This Christmas, HBO will give you the present you’ve always wanted: Ziggy’s dick in glorious 1080p.
Fall promos hinted that a HD transfer of HBO’s landmark series The Wire would make its way to television screens in the near future. Tuesday, HBO made it official, announcing that all 60 widescreen episodes will be available for streaming on HBOGo beginning December 26th. The six people who actually pay for HBO through their cable provider can also watch every remastered episode on HBO Signature starting the same day. Think how easily we can find Wallace now!
Despite persistent rumors that a high-def conversion was in the works, this news still comes as a surprise given that The Wire creator David Simon has steadfastly opposed a HD transfer for years. It’s tempting to attribute Simon’s reticence to technophobia or overprotectiveness. But he lays out a very reasonable explanation for his concerns in a compelling piece on his website, the Audacity of Despair. I’ll summarize Simon’s thinking below, but I encourage you to read the entire essay in full because damn, can he sling words.
Basically, Simon and executive producer Bob Colesberry didn’t have the budget to film The Wire in 16:9 widescreen. Rather than try to futureproof the show for an eventual HD conversion by utilizing numerous wide shots, the showrunners chose to wholeheartedly embrace the 4:3 format. That meant copious mid-range shots and closeups; fewer crane shots and panoramas. Even when HBO approached Simon about filming in HD widescreen prior to season three, the crew opted to continue in 4:3 to preserve the show’s visual continuity.
“We got fancy at points, and whatever rules we had, we broke them now and again; sometimes the results were a delight, sometimes less so. But by and large, Bob had shaped a template that worked for the dystopian universe of The Wire, a world in which the environment was formidable and constricting, and the field of vision for so many of our characters was limited and even contradictory.”
You might wonder how the hell HBO faithfully created a widescreen version of a show that aired in 4:3. Although it was initially broadcast in standard definition, The Wire was shot on 35mm film, meaning footage had to be cut off the sides for scale it down to 4:3. For the remaster, HBO painstakingly poured over each original frame of film, digitally removing lighting stands and production assistants and correcting sync issues. Once Simon and other stakeholders expressed interest in participating in the conversion, HBO postponed the scheduled September release to allow the show’s creators time to make additional tweaks (there’s a great breakdown in Simon’s piece about how he asked HBO to tighten a shot with WeeBay and D’Angelo in front of a neon sign because the wider aspect ratio detracts from the scene’s intent).
I’ll let Simon take us home:
“I’m satisfied what while this new version of The Wire is not, in some specific ways, the film we first made, it has sufficient merit to exist as an alternate version. There are scenes that clearly improve in HD and in the widescreen format. But there are things that are not improved. And even with our best resizing, touchups and maneuver, there are some things that are simply not as good. That’s the inevitability … Still, being equally honest here, there can be no denying that an ever-greater portion of the television audience has HD widescreen televisions staring at them from across the living room, and that they feel notably oppressed if all of their entertainments do not advantage themselves of the new hardware. It vexes them in the same way that many with color television sets were long ago bothered by the anachronism of black-and-white films, even carefully conceived black-and-white films. For them, The Wire seems frustrating or inaccessible — even more so than we intended it. And, hey, we are always in it to tell people a story, first and foremost. If a new format brings a few more thirsty critters to the water’s edge, then so be it.”
Or, to put it another way:
The remastered episodes will be available on iTunes, Google Play, Xbox Video, and Vudu on January 5th, with Blu-Ray copies coming summer 2015.