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The Wire finally coming out in HD

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 03, 2014

Back in September, I posted that HBO was remastering The Wire in HD. The company announced they’ve completed the process; it’ll be on HBO Go this month at full-frame 16x9 HD.

HBO announced today that they had completed the high-definition re-mastering of all five seasons of “The Wire,” which will debut in December on HBO Signature and HBO Go, be sold in digital HD (through iTunes, Google Play, etc.) starting January 5, and on Blu-ray starting next summer. As the press release notes, “The entire series has been beautifully re-mastered in 16x9 Full-Frame HD from more than 8,000 reels of original 35mm camera negative, allowing for a tighter fit on widescreen TVs and computer/tablet screens. The original negatives were scanned, edited, dust-busted and color-corrected with great care and attention taken to stay true to the look and feel of the original Standard-Definition 4x3 version.”

Well, well. That’s a welcome change from what I heard about how the show was shot and how they were going to remaster it (chop the top and bottom off the 4x3 frame). David Simon wrote extensively on how he became involved in the remastering process and came up with something to everyone’s satisfaction.

To their great credit, once we alerted HBO production executives to our absolute interest in the matter, they halted the fall HD release and allowed us to engage in detail. And over the past several months, looking at some of what the widescreen format offered, three things became entirely clear: First, there were many scenes in which the shot composition is not impaired by the transfer to 16:9, and there are a notable number of scenes that acquire real benefit from playing wide. An example of a scene that benefits would be, say, from the final episode of season two, when an apostolic semicircle of longshoremen forms around the body of Frank Sobotka. Fine as far as it goes, but the dockworkers are all that much more vulnerable, and that much more isolated by the death of their leader when we have the ability to go wider in that rare crane shot.

But there are other scenes, composed for 4:3, that lose some of their purpose and power, to be sure. An early example that caught my eye is a scene from the pilot episode, carefully composed by Bob, in which Wee Bey delivers to D’Angelo a homily on established Barksdale crew tactics. “Don’t talk in the car,” D’Angelo reluctantly offers to Wee Bey, who stands below a neon sign that declares, “burgers” while D’Angelo, less certain in his standing and performance within the gang, stands beneath a neon label of “chicken.”

That shot composition was purposed, and clever, and it works better in the 4:3 version than when the screen is suddenly widened to pick up additional neon to the left of Bey. In such a case, the new aspect ratio’s ability to acquire more of the world actually detracts from the intention of the scene and the composition of the shot. For that reason, we elected in the new version to go tighter on the shot in order to maintain some of the previous composition, albeit while coming closer to our backlit characters than the scene requires. It is, indeed, an arguable trade-off, but one that reveals the cost of taking something made in one construct and recasting it for another format. And this scene isn’t unique; there are a good number of similar losses in the transfer, as could be expected.

(thx jeff & @jasonsantamaria/)

Update: HBO Signature is currently running a marathon of all the HD episodes. They’re also available on HBO Go.

David Simon added some before-and-after video clips to his piece about the HD remastering process showing instances where the wider aspect was beneficial and not-so-beneficial.