Have you ever noticed that a film you watched in theaters doesn’t look the same on your television while watching cable? If not, watch a few films, and you’ll find that the high definition channels are missing any sort of aspect ratios because they’ve all been conformed to the 16:9 television standard. In this article, I’ll be covering the history and controversy behind how companies panned and scanned films from the ’60s through the ’90s, and how the director’s vision is still being botched on modern-day television. But first, a history lesson within a history lesson is required.
I: A Super Short History of 4:3, 2.35:1, Other Aspect Ratios and the Cinema
This set of numbers (4:3/1.33) was the Academy’s aspect ratio standard from 1895 to the 1950s. All films were showcased in this square, letter-boxed format. Eventually televisions were brought onto the market, which matched the academy’s 4:3 aspect ratio, and because the films could be perfectly displayed on the television sets, audience members felt no reason to go to the theaters any longer; they could just wait for the film to release on broadcast and watch it from home. Does that sound familiar?
In order to get audiences back into the red, leather chairs, cinemas revived the widescreen format, and this aspect ratio system was nothing new. The first movie to use the wide-screen format “The Corbett-Fitzmons Fight” was shot in 1897; it was 100 minutes long and was shot in 1.67:1, the European Widescreen standard. The format was also used for some short films and newsreels in the 1920’s.
The first widescreen format introduced to theaters was called Cinerama; this system was originally utilized as a secret training device for the U.S. military. The image was captured by a three 35mm cameras that were mounted onto a single rig, each of three bodies was equipped with a 27mm lens. On September 30, 1952 in the Broadway Cinema, three projectors combined to play back a film on a large, 2.65:1 screen, and it was glorious. The system had its drawbacks, which mainly was the fact that the theater had to depend on three projectors to play back each section of the image perfectly; they had to thread three film stocks simultaneously without any catastrophic accidents.
In 1952, Century Fox acquired the patent for the Cinemascope, and Bausch and Lomb created anamorphic lenses based Henri Chretian’s design (Anamorphoscope), which was patented back in 1926. Due to the success of Cinerama, Century Fox felt that anamorphic could be retrofitted to theaters of the time and achieve similar results to Cinerama all at a reasonable cost. With the introduction of anamorphic wide-screen into cinemas in 1953, folks came flooding back to the theaters to see The Robe. In 1956, Cecil B. DeMille released The 10 Commandments. In the same year, Around the World in 80 Days (1956) was released in the famous Todd AO (70mm) format, which was coined as “Cinerama out of one hole” by its creator Mike Todd. Ben Hur (1959) was released into theaters in a 2.76:1 aspect ratio and was met with critical acclaim. One of the most surprising, epic 70mm releases was Lawrence of Arabia (1962), which was filmed with spherical, Panavision Super 70 lenses. Spherical lenses. In 70mm. GOOD. LORD.
All of the cool aspect ratios that brought audiences back to the theaters was what content providers were worried would end up frustrating viewers at home. A compromise was put in place.
II: Content Providers and Content Distributers
Imagine you’re at a baseball stadium, and you see a hotdog stand; that stand is a vendor, and the vendor purchases specific brand hotdogs for your enjoyment from the particular hotdog companies. The contents that lay within those specific hotdogs is the decision of the companies selling them.
Now, let’s take that metaphor and apply it to broadcast television and other streaming services. The hotdog stands (content distributors) are companies such as Xfinity, Dish, Netflix and Hulu, and the hotdog makers (content providers) are 20th Century Fox, Disney, Warner Bros. and various other movie studios. Let’s say Netflix wants its viewers to have the ability watch The Fugitive this month. They make a streaming contract with Warner Bros, and they’re leased the license for the film for a certain amount of time. The allotted time is contract based, but Netflix also bases its streaming period on how high user-base interest is; if the view count is low on a specific film, Netflix will drop the license. It’s Warner Bros.’ job to make sure The Fugitive is in its original 2.39:1 format. If it’s not, Netflix could technically force Warner Bros. to send them the correct version because Netflix is paying for the rights to stream the film to its viewers.
It seems XFinity is more concerned with giving its audience the fullscreen experience rather than the correct one because none of its films are in their original formats on its HD channels. Content distributors may not be able to control how content providers format the film, but they can certainly turn down a particular version if they don’t agree with it.
III: The Economically Safe Choice
Starting in the 60’s, content providers began panning and scanning film cuts for broadcast. This was to due to consumer demand and the screen size limitation of television sets, which was approximately 19 to 24 inches; most MacBook pro 2015-2016 models are currently 13-15 inches in size, and people watch films perfectly on them, but imagine trying to watch that in a family-room type setting from a distance. Releasing cinemascope versions of those films onto 23-inch, 4:3 native television screens would mean home audiences would have to sit mere feet away from the panel in order to view the film instead of sitting comfortably on their couches with their families.
