Shane Aspect Ratio Conflict

In an email sent yesterday, George Stevens, Jr. — producer, director, AFI founder and son of legendary director George Stevens — shared information about the forthcoming Bluray of Shane, which he’s worked on with Technicolor under Paramount Home Video. He said that Warner Home Video, which bought Shane last fall along with other Paramount catalogue titles, will distribute the Bluray later this year. And yet, Stevens said, this digitally remastered Shane will be presented in 1.66, an aspect ratio that his father had never heard of and certainly didn’t compose for when he and dp Loyal Griggs shot Shane between July and October 1951.


1.37

1.66

Stevens edited Shane all during 1952, and the now-classic western opened in April 1953. As it happened this was the exact month when the big studios began to declare that all Academy-ratio films had to be projected with a simulated widescreen aspect ratio in order to make movies look wider and grander than TV. And so Shane was projected at 1.66 at the Radio City Music Hall and other venues. But cooler heads have prevailed in the decades since, the result being that for the last half-century or so Shane has been seen at 1.37 on broadcast TV, VHS, laser disc and DVD.

But now the Bluray, according to Stevens, is essentially going back to the old fake standard, lopping off the tops and bottoms in order to decrease the width of the black bars when people watch the Shane Bluray on 16 x 9 high-def screens. With only slender, barely noticable black bars on either side of the image, the 1.66 version will fill most of the screen.

Stevens also told me yesterday afternoon that a 1.37 version (which he called “an Academy aspect ratio version matching the original”) had been prepared for high-def/Bluray viewing. But he said that he was very satisfied with the look of the 1.66 version. and that “given the choice of having a 1:37 version placed in the center of a horizontal television screen with bars on each side, or a carefully configured 1:66 to 1 version that filled the screen, I am confident George Stevens would subscribe to the latter.” I replied that this decision was probably causing his father to turn in his grave.

Clearly the most sensible and respectable way to go is to issue the Shane Bluray in both aspect ratios — 1.37 and 1.66 — in the tradition of Criterion’s triple-aspect-ration Bluray of On the Waterfront and Masters of Cinema’s dual aspect ratio Bluray of Touch of Evil. I wrote a letter back to Stevens suggesting this, and cc’ed a couple of Warner Home Video bigwigs in the process. Stevens didn’t reply and probably won’t as he said he’s not interested in corresponding all that much and is looking to put a lid on it. One of the Warner Home Video execs I cc’ed said I wasn’t worth hearing from and asked me to stop cc’ing him. Off to a good start!


1.37

1.66

Here’s how I put my case to Stevens earlier today:

“Last night you expressed a hope that our correspondence would be concluded with your reply. The suggestion is that you find corresponding with me about the Shane Bluray unworthy of any more of your time. I will therefore be brief and to the point.

“But understand I will not be retreating to my little journalist corner on this issue. I am going to write a piece about this situation in my column today, and I am going to reach out to everyone I know in the film-loving community to try and persuade you and particularly Warner Home Video to issue a double-format Shane Bluray — a 1.66 plus a 1.37 version — instead of just a 1.66 version.

“Due respect, George, but you are wrong in advocating or going along with only a 1.66 to 1 version. I spoke with Robert Harris about this matter this morning, and he says you’re a very exacting and scrupulous fellow in matters of film preservation and restoration. So I’m sure that the 1.66 version you’ve created is very handsome and satisfying in a certain sense. But it is not what was composed by your father, who was also very exacting and who poured all of his heart into his work, which I know from having watched George Stevens: A Filmmaker’s Journey.

“It is absolutely imperative and essential that the 1.37 version be included along with the 1.66 version in the Shane Bluray.


1.37

1.66

“Your father called the shots and not Loyal Griggs — I get that. (Griggs had not been a full-fledged dp before Shane.) But the bottom line is that your father didn’t frame the film for 1.66. He and Griggs didn’t even know what 1.66 was between July and October of 1951. 1.66 hadn’t even been conceptualized, much less invented, at that point.

“So you were there on the Shane set and you know whereof you speak. And yet because Warner Home Video or Paramount Home Video execs have presumably told you to fill out the 16 x 9 screen, you’ve essentially dismissed your father and Loyal Griggs’ vision of Shane because (a) high-def TVs have 16 x 9 aspect ratios, (b) the black bars on the sides of a 1.37 Shane will displease some of the philistines out there who don’t understand that 1.37 is how it was shot and meant to be seen, period, and (c) said philistines will be therefore be less interested in renting or purchasing the Bluray Shane.

“I have also spoken to respected archivist Bob Furmanek on this matter, and he agrees with me 100%. Although Shane was projected at the RCMH and other venues at 1.66, he said, ‘the filmmakers’ artistic intent MUST be respected and this film should only be seen in 1.37:1.’

