Disney cartoons, aspect ratios, bad transfers.

Disney cartoons, aspect ratios, bad transfers. December 25, 2007

David Bordwell posted an interesting item recently on the various aspect ratios used by Jean-Luc Godard, and the difficulties that arise when projectionists and DVD producers try to crop them or mask them to fit standard screens. I am glad I am not a Godard buff, and so I do not have to grind my teeth every time a poorly framed DVD of one of his films comes out — but I feel a similar frustration whenever I see a new ‘Walt Disney Treasures‘ set.

I griped about this here and here when More Silly Symphonies: 1929 – 1938 came out last year, and the frustration continues with two new sets that came out earlier this month. I have only watched about half of The Chronological Donald Volume Three: 1947 – 1950 so far, but I can’t help thinking that at least some of these cartoons seem a little … pinched. Examples abound, but two screen captures from Drip Drippy Donald (1948), in which Donald Duck turns his head when the phone rings, will suffice for now:

Now, I suppose it is possible that the animators always intended for Donald’s face to be cut off like that by the edge of the frame, but somehow I doubt it.

Then there is The Adventures of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, a collection of extremely rare silent cartoons that were produced by Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks for Universal Studios shortly before they created Mickey Mouse for themselves. Granted, some allowances have to be made, since many of these cartoons have been lost altogether, and some of the surviving films are in pretty bad condition. But one look at frames like this and you just know that the people who transferred these images to DVD were either deliberately or sloppily cutting off part of the picture:

Note the word cut off at the top, and the way the hand-drawn frame is almost cut off to the right. Incidentally, this image is a terrific early example of Disney’s obsession with rear-end humour, something I first noticed several years ago while watching Pinocchio (1940; my comments), Melody Time (1948; my comments) and other early Disney films.

Anyway, the Oswald cartoons, like all the other Disney cartoons, are handled fairly inconsistently: some of them are “windowboxed”, which means they are set within a black frame which may or may not be cropping part of the image; some of them fill the screen but you suspect the edges have been cropped just the same; and some of them have black bars only along the sides or along the top and bottom, and again, you suspect that at least some of the time the DVD producers have cropped part of the picture.

Here are two examples — from Trolley Troubles (1927) and Sky Scrappers (1928) — where some sort of picture loss would seem to be indicated by the fact that the words used to signify sound in these silent cartoons are cut off at the edge of the frame:

Matters are just as bad, and possibly even worse, when you turn to the even older Disney-Iwerks cartoons that are included on this set as bonus features. Note how terribly off-centre the opening iris shot in Alice’s Balloon Race (1926) is:

That last frame is where the iris stops; for the rest of the shot, two corners of the image on the DVD are obscured and two corners are not. And then note how the band member on the far left of the following shot is cut off by the edge of the frame:

But what really takes the cake is this bit from the end of Bright Lights (1928), where the DVD dissolves — in mid-shot! — from a fairly clean print to a fairly beat-up print:

Now, I have no problem with the dissolve itself; if the clean print comes to an end after this point and the only surviving copy of the remaining footage is from a beat-up print, then you have to work with what you’ve got. But note how the beat-up print is “windowboxed”, and in a way that clearly crops part of the picture; and note how the lion’s foot is now pushed right to the edge of the black frame, where before it would have had a little more breathing room.

This sort of thing turns up all the time on these sets, and it really shouldn’t have to. One of this disc’s bonus features is a scene from Sagebrush Sadie (1928) that now exists only in the form of the original pencil sketches that were done for the film. The pencil sketches are stacked on a light table and animated just as they are — and as you can see from the screen capture below, we get to see the entire sketches, right to the edge of the page and beyond.

Now why can’t they do something similar for the actual films, and show us the complete image, exactly as it is on the filmstrip?

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  • I sympathize with you. I’m always perturbed when people don’t notice that 4:3 content is stretched to fit their 16:9 tv, but at least then you aren’t loosing information. Cutting off the frame is even worse.

  • Anonymous

    London Drugs regularly advertises a device that costs hundreds of dollars and promises "No More Black Bars!". With inputs for several video sources, it stretches or squashes the image to fill the screen; its purpose is to automate the production of incorrect aspect ratios!