Failure to see

I’m tired of hearing that we live in a visual culture. The fact is, we are generally very bad at seeing. I am constantly reminded of this by bad signage, bad book design, bad photographs, and bad TV. To say nothing of the horror that is TikTok. 

It may be true that we like to use images instead of text whenever we can, but we also tend to treat the images as if they were text: That is, we turn them into the equivalent of hieroglyphs or rebuses. Hence the popularity of emojis. 

But seeing a picture of a house and thinking “house,” is really just turning a picture into a word. Yes, no alphabetic letters need be used, but the information conveyed is basically the same. That is not seeing; it is translating. 

I am reminded of this because of a frequent problem I find on some back-channel TV stations when they broadcast a program in the wrong aspect ratio. It is a visual goof that bothers me no end, and yet, so many people, when I point it out, simply don’t notice it. Faces can be squeezed thin or stretched fat and the visual-verbal translation isn’t affected, and therefore, not noticed. 

 

Believe me, I’ve been laughed at for fussing over aspect ratio. But how can people not SEE? The visual information is distorted even if the verbal information is left unbothered. 

Aspect ratio is simply the ratio of the width of an image compared with its height. A square is the same in both measurements, and hence, its ratio — its aspect ratio — is one-to-one — 1:1. 

If a rectangle is twice as wide as it is tall, its aspect ratio is 2:1. 

When photographs are made, or films or TV is shot, they are created in a particular aspect ratio. For instance, for decades, the standard aspect ratio for Hollywood films was 1.375:1, which was adopted in 1932 for the entire industry. Before that, silent films were mostly shot in a 1.33:1 ratio, which can also be stated as a 4:3 ratio, which corresponded to four sprocket-holes on standard 35mm film. But when sound was added as an extra track alongside the image on the film, the picture had to be made a wee bit smaller to accommodate, and hence, the 1.375:1 ratio. 

That all sounds very technical and who cares? Well, what happens, then, when you display an old film on a new TV, which are now standardize at an aspect ratio of 16:9, a “widescreen” ratio? When done right, you get a “letterboxed” image, with black bars on either side of the picture. When done wrong, the squarer image is stretched out to fill the wider screen and you get a lot of fat people. 

This used to be a big problem in the early days of digital television, when many stations heard complaints about those letterboxed images. The response was to crop the movies down to fit the screen, losing a good bit of visual information in the process (a process dubbed “pan and scan”), or — too often — just stretch it all out to fit. To anyone sensitive to visuals, this was a nightmare. But again, many people — especially at the TV stations mutilating the images — just didn’t seem to think it important. 

The reverse also happens when a real widescreen movie (some films are made in aspect ratios wider than 16:9, such as the 2.4:1 of the most widely used widescreen movies. Then, shown on a standard TV screen, you get everything squished down. 

Many of these widescreen movies were shot with anamorphic lenses, which allowed for a wider image to fit onto a narrower piece of film. In essence, they squeezed the picture thin on purpose, and then when it was projected in a theater, a reverse anamorphic projection lens would spread the image back out to its natural dimensions. Tons of films were made (and are made) this way. 

The problem shows up with DVDs, too. Some are produced in a natural aspect ratio, usually 16:9, but others, mostly older ones, were created anamorphically, and so you may need to use your remote to find the proper aspect ratio (or “screen size”) for the disc. If not, you watch squeezed people. 

I remember when my college film series showed a version of Bad Day at Black Rock but didn’t correct the anamorphic images. We watched the whole movie distorted into a squished frame. It was nauseating, at least to me. The projectionist, when this was pointed out, said he didn’t see what I was talking about. (The same projectionist showed Birth of a Nation with the music track turned off because “it’s a silent film.” There is no accounting for how these people get in charge of things.) 

Most all of us have something like this, which bothers us no end. For some it is bad spelling or incorrect grammar. For others, it is making too much noise when eating soup. Others still cannot bear canned laughter on sitcoms, or the superfluous chyrons streaming across the bottoms of cable newscasts, telling us exactly what the speaker is saying. We can hear them, you know. You don’t need to spell it out. 

Anyway, one of those irritations that just drives me nuts is the inability of so many to actually notice when the picture has gone bad on their TV. The wider the original, the squishier the mistake. I remember seeing an early broadcast of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly scrunched into an old cathode-ray TV screen, like a closed accordion, and I thought, “How can poor Clint Eastwood even breathe?”

The aspect ratio problem, though, is really just a symptom of a wider issue: that too many of us are just bad at seeing, of not paying attention to what our eyes are telling us. It is the translation problem: We don’t see to see, we see to extract only so much information as we feel we need. If we can follow the plot with skinny people, then good enough. 

But seeing isn’t just about keeping track of the story. It is about being alive in the world, of noticing everything around you, of taking in what existence gifts you with. The green of a tree, the roundness of a tire, the texture of denim. To notice is to be alive; failure to notice is deadening. 

Art, and I include even popular art, is there to remind us of, and to interpret, the world we live in and the lives we lead. The best art slaps us awake, the way the slap of the doctor makes the newborn take its first breath. We can see what we had taken for granted, we can reinterpret what had become habitual. Failure to use your eyes is to refuse a gift being offered by existence. 

Click any image to enlarge

3 comments
  1. Joel Collins said:

    I call that visual laziness/illiteracy “naming.”
    I’d get that kind of response from students all the time as they failed to see that “This Is Not A Pipe” was intended to have them see the shape/space relationships were in two dimensions. “That’s a house.” Rather than that’s a set of 2D geometric shapes in the lower third of the format.

  2. michael johns said:

    We had a TV with a square screen and fiddled around with the settings. Yes, letterbox was better than stretched-out characters (I doubt if Spencer Tracy was EVER that thin). Having uncorrected myopia for a couple of years made me appreciate just being able to see clearly, although lots of other things you mention definitely bug me.

  3. I am equally bugged by the aspect ratio problems, though I admit I now see it less often on local TV stations than I did just a few years ago, when it seemed rampant, at least on local newscasts. It seemed to be a function of the variety of the numerous sources of the original video clips they were showing. The most current video aggravation is the plethora of cellphone videos shot in vertical format, particularly when shooting a horizontal subject. The TV station solution is to add blown up, out of focus copies of the video on either side to fill out the image to horizontal format. I have to assume most people don’t know, and certainly don’t seem to care, that one can shoot horizontal video.

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