A Widescreen Primer

a guide to widescreen on home video for those who can't define "anamorphic"
by Michael Demtschyna

Part Two - When is Less Actually More?


    If you have already read Part One of this article, you will be aware of the issues that arise when widescreen film is transferred for viewing on narrower TVs. Compromises have to be made either to the original width of the film or to the size of the image on the TV. The compromise discussed in the preceding article was the Pan & Scan process, a method by which the width of the widescreen image is sacrificed in order to fill a narrow TV frame with the remainder of the image.

    This is actually an oversimplification of the issue, as there are two other compromise techniques commonly used in filmmaking to accommodate the narrower aspect ratio of TVs - soft matting (full frame transfers) of 1.85:1 movies, and Super 35 photography of 2.35:1 movies. These are the subject of this article. Additionally, we will also cover the concept of anamorphic photography, used for the conventional production of 2.35:1 movies, as you need to understand this to understand the requirement for Panning & Scanning in certain situations.

1.85:1 Movies can be Panned & Scanned or Open Matted

Pan & Scan

    If the intended aspect ratio of a movie is 1.85:1, there are two ways in which the original widescreen image can be modified for narrow TV screens. One of these is by using the Pan & Scan process as already discussed, but the more common process is known as open matting, or full frame transfers. As a reminder, reproduced below is an example of a 1.85:1 movie that has been Panned & Scanned.

Panning & Scanning a 1.85:1 film

This is a still frame from the 1998 classic Lock, Stock, And Two Smoking Barrels. The film was originally presented in an aspect ratio of 1.85:1. Note the bag of golf clubs on the extreme right of the frame near Frank Harper, and the number of trees in the painting in the background.

This is the same still frame from Lock, Stock, And Two Smoking Barrels after having been cropped in order to fit onto a 1.33:1 television screen. The golf bag is now missing, as are a noticeable number of trees on both sides of the background painting. The result is a shot that looks and feels much more cramped than in its original form, and is not what director Guy Ritchie had intended.

Full Frame (Open Matte)

    To fully understand the open matte or full frame process (and the other processes mentioned later on), you need to realise that most film, all the way from original negative to final theatrical release print, is actually 1.33:1 wide, regardless of the final intended aspect ratio of the movie being shot or projected. Movie cameras and film projectors both take 1.33:1 sized film.

    When a 1.85:1 movie is being shot, extra image is actually captured to that which the director and cinematographer intend to be shown in the movie theatre. This is usually at the top and the bottom of the image. When the image is being composed through the camera, markings on the viewfinder show the director and cinematographer what will actually show up theatrically, so that important image details are not left out of shot.

    When it comes time to show the movie theatrically, the 1.33:1 print has a masking plate placed in the image path so that unwanted parts of the image are not shown in the theatre, and instead the audience sees what the director intended. This process is known as soft matting.

    The key concept here is that there is indeed extra image available to that which is shown theatrically, and to that which was intended to be seen artistically by the director and the cinematographer. This extra image comes in handy when it comes time to transfer the movie to a TV format, as instead of losing image width, as with the Pan & Scan process, you can simply remove the mattes to get a 1.33:1 image. Thus, there is no loss of image, and indeed there is extra image shown.

    However, all is not as rosy as it would appear with this process, as two compromises have been made;

  1. The image is no longer in the director and cinematographer's intended aspect ratio. They composed their images to be seen at this aspect ratio, and this is compromised by the full frame process, losing artistic impact as a result.

  2. Sometimes unwanted information can be seen in the opened matte sections of the image, such as boom microphones, camera tracks, and other things invisible at the theatrical aspect ratio.

A Full Frame Transfer of a 1.85:1 film
This is a still frame from Forever Young. This is how the movie appeared in theatres. This is the same still frame after the top and bottom mattes have been removed. Note the extra picture shown at the top and the bottom of the screen. Note also the different feel of the images, with the additional information taking the focus away from the intended subject of the shot.

