Friday, April 10, 2009

Worse than Ben Lyons - AMCHD

I recently purchased a High Def LCD television and I have been pretty happy with the results. Unfortunately, some channels seem to have a hard time with the whole HD thing, and I am not referring to channels like MSNCB which are not yet producing an HD signal. No, I am referring to the ones that are and don't seem to know how to do it. Watch just about anything on the Food Network, for example, and you will notice faces stretched and distorted all out of proportion. Switch over to the non-HD version of the Food Network and everything looks just fine.

But the worst offender in my book has to be AMCHD, not because everything looks awful but because, well, far too often it does and they should know better. In particular, some movies that appear on AMCHD actually look better when viewed on the regular, non-HD channel. For example, look at the first scan at the top (actually, it's a picture I took with my camera) from The Ox-Bow Incident. The faces of Henry Fonda and Harry Morgan look stretched out horizontally. Now look at the picture below it--this is the same image but with my TV set to the 4:3 aspect ratio instead of 16:9, which is the standard for HD. The 4:3 image looks better!

But it gets worse. The problem comes from the fact that stretching appears at the sides of the screen and not so much in the middle. Since the images above do not have anything in the space in between the two actors, the non-HD version (not pictured) looks about the same as the HD 4:3 version . But if altering your aspect ratio was all you had to do to fix this, then it would simply be a minor annoyance. So lets take a look at a picture where there is something on the edges AND in the middle. That would be the image to the left, which is from AMCHD at 16:9. If you notice, Henry Fonda (on the right side) looks a bit stretched out, and the fellow on the left side of the screen does as well.

Now let's look at the same image on AMCHD at 4:3. The figures on the sides of the screen look better, but now the two men in the middle have their heads squished and narrowed. So on AMCHD, this image (and many others from this movie) don't look correct at either aspect ration. According to IMDB the movie was shot at an aspect ratio of 1.37:1, which is essentially the same as 4:3. What appears to be happening is that the HD version is stretched out of shape in order to fill out the standard 16:9 HD screen size, so much so that when you set your HD TV to shrink it down back to 4:3 it still looks distorted. That means that you cannot get a consistently decent image from the movie in HD regardless of which aspect ratio you choose. You especially notice this distortion when something moves into the picture from the edge of the screen--you can see it squeezing itself into the image as it goes from being more to less distorted.

If you take a look at the non-HD version of this movie on AMC, IT LOOKS BETTER THAN THE HD VERSION IN EITHER ASPECT RATION! It is not distorted at the sides or in the middle. It is, oddly enough, the best of both worlds.

C'mon AMC, get your act together. I have seen HD channels show non-HD, 4:3 content with vertical letterboxing. This may seem like a waste of space, but for movie fans the letterbox is the way that you are used to watching a movie on TV. In properly formatted HD seen at 16:9, movies are often still letterboxed because they are typically shot in either 1.85:1 or 2.35:1, both of which are wider than 16:9. But AMC prefers to punt and give the viewer a distorted image so they feel like they are getting their money's worth and not "wasting" any real estate on their fancy HD TV.

But they aren't getting their money's worth--they are actually just getting a crappier image. If viewers want to do something stupid like stretch out a 4:3 image to a 16:9 ratio, they can set their TV to do that. But the rest of us should just be given the image in the correct ratio so that we can enjoy it as it was meant to be seen.


Bill said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bill said...

OK. Trying again, since Blogger wouldn't let me edit my first post. A couple of things:

First, I believe "vertical letterboxing" is actually called pillar boxing, since you have pillars on the sides of the screen.

Second, your post kind of makes me a little happy. I still have my 12-year-old 32-inch SDTV, and I'm not ready to give it up. I'm becoming more and more frustrated, however, with the networks. CBS, ABC, and the CW refuse to letterbox, while NBC and Fox do (Thanks, guys), while PBS sometimes does and sometimes doesn't.

More and more, I'm seeing content shown 4:3 that was clearly shot 16:9. Why do I know? Because at various times, information gets cut out of the side of the screen. Usually, it's words or graphics that get cut. The people who made the shows are supposed to ensure that they are "center cut safe," meaning that the center can be cut out of the 16:9 image without a loss in necessary information. Increasingly, however, that isn't the case. Cinematographers seem to be shooting 16:9 and ignoring the center of the image, so we lose information. This wouldn't be a problem if all of the networks would simply run their shows letterboxed so we could all see the whole image, but they won't.

Anyway, your post makes me feel like I'm not being singled out, that the networks are generally clueless about a lot of this stuff both in the 4:3 and 16:9 world, and that makes me a little happy.

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Marc said...

It's not just the aspect ratio that's bad with AMCHD. Even if that was not an issue, it's the clarity itself that's horrible. There is so much compression whatever resolution there should be is wiped out. I've seen some movies that looked so bad it should be false advertising to call the channel HD. The regular channel looks clearer. ??????????????????????

And while we're on this topic of HD presentation....what's the deal with HD channels showing movies in 4:3 ratio?