In watching the season premiere of Star Trek: Discovery last night, I was struck by how wide the aspect ratio of the show now is. Among other changes to the show, it is now being filmed in the 2.39:1 “scope” aspect ratio common to theatrical movies, rather than the narrower 2:1 ratio the first season used. And even the 2:1 ratio of the first season (and a number of other recent TV shows) is wider than the television aspect ratio of 16:9 (1.78:1).
This is especially interesting to me because of the history of wider screen formats on television. As I noted in a much earlier entry here, television was based on the 1.33:1 “Academy ratio” of movies from film’s golden age, and didn’t change until the introduction of HDTV at the end of the 20th century—while movie screens got significantly wider. This meant that when movies were shown on TV, they had to chop off part of the picture, or else feature black bars at the top and bottom that made people wonder if there was something wrong with their television (as well as make the picture that was left significantly blurrier, because standard-definition TVs didn’t have that many pixels to waste). And this is why, even in the early days of DVDs, it was still common to release discs in full-frame video format, because consumers just didn’t understand what those black bars were for.
Then came HDTV, and now 4K TV. Screens have a lot more pixels available, and widescreen original aspect ratio is now the common method of releasing even the very widest movies—so consumers are used to having the black bars, and the picture that remains is still sharp and clear even when bits of it are pared away. Though some online streaming services have still been observed chopping widescreen movies down to fit 16:9, the majority of them present them just as wide as they were originally.
And this seems to be making room for the visual language of television storytelling to evolve yet again. It used to be, you’d never have seen a TV show presented on broadcast television (be it network or cable) with black bars along the top and bottom. In the waning days of standard definition, Babylon 5 was filmed wide for eventual laserdisc and HD release, but it wasn’t aired on TV that way (and its special effects weren’t done that way either). Nobody wanted to confuse viewers, or make them think something was wrong with their TV, or make what picture remained smudgier for lack of pixels.
But now a whole bunch of broadcast or broadcast-equivalent TV shows are being filmed that way. As noted, a bunch of them are shot in 2:1, which results in narrow black bars along the edges of the screen—and Discovery (and part of an episode of Westworld) is being filmed in 2.39:1, for much wider bars. After decades of cookie-cutter productions that had to fill the screen, TV producers are finally beginning to feel free to adjust the width of their picture to fit the cinematic precepts of the story they want to tell, in exactly the same way movie producers have been doing for decades. And doing it in a show with as big an audience as Star Trek: Discovery is definitely going to get attention.
Discovery Executive Producer Alex Kurtzman, who worked with J.J. Abrams on the recent rebooted Star Trek movies, has said that he specifically pushed for that aspect ratio because he’s in love with the anamorphic frame, and because he wanted to give people who were paying a premium rate for the show more of their money’s worth.
It somehow does two things: it broadens the scale, making everything bigger, but it also somehow increases the intimacy. I don’t know why, it’s just the magic quality of anamorphic filming. But it has allowed us to shoot, essentially, a film now, and to eliminate the line between television and movies.
That’s really fun for us, so you’ll see it feel a lot more like a movie this season.
Not many shows are going that wide yet—but someone had to break the ground. I wonder if the other new Star Trek series, such as the Picard show and the Section 31 spin-off, will also go that wide—and I wonder how many other “scope” aspect ratio shows we’ll be seeing given a few more years. It’s certainly an exciting time to be a cinemaphile or videophile.
Update: Rooster Teeth’s new animated series gen:LOCK is also in 2.39:1. More evidence that video producers are starting to think outside the box (and inside the letterbox)? It remains to be seen, I suppose.