Bringing Big-Screen Look to Flat Screens

Television isn't TV anymore. Not the 55-inch widescreen high-def flat screen in the corner. That's a TV set?

What about all these new shows, with their bold, innovative look, their gorgeous textures and arresting plotlines? House of Cards and The Killing look nothing like TV. And thank heavens for that.

Something has happened to the TV drama over the dozen years since the 16-by-9 ratio widescreen format was introduced. A revolution that has given birth to some of the most stunning series in the history of the medium, including Game of Thrones, The Borgias, Boardwalk Empire, American Horror Story, Longmire, Mad Men, and Hannibal.

"These shows don't look anything like the TV of our youth," said Mark Johnson, executive producer of AMC's mind-blowing drug saga, Breaking Bad, and Sundance Channel's Dostoyevskian meditation on crime and punishment, Rectify. "I mean, all these dramas now get their own red-carpet premiere at Hollywood cinemas!"

Cable channels and, to a lesser extent, the networks, are redefining the drama with productions that have the visual sweep and narrative breadth and depth of the best films at the multiplex.

"It's a good time to be in television," Temple University's Kristine Weatherston said. "It really is replacing the cinema, (which is losing ticket sales every year."

Weatherston, who teaches media studies and production, said shows such as HBO's The Wire, an epic saga about crime, politics, and the economy set in Baltimore, were aimed at theatergoers who expected the same quality of entertainment at home.

"There's a real need for . . . real creativity to counter the taped garbage that is generated by reality TV," she said.

There have been innovative shows since television was born. The early 1960s brought the sophisticated private-eye yarn Peter Gunn, with its edgy jazz score and noir lighting, as well as the road story Route 66, which was shot entirely on location.

Hill Street Blues in the 1980s and Murder One a decade later introduced audiences to a richly textured, novelistic, serialized style of storytelling that included numerous subplots. The story didn't wrap up at the end of each episode but developed over the course of one or more seasons. (Today's most innovative programs have the same structure.)

Yet those shows all were shot in the 4-by-3 full-screen ratio and were watched on small, sometimes tiny, screens.

Because life is lived horizontally, a wider screen allows more story, more character, more action to happen at once.

By contrast, the boxy full-screen ratio forced TV directors to keep the actors in a tight frame.

The Western suffered when it was put on the small screen. Bonanza and Gunsmoke couldn't show audiences the vast landscapes that helped define the Western experience. At best, we'd see a bit of horse and rider and a chunk of sky or a hillock in the background.

The small screen demanded directors use an overabundance of close-ups. A simple conversation between two people had to be constructed by the laborious, one-camera, over-the-shoulder process that chopped up the action.

"Everything was shot in these really controlled interiors," Weatherston said. "And every corner of the frame was overlit by several lamps."

Shows shot that way often came across as flat, antiseptic, and devoid of texture.

With the development of light, portable, high-definition digital cameras, directors were able to bring a more dynamic feel to the most staid conversations. By swooping around the two actors using two cameras, the dialogue feels more fluid and spontaneous.

These innovations don't simply alter the look, they have a fundamental effect on how a drama tells a story, said Marvin Rush, director of photography on AMC's post-Civil War Western, Hell on Wheels.

"We have the freedom to tell a story visually as well as with dialogue," he said on the phone from a location shoot in Calgary.

"In the '90s, if you saw an actor on camera who was not talking, then the actor didn't belong on camera. There was always wall-to-wall dialogue."

Watch an episode of The Wild Wild West or The Virginians back to back with an episode of Hell on Wheels or A&E's contemporary Western, Longmire. Starring Robert Taylor as a sheriff in Wyoming, Longmire is shot against a mountainous landscape that dwarfs the hero.

That changes how we view characters, said Longmire co-creator Hunt Baldwin. "The landscape has as much to say as the characters," he said. "We want the West and the wildlife to be part of the basic fabric of these (characters)."

Longmire, which employs three cinematographers instead of one, has a fluid, relaxed visual tempo. The camera lingers on faces before cutting away.

"Robert Taylor has that amazing face. You want to watch him thinking, soaking in his surroundings," Baldwin said.

HBO embraced widescreen early. The pay cable channel is singled out by critics for revolutionizing the TV drama in the 2000s with The Sopranos, The Wire, and Six Feet Under and the epic World War II miniseries Band of Brothers and The Pacific.

Graham Yost worked as writer and director on the latter two productions.

"In terms of storytelling, the HBO stuff is in a separate category," he said. "These miniseries didn't play like TV shows, but like 10-hour movies . . . with these big vistas and big wide shots."

Yost, 53, took those lessons to Justified, the FX hit he created.

HBO's influence began to be seen on innnovative basic cable shows such as Battlestar Galactica and The Shield. It can be seen today in AMC's lineup, which includes Mad Men, The Killing, Walking Dead, and Hell on Wheels.

The four networks have been slower to change, said Marcos Siega, a director on Fox's serial-killer thriller, The Following.

"We are asked always to protect for the 4-by-3 ratio," Siega said. Even though the show is shot in widescreen, directors must place important elements in the center of the screen, he said.

"They need it if they sell a show to the airlines, who still have 4-by-3 screens. . . . That handcuffs us a little bit."

Change is coming, said J.H. Wyman, writer-director and executive producer of Fox's Fringe and show runner on J.J. Abrams' Almost Human. "I have noticed a lot in the last three years that the networks not only are asking for but requiring a more astute cinematic style."

The situation is complicated by the growing popularity of handheld devices. They have a widescreen setup, but one wonders whether they can do justice to a series like Once Upon a Time, with its phantasmagoric images. The issue has yet to be addressed fully.

Location shooting has also been a key development, especially as numerous states began offering financial incentives for local productions.

Starz's Magic City, set in Miami in the early 1960s, is shot on location, giving it a flavor missing in studio-shot productions that simulate authenticity with stock footage of a cityscape.

"Godfather II was the only time I saw Miami look on film the way it really looks," said Magic City creator Mitch Glazer. "And I felt I had to capture that texture."

Folks afraid of change shouldn't worry: There are more than enough creatively challenged reality shows, sitcoms, and procedurals left on TV.

For the rest of you cinephiles who have waited for TV to stop being TV, welcome to the future.

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