There are no black bars

There is a misunderstanding with screen aspect ratios that states that using an image of different aspect ratio from your screen will leave black bars. This is of course completely incorrect but is so widely used that nobody questions it. Everybody just assumed people know what’s been said, which turns into the whole It’s common knowledge thing. This’ll be the last aspect ratio rant for the blog.

The above image shows a white 4:3 image in a wide-screen area format. Those aren’t black bars; that is the area where there is no image information. Open some random image in your computer that isn’t taken in your screen’s aspect ratio. You wouldn’t expect it to fill the screen, as it’s clearly not meant for that size. Yet some of you willingly crop or stretch video footage to fill that area. I’m sure your image viewer has some options to stretch stuff. If not, put it as your desktop wallpaper and choose that stretching option. Suddenly, it looks much less appealing.

This applies to any picture that is out there, video or not. For whatever reason, people fear the void of having nothing on their screen as if its wasted, as if they weren’t getting their money’s worth. This is absurd, though possibly understandable. Nevertheless, the image size and dimensions you view are chosen specifically for the reasons that portray the image the best or were industry standards. If you put something like Jurassic Park on, you should notice that it has more vertical height than your standard modern TV-show, or most movies in widescreen format, because Spielberg chose that aspect ratio because it allowed to show more of the dinosaurs’ height. Compared to Jurassic World movies, which lack this extra height, you get much wider shot and lose that effect of massive size. You have too much room on the sides.

Whatever made filling this empty space with bloomed version of the video at this empty space is a neat response to fill that void, but that’s again needless and useless. I’d like to say Surely people understand that there are videos of different aspect ratios that don’t fill your screen? but that would be stepping in the whole trap of assuming it was common knowledge. It probably is, people just don’t think it though. Another thing people are doing is adding black areas to the top and bottom of the screen to simulate the film experience. This is just from ignorance as people who keep doing this don’t understand that films filmed in 21:9 aspect ratio has more width than height, which is why you have no information to fill all of your modern 16:9 aspect ratio screen.

Seems like Counter Strike players are somewhat split between widescreen and fullscreen formats. Some people talk about how glorious it is to have the game in full, widescreen format while some argue that having 4:3 “black bars” is better because of the focus it offers. Other games seem to have their own aspect ratio they run in, as Youtube’s also full of guides on how to stretch Valorant‘s footage, which again destroys the footage itself. Maybe it’s the new generation problem that older technology has with video footage. As I mentioned in my previous aspect ratio rant, companies used to cut and pan footage to fit 4:3 aspect ratio televisions, yet we have the same problem nowadays in slight reverse. People are stretching the image for 16:9 format and it looks even worse. I’d rather live with Pan and Scan over stretched image just because everything would still maintain their proper proportions.

With Counter Strike people are mislabelling the whole stretching thing. While looking for reasons why people stretch their picture, many consider changing the aspect ratio itself as stretching. The thing with some games is that they can function just fine under different aspect ratios without the need for mangling the image. Look a the following.

 

This image hasn’t been stretched or shrunk. This is two different aspect ratio images superimposed on top of each other, with the red coloured image being in 4:3. No assets are being stretched, the only thing that changes slightly is the field of view. However, the terminology often used between these two, removing black bars, stretching etc are just outright bonkers. The discussion should be about aspect ratio in cases like this and nothing else. It feels, and is stupid to point out that it’s no stretching if there is no stretching. If you’re interested why some Counter Strike players discuss the benefits of having 4:3 aspect ratio in the game, here’s a link to the Medium article where the pic was nabbed from.

Let’s take a step back a bit from that and take a very simple and rather small, random image from my folders and see how it scales.

This’ll do fine

It’s a very normal picture with a random aspect ratio and size. When you put in full screen, as in it would full whatever it can on the screen without stretching, it’d look like this.

As a lot of old digital footage is in crappy resolution with terrible compression, expanding the image well beyond its intended size will result in edges showcasing their low resolution and artifacting. It’ll be even worse if you want it to fill the screen so that it’s filled with the image’s information, even if doesn’t have anything to offer in that regard.

The stretching is visible, with the face becoming even pudgier and the hat suddenly gaining few kilos more. Now, what if someone were to do this in ultra-widescreen? You may think this sounds stupid, but it happens all the time. People love to stretch things for whatever reason.

