Widescreen Unravelled Part 4

Anamorphic DVDs
Many DVDs are described as being "anamorphic" or "enhanced for widescreen/16:9 TVs" (both mean the same thing) - and if you've read any of the reviews in DVD Times, you'll probably have picked up the impression that these are very desirable things (and you'd be right).
So what is an anamorphic DVD, how does it work, and why should you prefer it to the more conventional variety?
An anamorphic DVD is capable of storing pictures at a significantly higher resolution than a non-anamorphic DVD - and when displayed on a 16:9 TV, this results in considerably sharper pictures, with much greater fine detail. True, they're still nowhere near the resolution offered by a 35mm print in a cinema, but for the time being a well-mastered anamorphic DVD offers you the best picture you can get on a home video system.
So how do they work?
Let's say the film you're watching features the following image:

Before DVD and digital television, this image would have had to undergo either panning and scanning or letterboxing to reduce it to the small screen:
Panning and scanning fills the TV screen with the image, but at the expense of chopping off a significant amount of the original picture - as much as 43% if the image was as wide as 2.35:1Letterboxing preserves the correct aspect ratio, but at the expense of significant loss of definition due to dramatically reduced picture height.

Anamorphic DVDs offer a third option - and one that's far more effective, because it preserves the original aspect ratio without losing definition, thus solving both of the problems illustrated above. The image on an anamorphic DVD is "squeezed" so that the picture fits the 4:3 frame - so our example would look like this:
An anamorphic picture as recorded on the DVD, before subsequent processing by the DVD player and/or 16:9 TV. Note that the height of the picture is identical to the pan-and-scan image - but, crucially, the entire width of the original picture is also preserved.

If the DVD player has been set up correctly, it should have been told whether you're using a normal or widescreen TV, and will adjust the final picture accordingly. Note that if you're using a 4:3 TV (unless you're using a very recent model with a 16:9 mode), there is no advantage to playing an anamorphic DVD - the resulting picture will be more or less identical to the letterbox example illustrated above.
But if you play an anamorphic DVD on a 16:9 TV, the difference is dramatic, because the TV can "unsqueeze" the image so that it fills the entire width of the frame, recreating the original image at the highest possible definition given the current limitations of domestic TVs (and the aspect ratio of the original picture: 2.35:1 films will still show black borders). The result is a picture that offers up to 33% greater definition than a non-anamorphic DVD.
Brief Anamorphic FAQ
With a widescreen film, should I always go for an anamorphic option?
If an anamorphic DVD is available, the answer will be a definite "yes" in the vast majority of cases. It's always worth reading reviews though, because a poor anamorphic transfer won't necessarily be better than a superb non-anamorphic one - and some non-anamorphic transfers are good enough for it not to be a particularly big deal one way or the other.
If an anamorphic DVD isn't available, should I wait?

As ever, it depends on the film. First of all, check that the DVD really isn't anamorphic - labelling is often highly misleading in this respect (for instance, the packaging of The Right Stuff claims that the film is in 4:3, though it's actually anamorphic 1.85:1!). Secondly, ask yourself if an anamorphic image will make a significant difference to your viewing pleasure. In this respect, you should bear in mind the difference between picture definition and picture quality - some films are deliberately designed to have a soft, grainy image, and so there may be little practical difference between anamorphic and non-anamorphic versions in terms of conveying what the director and cinematographer intended: certainly not enough to justify boycotting the DVD if it's only available in a non-anamorphic version.
I see that Citizen Kane and The Black Adder aren't anamorphic - should I boycott the current releases and wait for anamorphic editions?
You'll have a long wait! Citizen Kane (and indeed just about any film made before the mid-1950s) and The Black Adder (and indeed just about any TV series made before the mid-1990s) was originally composed for the 4:3 aspect ratio. This means that there wouldn't be any point in making anamorphic transfers, because the viewer would gain nothing in terms of picture definition, but owners of 4:3 sets would lose out heavily, since the final picture would be a tiny 4:3 image within a heavy black border!
I only have an old 4:3 set - should I buy anamorphic DVDs?
Although you won't derive any benefit from them now, it's always worth thinking of the future. It's clear from even a cursory browse round the TV section of a typical branch of Dixons that manufacturers are pushing us inexorably towards 16:9 TVs - so it's highly likely that your next one will be able to do justice to those anamorphic DVDs, and you'll thank yourself later! Your DVD player will be able to adjust the picture to suit your TV set if it's been set up correctly.
I thought anamorphic DVDs were designed for widescreen TVs, but I can still see black bars when I watch The Matrix! What's going wrong?
Nothing - the term "anamorphic" refers purely to the way the picture has been enhanced for widescreen TVs, not to the shape of the picture itself. A film like The Matrix, which was shot at 2.35:1, will still need black bars in order to display the original cinema image, The only consolation is that the bars will be significantly narrower than they'd be if you were watching a 2.35:1 film on a 4:3 TV.
What does "anamorphic" mean?
It's an optical term rather than an electronic one - the first widescreen system to achieve genuine mass acceptance, CinemaScope, used what was known as an "anamorphic" lens in order to squeeze a 2.35:1 picture into a 4:3 frame on the original 35mm film: when screened in cinemas, a similar anamorphic lens would be added to the projector in order to restore the image to its correct shape. Anamorphic DVDs are encoded electronically, but the principle is broadly similar - hence the use of the term.

The History of Widescreen Cinema
Cinema and TV Aspect Ratios
Fitting Cinema Films on TV Screens
What is an Anamorphic DVD?

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