Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Stretch Effect: The Grapes of Wrath

I've almost - almost - become used to seeing Academy ratio movies (1.37 to 1) stretched out on widescreen televisions by people either too stupid to notice the glaring difference or too lazy to bother switching the settings on their tv to match the movie. But one place I don't expect to see it is Netflix. So when I went to watch The Grapes of Wrath the other night, I was shocked to see this:


Here's the correct ratio:


Here are other screengrabs followed by the correct ratio:







When I saw this, I was shocked. I mean, I know nobody was doing widescreen in 1940 (although it had been used before, notably for the 1930 John Wayne movie, The Big Trail) and I certainly know The Grapes of Wrath didn't use it. Still, I went to IMDB to make sure. As I suspected, it was 1:37 to 1. But for some reason, someone at Netflix flubbed and gave us a "widescreen" version of a movie that never was widescreen to begin with, hence the stretched out quality of all the shots. I've notified them (and have for other problems in the past) and hope it gets corrected soon. Meanwhile, if anyone has any other classic movies on Netflix they discover have been stretched out, let me know. I'm curious if this is just an aberration or a disturbing new trend.

27 comments:

Robert said...

Thanks for alerting Netflix to their error. It seems that everyone with a widescreen tv assumes that that whole frame has to be filled, even when it's obviously distorting the people on screen.I'm beginning to suspect that the idea of presenting a film in the correct aspect ratio is a lost cause.

the dame said...

I had a conversation with a friend who was scoffing at my purchasing some older films and saying he was going to get them in widescreen. Which led to me spending 20 or so irritating minutes explaining that some films - depending on the time period, etc. - were not FILMED at that ratio and would not be available in widescreen because IT DOESN'T EXIST for those films. To a guy who kept saying, "Yeah, but they can MAKE them widescreen now."

Now I know why.
*grump*

Christopher said...

stretch them okies...I usually pop out the widescreen-Zoom feature on remote for films shot in widescreen which allows you to fill up the screen without the stretch effect...but never for films made before the widescreen process or tv shows on dvd.

Greg said...

Robert, it's maddeningly ironic. For years, the big fight was for letterboxing - getting movies made in widescreen to be shown in their proper aspect ratio. Then DVDs started doing this as a matter of course and I thought, "Yes, we won." Then widescreen television came along and now it's the opposite problem. And how in the hell do people not notice?!

Greg said...

Dame! So glad to see you here again. I've had a few frustrating conversations like that myself. I cannot understand how it doesn't bother someone seeing a 1:37 to 1 image stretched out. Everyone and everything appears squashed and abnormal and I cannot focus on the film because it all looks so wrong. You might as well project it inverted as a negative as far as I'm concerned.

Greg said...

Christopher, I have friends with widescreen tvs that I have futilely argued with on this point. "It's stretched out," I'll say, when they're watching cable. "That's doesn't bother you that every image on practically every channel is wrong? Really? That doesn't bother you?" And, of course, the answer is "no." At which point I have no options left but to belittle and condescend to them until they change it out of pure anger. Victory!

Erich Kuersten said...

Wow, thank god I'm not alone. I have to fight and fight every Xmas with my family as they routinely stretch out every film rather than endure the gray bars on the sides of my brother's widescreen TV. Sometimes I can get them to zoom in instead, so everyone's head is cut off - but better stretching or decapitation than gray bars! Good lord, the resistance they have.

Greg said...

Erich, I remember back before widescreen tvs, the resistance I would get about letterboxing. The most common was "I want the image to fill the screen." I'd argue that it's better to see the whole image than a cropped image, slightly blurred and with a jerky pan and scan camera. And, almost always, the argument fell on deaf ears. It was probably around this time that I decided there were people who cared about art and its presentation (3, 4 maybe 5 percent of us) and everyone else who just want something to pass before their eyes while something with artificial flavors goes down their throat (95-97 percent).

Ryan Kelly said...

Stretched pixels - especially in standard def - make me (perhaps irrationally) upset. I like how you brand it the "opposite" problem of pan and scan - of course, televisions usually aren't made with the screening of The Grapes of Wrath in mind, which is a separate issue...

Greg said...

Ryan, it's not irrational, really, it's not. You're being upset for very sane reasons. Here's why: Back when the problem was reversed (i.e. films weren't letterboxed) I could deal with it better because even though the screen was cropped you were still viewing the images on the screen in their proper dimensions! You were missing part of the picture, yes, but panned and scanned Bridge on the River Kwai still gave you Colonal Nicholson in normal dimensions, not squished up or stretched out! The widescreen problem is so infuriating because it alters the fundamental dimensionality of nature!!! How in the FUCK is that not noticeable to people?!??!!!!!

Peter Nellhaus said...

Last week, I wrote about a somewhat different problem with showing films in their proper ratio on Netflix. I've not come across a film shot in the Academy ratio incorrectly presented.

This does remind me of a time many years back when Gone with the Wind was rereleased, and was reformatted somewhat for movie screens as a widescreen film.

Greg said...

An excellent read Peter! You would lose some visibility on the computer screen going to true widescreen format of the original Sons and Lovers but I try to take in all my Netflix Instant on tv. If you don't already have it, for god's sakes, get a Roku. They're cheap, easy to install and all Netflix Instant and Amazon Video on Demand streams to your tv in DVD quality pictures.

And I remember the Gone With the Wind fiasco. They formatted by simply lopping off the top and bottom of the screen and panning the camera up and down, instead of side to side when reducing a widescreen movie. The result was atrocious.

Kimberly Lindbergs said...

