HBO remastered 'The Wire' in 16:9 HD, and it was a lot harder than you'd think

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HBO will release a remastered, HD version of its gritty and critically lauded crime drama The Wire later this month, but purists might think of it more like The Wire: Special Edition.

The premium cable channel said Tuesday that it will present all five seasons of the show—60 episodes in total—in marathon fashion on HBO Signature on December 26, and on HBO GO for on-demand streaming. 

That’s terrific for those used to widescreen televisions displaying the latest movies and television shows in HD. Creatively, however, The Wire’s conversion from 4:3 to a 16:9 aspect ratio included both technical and creative concessions.

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David Simon, creator, show runner, and head writer of The Wire, published a lengthy blog post describing the project's backstory.  According to Simon, executive producer Robert Colesberry wanted to shoot the show in 16:9, correctly predicting that the television industry would eventually mimic film’s widescreen format. Due to budget constraints, the pilot episode of The Wire was shot in standard definition with a 4:3 aspect ratio, as were all the rest of the episodes even as the television industry transitioned to HD and 16:9.

Designed for 4:3

“Because we knew the show would be broadcast in 4:3, Bob [Colesberry] chose to maximize the storytelling within that construct,” Simon wrote. “As full wide shots in 4:3 rendered protagonists smaller, they couldn’t be sustained for quite as long as in a feature film, but neither did we go running too quickly to close-ups as a consequence. Instead, mid-shots became an essential weapon for Bob, and on those rare occasions when he was obliged to leave the set, he would remind me to ensure that the director covered scenes with mid-sized shots that allowed us to effectively keep the story in the wider world, and to resist playing too much of the story in close shots.”

According to Simon, HBO notified Simon about a year ago that it wanted to remaster the show in 16:9 HD. And it did so without Simon’s involvement, apparently feeling that Simon was too busy to supervise the process. When Simon asked to oversee the process, HBO acquiesced, but he ran out of time.

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The new version of The Wire, then, will differ both creatively and technically. In certain cases, such as a scene in season two where longshoreman gather around a body, Simon said he believed the added space would add a vulnerability to the scene that wasn’t possible in 4:3. But he describes other scenes where the added space distracts the eye, and the remaster zooms in on the characters to retain that intimacy.

“It is, indeed, an arguable trade-off, but one that reveals the cost of taking something made in one construct and recasting it for another format,” Simon wrote. “And this scene isn’t unique; there are a good number of similar losses in the transfer, as could be expected.”

Overcoming technical challenges

There were technical problems, too. Remastering material in a 16:9 aspect ratio that was originally shot for 4:3 meant that film crew or film equipment sometimes appeared in the remastered scenes. Simon said he found a hundred or so such problems in the version that HBO planned to release. Simon worked with an HBO editing team to go  back through the cuts and either resize them or digitally mask the problems. Simon graciously credits Matthew Booras—who worked as an assistant editor on 23 episodes of The Wire, according to IMDB—for much of this exacting work.

So this version of The Wire that HBO shows isn’t the original film, and that’s both good and bad. 

“At the last, I’m satisfied that while this new version of The Wire is not, in some specific ways, the film we first made, it has sufficient merit to exist as an alternate version,” Simon wrote. “There are scenes that clearly improve in HD and in the widescreen format. But there are things that are not improved. And even with our best resizing, touchups and maneuver, there are some things that are simply not as good. That’s the inevitability: This new version, after all, exists in an aspect ratio that simply wasn’t intended or serviced by the filmmakers.”

So while The Wire will still exist as a modern masterpiece, this version will be cinematically different. But the dialog and story remain the same, and those are the characteristics that set The Wire apart.

What do you think of remastering masterpieces? Is it a sin to mess with an original, or does applying new technology to old material make it even better? Share your thoughts with us in the comments section, below. 

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