Avi Greengart is the Research Director for Consumer Devices at Current Analysis (Mobile Phones, Connected Devices, and Digital Home). He also regularly writes for Slashgear, sporadically blogs at Home Theater View and Tweets far too often as @greengartAvi's expertise lies in understanding consumer electronics marketing, consumer behavior, and technology adoption patterns: where new technologies meet the mass market. 



Avi Greengart is an expert on the convergence of technology and entertainment: video, audio, computing, and wireless, how these are coming together, and what's likely to survive long enough to make a difference in your life.

Column #44 (12/15/02)

DVD 101: Taming Those Black Bars

It doesn't always have to be complicated here at Greengart.com -- we get plenty of basic questions, too.  Here's one for everyone first using a DVD player and wondering about those black bars on top and bottom of the screen.  You'll find a  primer on aspect ratios (how wide the picture is) at the end:


I have a Denon 1600 DVD player but a regular TV - When I play a Widescreen DVD I have black bars on top and bottom - they look usually large - is this normal?  I have progressive scan but cannot use it.  Also I don't have a zoom.  Is there anyway this can be adjusted?

AskAvi Replies:

The black bars on top and bottom of widescreen movies are perfectly normal - it means you're seeing the movie the way it was originally intended to be displayed by the director and cinematographer.  Practically speaking, this makes a big difference whenever things are happening on opposite ends of the screen (like two people talking to each other), for artistic composition (scenery, foreground/background shots) or if there's detail throughout the frame (for example, in Star Wars and Pixar movies).  In any of those situations, the wide, rectangular movie format is critical; without it, you lose the scenery, the detail, or the acting of one of the actors.

How do they make a movie "formatted to fit your screen?" They either chop a bit off of both sides of the picture (leaving the middle), or they cut off a fair amount from one side or the other (to focus on the sides, depending on what's happening in the scene).

So widescreen movies are usually a good thing (you do want to see the whole picture, right?)  However, on small 4:3 (traditional squarish-shaped) TV sets, the lower resolution of the actual picture area due to the bars on top and bottom can make it tough to make out what's going on at all.  On really small TV sets, it can actually be worse than chopping off parts of the picture for the pan-and-scan process. Your choices in that situation:

  1. Get a better (bigger and/or widescreen) TV
    bulletPRO: see the whole movie with minimal black bars
    bulletCON: it's expensive, and large traditional tube and rear projection televisions may not be a be a good fit for smaller rooms and spaces
  2. Buy/rent versions of movies that include a 4:3 (usually called "full frame") version on the disc
    bulletPRO: no black bars
    bulletCON: pan-and-scan process means you're missing parts of the picture
  3. Use a zoom playback mode found on certain DVD players, specifically designed to zoom in on widescreen movies and eliminate the black bars (this is different from the regular zoom feature found on many DVD players which allows you to zoom in on one area of the picture)
    bulletPRO: no black bars
    bulletCON: not only are you missing parts of the picture, you're simply chopping off the sides.  The pan-and-scan process, while it removes valuable picture content, is at least supervised by someone from the movie studio (sometimes even the director), ensuring that the part of the picture you see is relevant to the plot.  With a DVD zoom playback mode, you're simply chopping off the sides and some of the top of the picture indiscriminately - that's no way to watch a movie!

Another way to deal with black bars is to understand how your choice of movie genres affects aspect ratio, because, ultimately, the thickness of the black bars depends upon the aspect ratio of the movie itself.  In English, that means: it depends on how wide a widescreen movie it is.  Common ratios include:

Aspect Ratio What Movies What Shape How Thick Are the Bars?
1.33:1 All movies prior to the 1950's Squarish just like your TV (not widescreen at all) None
1.66:1 Many Disney animated movies, some foreign films Slightly rectangular Thin black bars
1.78:1 No movies, but HDTV programs are usually in this ratio Rectangular Medium black bars
1.85:1 most mainstream Hollywood fare and, increasingly, prime time TV Rectangular Medium black bars
2.35:1 Hollywood epics, epic-wannabes, and costume/scenery dramas Long rectangle Thick black bars
2.55:1 Technicolor/Todd-AO/70mm Hollywood epics from the mid-1950's and early 1960's Long, thin rectangle Thickest black bars


Please note: All submissions to AskAvi@Greengart.com become the property of Greengart.com, and Greengart.com retains all copyrights of both questions and answers. (Don't send us anything you intend to copyright or patent.) Not all submissions will be answered.


2001, 2002 Avi Greengart