If you've spent enough time watching cable television, it's a notification you've read a hundred times: "This film has been modified from its original version. It has been formatted to fit this screen." But what if you weren't warned you were you watching an altered version of a movie?
A Tumblr blog titled "What Netflix Does" claims to aggregate instances of Netflix cropping films offered through its streaming service. It posts pictures comparing a film's original aspect ratio to its aspect ratio on Netfix, finding that many films have in fact been changed from how they were shown initially in theaters. Started four months ago, "What Netflix Does" caught the attention of Gizmodo and other news sites on Wednesday.
In a statement to The Huffington Post, Netflix categorically denied that it intentionally cuts off portions of the picture for movies it streams, claiming that any altered aspect ratio is a mistake.
"We want to offer the best picture and provide the original aspect ratio of any title on Netflix," Netflix spokesman Joris Evers said in an email. "However, unfortunately our quality controls sometimes fail and we end up offering the wrong version of a title. When we discover this error, we replace that title as soon as possible."
The visual differences recall the days of the dreaded "pan and scan," a method of formatting films for television broadcasts that alters the 16:9 HD widescreen aspect ratio that the majority of films are shot in to the 4:3 ratio of older TVs. This results in the loss of 50 to 60 percent of picture and artificial camera movements that filmmakers never intended.
Check out a few examples from "What Netflix Does" below.
"Man On The Moon" (1999)
"There Will Be Blood" (2007)
"Last Action Hero" (1993)
While some may look at these images and wonder what the big deal is, cinema lovers cringe in horror. For directors and cinematographers, every shot in a film is meticulously crafted to convey meaning as part of the film's language.
When the entirety of a film is cropped, it's impossible to immediately know what we've lost. But we can assume a great many things are missing: Visual cues within an image to foreshadow an event, a character's subtle reaction or minor flourishes to provide context.
"You don’t go around chopping off the tops of paintings so they fit in the frames you’ve got lying around," Flavorwire film critic Jason Bailey wrote. "And you don’t go around slicing off the edges of movies so you don’t have to deal with letterboxing."
It's worth noting that the creator of the Tumblr bounces from region to region for his screencaps, noting that Netflix customers in different countries could have different aspect ratios, depending on licensing deals. That may indicate the true culprit in the Netflix cropping controversy: film studios. Due to contractual obligations or restrictions, there's a chance that the films were given to Netflix in the modified form, at which point the company is essentially powerless to change them.