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?
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:
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:
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