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into the archive image, which is now reframed into widescreen, removing detail from what is being presented as a historical document;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.


  1. The Producers at the BBC either fail to appreciate the true pictorial significance of the archival material they had in their hands…..or they feel the the public are incapable of watching anything that that doesn’t fill the screen. Either way, they are extremely short sighted.

  2. Mark Bodner permalink
    September 7, 2011 9:46 am
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    The Producers at the BBC either fail to appreciate the true pictorial significance of the archival material they had in their hands…..or they feel that the public are incapable of watching anything that that doesn’t fill the screen. Either way, they are extremely short sighted.

  3. Faye,

    Thanks for this, a crucial issue. Your comparison of the treatment of paintings in The Impressionists with these programmes’ treatment of archive film is particularly telling. Television has a long history of disregarding the original aspect ratio of films, but it’s rather depressing to see the BBC doing this.

    I notice by comparison that Mark Cousins’ The Story of Film episode 1 displayed all its 4:3 footage in its original aspect, and moved between widescreen and 4:3 footage (and indeed different types of footage) without qualification. Cousins’ film had strengths and weaknesses that are also worthy of discussion, but I was grateful for the care shown on this issue.


  4. Yes Lisa! Was going to do another ‘phew’ about Cousins’ proper aspect ratio but risked clouding the point.

    I find it strange that after we’d seemingly finally been ‘educated’ as viewers to expect the ‘black bars’ of widescreen (except when channels still show their pan and scan versions of films like Oliver despite broadcasting the rest of their output in w/s), that the same isn’t true of the 4:3 within the widescreen.

  5. There are other signs that BBC Four are assuming that we’re all on widescreen.

    On BBC Four, more generally, the aspect ratio seems to have went further widescreen. I watch on a 4:3 TV, which is set via the digital freeview decoder to display in 16:9. But recently I’ve noticed that anything made and broadcast on BBC 4 seems not just to have the black bars at top and bottom – typical on a non-widescreen TV – but to be missing parts of the picture on the left- and right-hand sides of the screen

    i.e., the BBC Four watermark that appears in the top left corner is half-missing on a 4:3 TV screen, even when the digital decoder box is set to show it in 16:9 widescreen. If you record this, then play it back on a widescreen TV, the ends are still missing!

  6. In my experience, BBC Four is sadly extremely prone to screwing up 4:3 archive footage, but most broadcasters wilfully get it wrong. It’s been claimed that BBC Four commissioning guidelines require everything to be 16:9, but this is a misinterpretation of the information IMO, (Yes, if it’s a 16:9 show, it all needs to be 16:9 but you can add left/right borders to 4:3 pillarboxed footage, as the British Pathe series does, which shows it can be done properly most of the time).

    I am well used to being appalled at seeing a whole series of aspect ratio-related faults and archive footage mangling, sometimes more than one of the following at once:
    • Zooming and cropping to remove, or partially remove, heads and/or partially remove original on-screen captions*
    • Stretching 4:3 content to 16:9 width. (“I see fat people” syndrome)
    • Adding artificial film damage and/or weave to archive footage to make it look old(er?)
    • dimming the corners to simulate uneven “old projector” lighting (badly and far too obviously)

    *While I think that 4:3 footage should always be shown in 4:3, if you’re going to insist on zooming and cropping, at least frame it intelligently so that heads are not removed and captions are either fully removed or fully readable.

    All these plugins come with adjustments, it’s just a matter of using them properly. As far as I’m concerned, this sort of ill-treatment of 4:3 footage in 16:9 environments is the video equivalent of over-used auto-tune: If I am aware of it, it’s being used too much!

  7. I find the program extremely frustrating as it is always showing people in close up. It is not flattering to older people to be shown so close AND why must the presenter be so prominent too? I would much rather see more of the actual archive films.Hgreeves

  8. Like a left wing political broadcast. Bragg doesn’t tell our history just his distorted view of it. Does he have to bring multiculturalism into everything even when it doesn’t exist? He managed to find a black soldier in the WW1 episode and a black nurse in the NHS one. If his brief was to show the history of minorities in our past then tell us this was the aim. Underhand and dishonest.

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