If you’re ok with the third image, then you should have no problems with the fourth one either. The extreme might be wider, but the effect is still the same. You have now filled your screen with information and thus ended up distorting the image. To hammer this useless point in even further, I’ve superimposed the second and third images together, putting the proper aspect ratio’d picture to the left so the lines have the same starting point.

This hurts my eyes. Thanks astigmatism

Stretching is something that should not be tolerated and the above shows why. When put on top of each other like this, you can clearly see how much stretching displaces and distorts the depicted information.

I did mention I was looking around why people stretch their footage even when knowing it’ll make the picture look bad. The main reason seems to be the good ol’ feeling cheated if they don’t get everything filled from edge to edge in their screens. Televisions and monitors cost a pretty penny and not having that whole area used all the time seem to make people feel like they were cheated, that they could’ve gone with a smaller screen if they have to leave some areas unused due to the footage being in a different resolution or aspect ratio. It’s not rare for people to say It looks fine when justifying why they stretch or crop their picture, which can’t be helped. Just as often you hear the same people saying something about the image not exactly looking like it should. Sports especially tend to look weird in a wrong aspect ratio, because all the players and equipment are stretched sideways.

The second reason is buying into something they don’t have knowledge of. Often a screen is bought, set up, never calibrated or properly tested. If a station is sending the image in a different aspect ratio and the screen is set to automatically stretch, the end result will be a mangled image. Effectively, ignorance.

The third reason is by choice, whatever it might be. While there are intended ways to view something in its proper aspect ratio, we have to accept that people have the freedom to watch whatever they want in whatever size and shape they wish. I assume we’ll have to revisit everything how we approach image sizes and aspect ratios in the future as the image viewing technology takes its next major paradigm shift, or if another aspect ratio other than this widescreen format is implemented as a standard. Whoever writes about these things then will have one helluva time trying to explain to people how few hundred years ago the image was in two dimensions and didn’t contain holographic third dimension to fit their tru-3DVR glasses.

Why are there no black bars though? Because that’s just areas that are off, just like how your screen isn’t “black” when you switch it off. Thes sayings just kept going and had to be dumbed down, which lead misconceptions and further problems down the line. I guess this would count as an example of how we should punch up and educate people rather than punch everything else down. Lift people, so to say, rather than take things down across to the board.

 

 

 

 

Destruction of the picture is ever evolving

Back in the day when we only had square screens and movies were wider than they were taller, home media releases tended to butcher the image. Not only were wider images often just cropped to fit the more square screen, but pan and scan was applied to showcase and focus more on certain parts of the picture. Take a look at the comparison video how pan and scan was made with Ghostbusters and how much the intended picture was lost, or how extra editing had to be done.

This isn’t just something that was done throughout the existence of mainstream home media. Even Laserdisc, the format that was touted as the film fanatic’s choice, suffered greatly for many releases being pan and scan. The reason is the same why older media that was produced before the HD media hit around the corner is being cropped and slapped with some effect on top. The resulting ruination removes information on the screen, causing actors’ and surroundings to go unseen. In comedic media, you often see jokes and even scene important elements lost to pan and scan as the focus has to be on the speaker. To use Ghostbusters as an example, Spookcentral has a good three-point comparison what’s the core issue.

At the top, we have the original picture, with a cropped version to fit a different aspect ratio, and then at the bottom a pan and scan. The pan and scan version would have to move the image left and right to cover the whole scene to show all of the picture. Sometimes it simply doesn’t, which results in static cropping. This results large areas of information being lost to the viewer, in this case, we either lose Winston, or both Egon and Winston. This isn’t a single case; almost every single movie released on VHS, Laserdisc and DVD have pan and scan version out there well into the mid-00’s before HD screens took over. You would think this issue would be solved. After all, all modern screens are wider than they are taller by standard, but that’s not the case. The pendulum has swung to the opposite direction.

As older televisions programs use older standards for the screen size, they don’t fit modern screens without empty space. Hence, shows like The Simpsons are being cropped to fit the new standards, losing large amounts of information and destroying the scenes’ layout. Bart and Lisa on the above shot lose all of their torsoes and the luxurious house is almost completely gone. The scene has become too cramped, there’s less room to breath. Here’s an example how cropping removes whole jokes from scenes.

