January 15, 2009

THUNDERBIRDS on Blu-Ray - looking fine in 16:9

4:3, or not 4:3, that is the question

One of my earliest TV memories, or earliest memories actually, was watching Thunderbirds on black and white TV in the 1960s. Another hazy childhood memory was a visit to the cinema and being frightened by a Martian rock snake during the first movie, Thunderbirds Are Go. One of the few survivors from my childhod toybox is a battered die-cast Thunderbird 2. Every week I'd get TV21, a tabloid-sized comic, full of Thunderbirds cartoons strips and impressive colour photos. All in all, Thunderbirds was a large part of my childhood and has survived as an oft-repeated pleasure on TV, VHS and DVD.

I'm still enthralled by the series, after forty years of watching it, and have been collecting books and memorabilia about it and similar shows (like Fireball XL5, Stingray and Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons).

It's no surprise that for Christmas, I was given the new HD boxset of Thunderbirds on Blu-Ray, from ITV DVD (sic). So far, Blu-Ray releases have concentrated on movies and recent TV that were all originally produced in widescreen, perfect for the HD aspect ratio of 16:9.
The problem is, that until recent years, all TV shows were made with an aspect of 4:3 (otherwise known as 1.33), presenting a dilemma for Blu-Ray - how should a widescreen format present old 'fullframe' images? Widescreen TVs can of course display the entire original 4:3 image, but only with black strips down both sides. This preserves all of the original image but leaves part of the screen unused. But in a few cases, there's another option...

Original 4:3 fullscreen aspect (from DVD)

New 16:9 widescreen aspect (from Blu-Ray)

These screengrabs (from an overly heated debate in the DVD Forums) illustrate how ITV DVD have released Thunderbirds on Blu-Ray. By going back to the original film negatives, the image has been re-framed, cropping off the top and bottom edges, but showing more at the sides. This way, the widescreen frame is filled, and the image is undistorted.

OK, part of the image has been cropped off and the visual composition is altered, (usually looking more cramped over each character's 'headroom'), but the advantage here is a slight gain in image (usually down the left hand side) and, importantly, a startling increase in the clarity of the image and the richness of the colours.

Thunderbirds looks like it has had the same treatment as the upcoming Space 1999 HD release. Both series were originally shot on 35mm film, the same format as most feature films. In both transfers, there only seems to be a slight increase in image width.

While FAB (the official Gerry Anderson fan magazine) gave a thorough and largely negative review of the Thunderbirds Blu-Ray boxset, to me it looks far better than I'd been lead to believe. I've not watched the whole set, but the new widescreen framing has been very carefully chosen so as not to miss any action - the lost image at the top of frame even advantageously disguises most of the puppet characters' supporting wires. The high definition transfer is the best we're going to see unless actual film restoration is done. The zooming in and cropping means that owners of widescreen TVs can get closer into the action, the tighter framing feels more like a movie.

The current need to fill up new HD TV channel schedules is probably the reason this series was remastered in HD in the first place, and the requirement would be for a 16:9 transfer, and not a 4:3 one. If fans still want a 4:3 Thunderbirds in High Definition, ITV DVD will have had to pay for a whole new transfer, meaning an even more pricey boxset. Given the choce of high definition Thunderbirds in 16:9 or not at all, I'd definitely vote for 16:9.

This approach for 16:9 remastering, won't work for the hundreds of other TV programmes that were shot on video, or on film formats such as 16mm (a budget-conscious move for 1970s TV meant that pictures suddenly got extremely grainy). Only series filmed (and edited) on 35mm film can benefit from Blu-Ray and HDTV transmissions. Batman, Land of the Giants and The Avengers are all series that spring to mind as being potentially spectacular in HD.

Before I saw Thunderbirds on Blu-Ray, I was a sceptic and a purist. My goal as a collector has always been to collect my favourites in their original aspect ratios, in the best possible quality. With this new home video format offering so much extra storage capacity, I'd ideally like to have the option when such important decisions are made about how a classic series should look and sound. When VHS ruled home video, there was a decade of waiting for movies to be released widescreen. Now the tables are turned, I'm wishing for TV to be released 1.33 full-frame! The only way to keep everyone happy is to offer a choice of aspect ratios - either as a menu option or by two separate releases, but both options are far more expensive to manufacture. High definition transfers, restoration of old materials, and Blu-Ray mastering are all very expensive - and a TV series such as Thunderbirds is 16 times longer than the average movie.

To enjoy something for thirty years and then, at the point where it could be enjoyed at the best quality ever, to have it drastically changed, is frustrating. But like the classic 1950s Ray Harryhausen films currently being presented on Blu-Ray, I've become more open-minded. If it works, it works. Thunderbirds has been carefully converted to work for widescreen presentation and I'm excited to watch it in this new incarnation, especially with the huge leap in picture quality.