“I told Furmanek that I intend to start an online petition right away with all of the major respected archivists and preservationists in the U.S. and elsewhere. The petition would state the facts and strongly urge that the original aspect ratio of this American classic be respected by Warner Home Video when it releases the Shane Bluray later this year. The petition would specifically urge that 1.37 be respected above all, but that a dual aspect ratio release would also work.

“Obviously I will want to enlist the support of Mr. Harris (who told me this morning that while he supports your 1.66 version he also supports the idea of a dual-aspect ratio approach), film preservation and restoration godfather Martin Scorsese, all the major journalists and editors who’ve written on this subject over the years, the heads of AMPAS and MOMA and LACMA and the American Cinematheque and the AFI, the people behind the French Cinematheque, Woody Allen (who participated a big NY Times piece about Shane a few years ago), several major American cinematographers and so on.

“The petition will be principally addressed to Jeff Baker, Ned Price and George Feltenstein of Warner Home Video.”


1.37

1.66
  • Mark McSherry

    If the-powers-that-be are dead set on a 1.66 aspect ratio, why not use Warner Archives MOD (Manufacture-On-Demand) infrastructure to release a bare-bones 1.33 AR SHANE blu-ray?

    Overhead would be minimal. And an interesting experiment to conduct.

  • http://www.hollywood-elsewhere.com/ Jeffrey Wells

    Good thinking. Sensible. The point of my petition would be to persuade the powers-that-be that the 1.66 aspect ratio version is an ignoble way to present “Shane.” They know this already, of course. They don’t need me or any petition signers to point this out. In line with the essentially sociopathic worldview of all corporations, they just don’t give a damn. 1.66 almost fills the screen and will be cheaper than a dual-aspect-ratio release so to hell with presenting the film that George Stevens actually shot.

    • Mark McSherry

      The studio need only add a coupon in their 1.66 release alerting the buyer how to obtain the 1.33 at ‘minimal’ extra cost from Warner Archives. What could be more noble than that?

      The metrics gathered from this trial might pleasantly surprise Warner Home Video.

  • http://twitter.com/Glenn__Kenny Glenn Kenny

    The shame of it is that had you kept your powder slightly more dry in prior aspect-ratio battles, your plaints here might be taken more seriously by certain powers that be. Instead, you get shut down by Stevens and a Warners person, and then you start throwing around terms like “sociopathic.” So good luck with your crusade. I’m actually rather staggered that Furmanek even speaks to you. Just goes to show…something, I guess.

    • http://www.hollywood-elsewhere.com/ Jeffrey Wells

      My whole “boxy is beautiful” thing was validated by Masters of Cinema’s “Touch of Evil” Bluray and then by Criterion’s “On The Waterfront” Bluray. And my advocacy of 1.66 in the Great Barry LyndonAspect Ratio Battle of 2011 was also verified by that smoking gun letter that Jay Cocks sent you and which you posted. Basically I’ve been right all along, and there really isn’t much debate about that. And I’m right this time also. My powder is still dry and the Movie Godz are with me. Who in their right mind would want to crop or cleaver an image because a bunch of scared distribution executives were scared of teh effects of TV in the early ’50s? The debate is over. The light and space and headroom faction has won. 1.66 is now being regarded as much more tolerable aspect ratio by a lot of people. At the very least the 1.85 fascists have been cut down to size.

      • http://www.facebook.com/sailor.ripley.714 Sailor Ripley

        It’s quite amazing and also sad to see how ignorant Wells acts. Sadly Kenny is right, that Wells has completely discredited his opinion with his absurd rants in the past, so that this time, when he happens to be right, the powers that be ignore him…well played, Jeff!

    • jedgeco

      It’s the aspect ratio who cried wolf.

  • berg

    perhaps not ironically, in the mid-60s Stevens sued NBC because they were showing a televised version of A Place In The Sun with commercial breaks … while the film was eventually run on television, and Stevens lost most of the lawsuit, Stevens was awarded $1 due to a “small bit of the dramatic portion of the film [that] was trimmed”

    http://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/title/4789/A-Place-in-the-Sun/notes.html

  • lazarus

    I like how Jeff used “Furmaneked” and “the Bob Furmaneks of this world”, etc. as negative terms over and over again, and now suddenly he’s “respected archivist Bob Furmanek” when he happens to agree with Jeff in one situation.

  • Raising_Kaned

    Wells’ response to Kenny below signals the possible onset of full-on dementia (“Basically I’ve been right all along, and there really isn’t much debate about that…”) in the very near-future.

    If this comes to fruition, none of us that have been here for more than a couple years can claim we didn’t see the warning signs coming a mile away (lol).

    • Mr_Jeffrey

      He has absolutely lost his mind. He’s the laughing stock of the cinephile community, and the butt of a bad joke to anyone who knows the slightest thing about film history or artistic composition.

