Widescreen Unravelled Part 3

We’ve now added a new set of feature pages to the site and the first feature to have been upgraded to the new dynamic format is Michael Brooke’s excellent Widescreen Unravelled article which looks at the ins and outs of the various widescreen ratios. It also goes into some depth on what the term ‘anamorphic’ actually means…

Fitting Cinema Films on TV Screens
4:3 TVs
If the film wasn’t originally shot in 4:3, there are only two options when showing it on a 4:3 set – cutting off part of the picture so that the image fills the screen (panning and scanning), or shrinking the image so that you can see the entire width (letterboxing).
This is panning-and-scanning, whereby you only get to see a portion of the original cinema image (which is shown in blue: the green area is all that you’ll be able to see). With a 2.35:1 film, this can mean the loss of nearly half the original image!
Film buffs loathe panning and scanning, because it wrecks the original visual compositions – it’s a bit like chopping the sides off a painting so that you can fit it on your wall.This is ‘letterboxing’, where the shape and content of the original image (shown in blue) is preserved, but at the expense of having to put up with a smaller picture.
Although this is certainly the better option from a purist point of view, many people dislike letterboxing, either because they resent the smaller picture, or because they psychologically “feel” that something is missing due to the black bars.
Note that if a cinema film is shown in 4:3 and the picture fills the entire frame, this doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s been panned-and-scanned. The film may have been shot in 4:3 in the first place, either because it dates from a time when this was the norm (i.e. virtually all films made before the early 1950s) or because the film was shot “open matte”. The DVD of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is a good example of the latter – on a 4:3 set you’re actually seeing more of the picture than you would have done in the cinema, though the chances are the extra visual information is unimportant.

16:9 TVs
The 16:9 TV is much better suited to dealing with the various cinema aspect ratios. It’s roughly halfway along the spectrum from 4:3 to 2.35:1, meaning that all four standard ratios can be shown reasonably comfortably, without resorting to excessively large and obtrusive black bars.
This is a 4:3 image displayed on a widescreen TV. Note that it’s possible to get the image to fill the screen, either by zooming into the picture or by distorting it so that it’s stretched across the entire width of the screen.
I don’t personally recommend the latter – but the former is ideal if the film has been shot open matte (if you don’t know whether or not this is the case, try experimenting – if the resulting image looks fine, without the tops of people’s faces being cut off, the chances are that it is). This is a 1.85:1 image displayed on a widescreen TV.
As you can see, there are tiny bars at the top and bottom, but they’re so unobtrusive that you probably won’t notice them. Indeed, some DVDs have reformatted the picture to 16:9, and you should also have the option of filling the TV screen with the image: in this case, distortion will be minimal. If the DVD is anamorphic, the picture definition should be significantly greater than it would be if displayed on an old-fashioned 4:3 TV.This is a 2.35:1 image displayed on a widescreen TV.
Here, the bars are more prominent – but nowhere near as much as they were on a 4:3 TV. If the DVD is anamorphic, the picture definition should be significantly greater than it would be if displayed on an old-fashioned 4:3 TV.
(I’ve left out 1.66:1 images because it seems that there’s no real consensus in how widescreen TVs display them. The ideal would be if they were shown with bars at the sides, but my set won’t let me do this, forcing me to distort the picture slightly so that it fills the entire 16:9 frame).

The History of Widescreen CinemaCinema and TV Aspect RatiosFitting Cinema Films on TV ScreensWhat is an Anamorphic DVD?

Michael Brooke

Updated: Jan 13, 2002

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