As most of you know by now, the vast majority of films programmes made today are shot in widescreen aspect ratios, meaning that the shape of the film image itself is much wider than the screen of your current normal TV. The reasons for this date back to the 1950s and are quite interesting from the perspective of film history. But the result of it all, is that filmmakers (and particularly the Hollywood studios) face some tough challenges when working to bring widescreen films to home video so that you can all enjoy them in the comfort of your living rooms.
1.33:1 or 4×3 is the standard TVs frame ratio. Films and programmes made in 1.85:1 or 2.35:1 format will either appear with black bars to the top and bottom, or “Pan and Scan” with the edges of the picture cropped.
1.85:1 is the standard widescreen TVs frame ratio. Films and programmes made in 4×4 format will either appear stretched of with black bars to the left and right.
2.35:1 is the another widescreen frame ratio. Even Widescreen TVs may produce black bars to the top and bottom when viewing a 2.35:1 movie.
For years, there have been two major choices available when transferring widescreen movies for home video: pan and scan or letterbox. In a pan and scan transfer, the video camera pans and scans back and forth across the film image to keep the most important action centred on your TV screen. The problem with that, is that as much as 50% of the films original image can be lost in the process. And the beauty of the artistic composition of objects and movement within the frame is destroyed.
It is preferable to view a movie at home in the aspect ratio that the films director originally intended it to be seen. That means that we prefer to view widescreen movies in the letterbox format (in which the ENTIRE film image is presented, and black bars fill the unused screen area at the top and bottom of the frame). To us, pan and scan is as bad as colorizing a black and white film – it amounts to artistic butchery. But that preference for letterbox viewing has always come at a steep price – a loss of vertical picture resolution. After all, if those black bars are going to take up part of the screen on your TV, that leaves less picture area for the actual film image.
There are still some folks who prefer the picture to fill their TV screen completely. You know the ones – the folks who see letterboxed video and say, “Why are those black bars there? Something must be wrong with the TV.” Personally, I maintain that if these people really knew what they were missing by watching a “full frame” version of a widescreen film, they would change their minds in a hurry. I have converted lots of people to letterbox, simply by showing them the difference between the full frame and widescreen versions on a DVD that includes both formats.
The first image is a Widescreen Letterbox version, whilst the second image is the full frame version. Note on the widescreen version you have the black bars at the top and bottom of the frame, whilst on the full frame version you are missing approximately 30% of the picture. By expanding the image to fill the screen, unfortunately the sides of the image are cut off. On average, about 30% of the picture is cut off on the sides, especially on movies filmed in 2.35:1 format.