Monday, January 15, 2007

Anyone for tennis? Solving ITV’s widescreen / 4:3 aspect ratio problems!

In the good old days, TV screens were all the same slightly off-square shape. But nowadays, there are multiple shapes even in widescreen ranges. Not to mention that programmes are produced with a much wider variety of picture shapes (aspect ratio, if you want to be more technical).

If they have the pleasure (?) of a widescreen set, most people probably leave it switched to a compromise setting—something like Toshiba’s Super Live setting which works for most programmes and films.

As a broadcaster (or someone editing video footage), getting the aspect ratio correct is even more complex. News programmes shot in 16:9, but with 4:3 feeds coming in from overseas or other news organisations.

All those different feeds of picture, all potentially in different sizes. Tricky. Particularly it seems for ITV whose automated broadcast play-out systems seem to pay little attention to the shape of the picture.

Frequently you’ll notice the picture lurching and juddering as it stretches or shrinks a couple of seconds after an ad break ends as someone remembers to hit the button to move from 4:3 material to 16:9 etc. I can remember whole 15 minute runs of high quality dramas like Cracker, shot in glorious widescreen, but transmitted (on UTV anyway) in 4:3, stretched to fill the full frame, making Robbie Coltrane appear positively thin!

But ITV are working hard … as reported in last week’s Media Monkey column in the Guardian.

Anyone for tennis?

ITN camera crews are being taught the vagaries of filming in widescreen with an essential new piece of kit—a tennis ball.

Crews on ITV and Channel 4 News are required to film the ball at the start of each report so it is clear to producers whether they are filming in widescreen or old-fashioned 4:3. The ball must be held six inches from the lens—this is getting complicated—for 15 seconds. Phew.

“In order to achieve this we are issuing tennis balls (no laughing please) to all cameramen,” says an email.

Camera crews are reassured that the balls can easily be carried in their kit bag. Failing that, Monkey understands a croquet ball, an orange, or a genetically modified tomato will do just as well. Just don’t use a rugby ball.

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