I've noticed that a lot of the films streaming on Netflix (particularly the never officially released on DVD stuff) are the same prints available on video/VHS (I still own a lot of VHS tapes so I've done some comparisons). I don't think Netflix has much to do with the quality of prints shown. They just stream what's available to them.

With a classic like GRAPES OF WRATH, which has probably been released in various formats numerous times, I suspect that they may have had a lot of different quality prints to stream and someone just decided to to go with this "widescreen" edition. Probably thinking they were making the right choice of course. I'd love to know if they ever respond to your complaint, Greg. I've complained to Netflix about broken DVDS but they never respond. The DVDs either stay in circulation while complaints pile up on the review page or the films just disappear from Netflix.

Greg said...

Kimberly, I doubt I'll ever get a reply. I didn't call but used the form at the bottom about problems with instant viewing which doesn't even list this particular problem so I had to do "other." However, last year, I went to watch Ken Burns' CIVIL WAR and the sound on one of the episodes was completely absent. I notified them and within a week or so it was back. But that problem was obvious where to a non-cinephile, this one isn't.

Also, their copy of Charade has been unwatchable for almost a year now. Fortunately, I have the collector's edition dvd but when I checked the Netflix Instant copy (and you can check it out, I just looked a minute ago for this comment and it's still not fixed) it's pan and scan and the print looks like it sat unprotected in the middle of Time Square all winter. I have repeatedly sent the "unwatchable" response to "How was Charade's picture quality?" question they send you to no avail. It's never improved.

Laura said...

Great job on this post!

Like Kimberly, I've noticed Netflix tends to show what's available. If a movie is showing on Fox Movie Channel in pan & scan, the same movie will be pan & scan on Netflix. :(

Best wishes,
Laura

Fred said...

Looking at the stretched picture, I'm guessing a more zoftig Ma Joad would have defeated the purpose of the film. Put that together with a big canned Henry Fonda, and the film could have been renamed "Raisenets of Wrath."

Greg said...

Laura, that's too bad, isn't it? The thing that's really annoying about that is when there are clearly other copies available. For instance, back when they had Mullholland Dr on Instant (they don't anymore) it was pan and scan but I know it was available letterboxed because I have a streaming copy in my Amazon Video on Demand library. Same with Blue Velvet - currently available widescreen streaming, yet on Instant right now, it's pan and scan. Aaaaarrgghh!

Greg said...

Fred, we can all be thankful that didn't happen.

Ryan Kelly said...

At the end of the day, we can blame "The Stretch Effect" and pan and scan on the same human disease - an irrational, almost childish hatred of black bars on a screen. I just don't understand it.

Kevin Deany said...

There's a wonderful 1920s second-run movie theater by my house that shows revivals as well. They showed "Casablanca" to a pretty full house and it was stretched to fill the screen. Bogart looked as wide as Sydney Greenstreet in some scenes.

I got up to complain to the manager and he said they couldn't do anything about it but he appreciated me letting him know. (I was also the only one to say anything).

Other pre-Cinemascope movies were later projected in the correct box-like ratio, so I figured they now knew what they were doing.

A year or two later at a holiday film festival they showed the original "Miracle on 34th Street" and it was stretched to fill the screen. I got up within five minutes, complained and got my money back.

The next day I contacted the theater's owner and told him what happened. He was not pleased with what I told him.

I told him I was really looking forward to seeing "Three Godfathers" on the big screen that evening but wanted it projected properly. He agreed and said he would find out what happened and get back to me.

He did later in the day and said the film was indeed projected incorrectly and really appreciated me letting him know. His senior projectionist was going to be on hand to supervise a showing of the John Ford movie and told me, in one of the nicest e-mails I ever received, "Thanks to you, Three Godfathers will be projected in the correct fashion."

I went that night and it was projected in all its box-shaped glory. It was a great evening.

To my astonishment, the owner said not one person complained about "Miracle on 34th Street" being shown incorrectly. I was amazed because it was so obvious. Kris Kringle never looked so squat, yet there were hundreds of people in the theater and no one said anything. Amazing.

Joe Dante said...

The reason people don't seem to notice this problem is because they're so used to it. In every bar, in every hotel room, in every airport and public place there are widescreen monitors running stretched and misadjusted standard ratio programs that fill the screen with tubby looking people
just like the ones on their home screens.
It's a lost cause.

Greg said...

an irrational, almost childish hatred of black bars on a screen. I just don't understand it.

Me neither.

Greg said...

Kevin, your story is an amazing one and, in many ways, utterly depressing. What's great is that you were able to affect change. I find that astonishing and applaud you for it. What's depressing is you were the only one that noticed the problem. God, that's depressing.

Greg said...

Joe, it's everywhere, you're right. People buy a widescreen tv and, BAM(!), that's how the whole world looks to them now. They watch tv in a bar and there it is, stretched out again. Airports, and every other place you mentioned, same thing. After a while you wonder, "Do they think the world looks oddly skinny to them when they're not watching tv?"

Andrew said...

It's bad when Netflix is doing it, because at least when you have the DVD you can fix it. I'm watching Gone With The Wind on Instant Watch, and to my knowledge, it's the correct aspect ratio, so at least the stretching doesn't go for all movies.

Greg said...

Yeah, so far (knock on wood) I haven't noticed it with any others so, hopefully, it was just an abberation.

Lisa said...

Glad to see you writing about this -- also makes me nuts and I almost didn't want to get a widescreen TV because I didn't want to watch movies or my favorites old TV shows stretched out. I just can't watch shows that way, it's completely unacceptable and so I'm always switching the aspect thing on my remote, but it does take some 'splaining sometimes! Great Blog!