The West Wing and widescreen

This is one of those blog posts which is mostly for my own interest.

We’re up to the start of season 2 in our West Wing DVD (re)watching. That season 1 cliffhanger is brilliant… only spoilt by the excessively perky end theme music (I love the opening title music, but I’ve never liked the ending piece, to be honest).

The West Wing is one of those shows that lasted across the transition from traditional 4:3 television to widescreen 16:9, and the DVDs reflect this.

Season 1 and 2 — the episodes are in 4:3, but oddly the menus are in 16:9. Interestingly, the opening theme changes from the first few episodes — it gets a lot more pomp and circumstance at about episode 5. In this Q+A with composer W.G. ‘Snuffy’ Walden, he says: As a matter of fact, the first couple of episodes don’t have the orchestra version, they have a synth version as we had to get on the air and couldn’t get the main title done in time.

It was from Season 3 that they started making the show in widescreen. I found this media announcement from 2001:

BURBANK – July 19, 2001 — NBC next season will broadcast its popular, critically acclaimed and Emmy Award-winning “The West Wing” (Wednesdays, 9-10 p.m. ET) in a special format – “Presented in Wide Screen” – just as the network has done with television’s top-rated drama, “ER” last season.

The audience-friendly process will feature a 1.78:1 aspect ratio (or more commonly known as “16×9”) as opposed to the basic 1.33:1 (or “4×3”) ratio that is standard on almost all television programs. Because the more rectangular picture encompasses a wider swath of action, a narrow black strip will appear at the top and bottom of the screen that is a form of the letterbox format often used to present feature films on television.

So on the Season 3 DVD — the episodes are in widescreen, but letterboxed (“non-enhanced”), which means they need to be zoomed to fill the display on modern widescreen TVs, and consequently you lose some resolution. Presumably they’d fix this the next time this season is remastered.

Seasons 4 to 7 — full widescreen.

Interestingly, the series was made on film, and in 2010 the entire series was re-released in high-definition… but not on Blu-ray, only on iTunes, for $24.99/season, or $3.49/episode.

It’s not actually the first time it’s been around in high definition. I seem to recall the later seasons aired on ABC1 digital when there was an ABC1 HD channel (before ABC News 24 launched), and though I didn’t have a digital TV at the time, I did sneak a look on the computer with an HD tuner card. It looked gorgeous.

But rather than buy on iTunes what I already have, I think, for now, we’ll stick to the DVDs.

Related: the conversion of old shows to widescreen can be controversial. This fascinating blog post about The Wire reveals that the whole style of the show was based around 4:3 images, and they stuck with it through the series run — but now the push is on to remaster it into widescreen high definition, which in some cases works well, and in others changes the feel of some scenes.

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4 thoughts on “The West Wing and widescreen”

  1. 1
    Roger says:

    “This is one of those blog posts which is mostly for my own interest.”
    Yep. I guess the footy looks better on a big screen!

  2. 2
    Seph Murphy says:

    They show The West Wing on Sundays on SoHo, the five episodes they’ve shown through the week back to back for almost five hours. They’re up to Season 5 currently, and I must have been so engaged with the stories that I never noticed if Seasons 1 and 2 were 4:3 or not

  3. 3
    Chris says:

    Putting Star Trek: The Next Generation on Blu-ray proved impossible – it was edited on tape and the quality when upscale was atrocious, utterly atrocious.

    However, the show was actually filmed using movie film. So they went back to all the raw reels, scanned them all in, and using all the director noted re-edited every single scene back together using all the correct footage (except a few tiny bits here and there). This also included re-editing together the effects shots as the models are filmed through motion control multiple times – eg one pass to get the model itself, one for interior lighting, one for exterior lighting, etc. some fx were reused, some recreated, all audio remixed together, etc…

    Anyways the point is they had to compketely re-construct every single episode back together and since it was filmed on movie film presented an interesting choice, do they make use of the full widescreen footage that was actually recorded?

    For TNG the answer was decided no – because they knew they weren’t using the footage outside the 4×3 frame there were often props, people, edge of sets, etc present in the wider frame. Some shots of the models didn’t even go into the wider frame properly. Ultimately the wider frame was compketely unusable so in this shows case was not appropriate to go widescreen. End result is still stunning though – you’d swear the show was made last year it looks amazing, the detail they had done in the models and sets and LCARS displays wasn’t always obvious and now it’s simply gorgeous!

    Yet you can get all seven seasons on Blu-ray for less than what one season on DVD originally costed – amazing!

  4. 4
    greg_p says:

    I came to WEST WING rather late having discovered it only after it had ended production. With my old 4:3 TV, and the first few seasons purchased on DVD, I hadn’t even noticed the “pillar boxing” of season 3 until now re watching the series on a 40″ 16:9 TV.
    Oh my, how soft the image looks for season 3, expanded both vertically and horizontally to correctly fill the screen.
    I had a few older DVDs of movies where this became apparent once I moved to a 16:9 TV. Those that were favorites, luckily, had been remastered correctly in 16:9 either on new edition DVDs or Blu-Ray.
    I write this in late 2016 and note the recent bargain bin sell offs of just about anything on DVD from retailers plus the push to streaming, it’s probably unlikely we’ll ever see a full 1920×1080 available for purchase.

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