Nabbed from Tristan Cooper’s Twitter

The whole joke about Duff Classic, Duff Lite and Duff Dry all coming from the same pipeline got axed. This repeats throughout the whole show on Disney+, and worse all, Fox has been selling these versions to overseas markets to be rerun on television. This means the only way to see The Simpsons as it was meant to be seen is on DVD or VHS. In one of the DVD commentaries Matt Groening mentioned that there will never be Bluray realease of the show, because the DVD is already at the resolution the show was made in. However, as you can see on the cropped version, they’ve upscaled the image and applied some smoothening effect to it. Recently I watched half an episode of the show on local television, and witnessed how a classic episode was effectively ruined by cropping and by this smoothening effect, destroying detail and sharpness of the picture. This was made in order to make the show look like modern contemporaries or newer episodes, as no line ended in a sharp stroke but to a round end. Colour variation and balance had been destroyed in an attempt to move any sort of grain or scratch off the screen and making things higher in contrast. Tristan also pointed out how in certain scenes you don’t only get cropping, but stretching too.

The Simpsons is the most cited example of this, but it is far from the only show that experiences this. The He-Man Official Youtube channel has a long history of stretching and cropping full episodes they upload, with all episode of The New Adventures of He-Man being cropped. Originally, their He-Man and the Masters of the Universe episodes were both stretched and cropped, but after someone kept bitching at them episode after episode they slowly began to upload episodes in proper aspect ratio, only return to stretching and cropping. Take a look at how Castle Grayskull looks between their normal and stretched videos.

As you can see, the image was simply stretched to fit the new standard’s width without any consideration what it does to the image. Everything is simply wider with no reason behind it. There’s no lost information in this way, but it’s not how it should look like. At least there isn’t information lost. There is also no rhyme or reason how or when Filmation’s cartoons get what treatment, as an episode of Bravestarr that was uploaded a month ago still has its proper aspect ratio, but every upload after that suddenly begun to be cropped or stretched, starting from this episode, from 25th of July onward.

There are massive amounts of shows in streaming services and on home media that does these exact same things, cropping and stretching. In effect, it is the same fear of the empty screen space that was driving cropping and pan and scan. Both the game and film industry, television included, are too fearful of those black bars. This may be because some of the home consumers think the picture has been cut off or their screen is broken. Sony even has a support article explaining that there are media in a different aspect ratio, and even recommend zooming or widening the picture via TVs own settings, something now self-respecting consumer would do. The results would be as you see above; lost information and screwed-up picture. I’m not sure if it’s just inbred stupidity or lack of education that makes people think something is wrong with the picture if they don’t have their whole screen filled, or if it’s simply sheer ignorance.

The consumer, ultimately, is not responsible for these despite there being a group that doesn’t apparently understand aspect ratios. However, we have all the information we could hope for at the tip of our fingers, this information is readily available for anyone who wants to see what’s with their picture. Then again, almost all home media, at least physical media, lists the aspect ratio at the back of the box. This, of course, would mean the consumer would need to learn something about aspect ratio. Not everyone is interested in that, but really, it’s one of those little things everybody should learn about as part of their normal media education.

After all, film and television are considered a form of art. Consuming both in their proper, intended format is necessary in order to fully experience the effects and intentions the creators have used the screen for. Be it Jurassic Park‘s higher than standard screen or TV’s square-ish format, it’s all about what it has been designed and intended to be in. We should not hammer a square peg into a round hole, like so many studios and services are at the moment.

 

Slaves to the Screen

Modern gaming doesn’t know how to use the screen. Whatever game you pick up from the store shelf, you know you’ll get a game that fills your screen of choice. The size of the picture doesn’t change, it’s homogenous in whatever game you choose. Resolution between 720p or 1080i might be different, yet the aspect ratio is always the same. Be Call of Duty or latest Digimon game, wherever you look, almost all games outside indie titles or specific vertical titles simply opt to fill the while screen in its wide-screen format. This has gone to the point where the aspect ratio of older games, which are not in wide-screen format and were designed for various full-screen ratios, get mangled and stretched to fit format they were not intended to be in. This isn’t a topic about the screen aspect ratio, however, but how poorly the current developers are utilising the screen and its aspect ratios overall. Compared to other media, television, film, photography, and painting, video games simply don’t use the screen, the canvas to which games live in. If games were art, you’d think there’d be more ways to use the canvas instead of slapping the exact same size view every single time

