September 05 2009
As film fascists go, I’d rate myself regular Wehrmacht rather than SS. I won’t watch films at Odeon cinemas (blaring sound plus a dozen other abominations). I won’t watch films broken up by TV commercials. And I prefer not to watch in-flight films.
However, when it comes to debates about this and that format and whether I’m seeing the film exactly as the director intended, I’m not massively fussed. Blu-ray HD is nice, although I haven’t bothered to buy a player yet. Just give me a regular DVD and a normal 16:9 proportion widescreen TV and I’m happy. Frankly, the more HD and ultra-widescreen a film is, the less realistic I find it. And while elaborate home cinemas with projectors are good fun, there’s an emphasis on massive sound, which, although it can be very impressive, just strikes me as another layer of artifice to distance us from the important content of films – the script, the photography and the acting.
Philips, a frequently exemplary and often innovative TV maker, has put huge effort into this, the first home TV that replicates the 2.39:1 proportions of a cinema screen. It’s a 56in monster that incorporates Philips’ strange Ambilight system, whereby a sort of coloured smudge extends beyond the screen to light up the wall behind. I suspect most users just turn the feature off as an irritation.
Ambilight on or off, the 21:9 (as Philips calls it, since it’s snappier than 2.39:1) certainly provides a magnificent spectacle. It replicates the cinema experience in that you’re constantly panning your head from left to right and back again to follow the action. Yet my first thought was that it was like viewing TV through a letterbox. I’m just not convinced I’d want it as my main TV. A more traditional 16:9 widescreen (a format Philips also pioneered) feels easier on the eye, being more in tune with a 35mm camera frame, which I’ve always understood is a magic shape that resonates with how we see things.
There’s also an issue over what to watch on your long, thin 21:9 TV. Although 65 per cent of Blu-ray discs and 54 per cent of standard DVDs have a 2.39:1 option, nobody broadcasts in the format. So if you use your Philips 21:9 for anything other than films, you’re going to get an odd view.
I watched a BBC HD sports broadcast and the auto-format mode made it very good and natural. But feed a standard 4:3 picture into the 21:9 to watch the news, and it looks horrid – a fuzzy mush in an ill-fitting frame.
Here’s what I think is the nub of the 21:9 thing. I reckon this already pretty big set is actually the smallest a cinema-proportion TV can be without looking plain silly. It’s a great TV, no question, and if you’re a dedicated early adopter, love films and don’t have a home cinema, go for it. But there’s bound to be a stampede of other manufacturers copying Philips’ initiative. Two or three years hence, I’m sure TVs this size will be a third of the price and the £4,500 or so this costs will buy you a bigger and less slitty 21:9. I also suspect the ubiquitous 16:9 will remain just as popular as it is now and still be regarded as widescreen enough for most of us.