That painting has not been updated in over 500 years, and so it’s no surprise to know that its aspect ratio is 0.7:1. Upside down by today’s standards! It’s high time that it be brought into conformance with 16:9 so that more people will enjoy it. I think if we issue it in two segments, first the face then the hands, it will maximize profits. No one is very interested in the rest of it. After that, we could re-issue it with just the mouth as a special feature. After all, the mouth and whether it’s smiling is basically all anyone is interested in.
Brilliantly written. Since i already have the original, i may stick to the old version. Though time will tell. Keep on creating dave!
Based on these clips, I don’t think you have anything to worry about. Looks good!
[…] these matters I tend to defer to the creator of the work. And David Simon, as is his wont, has long and complicated thoughts on the matter, which he shared in a blog […]
[…] A new version of this post, which now includes sample video clips appears here. […]