Letter Boxing

Widescreen film formats have followed DVDs' rise in popularity - but not without a fierce debate

April 09, 2001|By Michael James | Michael James,SUN STAFF

The latest DVD movies look great on Ron Morman's 55-inch television - except for one glaring flaw.

"It's those awful black bars above and below the movie," says Morman, a 57-year-old building maintenance technician from Essex. "Everyone proclaims what a great technology this is and how you get a wider picture. But the way I see it, I'm losing visual. It looks like what they're doing is smashing the image and spreading it out."

Morman is learning the hard way that more than 80 percent of movies released on the new DVD medium are in "letterbox" format. It's a technique that preserves the original shape of the theatrical movie screen but wastes at least 25 percent of the space on a much "squarer" TV set.

Early buyers of DVD players were largely film fans who applauded the change because, they say, letterboxing presents the film as the director intended. But as DVD players move into millions of average households, many viewers feel cheated by the empty space - and don't mind saying so. Some critics even call the letterbox movement a conspiracy to force consumers to buy wider, more expensive, big-screen televisions.

"A growing number of people either don't understand about the widescreen concept, or they just don't want the concept," concedes Peter Staddon, senior vice president of marketing for Fox Home Entertainment. "They're saying, `I've paid for this TV set and I want the whole screen used.' They don't want to have to think about why there are black bars on Cleopatra's head."

The issue is one of mathematics - and aesthetics. The standard television set found in most of America's 250 million viewing households has an "aspect ratio" of 4:3, meaning the screen is 1.33 times as wide as it is high. Computer monitors have the same aspect ratio.

Unfortunately, most theatrical films were designed for the more rectangular screens of a movie theater, with an aspect ratio of 14:9, or 1.66 to 1. Some wide-screen epics were filmed in aspect ratios as high 2.66 to 1, meaning the image is nearly three times as wide as it is tall.

In the past, theatrical films were usually edited to fit the television screen for broadcast or videotape release. That meant leaving out part of the image, a scheme known as "pan and scan." But DVD releases are taking the opposite approach, shrinking the overall size of the image in order to fit the entire original picture on the TV screen.

If you're watching an epic like "Ben Hur," one of the "widest" films ever made, letterboxing means you'll be able to see more crashing chariots at the edges of your screen. But it also means your squarish television will have wide black borders at the top and bottom.

The change has produced heated arguments reminiscent of the debates of the 1950s, when black-and-white purists squared off against the philistines who wanted color in the NBC Peacock.

"For every person that comes along who bashes letterbox, there are 50 zillion advocates for it," says John L. Berger, a 31-year-old computer consultant in Mechanicsburg, Penn., who created a popular Letterbox/Widescreen Advocacy Web page. "There's no question it's better. Just take the `Music Man.' Letterbox lets you see all four members of the barbershop quartet, while the old format lets you see just three guys."

Letterboxers tell stories of Clark Gable's head being cut off in "Gone With The Wind," while the fullscreeners lament having to watch Schwarzenegger in action on a ribbon-like strip across their screen.

Caught in middle are major movie companies, who acknowledge that Middle America is having trouble getting the big picture on widescreen movies. Joe Amodei, executive vice president and general manager of USA Home Entertainment, which has produced DVDs for the movies "Traffic" and "Being John Malkovich," said he doesn't hear letterbox complaints at the office. But it's a different story at home.

"My wife would rather watch the movie in the regular format," Amodei says. "Missing that extra footage doesn't really matter to her. To certain people, that black bar bothers them. I think it's an issue that will go away as people replace their existing television set and the newer, larger sets take over."

That's not likely to be anytime soon. While the Consumer Electronics Association is heavily promoting sales of digital, wide screen TV sets, it estimates that standard TV sets will still outsell the widebodies by more than 20 to 1 this year.

As a TV film format, letterboxing has been around since the mid-1980s, but it has rarely showed up on VHS tape releases - with the exception of a few wide-screen classics. The industry's preference for pan-and-scan has always annoyed students of the film-maker's art.

Roger Ebert, the Chicago Sun-Times film reviewer whose weekly syndicated show, "Ebert & Roeper and the Movies," appears on more than 200 television stations, points to "The Graduate," a 1969 classic starring Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft, as an egregious example of pan & scan film formatting.

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