B5 video widescreen / full screen comparison

Introduction

Now that the Babylon 5 tv series is being shown in widescreen on the US SciFi channel *, this page hopes to provide some insight into the process with which B5 was recorded/created and how this influences the aspect of fullscreen versus widescreen.

The information presented here is based on posts by Joe Michael Straczynski (quoted in red below), and observation of the widescreen box set of the four Babylon 5 television movies, released at the end of last year in the UK by HMV. Comparison of shots from the latter with the fullscreen versions shows the nature of the video transfer process.

To see what's going on, we need to distinguish between the live action material and the CGI (computer generated imagery) material.

Live action material

Babylon 5's live action material was shot on film. Jms mentioned: We shoot with Panavision Gold super 35.

Super35 is a process where a larger negative area is exposed than will ever be seen in any transfer. This allows for more freedom in composing widescreen and fullscreen versions later. Widescreen typically uses the whole width of the image (and therefore doesn't show the top and/or bottom), whereas the fullscreen image uses the full height (and therefore not the full width). So in essence, both the fullscreen and widescreen versions are pan-and-scanned from the full super35 image. For more info on the super35 process, take a look here.

CGI material

CGI was rendered in the computer. Jms wrote:
The CGI is now being produced at 24 frame per second, starting about 517 or 518, at a higher degree of resolution, nearer film-res. We're doing 24 so it matches better with the live-action which is also shot at 24 fps.
This probably means that (apart for the last 5 or so episodes), the CGI was rendered at NTSC framerate (30 fps) and resolution (in 4:3 aspect ratio). This means that any shot which has CGI elements can use only the 4:3 area for which the CGI was rendered, and therefore the widescreen version has to be cropped with respect to the fullscreen version.

Comparisons of the tv movies

The four tv movies released in widescreen in the UK provide a good source for comparison. Since the comparisons are image-heavy, I've placed them on a seperate page for each movie:

In The Beginning   Thirdspace   River of Souls   A Call To Arms

Note that these pages contain samples only: I haven't compared all of the material (would rather sit and enjoy the movies!). But they give a reasonable impression.

The series proper

Please note that the pilot episode The Gathering was shot in 4:3. So the letterboxed version SciFi aired is simply cropped.

Trent Piepho has some comparison shots on his webpage for season 1.

The different treatment of live action and CGI material led to a mastering error on the initial PAL master used for the DVD box, for the episode And the Sky Full of Stars.

A wrong selection of source material for seasons 2 and 3 caused the SciFi channel to air cropped-from-4:3 versions of the episodes during the first run. Click here to see some of JMS' comments on that. It should have been rectified by now.

Conclusions

It indeed looks like the sources used for CGI were the 4:3 fullscreen shots, and thus these had to be cropped for the widescreen versions. Many other scenes in all four movies however do show that they come from the larger super35 sources, showing more picture on the sides. Some shots also show a mixture of more info on the sides and cropping top/bottom, which is typical of the super35 process.

As the live action material was shot in widescreen from the start, it is my feeling that, although the CGI was rendered in 4:3 aspect ratio, the composition already anticipated the pan-and-scan process used to create the widescreen versions. Take another look at the examples for the tv movies, and you'll see no essential information is really left out in these cases, and sometimes the widescreen composition can help focus the attention, or create a more menacing shot (as for the second set of images on the In The Beginning page). The images also show that the section of the 4:3 image which is used for the widescreen version varies over time: sometime a "common topline" approach is used, and sometimes the image is taken more from the center. Indeed, jms wrote:
We worked hand in hand with the guys at WB's technology office to help handle the transfer to widescreen.
So a lot of attention has been paid to making the widescreen versions look as best as they can. The recent The Gathering/In The Beginning DVD however shows that technically, the image quality could be better though. Henrik Herranen has a very detailed webpage about this.

This indeed means some P&S-ing of shots containing CGI material. Compared to the tv movies showcased here, the series is by far not as CGI heavy, so it will benefit more from the super35 process. All those great character moments between G'Kar and Londo, Delenn and Sheridan, Marcus and Ivanova (etc.) should look even more epic in widescreen. For the tv movies, I personally like watching the widescreen versions better, and I am really envious of the americans who'll get to see the whole series in widescreen soon.

For some time, it appeared that the widescreen versions of the series were available only in PAL (the tv format use in Europe a.o.), but now that there are also widescreen NTSC versions (used by SciFi), I hope widescreen (preferably anamorphic) DVDs are on their way. A petition is found here keeping a pulse on what is happening in this area. In any case, a good solution (in my opinion) for such dvds would be to release them containing both the fullscreen and widescreen versions.

I'd like to thank Paul Harper for doing some initial comparisons of the tv movies, which prompted me to start this page, to Joseph DeMartino for his comments, to Henrik Herranen for a lot of technical info, and to Niall for keeping up the interest in widescreen B5 through his petition.

If you have any remarks, additions, corrections etc. please let me know.

Bart Barenbrug