Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Street Angel


The core of the mystery: How did Frank Borzage's 1928 Street Angel go not just from 1.33:1/1.37:1, to (the Movietone-soundtrack-accommodating) 1.20:1 — but from an image track with normal proportions, to an image track with proportions nearer to a gravitational singularity? That is, to proportions of a markedly different nature than those found in the other 1.20:1 Borzage features of the same period (and in the same box set). In other words: why's it squished?

A 1928-era printing anomaly? Perhaps some odd one-off William Fox-sanctioned experiment with an abandoned technical process? Or a print-duping anomaly? — maybe having to do with something odd having occurred around a duped source-print used for the transfer? — maybe — and this is what I suspect — the extant source-print having contained a blow-up of the 1.20:1 image, onto a 1.37:1 frame, cropping off some of the top or bottom (or both top and bottom — but judging by these frames, I suspect "the bottom") of the frame edge — which print was then "reinstated to its original 1.20:1 aspect ratio" during the creation of a new print, or solely at the DVD-authoring level, in a very nonsensical way indeed — that is, by "squishing" the (cropped, missing a piece of the top/or-more-likely-the-bottom of the original 1.20 frame) 1.37 image back into 1.20 — never mind that the image would now be subjected to a kind of funhouse/inverse-Wii-Fit grotesquerie of proportions, and (ostensibly) missing a sliver from the top or bottom of the frame...

Alternating, below: an image taken from the new Street Angel DVD included as part of the Murnau, Borzage and Fox box set, presented in the 1.20:1 ratio; followed by the same image, modified by me in Photoshop, with its proportions reinstated to fill out the 1.33:1 frame.



  1. Craig, I don't think you can use photoshop for this kind of demonstration: the 1.20 images are narrowd and the faces and figures are distorted, taller and thinner, so that the 1.33 images are actully much better-looking. As to what may have happened, I'd rather guess the film was restored from some sound print with music added on an optical soundtrack at the left side of the frame, which was "widened" to 1.33/1.37 ratio. Then someone took the easiest (usually the worst) way to get back to the 1.20 ratio of silent pictures... Would not be the first time (nor will be the last) such athing has happened, especially since restorations are partly financed by DVD publishers and TV broadcasters who want to have some music...
    Miguel Marías

  2. Miguel, I'm not sure that you've read correctly what I've written and have demonstrated in the images, since we (I think) seem to be saying the same thing. Let me see if I can spell it out a little differently:

    (1) The film was originally framed and distributed, in certainty-likelihood, in 1.20:1, the format of the other Fox films from the era, and which are included in this box set.

    (2) The telecine of the film was probably made (at some point in time) from a 1.33:1 print, which cropped the bottom of the 1.20:1, so that it would 'fit' the wider format.

    (3) In an effort to re-present the film in its "original 1.20:1 ratio" for the DVD, the authoring-house squished the 1.33:1/cropped image "back" to 1.20:1. An abysmal judgment, obviously.

    (4) The result is thin-looking-everything — a cropped-to-1.33:1 print of the film squished into a 1.20:1 space.

    (5) You certainly can use Photoshop for this demonstration, and I did just that in order to prove that when you expand the squished-on-the-DVD image from its 1.20 to 1.33 (which one can do with precision in Photoshop), the correct proportions reappear within the frame. I'm agreeing exactly with what you're saying in your comment — the 1.33 images are much better looking (because they represent the original proportions of the original 1.20 version of the film, but with the bottom of the original 1.20 frame cropped off).



  3. Craig,
    Sure we agree, I was in fact confirming your impression, which I think quite likely. But I do hope the Fox DVD has NOT the images distorted in such a way, at least I thought it was ONLY a problem (I've often encountered) with Photoshop and ratios.
    Miguel Marías

  4. Great catch! "Street Angel" is one of my all-time favorite movies. I myself am a professional video editor, and work with aspect ratios of various types and sizes every day, so I know how easily fooled one can be by aspects that are very near each other in size. But as you aptly demonstrate, one easy trick is to find an object that you know to be a perfect circle -- in this case, the bass drum in the first screen-cap example -- and if it looks instead like an oval, you know that the aspect ratio is incorrect. Too bad the transfer is wrong! Now I know that if I get a copy of it, I will need to rip the DVD and re-size it before I watch it.


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