Live Black Bars!
Letterboxing Gives You Bang for the Buck
By Jim Bray
Those black bars bracketing
some of the video movies you watch mean youre getting the most out
of your movie dollar.
Readers often express
concerns to me about those infernal black bars above and below
the picture and why they infest so many DVDs, laserdiscs, and some
VHS tapes. Theyre worried that theres something wrong with
their TV or player.
wrong. In fact, theres something very right.
When movies were new,
they were shot and displayed with an aspect ratio (the ratio
of the pictures width to its height) of 1.37:1. Decades later, the
people who dreamed up television chose 1.33:1 as the shape of the idiot
With the increasing
popularity of television in the 1950s, the movie industry needed
a weapon with which to fight the upstart medium and convince the public
to continue putting its collective bums into theater seats. Among various
gimmicks tried, including stereo sound and 3D, the most successful was
widescreen. You might even say it changed the shape of motion pictures,
though I would never stoop so low as to make such an awful pun.
of widescreen were tried, including processes that actually used multiple
cameras and projectors to put different parts of the image onto a huge,
You may remember names
like CinemaScope, VistaVision, Cinerama, and, of course, Panavision. All
were different widescreen technologies, though all but Panavision have
virtually disappeared over the past forty years or so.
Most movies are now
shot with an aspect ratio of either 1.85:1 or 2.35:1, which means theyre
substantially wider than they are tall. Since TV still uses the old aspect
ratio of 1.33:1, its okay for showing old 1.37:1 movies, but compromises
have to be made to get the rectangular widescreen image onto the basically
square TV set.
Until the rise in
popularity of laserdisc as a moviephiles medium, virtually
all movies-on-TV-or-video were released in whats referred to as
Pan & Scan. This is where the technician converting the
film to video would focus the transferring machine onto a
squarish section of the picture, moving it from side to side to follow
the action or dialog. Sometimes they wouldnt pan at
all, which could lead to important parts of the picture being left off
altogether from the video transfer.
So while the picture
fit the TV from top to bottom, the widescreen pictures sides were
being sliced off.
Look at it this way:
the widest widescreen movies (1959s Ben-Hur is a great
example) could lose nearly half their picture when cropped to fit the
TV. This is one heck of a dirty trick to pull on a directors vision,
and it hamstrings some of the greatest movies ever made.
chariot race, for instance. The Pan & Scan version loses
so much image that it almost seems as if Charlton Hestons driving
a mere pair of horses, while the widescreen version (often called letterboxed
in video parlance) not only shows the entire four horse team, but you
can follow its progress as Heston steers them by, through, and around
Likewise, when you
see a widescreen version of The Music Man, the school board
magically transforms visually from a barbershop trio into the full barbershop
The apparent downside,
of course, is those black bars. Fitting a widescreen presentation onto
a square TV screen means zooming back until the sides of the
widescreen picture fit onto the TV screen. This leaves the top and bottom
of the TV screen unused and blank, hence the bars.
As annoying as they
may be, however, the presence of those bars is a sign that youre
gaining the extra image the films director had always intended for
you to see, but which the old style of video conversion stole right out
from under your unsuspecting eyes.
Once widescreen and
high definition TV become popular, both of which feature a 16x9 (1.78:1)
aspect ratio thats close to the 1.85:1 used by movie makers, the
black bar problem wont be as severe.
Until then, just imagine
as you squint at that narrow band of picture across the middle of your
TV screen, that youre sitting at the back of a big movie theater
and take joy in the knowledge that youre getting everything
you were meant to, and more bang for your buck.
Jim Bray's technology columns are distributed by the TechnoFILE and Mochila Syndicates. Copyright Jim Bray.
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