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At-A-Glance Film Reviews

Letterbox Vs. Pan-N-Scan

Believe it or not, when you see theatrical movies on television, you're not seeing the whole movie. No, I'm not talking about the reprehensible practice of trimming movies to fit the time slot; I'm talking about cropping out the sides of the picture frame to make it fit on your television screen.

The unfortunate fact is that the shape of your television screen is not the same shape as the movie screen at your local cineplex. Your television screen has a 4:3 aspect ratio, which means that for every four inches wide your screen is, it's three high. The shape of movie screens vary, but all the standard shapes in use today are much wider. The two most common aspect ratios are 1.85:1 and 2.35:1. In the latter case, the screen is well over twice as wide as it is high.

What all this means is, when movies are shown on television, either on a television station or on video, the picture is cropped to fit on your narrower television screen. You've probably seen the message that appears on most videos these days: "It has been formatted to fit your screen." This is a euphemism. What "formatted" really means is, the left and right sides of the picture are chopped off and thrown away. Sometimes as much as 40% of the picture is missing when you view movies on television. This practice of television screen formatting is called Pan-n-Scan.

There is another less common means of bringing theatrical movies to television that preserves the original movie image. It is called Letterboxing. Some cable channels air movies letterboxed, most DVDs are letterboxed, and some special editions of video tapes (alas, usually video rentals don't carry them) are letterboxed. Another word that is used to describe this format is Widescreen. In the letterboxed format, the picture is made smaller so that the left and right edges will fit inside the television screen. As a result, there are unused areas on the screen on the top and bottom that remain black. But don't be fooled: those black bands are not indicative of lost picture area. On the contrary, you end up seeing more: the entirety of the film image. It may take a movie or two to get used to the format, but it's more than worth it in the long run.

The practice of pan-n-scanning vandalizes the film. True, you usually get the gist of what's going on, but you aren't getting the full effect. You aren't getting the director's vision. You aren't getting the image the filmmakers intended you to see. Keep your eyes peeled the next time you watch a new movie on television. You may notice, at times, that characters speak to other characters that aren't even on the screen. Another common symptom is when the camera is focused on two or three characters but appears to zoom in too far, as only half the faces of the two people on the ends are in view. Scenic paranorama shots are also crippled by the pan-n-scan process, as you simply don't see the whole view.

Movies made prior to 1951 shouldn't have this problem. The vast majority of them were shot in the 4:3 aspect ratio (called the "Academy ratio," and which is also expressed as the 1.33:1 ratio) that your television set has; therefore, when these movies are shown on television, you aren't losing any of the picture. Beginning about 1951, more and more movies started being made in wider aspect ratios. By the late sixties, it was almost unheard of for a new movie to be made using the Academy aspect ratio. Today, theaters aren't even equipped to handle the Academy aspect ratio, and it is troublesome for them to screen old rereleases like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Gone With the Wind.

So how much damage is really done by the pan-n-scan process? How much does it really matter? It varies. The damage is always significant, because it corrupts the vision of the filmmakers. But in some cases, the damage goes beyond pure principle. The Academy Award winning cinematography of Evita, for instance, looks incompetent in the pan-n-scan format. In one scene, Evita marches down between crowds of her followers, but they're all out of the frame -- you can't even see them. The stunning visual imagery of What Dreams May Come is all but lost. And in virtually every Jackie Chan movie ever made, his breathtaking fight scenes are massacred; most of them involve him punching or kicking opponents that aren't even on the screen. A particulary horrid moment occurs in Supercop, when Chan's co-star Michelle Yeoh (of Tomorrow Never Dies) leaps in the air and simultaneously kicks two opponents, one on either side of her. In the pan-n-scan version of the movie, you can't see either of them, just her, leaping and kicking at off-screen threats.

Sometimes the damage involves actual plot details. In the widescreen version of Bad Day At Black Rock, a character can be seen hiding and watching Spencer Tracy's character; in the context of the movie, this moment is a tense one, with important ramifications. In the pan-n-scan version, this character is completely cut out, resulting in a scene that is suspenseless and confusing. The same sort of situation occurs in James Dean's East of Eden.

