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How Do You Want Your Movies Cropped?

Updated on November 16, 2017

This next article is going to be about original aspect ratios, or basically, the dimensions of the visual film. Confusing? Let me dumb it down for you. But it is basically about how movies come in different shapes, and should those shapes be cut to fill your television screen.

Let's start from the beginning. The very first cameras produced round images. This due to the round lense. It was decided that round photographs were undesirable, so metal plates were put in front of the lense so that the images would photograph as rectangles. And since a perfect square would use the maximum space in a circle, all early photographs were square. Which is why all early motion pictures were square, as were the film's when projected on screen.

Theaters weren't square. Stages were longer than tall. That's just how they had been for hundreds of years. When they were converted into movie theaters, there was unused space on either side of the square film screen. Even when theaters were built specifically to show films, they were still designed to be as wide as the past theaters. That was because the reason theaters were wide in the first place was so they could fit more seats, allowing them to sell more tickets.

For a while some film makers thought they could fill that excess space. While shooting their film, they would place three cameras side by side. The three separate film strips would be projected on three screens placed right next to each other. There were a lot of technical problems, and all three film strips rarely matched each other, leaving the picture to look like three separate films rather than one single film. The technology never took off.

In the 1940s television arrived. For the same technical reasons ( the round lense ) television screens were also square. Movie studios feared television, realizing Americans may rather stay home and watch television shows than go out to see a film. So they looked to technology to make theatrical films more exciting. They began looking into widescreen technology. A few different methods were developed. Some involving special cameras and projectors, some that used special lenses that compressed widescreen images on to square film, then stretched the image back to widescreen when projected. The cheapest method for everyone was to simply shoot the film as square, then have the film projected through a rectangle hole which cropped off the top and bottom of the image, resulting in a widescreen image on the screen.

When it came to showing all the old pre 1950s films on television, there was no problem. They were the same shape as the television screen. But showing widescreen movies on television was a problem. They did not fit on the screen.

Television stations were left with three options. Shrink the image so the entire length fit on the screen. That method, called letterboxing ( because viewers compared the shape to that of the slot on a door that mail comes through, ) proved undesirable as viewers complained about the black space at the top and bottom of the screen, which to them looked as if their sets had broken. The second method, use a lense to turn a widescreen image into a square image. Also undesirable as it made actors look unnaturally skinny.

The third method which eventually became standard was full screen. The name says it all. The widescreen image fills up the television screen. The only problem was that, depending on how wide the picture was, anywhere from half to three quarters of the film was cropped. Characters who you could hear talking were not on screen. Stuff you were meant to read, like captions, road signs and newspaper headlines were only partially on screen making them unreadable.

Television networks began paying editors to pan-and-scan their movies. Basically, moving the film back and fourth so that the characters who were talking remained on screen, cross cutting back and fourth when two characters on opposite sides of the widescreen we're having a conversation, and having the movie pan from left to right whenever text appeared on screen.

For those cheaper films shot square and cropped widescreen for theaters, they were simply shown as open matte. The only problem was that many directors expecting the movies to be cropped in the theaters left boom mikes and cables in the shot. These were cropped out for the widescreen, but in full view during television broadcasts.

Laserdisc was designed for movie enthusiests with large screen or projection television. They preferred letterboxing over full screen, because they wanted the entire movie, and wanted nothing cut out. While letterbox was common on laserdisc, it was a hard sell for the studios to release films in letterbox on VHS.

When the DVD format was introduced in the mid 90s, it was first marketed to owners of laserdisc, and as such, letterboxed most of their films. Once laserdisc was vanquished, DVD set it's sights on expanding into the lucrative VHS market. New releases were once again full screen. Many DVD owners complained, and the studios began releasing double sided DVDs with the full screen movie on one side and letterbox on the other. Gradually, letterbox became the preferred format. Just in time for the arrival of HDTV.

HDTV was a huge advance over the old analog sets of the past. Digital capable, flat screen, inhanced picture quality, colors the old sets were incapable of replicating, and screens large enough to take up an entire wall. Another advance was the decision to change the shape of the screen from square to widescreen. And it is this technical advance which is our current battleground.

First, what to do about the old movies and television shows that were square? The initial unfortunate decision was to crop them. Remove the top and bottom so they fit the widescreen sets. There was nothing new about this process. Studios had been cropping re-releases of their old movies for decades. No one seemed to notice until Siskel & Ebert chastised Disney on their show for cropping a re-release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Cropping the top and bottom seemed less intrusive. The tops of heads may have been cut off, but no characters disappearing off the sides of the screen. ( Although Siskel & Ebert did claim a bird Snow White was talking to got cropped. )

Ultimately cropping old movies and television shows to letterbox failed because of a previous scandal. Not interested in going through the extra expenses of remastering their movies, some home video distributors simply cropped their preexisting full screen masters and passed them off as widescreen. Original aspect ratio became the battlecry of all movie enthusiests. They would not accept anything else, and would give bad reviews to anything less.

Which brings us to the latest battle. Anamorphic widescreen. Laserdiscs and the early DVDs made for the old analog sets, were sending picture to a square screen. A square picture of the letterboxed movie and the black space above and below. Whit HDTV which is widescreen, any old square analog signal, as from a VCR or laserdisc player, will display the square picture in the center of the screen with a black space to the left and right. In the case of old letterbox movies, which are square pictures with the letterboxed image, you get black at the top, bottom, left and right, with the movie in the center, much smaller picture than the screen. Changing the setting to close up enlarges the image to fill the screen. But for technical reasons I don't really need to explain, the closeup image is at best blurry.

Enter anamorphic widescreen. Named after one of the processes for projecting widescreen film. An anamorphic lens on the camera compresses the picture so it can fit on a square frame of film. When the movie is projected, a reverse anamorphic lens stretches the film back to widescreen. Anamorphic on DVDs and Blu-ray works almost the same way. The encoded widescreen image is sent out as HDTV, while a second signal is sent out for analog sets that includes the black at the top and bottom making the picture square. When HDTV sets receive the anamorphic signal, the picture fills the entire screen. This is why HDTV owners demand anamorphic, and complain whenever a DVD, or even Blu-ray, is released as a standard letterbox.

There is a reason some movies are still released that way. Every time a movie is remastered, the master negatives wear out a little. This is why studios prefer using the master negatives as little as possible. They had already transferred thousands of their films onto VHS tapes in the full screen format when DVD first came around. Which is why older films continue to be released as full screen on DVD to this day. Thousands of more movies were transferred onto letterbox masters. To this day the studios are still using their letterbox masters, reluctant to wear their negatives on another remastering.


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