Yesterday, much ado was made about the apparent cropping of films streamed on Netflix. While some were outraged, others spoke up to say: It's not that big of a difference, who cares? It is. You should. Here's why.
First off, what exactly is happening when a film is cropped, or letterboxed, or what-have-you? Every movie is shot in a specific format, or aspect ratio, which is just a fancy way of saying how wide of a rectangle the picture is. It depends on the type of film (or digital sensor) and the type of lenses used to shoot the film. Some are the familiar 16:9 aspect ratio, which match most newer TVs and smartphones. Other films are a wider 2.20:1 , 2.35:1, 2.39:1, or even 2.55:1. Tablets are all over the place. An iPad is 1.33:1. A Nexus 7 is 16:10. I know. Numbers. Sorry.
The problem arises when the screen we view films on does not match the aspect ratio of the original picture. To avoid the black bars that result when a wide image is viewed on a less-wide screen (this is called letterboxing), film distributors sometimes elect to crop off the sides of the image instead.
It should be noted that the reason this is done in the first place is because the vast majority of movie viewers prefer not to see black bars on their screen. They just plunked down a few grand on a 46-inch TV, and they will be damned if every inch of that TV isn't lit up. After all, creating these cropped versions is a cost, and film distributors would prefer not to incur that cost. But they do, because that is what most people want.
So why all the fuss if it's the will of the masses? It all boils down to honouring the choices of the filmmaker. Every shot in a film is a carefully designed structure — a composition. Meticulous decisions are made about what to include in the frame, because what is in the frame affects what the audience perceives about the events unfolding.
Take this frame from Man on the Moon. In its original format, you can clearly see how Andy Kauffman is reacting to Jerry Lawler. Seeing the dynamic of both characters playing off each other is more interesting than the cropped version, shown on Netflix, where only Lawler can be seen pointing off-screen.
That's the biggest problem with cropping; you don't even know what you're missing. You're likely not conscious of it when watching a film, but it's a constant force that shapes your experience. It's not that cropped films can't be enjoyed — they can. But you are losing the aesthetic and its full effect. You're essentially watching a different movie than the one that was made. A worse film.
You wouldn't listen to Abbey Road without the bass lines. You wouldn't enjoy the Mona Lisa from the neck down. Isn't a little letterboxing worth the same fidelity from films as well?