Looking around the fan forums, Gerry Anderson's live-action UFO series has also been cropped for HDTV, but the screen grabs here make it look like the most obtrusive reformatting so far - the original compositions only seem to work in 4:3.

The same decisions will be made about many other classic TV shows, as well as vintage cinema (from the 1950s and earlier, roughly speaking). HD or otherwise, new TV sets are all widescreen. Recent movies look good on widescreen sets, but old TV can only fill the frame by being cropped. In most cases it's going to look worse, in terms of quality and composition. Thunderbirds, I think, is a rare exception.

I'll give the series itself a proper review when I've seen some more episodes, again...


  1. Excellent review. This really does pave the way (I hope) for a Bluray UFO boxset!

    Hopefully ITC will see there is a market for this kind of product.

  2. TV series shot for 4:3 should never be released, even in HD remastered from the original film, in anything wider than 1.4:1

    1.4:1 would be tollerable because of the extra width you would get from the remastering(probably) from 1.37:1 and the fact that before flatscreen TVs more than that would have been chopped off the bottom by overscan anyway.

    There needs to be a strong signal sent that stuff like this just isn't on, and that means complaining about it and refusing the buy it, even if that means not having it at all(except the DVD release).

  3. All films that you watch in the Cinema / TV are croped

    The picture area on a piece of 35mm film is roughly a large square. When a film is laced up through a projector, the projectionist uses an aperture mask in the projector's gate (Before the film is run), giving you that ‘185 to 1’ wide screen aspect ratio that you see sitting in the auditorium.

    To clarify there are three aspect ratio:

    Academy (TV / 4.3) 135 to1
    Wide screen (TV/ 16.9) 185 to1
    Cinemascope 235 to1

    Virtually all films made from 1932 to 1952 were shot in Academy ratio. However, following the widescreen "revolution" of the 1950s, it quickly became an obsolete production format.

    When an old film (1950s onwards) is transferred to tape, the technician would not use the aperture mask, so revealing the whole image to be recorded for broadcast. However now that most broadcasting is in the TV/ 16.9 format, the technicians are now using the aperture mask, so restoring the image to what the director intended it to be.

    Originally the Thunderbirds film crew would have viewed rushes in the ‘185 to1’ wide screen aspect ratio, so you could argue that the aspect ratio on the Blu Ray release is correct.

  4. No, the film makers making Thunderbirds would not have used an aperture mask of 1.85:1 (actually being the UK, more likely 1.66:1 - the UK standard), because they were making the show to be viewed on 1.37:1 TVs. This would have been daft given the intended screen format. Widescreen TV was nowhere on the horizon back in 1964-6 when Thunderbirds was in production.

    This Blu-Ray release is an utter travesty because it harks back to the bad old days of open-matting and cropping that was rife in the days of 4:3 (ie. 1.37:1) TVs. We hated seening 2.35:1, 1.66:1 and 1.85:1 films cropped on TV then, and now all 1.37:1 material (films made prior to 1953 and all TV made up to around the late 1990s) should be pillarboxed within the 1.77:1 (or 16x9) widescreen TV frame.

  5. As some productions in 16mm on Blu-ray have proven (Criterion's GIMME SHELTER for instance), some 16mm TV shows would actually benefit from Blu-ray, including JASON KING, THE ADVENTURER and THE PROTECTORS because of the good shooting and good color. Too bad most 16mm Filmmation prints were trashed. Shows like THUNDERBIRDS were shot to be TV safe (the tube was oval, so some top and bottom space was considered dead space, but in the case of THUNDERBIRDS seems to be more like 1.66 X 1 than 1.85 X 1, which shows starting with the 1950s SUPERMAN did knowing they might splice shows together as quickie theatrical releases.

  6. I'm glad someone finally agrees with me about the THUNDERBIRDS aspect ratio! When I say it looks goid in 16:9, I meant it. It's also my professional opinion.

  7. I've just compared the original 4:3 screenshot with the new 16:9 version and my conclusion is that the 16:9 version appears to be horizontally stretched. (making everything look "fatter")

  8. If they were fatter, it would be 4:3 displayed incorrectly on a 16:9 screen. I don't think that can be right. Only the Japanese blu-rays are 4:3.

  9. I understand when Mark Hodgson says the Thunderbirds blu ray looks good in 16:9. In reply, I say, imagine how much better it would be in its original aspect ratio! They've lost sales by cropping the picture. I certainly won't buy the UK blu ray. If no one else releases Thunderbirds in 4:3, I'll treat myself to the Japanese version sometime in the future.

    1. Well, I think next year would be a very good idea to release THUNDERBIRDS on blu-ray in the UK, to tie in with the new series. Here's hoping!