The main issue with panning and scanning was that when the films were released for general distribution, they were no longer in the format the Director, Director of Photography or Editor intended for the general public to view. Imagine watching a 2:39 image in theaters; every inch of the rectangular frame has been utilized by the director and director of photography in order to provide the audience with more story information at a faster, more efficient rate. Panning and scanning crops that wide 2:39 frame to a square 4:3/1.33 image, lopping off roughly half of the image.
Reformatting was performed by an outsourced editor who had the permission to decide which information he or she felt was most relevant to the story; the editor then would place that information in the center of the 4:3 frame. If the image was too wide, the editor would pan from one side to the other showing individual story elements instead of the entire frame; hence pan and scan. Another example, is if there is a frame being shared by two characters, the outsourced editor would create two singles and cut between each instead of leaving the two-shot intact. This was frustrating for directors because the content providers were essentially re-editing/directing films and then leaving the original director’s name on it.
IV: VHS and Laserdisk
In 1977, VHS came to the US, and just as with broadcast, this type of re-editing was performed for the VHS releases. Seeing as the VHS had the largest user base, content providers felt it necessary to pan and scan for that format. But, due to the outrage from directors, providers compromised once again by releasing widescreen versions of the films on Laserdisk (1978), which they felt was the true platform for cinephiles.
The Laserdisk was rather large in size; weighing in at half a pound, measuring at 12 inches in length and having a circumference of 36 inches, it was an analogue, laser-based disk system that was truly ahead of its time. The main issue was that each disk could hold only 60 minutes of information per side, which means that halfway through the film, viewers would have to get up, open the disc drive and flip over a large, 12-inch disc. To compare, a VHS tape was .4 pounds, but it was way more compact.
V: DVD Issues In The Early 2000’s
In 1997, DVDs became accessible to general public in the United States. The first films available were Point of No Return, Blade Runner, Eraser and The Fugitive; the films were all available in widescreen format. But then, things changed again. In the early 2000’s, companies began to offer two versions of each disc: Widescreen (2.39) or Fullscreen (1.33). It was literally the same issue all over again.
Home audience viewers who trekked over to their local Blockbuster Video (RIP) stores would have to decide between one of the versions. Educated cinephiles would choose the widescreen edition, while the average viewer would choose the latter because fullscreen looks like the better option. The worst part is that DVDs will forever be stuck in a resolution of 720p.
VI: Blu-Ray Our Savior (Sort Of…)
When Blu-Ray was released in 2006, it was truly a Hail Mary. It was finally a format that could handle a resolution of up to 3840×2160; the majority of them are in 1920x1080p. The best part is that every Blu-Ray released since 2006 has never had an option for fullscreen; they all respectfully remain faithful to the director’s vision. No complaints in the aspect ratio department. Bit depth and color fidelity are topics for a completely different article.
VII: Cropping on Modern-Day Cable
On cable television, 2.39:1 images are still being botched. By cropping the images for fullscreen, content providers are training the public to subconsciously dislike the black bars that lay across the top and bottom of our screens. While older films lose the widescreen ratio when the black bars are cropped out, some of the films are simply stripped of the black bars because they were originally shot in a 16×9 aspect ratio but framed during the shoot for a specific letter boxing.
The black bars have a purpose though. They mask off parts of the image that aren’t meant to be seen by the audience. Lights or even a boom pole/ microphone could be hanging behind the top black bar. On the bottom, there could be cables and dolly track being hidden. They also direct the eye to what’s important. Take a look at this image from Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar.
The image on the left puts more emphasis on McConaughey and Foy, emphasizing their father/daughter relationship that’s about to be destroyed when he travels off into space; Chalamet is an unimportant element of the background. But, on the right side, half of Chalamet’s head is cut off and his very presence is intrusive to the shot and scene.
VIII: What About Netflix and Other Streaming Services?
Although Netflix ran into some trouble for letting subscribers view cropped versions of the films they’ve been licensed from 2011-2014, their quality control has vastly improved, and films are remaining in their original aspect ratios. Amazon, HBO and HULU have also done a superb job in quality control and consistency.
IX: To Sum Things Up
Cinephiles simply shouldn’t have to worry that the aspect ratio they are watching on broadcast or any of the above-mentioned mediums isn’t of the director’s original, artistic intention. Content providers need to stop cropping/removing the black bars from films for broadcast and any future platform releases. Finally, do your own research to find what the original aspect ratio was in case it doesn’t look right to you. IMDB is a great place to start.