“What Would James Cameron Do” & Prime Time Mediocrity

James Cameron "Avatar" Production Still

Lying in bed, sick, watching Prime Time televsion in NTSC for the first time in years – I couldn’t help to juxtapose the train wreck I was seeing on the screen with an article in The Hollywood Reporter concerning the deliverables for Avatar: (stay with me on this…)

“No studio has ever faced what we faced on this,” says Ted Gagliano, president of postproduction at Fox. “Jim wanted the best, most immersive experience possible. So he pushed us to have a multiple-version inventory that would give each theater the best experience it could possibly deliver for that given theater.”

“The best experience it could possibly deliver”

According to the article, the end result:

Cameron made the decision to complete the movie in three aspect ratios: Scope (2:39:1), flat (1:85:1) and Imax (1:43:1). “You are not going to see many directors releasing in different aspect ratios, as most pick their canvas and that is their format,” Fox vp postproduction Steve Barnett says.

The article is a great read about one man’s pursuit and dedication to ensuring his film is seen in its best possible light… staying as true to the director’s original intent as possible. In my mind, there’s no doubt this type of pursuit of excellence can be attributed to much of the film’s success.

But I digress…

So. I’m shivering under my heating blanket and I can’t believe what I was seeing on Prime-Time network television. They made consistently terrible decisions as to how to present their wide-screen originated television on NTSC screens.

Rather than adding an extra few hours to their post pipelines to properly reformat their 16:9 HD pictures to fit into a 4:3 NTSC screen ABC, NBC and CBS made identical decisions, they chopped off the sides of the picture and called it a day. They traded excellence for expediency resulting in a terrible viewing experience for the home viewer. Here’s the type of framing I kept seeing all night long (special thanks to Mike Mazur for the image):

720p Still Image with 4:3 centercut overlay

16:9 HD image with 4:3 NTSC Center Cut. Notice the discombobulated nose.

Of course, the networks could decide to follow the direction of almost every cable station and letterbox the image – maintaining the intent and storytelling authenticity of their programs. But rather than doing a shot-by-shot Pan & Scan, re-framing shots so they fit best in the 4:3 screen, the major Nets all seem to be happy to have noses talking to each other, network bugs covering key pieces of information, and generally showing a complete lack of caring for their audience or the visual quality of their content.

Need another example of network carelessness? Take a look at this post with a screenshot from the March 30, 2010 episode of Lost. The first thing to notice, the image they’re showing is from the 4:3 centercut. Notice how half the words on the notebook are cut off? The entire sentence is readable on the 16:9 version. Except, of course, that the V countdown clock takes this in-camera subtitle, already difficult to decode due to the center cut, and renders the conversation unreadable.

How mad were the fans of Lost?

“I try to avoid Twitter around 6 p.m. PT on Tuesdays, in order to steer clear of Lost spoilers from eager East Coast Tweeps. But tonight, with the Tweet Deck still on, I couldn’t help but notice the increasing anger from Lost viewers, as an on-screen clock counted down the minutes until the return of V.” – Michael Schneider, Variety

Counterpoint: Here’s one more excerpt demonstrating James Cameron’s pursuit of excellence:

Creative decisions involving light levels also led to additional versions. 3D projection and glasses cut down the light the viewer sees, so “Avatar” also had separate color grades at different light levels…

“If we had just sent out one version of the movie, it would have been very dark (in the larger theaters),” Barnett says.

As network and cable companies attempt to compete more effectively with the Internet and video games, their willingness to accept mediocrity is their single greatest challenge.

Here’s a new mantra for Network Execs making these bone-headed decisions:

What would James Cameron do?

– pi

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