A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

How can they format a movie to fit my TV screen? How do they know what size my TV is?

November 20, 1998

Dear Cecil:

When I watch a movie on television or videotape, there is sometimes a statement that this movie has been formatted to fit my screen. My question is, how do they know what size my screen is?

Cecil replies:

They don't know, goof. They don't have to. What they know is  the proportions of your screen, which are the same for all North American TVs, namely 1.33:1 (that is, four parts wide by three parts high). Nowadays most films are shot in wider formats, and adapting them for the profitable video market can entail a number of strategems, some quite creative, some pretty kloodgy. Despite promised advances in TV technology, I'm betting the problem ain't going away, because of competing economic interests. But more on this in a mo.

First some history. Prior to 1953 all movies were shot in 1.33:1, and the infant TV industry adopted the same format. But for just that reason movie moguls decided they needed a different format to parry the perceived threat from the tube. They came up with two answers: 3-D, which was seldom more than a gimmick, and wide-screen projection, which became the industry standard. A variety of wide-screen formats were introduced, the most ambitious of which, Cinerama (2.62:1), required three projectors and a curved screen. That was too expensive for routine use, so most studios making "spectaculars" adopted processes variously known as CinemaScope, Techniscope, Panavision, etc. These required a 2.35:1 screen and special anamorphic lenses that squeezed the wide image onto standard 35-millimeter film stock and then expanded it back to full width when projected.

Theater owners soon hit on an even easier way to create wide-screen movies. They used a special plate in their projectors to mask the top and bottom of the image, then projected what was left on a wider screen. Voila, instant spectacular! Two formats were widely used--1.66:1, now used for most western European films, and 1.85:1, which became the U.S. standard. (The standard for 70-millimeter movies is 2.21:1.)

There's only one problem: creating wide-screen movies by chopping off the top and bottom of the picture sometimes cuts out important parts of the scene. So movie directors and cinematographers compensate by continuing to shoot most movies in 1.33:1 but composing scenes so that the important stuff will fit in a 1.85:1 or 1.66:1 frame when projected. (Lines scribed on the camera viewfinder aid in this.) This process has gotten so casual that studios sometimes release finished films with boom microphones, cables, etc., visible at the top and bottom of some scenes, confident that the theaters will cut the crap when they project.

So your movie has had its theatrical run, and now you're releasing it on video. What do you do? You could ship it out in the original 1.33:1 format, taking the risk that extraneous items would sometimes be visible. You could "letterbox" it, reducing the width so it fits the TV screen with black bars above and below the frame.

Often the best choice (though one that offends cinephiles) is what's known as "pan and scan," a lab process in which the copy camera moves around within the frame, allowing you to adjust what shows up on the TV screen on a scene-by-scene or even frame-by-frame basis. Let's take a dialogue close-up in which the actors are at the far right and left of an 1.85:1 frame. If you ran the shot at the original 1.33:1 (assuming this were even an option) you'd lose the close crop and thus some of the scene's intimacy and intensity. So instead lab magicians cut or pan back and forth between the two actors. Only one appears in the frame at a time, but if you do it right you retain the impact--well, some of the impact--of the theatrical release.

Mention this topic to any film buff and chances are you'll get a diatribe on movie scenes that were ruined during the conversion from theatrical to video formats. That may be so, but letterboxing, which preserves the original aspect ratio, is unacceptable to many consumers, who feel they're getting gypped if the movie image doesn't fill the entire screen. The problem no doubt will diminish with the advent of high-definition TV (HDTV), which promises a 16:9 aspect ratio (1.78:1) Till then the unsung geniuses in the film labs will have to do the best they can, certain in the knowledge that no matter what they do they'll make somebody mad. For a detailed technical discussion of the above, see home.pacbell.net/jim_sue/Cut-Off.htm.

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