It’s 2014. We should not still be having this discussion. As I’m sure most of you know, most television shows of the 80s, 90s, and even early 2000s were edited on tape. Because of this, HD versions of these shows require studios ponying up the money to retransfer the film and essentially rebuild the show. It’s a costly venture, which makes studios reluctant. Thankfully, because of syndication, studios have been more or less forced into doing this for some of their bigger shows.
An added complication is when shows make heavy use of visual effects. The studio can go one of two ways with this: The first is the Star Trek: The Next Generation route, which includes recompositing and sometimes recreating effects in the spirit of the original. (For more information on TNG’s restoration, I highly recommend watching this video). The other, easier route is to simply upscale the VFX shots, which Fox did with Firefly. Unfortunately, both have their own set of problems. When recreating effects, you run the chance of creating a different experience than the original effect. When in the right hands, however (as TNG was), the new effects maintain the spirit of the original and are not obtrusive. When you upscale the original effects, you sacrifice quality but are seeing exactly what the original creators intended.
The newest show to receive the HD treatment is Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which is my personal favorite show. The new HD versions are being shown exclusively on Pivot, a fairly new station that’s been showing Buffy reruns for a while now. Upon hearing the news, I was cautiously optimistic. From what I read (which is admittedly not much), Fox’s X Files remaster has been pretty good. And as mentioned earlier, Firefly looked pretty good as well. Then screencaps started coming out…
First off, this is cropped. While the ratio at which the show was shot changed throughout the series, the intended viewing ratio was always 4×3. Whedon has gone on record many times saying that this is how the show should be viewed. I’ve seen a lot of people online complain saying that it was shot 4×3 and they prefer the extra information on the sides of the screen. Yes, from time to time you will get to see another actor’s reaction or a better look at the set. You will also see things you were not intended to see like equipment, or in one rather hilarious case, a random person in a dorm he’s not supposed to be in. Even if they were to fix these mistakes as some have suggested (they won’t, I guarantee it), it wouldn’t change anything. The shots were composed to be viewed on a 4×3 screen. Expanding the frame will make the cinematography look uninspired and the composition poor. The show’s frame also informs it. Buffy is a very personal show. The frame is as vital to it as its color or sound. In Angel, the show is widescreen (from season 2 onward) because it’s a very widescreen story – taking place in the big city. Any one of these things are reason enough for the show to stay 4×3, but some people really want their TV filled, no matter what they sacrifice. Pivot is showing the series in widescreen, but we don’t know if that’s how Fox is remastering it. It’s possible that these widescreen versions are only for television and if a home video release ever comes, it would maintain it’s original aspect ratio.
The show looks horrible. DNR is heavy here, destroying the grainy image created from the 16mm film the first two seasons were shot on. Colors are off, but it’s unclear whether the colors are incorrect on the DVDs (which aren’t the best quality) or the new HD broadcast. What we may be seeing is colors more accurate to the film it was shot on. It’s also possible that the creators knew of video’s color changes and worked around this. The video stream is also heavily compressed, but that’s more on Pivot’s end. Some have said the “HD” broadcasts are upconverted 576 with HD credits. (Here’s a comparison). That’s certainly possible, but some episodes have completely new effects. These new effects, in my opinion, suck. If you’re not going to make the investment to create some great looking, new effects, than just upconvert the old ones. It’s also possible some episodes are upconverts and others aren’t. Some scenes look radically different between their “previously on” segments and their original episode appearances. It’s all very odd and the lack of a response from Fox to any of the fan’s questions leads us to only speculate more. Hopefully it will become clearer in the near future.
It’s 2014, we really shouldn’t still have to have a discussion about aspect ratio. And if it is the right ratio, hopefully it will look a little more filmic as well. I really hope that if these shows are ever released on Blu-ray, Joss Whedon will step in to make sure they’re at least the correct aspect ratio. Although, if we know anything about Fox, it’s that they don’t always listen