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 #46 (3/30/03)
DVD 103: Still More on Those Black Bars
I just purchased my first DVD player a couple of weeks ago. I've been puzzled about the black bars. I happened upon the zoom feature of the player and watched a movie like that. I initially thought the feature was using a different format on the DVD (or something ?). Only later did I realize I was missing parts of the film ! Your article on the aspect ratios etc. has been very informative. Thanks for maintaining that.
Now my question: What I'm wondering about is all those video cassettes I've been renting before. How come there aren't any black bars on those? Surely they come from the same original source as the DVD ? So are they using pan&scan or are they zooming? Either way, it means I've been missing parts of the movie... :-) Or is it something else ??? If they are making the cassettes in some way that preserves all the video image (different formats ???) then I'd prefer to rent those rather than the DVD.
Actually, the source used for previously released movies on VHS and the source when they re-release the same movie on DVD is almost never the same -- they typically create a new digital master when creating the DVD. But that by itself isn't the reason for the images on the video cassettes filling your (square) TV screen - there were some VHS cassettes with widescreen pictures on them.*
The video cassettes you rented didn't have black bars because nearly all them were panned and scanned, and yes, you missed out on 33% of the movies you rented all those years. Go sue somebody. (You may have never noticed it, but many of them have disclaimers "This Film Has Been Modified To Fit Your Screen.")
There is one other possibility: some films shot in the 1.85:1 ratio on super35 film can be shown in 1.33:1 by simply showing the entire 35mm film frame, called "open matte." This provides more visual information on top and bottom of the image without losing any of the information in the (rectangular) middle. However, this only works when the cinematographer knows they're going to do this ahead of time - otherwise, boom microphones and various other things that aren't supposed to be seen in the theater will end up on screen. Even in these cases, the cinematographer usually arranges the scene with the 1.85:1 theatrical (and now the widescreen DVD) release in mind. Anything else in the scene on top or bottom is, by definition, superfluous, as it won't be seen in the theater.
Which leads to one other caveat of full frame super35 releases: any scene with special effects or animation will typically still need to be panned and scanned, because the studio usually only creates expensive effects and animation for the (rectangular) part of the frame that will actually be seen in theaters. So, at home, even with an open matte release, unless you have the widescreen version, you'll still only see part of the explosions, effects, futuristic cityscapes, etc. in certain scenes.
There's one other -- extremely rare -- exception: several Pixar films have been digitally recomposited for full screen DVD releases. This isn't panning and scanning - the director went back and changed every single "shot" in the film - since we're talking about digital animation, they can move their "actors" closer together or change "camera angles" after the fact. You can find a great featurette on this process on the A Bug's Life "Super Genius" Edition DVD (watch it and it'll make sense).
*I still have one or two in my collection, and they look terrible: VHS has only 240 lines of resolution, and there are no widescreen releases on VHS with extra resolution, like DVDs that are "enhanced for widescreen TVs." When some of those 240 lines are used to paint black bars on top and on bottom, what's left in the middle can be awfully fuzzy.
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