I am continually surprised by the amount of people who prefer to watch "non-letterbox" or "full screen" versions of films. I have heard everything from "it makes the picture look smaller" to "I hate the black bars." What full screen fans are missing out on is the directorâ€™s original intent for the movie. Film directors not only concentrate on what is being said in the movie, but the camera angles and framing play an important part in making a statement in a film.
Letterbox editions of films are necessary in order to get the full intended framing of a film. The problem with trying to watch films on conventional televisions is that the aspect ratio for movie screens and the aspect ratio for televisions are vastly different. A movie screen projects images on a rectangle shaped screen, as we are all familiar with. Often times the width of the movie screen is two times larger than the height. A standard television set obviously does not have the same set up. Although the television screen is not a perfect square, it is boxier in shape than a movie screen. As a result, it is impossible to view films in their intended framing without using the letterbox method.
When watching videos at home became popular in the 1980s, many manufacturers thought that they had a solution for the aspect ratio problem. The result was a technique called "pan and scan." The movie is re-edited by finding the center of focus in each frame and fitting that center in the viewing space available. There is a problem with the use of "pan and scan." Since the film is re-edited with a focus on keeping the main action in the center of the screen, it is not surprising that important dramatic framings are lost in the process. Characters are cut out of shots, panoramic views are chopped down and background details are lost.
For example, in a scene from Mel Brookâ€™s classic "Blazing Saddles," the "pan and scan" version shows Gene Wilder as Jim the Waco Kid alone in the frame speaking to a character off screen. However, in the widescreen version of the same shot, Jim the Waco Kid is speaking to Cleavon Littleâ€™s character Bart. Director Mel Brooks framed the shot originally to show the two characters interacting. However the use of "pan and scan" has reduced the scene to a shot of Jim the Waco Kid alone with Bartâ€™s disembodied voice interacting in the dialogue.
Another powerful example of the drawbacks of the "pan and scan" technique is from The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. The stunning panoramic views in this film are greatly reduced when viewing the film in a full screen format. In one scene from the film, the audience is shown the eye of Sauron on the top of the tower in Mordor. In widescreen and letterbox formats, the shot includes a faint glowing from the top of Sarumanâ€™s tower in Isenguard. These are the two towers to which the title refers. However, in the full screen "pan and scan" version the frame only includes the Mordor tower. The original framing underscores the theme of the film and points out that these two towers are working together for the forces of evil. The "pan and scan" version reduces this powerful framing to a simple shot of one tower.
Important background details can also be lost in the "pan and scan" process. In the James Bond film "Tomorrow Never Dies," the villain character played by Jonathan Pryce stands in front of a large screen. In the widescreen and letterbox versions, the screen is visible with the words "The Empire Will Strike Back." This message is lost in the "pan and scan" version.
Letterbox versions of films offer a solution to the problem by mimicking the shape of movie screens on conventional televisions. However, the main problem with letterbox versions is that the images appear smaller. Depending on the size of your television screen, this may be a hindrance to watching letterbox films.
There is a new solution though for film fans who donâ€™t want to sacrifice the framing of the film or the size of the image. Widescreen televisions bridge the gap between the Cineplex and your home theater. These televisions provide similar aspect ratios to movie screens and therefore can offer the intended framing of a film
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