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O Magazine
Optimized: Welcome to optical distortion – O Production Company

Illustration by Juaco




I remember with awe the introduction of panoramic TV sets in the nineties, since they brought about with them a ludicrous anomaly no one seemed to grant any importance to. You’d go to a bar and newsreaders seemed to have been flattened by the seriousness of the news they read; Hollywood stars saw their skulls and bodies faked to the point of an exasperating paroxysm; only cartoons, more or les anthropomorphical in their nature, managed to fool the eye, but not for long. What happened is that widescreen TV sets presented different screen models to choose from: the traditional 4:3, more or less the equivalent of the classical 35 mm film format, used until the arrival of panoramic formats in the fifties; the so-called 16:9 accorded in the digital era, which takes up the whole screen when the broadcasting is done in that format –all channels broadcast now in 16:9– or a DVD or Blu-ray of those characteristics is watched; the zoom mode, which blows up the image proportionally, with the usual cutting of the upper and lower sides of the image, and the invention of some Japanese technocrat intoxicated by sake, the ‘optimized’ mode, which, with no respect whatsoever for the width the image was taken in, extends it like pizza dough until it covers all of the screen.

That’s the way in which we watched –and I’m afraid it’s still being watched in many instances– TV for years, in a serious offense to the work of cameramen and filmmakers, actors and photography directors, etc. The new generation of widescreen TVs are less affected, since, as we pointed out earlier, all channels use now 16:9. However, unless they automatically choose the format when they show a classic film, it’s the viewer who should make the corresponding change in his remote, unless he wants to see Bogart and Bacall overweight and suffering from macrocephaly. And when in a news report or documentary they show archive images, they are inserted optimized, and let’s pretend nothing happens, right? The way I see it –or, rather, faultily see it–, I don’t know what makes me angrier, the disrespectful iconic management of technicians or the acceptance of spectators, who don’t seem to care for high definition hyper reality to be outraged by a visual deformity that takes them back to the times of stylised pre-historical murals, the lateral profile view of Egyptian hieroglyphs, the naïve disproportion of Middle-Age altarpieces, etc. What’s the point of so many technological advances if dimensions and right proportions are twisted and altered? Should Leonardo and Michelangelo rose from the dead… They would have a stroke! Or Velázquez… Although Goya wouldn’t have cared, probably…

The original term used to describe such a mitch match is ‘anamorphic.’ It has its origin in the French scientist and inventor Henri Chrétien, who in 1926 devised and patented a new film system he christened as Anamorphoscope. By using the optical Hypergonar system, which compressed images horizontally filming them in 35mm, and then expanding them by projecting them using inverse lenses, he was setting the foundations of Cinemascope. In the in-between-wars period, the film industry discarded the invention and Chrétien went about his business at the Nice Observatory, where he invented, with George Willis Ritchey, a telescope which was named after them both and even won them a Moon crater baptised after them. Another fantastic invention had to appear for Hollywood to decide to spread panoramic events in a desperate try to stop the huge desertion of spectators attracted by the daft sedentary lifestyle that the new home TV offered. It was the scarcely cinephiliac Spyros P. Skouras, a business shark appointed president of 20th Century Fox, who in 1953 gave all the funds for Chrétien’s system to be updated and for films to be made and projected in anamorphic format. The person in charge of the studio’s research department devised a system based on the Hypergonar –the patent of which, bought but never used by British company Rank Organization, had expired– that allowed them to project on a screen of up to 2.66:1 a 35mm film.

The idea was to come up with a cheaper and easier to get system than Cinerama, the pioneer system –already tested in 1927 by Abel Gance in his Napoleon– that used three projectors to generate a panoramic, and bended, image the main handicap of which were the vertical fittings of the three cameras used while shooting. With lenses based on Chrétien’s Hypergonar and perfected by Bausch & Lomb they shot biblical drama The Robe, a mega 1953 blockbuster that made the optician company win an Oscar. But the new system had its downfalls: horizontality was too sharp for human vision and would be reduced in time until reaching today’s 2.40:1; it fostered an artificial planning that spread the actors around the frame and reduced the cuts in the editing process, much more visible in such a wide screen, with both things paradoxically taking film back to theatre and rejecting purely cinematographic magic, a syntax developed by film pioneers. Besides, on the extremes, vertical lines were bent –Roman columns in The Robe seemed to bulge, for instance– and, at a short distance, bodies and faces appeared subtly deformed by a loss of anamorphism –what they called ‘mumps effect’ due to the swelling of actors’ faces–, a detail that would be solved in future lens combinations manufactured by Bausch & Lomb.

The success of The Robe and the fact that cinema rooms only needed to set up bigger screens and change the lenses of their projectors to project Cinemascope films created a new industry standard, and Fox licensed the new system to Columbia, Warner, Universal, MGM and Disney. There was no going back, the Scope wouldn’t become obsolete as Cinerama and it wouldn’t be used as a commercial bait each two decades in the same way as 3D, reinvented and forgotten each time the industry decided to. One of Fox’s slogans to launch the new system was ‘the miracle you see without glasses’ referring to tri-dimensional films. New inventions based on the blowing up of the original negative to increase definition –like chromatic and realistic Vistavision or 65 and 70mm formats– never managed to eliminate the cheaper Cinemascope, which engendered many bastard offsprings with names that ended in -scope to avoid paying license fees. Glorious 70mm would finally turn lens manufacturer Panavision into the brand of the future, beating Bausch & Lomb and making the original Cinemascope system fall –at shooting, not projecting– at the end of the sixties.

It was precisely to the Panavision warehouse where Quentin Tarantino went to retrieve some original lenses with which to shoot in 70mm his latest film, The Hateful Eight. Tarantino understood that the maximum horizontal format was ideal to shoot theatre representations, and his film takes place in an enclosed space except for some scenes portraying pristine landscapes. However, and we go back to the initial complaint, the film would finally be watched on TV sets discarding, no matter how big they might be, half of the screen with black bars at the top and bottom of the image. As Godard says through Fritz Lang in Le mépris about Cinemascope: ‘It wasn’t conceived for humans. Only for snakes… and funerals.’

Maybe these anamorphic obsessions won’t be of interest to the common man and new generations will come to assimilate that deformation as something natural. ‘Who cares?’ people answer when I tell them they’re watching their favourite sitcom in ‘optimized’ format. It’s a dialectic lost beforehand, I’m afraid. I usually explain to whoever might want to listen that the term ‘home cinema’ doesn’t have only to do with the five or more sound channels, but also with a medium shot having the head of the actor bigger than the spectator’s, and, if possible, in its right proportion, not flattened like a pumpkin. Hand me the remote, will you?