      His notion that his ongoing lunacy has been somehow vindicated by Criterion’s and Masters of Cinema’s decisions to release two transition-period films in multiple aspect ratios as a supplemental feature is ridiculous. I assure you that the staff’s of both of those companies think he’s an ignorant twat.

      It’s an absolute shame about the Shane aspect ratio. They’re framing it wrong, and I won’t buy the disc. As GK pointed out though, Wells squandered whatever sway his opinion might have had when he demanded that dozens of other films be framed incorrectly.

      • http://www.hollywood-elsewhere.com/ Jeffrey Wells

        Wells to Mr. Jeffrey: So Wells “has absolutely lost his mind” and yet you agree with me about the proposed 1.66 aspect ratio of Shane being “an absolute shame.” Got it.

        All I’ve said all along is that non-Scope films shot during the aspect-ratio transitional period of the early ’50s into the ’60s be freed from the absurd imposition of fake widescreen aspect ratios that the studio heads imposed when they panicked over the threat of television. We are here now in 2013 and we can do what we want if we so choose.

        I’ve also said all along that “boxy is beautiful” because height and head-space are delightful and desirable properties in and of themselves, and that the opposite effect — a film presented in the visually cramped 1.85 aspect ratio even though it had been protected for 1.37 — is an unpleasant mauling of what the dp captured, at least in a potential sense. 1.85 was created in the early ’50s in order to hoodwink the public into thinking that movies were better by virtue of not just being bigger but wider. The 1.85 imposition that began in 1953 and throughout the transition period (which you could say lasted throughout the ’50s and into the early to mid ’60s, depending in the filmmaker or the dp or the distributor) was about what distributors and exhibitors were afraid of, period.

        There is no “original filmmaker intent” issue when, starting around April 1953, directors and dps began to be ORDERED to conform to and compose for theatrical aspect ratios of 1.85. Directors and dps of that era were simply playing along in order to get along.

        Watch the 5-minute aspect ratio doc about aspect ratio disputes on Criterion’s On The Waterfront Bluray — it explains exactly what I’ve been arguing for all along.

        Yes, 1.85 gradually became the standard in this country and we’ve been in that realm for many decades now, but no less a personage than Francis Coppola told me in 1981 that 1.85 (which he had ignored in the shooting of One From The Heqrt) was a “scam.”

        Multiple aspect ratios is the way to go in these Bluray disputes, although many on the 1.85 side of the issue have been less supportive of opening things up and, like yourself, insisting on taking the schoolyard bully approach by defaming my “boxy is beautiful” viewpoint. You and your 1.85 fascist brethren can call me an “ignorant twat” but the existence of the multi-aspect-ratio On The Waterfront Bluray and MOC’s dual aspect ratio Touch of Evil speak for themselves.

        • http://twitter.com/Glenn__Kenny Glenn Kenny

          Oy. Only you could turn “George Stevens Jr. and Warner Home Video are about to take out restraining orders against me” into “WINNING.”

        • Mr_Jeffrey

          My comment that you had lost your mind was in reference to your ridiculous comment that “basically [you've] been right all along, and there really isn’t much debate about that.” Nothing could be further from the truth. Like a stopped clock, you have been right precisely twice: Barry Lyndon and Shane. You were completely wrong about Psycho, Anatomy of a Murder, The Caine Mutiny, Rosemary’s Baby, Sorcerer, Dial M for Murder, and who knows what else that I am forgetting.

          I have seen the piece on the aspect ratios of On the Waterfront. It certainly didn’t tell me anything I already know, and I don’t need Francis Ford Coppola to tell me about the history of 1.85 either. 35mm film has a native aspect ratio of 1.37:1 and the primary ways to create a wider picture are to either use an anamorphic lens or matte the top and bottom of the image. The latter option was cheaper and easier. Yes, studios instructed directors and cinematographers to frame for widescreen, and yes it was largely because they were trying to ward off the encroaching competitor called television. I don’t see how it matters where the order came from or why it was issued. The point is they did it. They framed for widescreen. They composed their images with that aspect ratio in mind, and their compositions should be honored.

          You are very fond of pointing out Mr. Coppola’s comments, as if they are some sort of mind-blowing revelation. Everyone understands that the use of mattes is a pretty artificial way of creating a wide image. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t used. Mr. Coppola would be the first one to tell you that even though he thinks the implementation of that widescreen format was a kind of “scam” by the studios, the films that were framed that way should be presented that way. He framed One From the Heart in Academy ratio because the film was an homage to films of that era and he liked the ratio. Gus Van Sant, Kelly Reichardt, and Andrea Arnold have used Academy ratio to great effect in recent years too. Of course when a filmmaker frames for 1.37, films should be presented that way.

