Widescreen is here -
There are a lot of complications and misunderstandings with videotape widescreen formats nowadays. Everybody wants to plan ahead for 16:9 widescreen TVs while keeping the 4:3 format for today’s telecasts. That’s what we did with Blackly and Salter Street is shooting all their new shows widescreen. In Britain they are shooting 16:9 transmitted two ways - a 16:9 TV set receives the full wide picture - a 4:3 set gets a 14:9 picture which minimizes the letterbox effect. In the USA, HDTV transmission is now ongoing with networks eventually broadcasting in two formats (old and new) for the next several years - TV sets will have black boxes to sort out the frame sizing. Canada’s approach to new formats is not up and running yet, so producers are just prioritizing in 4:3 for now and any shows shot on 16:9 or HDTV will have to wait to be reformatted later. There is an consortium assigned to Canada’s digital television future. If you want to get an update, they have a website -

The numbers -
I really find the television standard of defining frame ratios annoying. Motion pictures have always used a real ratio as the description - 1.33 to 1 is standard TV - 1.85 to 1 is widescreen - 2.35:1 is CinemaScope. So the width of the screen is either 1.33, 1.85, or 2.35 times the height - easy to understand, easy to compare. But TV uses unrelated numbers like 4:3, 16:9, and 14:9. But there is a quick solution to convert TV numbers to basic ratios. Take 4 and divide by 3 = 1.33 - Viola! 16:9 is 1.77 - which is inbetween Super 16mm (1.66) and standard widescreen film (1.85).

TV FRAME 1.33:1

Unknown facts -
There is a problem with switchable widescreen cameras that Sony doesn’t like to publicize. If you take a regular 4:3 digital Betacam camera, the 4:3 rectangular CCD fits to the edges of the circular image which the lens creates. But to provide a widescreen 16:9 image, which is a narrower rectangle, when that CCD is placed with the same circle, it ends up being smaller. The resolution rating on a 4:3 Sony Digital Betacam is 850 but that drops to 680 for a 16:9 switchable camera. Then if you only use the inside part of the widescreen (the 4:3 section of that) you are using even less of the CCD and the rating drops to 650. Now, 650 is still a lot better than several years ago, but there is a loss. Canon research says that on a 2/3” CCD chip the full 4:3 image is 58 sq mm - but the 4:3 part of a switchable widescreen image is only 38.75 sq mm (a reduction of 65%). This also creates a problems with zoom lenses - you require wider lens to give the same effect with the smaller image. This issue might be a problem if networks get fussy about the resolution going into HDTV transmission. So, you’ve got the widescreen, but what about the resolution?
HDTV cameras use the same 2/3” space as described above but the chip’s resolution is so high that even the 4:3 portion of the picture exceeds any present NTSC quality. 35mm film has always carved up its frame size in varying ways but again the resolution of even a smaller area of the film frame is quite high. Super 16mm has met the needs of widescreen by letting the picture go into the (unused) sound track to maximize the area, but the ratio is only 1.66.

Frames lines and cutoff -
It is important for anybody viewing a monitor to understand widescreen frame lines and cutoff. Before widescreen, 4:3 monitoring was easy - the underscan button showed the maximum “raster” image - when the underscan button is off, the monitor cuts off about 10% which represents what most TVs show - the operator usually sees both the maximum image and a cutoff frame line in the viewfinder. If you see a boom mike in the full image, it’s on tape, but so long as you don’t see in the cutoff image you should be OK.
Now along comes widescreen. Most non-HDTV shoots nowadays use the 4:3 monitor with a 16:9 switch. When you switch to 16:9, you get a letterbox image (some monitors have an under / overscan choice, others might not). In 16:9 mode, the operator’s viewfinder will show full 16:9, 16:9 cutoff, and 4:3 cutoff (there are many options, but this is what I had on Blackfly). What you don’t see in the color monitor is - one, any 4:3 reference lines and - two, top and bottom 16:9 cutoff (you may or may not see side to side 16:9 cutoff). So, you should mark these on the monitor with tape - although the depth of the monitor glass creates a problem seeing a consistant lineup.
Another issue is dealing with head room on 16:9. When the program is telecast on a widescreen TV where all the edges of the frame go right to the TV edges, there is about 10% cutoff, so you have to allow for that as we have in the above case by marking the monitor. But when the program is letterboxed, the side edges are cut off, but top and bottom are masked by black - right to the edge with almost no cutoff. So when it comes to headroom you have to think “a head” as to how the program will be shown.
When ever you are viewing a widescreen monitor on set, review the options with the operator and mentally compensate or mark out the frame lines. I hate when the director says there too much headroom on a 16:9 shot because he can’t see the cutoff line.
BBC producers are calling for 14:9 which complicate things even more. Most cameras do not have that option in the viewfinder. 14:9 = 1.55 which is in between 4:3 (1.33) and 16:9 (1.77). I’m not 100% sure but I believe 14:9 involves cutting the side edges rather than effecting head room.

Use a chart! -
In film, operators always shoot frame charts to confirm what they are using for frame lines and to make sure the film to tape transfer is correct (sometimes this is called “rack leader”). When I brought out a chart on my HDTV vs film test, the video guys thought I was nuts because they don’t usually shoot them. But it is an excellent way of showing any potential cutoff from tape machines or TVs. You will find a lot of TVs show more on one side than another. With Blackfly, the VHS rushes were letterboxed, so directors appreciated my frame charts, which allowed them to mark 4:3 frame lines (or at least the corners) on their sets.

Mini DV and 16:9 -
Mini DV cameras use electronic squeezing to form 16:9 images. It would seem to be a good idea (copying the anamorphic lens concept) but the Mini DV lenses don’t see any more side to side and the squeezing is actually a digital effect similar to digital zoom, so it’s not a perfect option, but probably better than cropping the frame.

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