Vertical shooting games like Truxton had to section off the screen for the play area and for the statistics area in order to emulate the vertical nature of the arcade original’s screen, something modern vertical shooting games opt to fulfil with junk nobody looks at while playing the game. The wider nature of our screen forces games like DonDonPachi SaiDaiOujou use the empty space for the aforementioned, though in home ports you see that space for character portraits for story sequences as well as for numerous other statistics, though due to the way the player’s attention and eye movement has to concentrate on the smaller play area means it’s waste of effort. At least it looks nice for those who are watching the play. RPGs used to have to section graphics into their own windows too for a multitude of reasons, be it performance or simply because it was a game design decision. Games like Psychic War section the screen in what we’d nowadays consider a mess.

This unconventional way to use the screen wasn’t exactly uncommon. Here we have a screen dedicated to the characters and their battles at the bottom. The bottom-left corner functions both as the dungeon exploration screen and as the enemy screen. Player characters are then on the middle and right. Top left, the one with the logo, shows item information and maps. It also serves to showcase special graphics, like when the player is playing slots. The black region between the monster and the logo houses a scrolling text screen. To its right, in the middle, is an item screen. You can see a keycard there against the mechanical background. More to the right you can see an energy counter, currently standing at 340 units. The rest of the top right and middle are dedicated to explaining the controls, which also serves as a selection screen for items and such and that pin-up shot. Fun fact; the DOS version of Psychic Soldier censored that image. This might seem a convoluted way to represent the game and its play, but everything is laid out for the player to see and interact without extra menus or such. The use of dynamic screens like this is effectively dead nowadays. There aren’t even attempts to make a game that would split its play into smaller sections of the screen. You could make an argument that the main play, the dungeon crawling, has been relegated to the small screen at the bottom left and the rest is information that could be laid out better around the rest of the screen.

Ultima Underworld and its sequel, from which the above shot is from, follow the more conventional dungeon-crawling aesthetics. The main play area is larger and the important stats are relegated to the side with the text scroller being at the bottom. The bottom right shows icons that rotates the stats window to show items and such. The two examples play very differently from each other as well as use their screen estate in a completely different manner.  I really mostly wanted to talk about the two as a tangent and to show that games have used wildly different ways to achieve the same effects, to different degrees of success. However, out of the two games here, only Psychic War can be said to “waste” space with the pin-up. Of course, this is by intention and design, as the game’s designed play doesn’t need the whole screen. The effect and how things are laid out are all intentional to drive in a certain kind of effect and method of play, multiple screens changing to something else to keep things on the same visual field all the time makes the Cosmic Soldier series of games unique with no real points of comparisons. To the modern audience, it is far more alien-looking interface than Ultima Underworld‘s.

The one thing in common with both of the examples is that they still opt to use all of the screen. They’re at the maximum screen resolution and size their respective systems can put out, despite the methods of sectioning it into chunks. However, the aspect ratio is still the same across the board on the games on these systems. Whatever the standard is, that is being used. If the standard screen resolution is 1280×720, all the games’ screens will be at that size no matter what. No deviation. It’d be like if all the movies and TV-shows used the same size aspect ratio. You could play with the screen’s size for effects, just like many games attempt this by limiting how much certain region the player can see on the screen via in-game assets, sometimes making special rooms that are vertical only.

The screen in games is treated something that can’t be touched, apparently. There’s a fear of empty screen space to the extent every corner has to be filled with something. This has extended to the younger generations breaking the aforementioned full-screen aspect ratios by forcing them into widescreen. However, this is about the developers not taking the full possibilities of the medium like how film directors can choose to. After all, films have multitudes of aspect ratios the director can choose from depending on the effect and intention he has behind. A well-known example is Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, which uses a somewhat odd aspect ratio of 1.85:1. This means the picture has more height than by standard, leaving some empty area on your screen. The height of the screen allows emphasising the size of the dinosaurs and how utterly small the humans in the movie are in comparison to the rampaging nature. There is less need for vertical movement when you already see that utter majestic destruction a T-Rex can do.