          Just because there is picture information being captured by the camera, it doesn’t mean that all of that information was intended to be seen within a frame. You do realize, I’m sure, that many of Mr. Coppola’s own films have 1.37 images on the negative, but are intended to be matted to 1.85. The Blu-rays of the Godfather films and The Conversation, for example, have the tops and bottoms “cleavered” in order to achieve proper 1.85 framing. These are transfers that Mr. Coppola supervised and approved himself. He wouldn’t have it any other way.

          Criterion’s and Masters of Cinema’s decisions to offer one title each in multiple aspect ratios are pretty unusual in the Blu-ray era, though such decisions were quite common in the early days of DVD. I don’t understand how you think these decisions spell gloom and doom for those of us who like to see films as their makers intended. Masters of Cinema’s decision came about largely due to some online controversy about the framing of a couple of shots and some speculation about how Welles might have wanted it. They’ve since said that the composition of some of the shots makes it pretty clear that 1.85 was what was intended. Criterion’s decision came about because On the Waterfront has always looked a little tight at 1.85. Even though there is no debate that it was intended to be projected that way, it was Kaufman’s first time shooting that way and he probably cut things a little to close to the matte lines for comfort. It doesn’t look bad in 1.85, just…snug. Criterion has a policy of always presenting in the director’s preferred aspect ratio, but Kazan wasn’t around to ask. Grover Crisp rightly pointed out that it looked best opened up slightly. Since that decision had to be made without Kazan’s consent, they offered the other ratios and made an educational feature out of it. End of story. It doesn’t apply to other films.

          I’ve never understood your comments about “1.85 fascists” or your notion that “boxy is beautiful.” The only totalitarian attitude you’re getting from me and others is that the filmmakers intent should always be honored. If you’d like to refer to me as an “artist’s intent fascist,” I’m fine with that. “Boxy” is not inherently beautiful either. I think if you’ll look closer, you’ll see that any kind of art is most attractive when seen in the way its creator intended.

          • http://www.facebook.com/sailor.ripley.714 Sailor Ripley

            Beautiful post. Its just to bad that the last thing that has an impact on Wells is reason…

  • Hollis Mulwray

    You’re argument has finally won me over. The 1.37 is a vastly superior image and reflects what Stevens’ intended for his audience to see. Zealots can be right and sons should be more protective of a father’s legacy.

  • MisterQuigley

    People hate when Jeff’s right, as he is 100% this time…

  • http://twitter.com/jasctt Jason T.

    If Wells honestly cared about how films look, he would only see them projected and never on TV. Wouldn’t even OWN a TV if he was a true movie Catholic.

    • Bob Hightower

      Jeff is 100% right on this one. And he may have cried wolf on other occasions. But SHANE is the best Western ever made, George Stevens Sr. was a meticulous as well as great director, and his film must be shown the way he intended it.

  • http://twitter.com/TVMCCA Terry McCarty

    From Pauline Kael’s capsule review of SHANE: “The cinematography by Loyal Griggs won the Academy Award; this must have struck him as a black joke, because Paramount, in order to take advantage of the new fashion for the wide screen, had mutilated the compositions by cutting off the top and bottom.”

  • JLC

    The fact is, somewhere around the time Jeff told the director of Rosemary’s Baby that his aspect ratio was wrong, a line was crossed that cannot be uncrossed. Everything after that has been pure white noise. Even when he’s right, it doesn’t matter, because it’s always the same complaint, regardless of the film, and everyone that matters has long since stopped listening.

    • http://www.hollywood-elsewhere.com/ Jeffrey Wells

      Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby always looked better with a slightly higher, boxier aspect ratio. It feels a tiny bit cramped at 1.85. RoPo protected the TV aspect ratio version (1.37 or thereabouts) when he and William Fraker shot it. I don’t care if Polanski feels otherwise. He just directed it — he’s not the Lord God Dictator of the realm. He’s not Emperor Ming. Rosemary’s Baby belongs to the culture now. It belongs to the people who love and appreciate it, and they get to have a say in how it might best be appreciated. I once saw it in Paris at 1.66, and I’ve seen the full aspect ratio versions on TV and VHS. Too effing bad if you or Polanski don’t like the fact that I’ve declared a firm opinion on this matter.

      • Pete Apruzzese

        Actually, it looks better at the intended 1.85 aspect ratio. That’s a declared firm opinion from an informed viewer.

  • joeybot

    Wait, I thought that Furmanek was always full of shit? Oh, just not when he agrees with Old Man Wells.

  • carlin123

    I agree with you 100%. Put both versions on the blu-ray.

  • http://twitter.com/theworriedshoes graig gilkeson

    Jeff is right. Any cinephile worth their salt would tell you he’s right. Stevens composed SHANE at 1.37 and the Bluray should be in 1.37. Period. TCM would broadcast in 1.37 and not a soul on god’s blue Earth would complain.

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