Chances are, if you are reading The A.V. Club, you spend a lot of time in front of your TV, whether it’s watching movies or TV shows or playing games or idly drifting in and out of consciousness while a mute, humming screen sings alien transmissions into your subconscious and your cellphone mutely buzzes with calls from you parents, who are just checking in to see if you’re okay, and will you be able to come home sometime soon, it’s been years. Well, more likely than not, at least a portion of that image is not being optimized for maximum enjoyment, and it is not the thing about calling your mom more often.
A smart new video from film-buff video essayist Patrick H. Willems digs into the way that many streaming services—he singles out HBO and Starz as particular violators—are ruining movies on their platforms. The reasoning is a little nerdy, but he explains it well, using plenty of images for the less technically obsessed. While all filmed images are rectangles, their aspect ratios vary greatly, determining the particular kind of rectangle. Old boxy TVs were 4:3, while the newer flat-screens that most of us have in our homes are 16:9. These flat-screens work fine for most movies, which are a filmed at a 1.85:1 ratio, but many movies being released these days are actually much wider than that (2.35:1, to be exact). If you want to see what the director intended, then, one of these films would have to be shown with black bars on the top and bottom of a normal flatscreen TV, which, truly, most people would probably be fine with. But instead, many streaming services are just zooming in on the image, lopping off some 25 percent of it. Willems’ video isolates a few damning incidents from The Force Awakens and The Nice Guys, but it’s easy to imagine how much this is neutering movies across the spectrum.
Willems’ solution isn’t the most graceful, but he says he always checks out the aspect ratio of a movie on IMDB before streaming it, and if they don’t faithfully represent it onscreen (via letterboxing), he just turns it off or pays a few bucks to rent the movie. Still, if they’re lopping off a quarter of the intended image, and you give a shit about the medium and the director’s intentions—well, maybe it’s worth hopping over to IMDB to double-check things real quick. Jumping through a hoop or two isn’t too big a price to enjoy the things we love the way they were intended.