Jurassic Park makes many of its moments work because of the height of the picture. It makes a permanent effect throughout the whole movie. Ever since Jurassic World movies rolled around, they abandoned this ratio and favour of something more generic, which also meant the movies lost the same kind of touch. This is the same kind of thing painters think when they choose what size of the canvas to use. Sometimes it’s ultrawide and the viewer is meant to walk across the painting to see it in its whole glory. Sometimes it’s a whole ceiling intended to showcase a full scene. There is an infinite amount of possibilities on how to utilise the canvas to its fullest extent as intended by the creator.

With video games, you see no creativity at all. All screens you see are the same, there is no deviation outside specific cases, like one or two screens intentionally made different from the rest of the game, or if the game is intended to be vertical. Gaming may portray itself as a field of art, yet it lacks the first touch of artistic mind to consider possibilities what aspect ratio and screen size to use. In all effect, there is no good reason not to experiment with different aspect ratios under whatever standardised resolution. Majority of the modern game design takes the standard picture aspect ratio and design everything around that rather than considering what that does to the game. For example, perhaps a fighting game could emphasise on the close-combat nature of the game and make the screen higher than its width, forcing the two contestants to have a much closer fight. In turn, this might make projectile moves less necessary due to lack of space to escape to. Racing games have been good with this in the past, where split-screen multiplayer between two players could be done by splitting the screen horizontally, allowing both players to have a much larger vertical view over horizontal, something most racing games don’t need.

2D games suffer perhaps the most from sticking with standard aspect ratios. For example, Rayman Legends is a game that could be described to have dead screen space at all times. Rayman itself is an extremely small character on the screen, while all the User Interface elements are at the top corners, necessitating the player’s eyes to move large distances. UI elements are often relegated to the corners of the screen, sometimes bringing something in the middle. There is surprisingly little consideration given how much the player has to keep an eye on various elements, and in games with high-speed play, the necessity to keep track on various bits and bobs forces the player to take their eyes away from the play. Hence you have sound effects for low health and such to help players in being aware of their status. The amount of dead space on the screen, meaning everything that doesn’t have to do with the particular moment of the play, or even with the upcoming challenge. Imagine watching a hockey match or F1 racing on television, or football, and the only thing you were shown all the time was the whole field and track. That’s the same effect, you don’t get the focus on the action itself. The horizontal space is poorly utilised, sometimes filled with the background or the ground texture and nothing else. It might make the game look larger and grander than what it really is, yet playing the game is like watching someone playing soccer five hundred meters from you. If the game had used a higher aspect ratio, closer to the traditional full-screen, the game would’ve looked and played better, especially considering how many of its puzzle challenges are vertical in nature rather than horizontal.

Classic Mega Man games had a level design that was around ‘a per-screen challenge’. Even when you moved onwards, all challenges you was were the size of a screen. Often a more challenging version of that screen would follow up, but that’s the method in which the game taught its player how to handle a specific kind of challenge, be it vanishing blocks or enemies shooting from the walls. The full-screen aspect ratio made the picture work extremely well as it allowed challenges to come from every direction and kept the game’s challenge and play fair and consistent. When a modern game tries this in wide-screen format, the camera has to pan out unnaturally, making the player character smaller than intended compared to the rest of the picture and thus showing more of the area and ultimately needing a whole new kind of stage design paradigm, something we haven’t seen yet. In the case this isn’t done, the balance in game design goes whack and the designers have to work with a far wider screen. If they can’t make use of this wider screen, like in Mega Man Zero games, you’ll end up with a vertical movement that makes cheap deaths and jerky camera movement. This is worsened if the player character is designed to sit in the middle of the screen, which results in camera movement that doesn’t concentrate on showing the play area, stage design and intended challenges, but rather whatever movement the player is doing. In effect, this sort of hyperactive camera that doesn’t concentrate on the field causes more misses than what a static camera could avoid, but this is more an issue of the camera rather than the picture.

In short, both the consumers and the game industry needs to consider how their games are depicted and what sort of design is behind it. There are many genres that would benefit from having different aspect ratios than whatever resolutions are about or even use the old-school method of sectioning off information to their own specific parts of the screen, effectively changing the play window’s size. However, the current paradigm across the board is to tow the line and not even think about taking cues after film and painting how to frame and present the picture. Rather than choosing the canvas game designers and producers might find their games working better, they’re blindly choosing the first option without any second thoughts.