A Troubling Tendency In Aspect Ratios
The Beeb and the BFI should be applauded for The Reel History of Britain that’s just started airing at teatime on BBC2. Here, to quote the BBC, we are shown ‘the fascinating stories of life in Britain from 1900 to 1970 through the archive collections of the British Film Institute and other National and Regional Film Archives’.
20 episodes is an exciting prospect, with an accompanying BFI website offering a triumph of cross-institution 360 degree commissioning. Melvyn Bragg tootles round the country in an refurbished Ministry of Technology mobile cinema to talk to those featured in the treasures of the BFI’s non-fiction archive, their memories made real on the bus’s – and our TV’s – screen. In doing so the programme seeks to build a picture of Britain through archive and oral history. This is a fabulous aim, though, like The Guardian‘s Sam Wollaston I wish there was a little more archive and a little less chat.
My real problem, though, is with the fact that a programme and a project that trumpets the value of the archive and preservation is hacking up archive footage shot in 4:3 to fit television’s contemporary widescreen frame. I’d noticed this happen recently on BBC4 – of all places, seeing as its the shop window of our cultural heritage – in its short season on documentary. Here, Britain Through a Lens, telling the story of the British Documentary Movement presented clips from 1935’s Housing Problems and many others which were pan and scanned (or, perhaps tilt and scanned) from their original ratio to create a widescreen image.
In doing so reconfiguring the aesthetic meanings created within the original frame – the woman in the space, the housing which she is describing – and re-presenting a 1930s image as a 2010s image. Not ideal in a programme discussing the importance of the documents produced by these filmmakers.
Similarly The Reel History of Britain shows us, in its opening moments, viewers watching the archive footage in the cinema, the archive image in 4:3…
Then cutting into the archive image, which is now reframed into widescreen, removing detail from what is being presented as a historical document;
A moment from We Are The Lambeth Boys (i’m very interested to see if they catch up with participants of one of my favourite documentaries – seek it out people!) has surrounding detail clipped. Its participant reframed and removed from her more mundane framing to something more balanced and aesthetically appealing to the modern eye. Shifting the focus onto the individual rather than her actions and environment;
Those black bars in the original image are the tip off for what I assume is a directorial or higher-up editorial choice. On our flash flat widescreen telly screens, the boxy image of a film or programme shot in 4:3 is marooned in black space. It is aesthetically unappealing for an audience now hardwired to the widescreen image. Perhaps it was thought that shifting backwards and forwards between the 4:3 archive and the widescreen present-day interviews may seem strange to a tea time BBC2 audience (god knows what the justification is for doing it in a BBC4 documentary though). Or perhaps the black bars were felt unsightly.
But this is archive, it is our cultural history. This movement between ratios shows the shift and relationship between the past and the present, the historical image and the interviewee remembering. It is also a cultural artifact, you didn’t see BBC2’s The Impressionists pan and scan a Monet. OK, there may be rostrum movement across a still image, but the paintings themselves are eventually shown in full. I hate to Beeb bash (particularly at a time when the press’s national sport is threatening its very future) and this isn’t Ted Turner colourising the MGM archive, but its a significant issue.
I am worried that three (as another BBC4 documentary on direct cinema and cinema verite did the same) makes a trend and this is how archive will be increasingly presented on our TV screens. It mis-represents our cultural heritage and certainly makes these great new documentaries all but useless as an academic teaching tool. However, after the Britain Through the Lens debacle I was relieved to find that BBC4’s new series The Story of British Pathe keeps its archive images intact. Fingers crossed it was just a blip;
Anyways. As the BFI’s website that accompanies the project is so beautifully and informatively presented, and it’s archive footage is offered complete and un-interfered with, with bountiful examples of footage only offered in fragmented moments on BBC2, this is perhaps a project that is best experienced in its multi-platform form rather than from the comfort of our sofas.