Touch That Dial!

We started shooting 1913 Massacre before High Definition video and the 16:9 aspect ratio were widely used, and we kept shooting Standard Definition video and producing in a fullscreen 4:3 ratio even after HD and widescreen 16:9 became the default format.

I once endured a screening of the entire film at the wrong aspect ratio. It was deeply disconcerting. Stretched across the big widescreen canvas, Calumet no longer glows like a pearl. Video artifacts multiply. People are dwarfed and their bodies are distorted in inappropriately comical ways. I could not sit still, so I stood. Then I paced. I screamed silently at the back of the crowd. Fortunately, the audience seemed tolerant and forgiving, maybe because the film was being projected in a crowded room and most people were at an odd angle to the screen and craning their necks to begin with.

To spare others, we’ve decided to include a little notice with every DVD. Something along these lines:

Please note: when playing your 1913 Massacre DVD on a DVD player, set your television’s picture settings to an Aspect Ratio of 4:3 (not 16:9). Most computers will automatically play back at the correct aspect ratio.

Does 4:3 make our film look – gasp — dated? Yes, if dated means merely that it was made in a particular time and place. In that case, every film and work of art and piece of writing is dated. But if dated means more than that — passé, quaint, or expressive only of its time -– then emphatically, No.

It’s a clueless question to ask about 1913 Massacre, which is in part a documentary about how the past asserts itself in the present. And it betrays an impoverished way of thinking about filmmaking and about art in general. New technology will not necessarily produce better filmmaking; I challenge anyone to prove it has. Good films just don’t have a shelf life.

Ken and I talked about this issue just the other day. He reminded me that Russian film pioneer Sergei Eisenstein (in a 1931 essay called “The Dynamic Square”) advocated image formats that did not conform to industry standards, but were instead a fluid element of film’s language, suited to the dramatic demands of the story and to film’s evolving social function. Many experimental filmmakers have pushed the boundaries of filmmaking, and shown audiences new ways of seeing, in pursuit of Eisenstein’s idea.

I don’t want to pretend that 1913 Massacre is a bold experiment in the 4:3 ratio, but in a way it is: every film is a visual and storytelling experiment within the aspect ratio it uses. The 4:3 frame in 1913 Massacre is dynamic: the camera here creates its own language and poetics; the frame opens a portal between past and present.

What’s more, we could never have made this film had we abandoned the discipline of that 4:3 ratio. 4:3 is also intrinsic to the way the film approaches, presents and respects its human subjects and helps establish its directness and candor. Let’s also not overlook the simple fact that we persisted in 4:3 largely because we were shooting on a shoestring budget with makeshift kit, and we were getting great results in the field.

We’ve flirted with the idea of converting our film to HD and a 16:9 letterbox format, but then, we realized, it would just look like everything else out there, which it should not because it definitely is not like anything else out there.

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