Kubrick’s Tube: The Aspect Ratio Debate

The Aspect Ratio Debate. It’s not a pretentious art-rock band, but a question that has plagued Stanley Kubrick fans since the beginning of home video. What did Kubrick intend for us to see on our television screens, and does this still apply since the widescreen TV boom?

The issue originates from Kubrick’s dismay at seeing a pan and scan version of 2001: A Space Odyssey — a version formatted to fill a 4:3 TV screen by cropping off the edges of the image. As a preventative measure Kubrick shot his subsequent films in open matte, essentially capturing more of the image than was needed for widescreen theatrical presentation. This allowed for TV broadcasts without the use of pan and scan (which compromises the original cinematography) or letterboxing (which, although it would be my favoured solution, Kubrick reportedly found distracting).

It was these fullscreen versions that were released on VHS and DVD, and thus the versions that many fans have grown to love after years of repeated home viewings. They were indeed the versions favoured by Kubrick for home display, but not for theatrical presentation. This is perhaps most obvious when you compare the opening scene of The Shining. In the full frame version, the camera helicopter’s shadow can be glimpsed for at least one second, while it is hidden in the widescreen version. Surely a perfectionist like Stanley Kubrick would not ultimately favour the version with such a blatant technical glitch.

And the simple fact is that home display has advanced greatly since Kubrick’s death. High-definition widescreen televisions offer the most cinematic experience currently possible without an actual cinema, and the theatrical version comes closer to filling the screen than the so-called “fullscreen” version of old. Consumers are more aware of aspect ratios, and less likely to panic at the first sign of black bars on their screens.

But when films like The Shining were screened in two different formats (slightly wider in the US, slightly taller in Europe) it becomes harder to honour the film-maker’s intentions. Warner Brothers could offer fans the choice, but considering there are three possible aspect ratios and two different cuts of The Shining, the prospect of all those transfers becomes daunting (not to mention prohibitively expensive).

The current DVD/blu ray release of The Shining uses yet another aspect ratio — the current widescreen TV standard of 16:9, which is somewhere between both theatrical versions. It’s preferable to a compromised version of the film based on outmoded technology, but it is still a compromised version of the film… just one based on current technology! It’s less drastic a change than the one necessitated by 4:3 screens, but honestly, are black bars really that distracting when they allow us to see the vision originally presented to us in the cinema?

One Response to “Kubrick’s Tube: The Aspect Ratio Debate”

  1. I’ve never had a problem with 1.85:1 movies winding up on video in the 16×9 (1.78:1) ratio. Hell, Criterion does it all the time and they show no signs of ceasing. It seems to me that the only people whining about Kubrick’s 1.85:1 movies not being available at 1.37:1 belong to one of two camps: 1. The misinformed, who know nothing about theatrical aspect ratios or Kubrick’s intentions as a filmmaker. We got A CLOCKWORK ORANGE in 1.66:1 on BD, so shaddap! 2. Those who are in serious need of social interaction, outside of posting on the internet. Seriously, those who go on and on (and on) about Kubrick’s movies being treated unfairly on BD should stop watching movies and start going to singles bars. Warner wants to minimize customer complaints so they’re going to go with what the majority would be happy with, and they have: The theatrical aspect ratios. Take what you’re given and like it, I say.

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