Slate is celebrating HBO’s marathon broadcast of the remastered The Wire by republishing some of our best coverage of the show. This article, originally published earlier this month, is reprinted below.
In a long post on his blog, David Simon has provided some fascinating backstory to the long-awaited and much-debated remastering of The Wire for HD televisions. The original look of the show, Simon explains, was carefully crafted by the late Robert Colesberry, who taught him “as much as he could about filmmaking in the three or four years I was privileged to work with him.” Prior to the start of filming, Colesberry had the foresight to ask permission from HBO to shoot in a widescreen 16:9 ratio rather than the boxier 4:3, which was then the widely accepted standard for television. But widescreen was more expensive at the time and HBO said no. Colesberry skillfully set about working within those constraints:
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.
Colesberry died before shooting began on the third season, and soon HBO gave permission to shoot the rest of the series in widescreen. Simon explains that he and the other creative minds involved decided against this, because they wanted to maintain a cohesive aesthetic across seasons.
Upon the announcement of the HD remastering of The Wire, some of us at Slate were admittedly a little wary of the idea of tinkering with a great thing. But Simon’s detailed description of the thought and care that went into the process from all sides—from HBO, from producer Nina Noble, and from himself—is comforting. He argues that some scenes, like the one in which (spoiler alert) Frank Sobotka’s body is revealed to the dock workers, are actually enhanced by the new widescreen transfer—using before and after clips to demonstrate his point:
Fine as far as it goes, but the dockworkers are all that much more vulnerable, and that much more isolated by the death of their leader when we have the ability to go wider in that rare crane shot:
Other scenes, like one involving Wee-Bey and D’Angelo Barksdale, had to be re-evaluated and refocused in order to work as well as they did before.
“Don’t talk in the car,” D’Angelo reluctantly offers to Wee Bey, who stands below a neon sign that declares, “burgers” while D’Angelo, less certain in his standing and performance within the gang, stands beneath a neon label of “chicken.”
That clever shot composition works better in the 4:3 version than it initially did in the widescreen version, in which the wider aspect ratio at first picked up additional neon to the left of Wee-Bey:
To preserve the intention behind the original composition, Simon explains, they ultimately decided to crop in more closely on Wee-Bey and D’Angelo:
Simon and Noble did not have time to go through every scene as meticulously as they would have wanted to, so they entrusted Wire editor Matthew Booras to review the entire series and make the necessary adjustments. Simon admits that, inevitably, “there are some things that are simply not as good.” But he’s also “satisfied” with this alternate version and hopes that the new format will bring more viewers to the series who have been previously turned off by the 4:3 aspect ratio. With the kind of thought and care Simon and co. have put into the new version, perhaps we shouldn’t be too worried about this new format and should instead wait and see.
Correction, Dec. 3, 2014: Due to a production error, the photo caption on this post originally misidentified Clarke Peters as Isiah Whitlock, Jr.