I love HD television. I would guess that 90% of the recordings on my Tivo are HD, and if I’m watching live TV I always scan the HD listings first. Unfortunately, there are still many instances on the HD channels where you see shoddily upconverted or simply misformated 4:3 video (I believe RedArrowRyan will be having a blog post in the near future on his particular frustration with The Today Show). There are occasions, though, where you see some new and brilliant techniques that take a completely different approach to this issue, a couple of which recently reminded me of a lesson from one of my favorite movies of the past 10 years: the 2003 documentary, The Five Obstructions.
The premise of the documentary is that a Danish filmmaker must remake his most famous short film (The Perfect Human) multiple times, each time with a different set of obstructions. The first attempt finds him forced to move the setting of the film from a lit, white studio to a location shoot in Cuba. When it is implied that the filmmaker plans to take the logical route and simply fly his cast and crew over to Cuba for the recreation, he is told that no, he cannot work with any of his previous cohorts. An additional rule is then imposed that he is limited to shots that are no longer than 12 frames each. What begins as an impossible task, results in a compelling and completely original piece of art.
The lesson behind the film is that even though we strive to have the perfect controlled environment for our films and videos we produce, it is often when we are presented with a challenge, an obstruction, we find ourselves at our most creative. I’m guessing that is the position the folks over at NFL Films found themselves in when they set out to produce Full Color Football for Showtime. A five-part miniseries focusing on the history of the American Football League, each episode integrates 16:9 interviews featuring former AFL coaches and players such as John Madden and Joe Namath with 4:3 archival interviews shot on 16-mm and video tape in the 1960s. The standard ways of treating this situation would involve pillarboxing the 4:3 footage, zooming in on the 4:3 footage, or using something like Teranex’s Flexview to fill the screen. In Full Color Football, the production team decided to forgo the logical routes and instead overcome this obstruction by creating 16:9 environments in which to place the 4:3 footage. For many of the interviews they shot era-specific televisions in which they would place the 60’s interviews, illustrated by the screen capture of Joe Namath below.
Another method was to dress a film cutting table with an Oakland Raiders helmet and gear, then play the interview with Raiders’ owner Al Davis in the monitor on the table. Both of these methods gave a creative boost to the interviews while staying within the context of the miniseries.
Soon after Full Color Football finished its run on Showtime, I tuned in to the newest Monty Python miniseries on IFCHD. Now I have to admit, I’ve been very disappointed with almost all of IFC’s HD content, most of which seems to be presented in Flexview. I was pleasantly surprised when I tuned in for the first episode and discovered the documentary was truly 16:9 HD. The Python’s movie footage looked fantastic in HD, but the producers would have to decide on a method for displaying the 4:3 video of the Python’s British TV show. The designer of the graphic open came to a similar conclusion as the makers of the AFL documentary, deciding to utilize a series of era specific televisions to house the 4:3 video. The televisions twist and turn goofily as they dance across the screen displaying one of the Python’s famous sketches, instantly putting us in the right era and mood for a documentary about grown men performing silly walks and hitting each other with fish in the 1960s.
I think the lesson we can all learn from these two documentaries is that whenever we are faced with a challenge on one of our productions, even one with seemingly straightforward solutions such as simply pillar-boxing 4:3 video, it would always benefit our project to take a step back, think about the purpose of the piece, and see if there is a creative, unique way to present your ideas to the audience.