Remember the scene in Star Wars where Luke is looking through futuristic binoculars? We see what he's looking at, see the Banthas, and we hear Luke say, referring to the Sand People, "I can see one of them now." In the pan-n-scan version, you can't see the Sand Person that Luke can see, so his comment is confusing and silly. In the widescreen version, you can see the Sand Person over on the right edge.

Pulp Fiction is another that is especially damaged by the pan-n-scan format. There's one scene in particular that suffers: it is the shot where Samuel L. Jackson's character, on one side of the screen, shoots another character on the other side of the screen. In the widescreen version, the two are on the screen at the same time, the shooting takes place, and that's that. In the pan-n-scan version, the two characters could not be on the screen at the same time, so the view focuses on Samuel L. Jackson, then, when the shot occurs, the view zips over to the other character. But the effect of the shot is spoiled. The intention was for the shot to be static; zipping the view from one to the other lessens the scene's impact.

Grease is another one crippled by the pan-n-scan practice. The director made tight use of the wide frame, and so the pan-n-scan version has people talking to other people off-screen throughout. Special effects movies like Independence Day, Armageddon, Twister, and Men In Black suffer greatly: countless hours and dollars were spent making the special effects, and you scarcely see half of them.

In Brian de Palma's Dressed To Kill, there's a scene in which a character times how long it takes people to walk from the doorway of a house to the front gate. In the original film image, you can see the doorway on the right side of the screen, and the front gate on the left. In the middle, the guy's stopwatch is visible in the foreground. In the pan-n-scan version, you can see the front door and the watch, but not the gate. So during the course of the shot, we see people emerge from the front door and walk across and off the screen. Then there's an awkward pause, the sound of a gate opening off-screen, and the man stops the stopwatch. The process repeats. Unless you know what's going on in advance, it's difficult to figure out what he's doing, and it's disorienting either way.

Ben-Hur was shot with an unusually wide picture frame: 2.76:1. In a pan-n-scan version of Ben-Hur, you lose well over half the frame. The result is ridiculously shoddy. It's particularly disorienting during the famous chariot race scene; even some pan-n-scan versions switch to letterboxing just for that one scene. The versions that don't make even this concession suffer from some unacceptable anomalies. For example, throughout the race, the camera periodically cuts to a board which keeps track of the lap count. In many pan-n-scan versions of the movie, you can't even see the board; the movie appears just to cut to a shot of the sky every once in a while.

Some movies suffer less than others. Stanley Kubrick's later films were shot specifically so they would look good either on a television screen or on a wider theater screen. For the pan-n-scan version of A Bug's Life, the animators had their computers re-render the shots for display on a television screen. Characters were moved closer together so they wouldn't be cropped out of the frame. Unfortunately, the degree of damage done when a widescreen movie is cropped to fit a television screen is usually greater, and, I would argue, significant even in these cases.

So what can you do about this shameful practice of pan-n-scan? Do everything you can to support letterboxing. Buy letterboxed video tapes or DVDs. Support cable stations that air widescreen versions of movies (which include TCM, FXM, and Bravo; AMC frequently airs both: pan-n-scan versions in prime time, then letterboxed versions of the same movies during the night). Many DVDs have both formats on the same disc, but keep your eyes peeled and avoid those DVDs that only have pan-n-scan versions.

How can you tell what the original aspect ratio of a movie is? Movies made before 1951 have a better than 99% chance of being shot in the 4:3 (or 1.33:1) aspect ratio. Movies made after 1951 have a very good chance -- and movies made after 1965 or so have an almost certain chance -- of being wider. To find out for certain, check the Internet Movie Database (IMDb). First do a search on the movie in question. If there is a "technical specifications" link for the movie, click on it. If there is an "aspect ratio" field, it should say what aspect ratio the movie was filmed in. If it is something other than 1.33:1, you'll need a letterboxed version of the movie to see the whole image on a television screen. With 1.85:1 movies, you lose over a quarter of the screen image. With 2.35:1 movies, you lose almost half. Some movies are even wider and suffer even more.

-- Samuel Stoddard