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.
Simon says that while HBO executives were keen to move the show over to an HD, 16:9 ratio for the third season, he didn’t want to break with the "visual template" of the first two seasons — engineered by producer Bob Colesberry and shot in 35mm with the intention of airing in standard definition at a 4:3 ratio (this means that a HD remake also has to paint out any camera equipment and crew included in the shot).
"Choose to serve one construct and at times you must impair the other"
"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," he writes, adding later, "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."
COMMERCIAL CONSTRAINTS LED TO ARTISTIC BENEFITS
Simon says that as they couldn’t be "panoramic and omniscient" with a 16:9 ratio they instead opted for a more documentarian style, full of mid-shots (because "full wide shots in 4:3 rendered protagonists smaller") and a mix of track-based and hand-held camera work. Driven by a 'shoestring' budget, the choice to not shoot in 16:9 eventually led — as commercial constraints so often do — to artistic benefit: the show's "intimate" feel and texture.
There’s no doubt that these decisions are what helped the show achieve its sense of authenticity and though Simon says there were some "losses in the transfer" to HD (check out the full piece for two enlightening examples of where original scenes have been improved and undermined by the re-cut) he’s happy with the result: "I’m satisfied [that] 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."
Still, it seems that if you really want to get the full experience of the show then you don't need to bother with a wall-sized TV in crackling 4K. Instead, just hunker down round that old box with a 4:3 ratio you keep in the basement. Maybe grab a folding chair and crack open a bottle of Jameson and then get ready to watch some natural po-leece in action.