2.35:1 Films use Anamorphic Photography

    As explained above, most film negative stock is actually 1.33:1 wide, but this has been adapted to widescreen use. In the case of 1.85:1 movies, a small amount of image resolution is sacrificed by simply discarding the top and the bottom of the image. This is not a problem in practice. However, for 2.35:1 movies, the situation is not as simple. If 2.35:1 movies were made simply by matting the top and the bottom of the image, 50% of the resolution of the film stock would be lost. By the time this reached the theatre, the nett result would be a very poor quality image.

    This problem has been resolved by the development of anamorphic photography. The processes involved have various trade names, but the common ones are Panavison and Cinemascope.

    In these processes, a special lens is placed on the camera which distorts the image. It squeezes images horizontally by a factor of 2 to 1. The entire film negative is used to capture the image. The film negative is 1.33:1 wide, but the image captured is actually 2.35:1 wide. If you look at the developed negative, the image appears tall and narrow. When the film is projected, a complementary lens is used to project the image which expands the image back to the original 2.35:1. Thus, image quality is maintained as no area of the negative is wasted.

    Films produced using this process must be Panned & Scanned when they are transferred to a narrow format. There is no additional picture information available, as the entire camera negative has been used up capturing the widescreen image.

Panning & Scanning a 2.35:1 film

Both of the above examples come from the film Gattaca. Note the carefully composed widescreen shots on the left, emphasizing the smallness of the humans in relation to the enormous, carefully framed and symmetrical backgrounds. Both the scale and the symmetry of the backgrounds are destroyed by the panning & scanning process, decreasing the impact of these scenes.

2.35:1 Films can use the Super 35 Process

    The Super 35 process is an attempt to achieve much the same goals for 2.35:1 films as the open matte process achieves for 1.85:1 movies - an acceptable presentation of a widescreen movie on a narrow TV screen.

    A Super 35 image is photographed onto film stock which is the same shape as ordinary 1.33:1 film stock, but where the space normally reserved for audio tracks on the film stock is used for image.

    The theatrical release print is made by matting a little under 1/2 of the original negative and then zooming in on the remaining image. For narrow TV images, again the image is opened up by removing the matte, although the sides of the image are also narrowed a little in the process.

A Super 35 Transfer

This is a still from The Game, shot using the Super 35 process.

This is the full screen version of The Game. Note the combination of image characteristics; firstly there is more image top and bottom of screen, and secondly, there is less information at the sides of the image.

    There are a number of issues inherent in Super 35 cinematography and its open matte presentation. Firstly, since almost half of the original negative image is discarded when producing the theatrical print, the final resolution of the image is not as good as it would be with the conventional anamorphic process used for the production of 2.35:1 movies. The end result can be a very grainy looking theatrical image with poor image resolution.

    There are also issues with the open matte TV presentation of the movie, more of an issue for special effects extravaganzas than it is for more straightforward dramatic or comedic movies. Special effects shots for movies are normally produced at a single aspect ratio, usually the theatrical aspect ratio. So, special effects shots for 2.35:1 movies are produced at 2.35:1 - to do otherwise would be a waste of resources and money for what is already a very expensive process. When it comes time for these shots to be prepared for display on narrow screens, unlike the conventional Super 35 shots which have additional image top and bottom which can be utilized, there is no additional image available to show for the special effects shots, so they need to be Panned & Scanned.

Closing Remarks

    We hope that the above discussion of the processes involved in producing narrow screen versions of widescreen movies will serve to explain a number of things you may have noticed in your journey through the widescreen wilderness, such as occasionally noticing less image on your DVD than on VHS or TV versions of movies. Indeed, often the term "widescreen presentation" may not be the most correct description for a transfer, and "original theatrical aspect ratio" would be the more technically accurate term.

    Regardless of all of the above, hopefully we have shown that these other presentation methods are merely compromises to accommodate increasingly outdated and disappearing technology (narrow aspect ratio display devices), and they all compromise the artistic integrity of the director and cinematographer's vision. We should all be demanding transfers in the original theatrical aspect ratio, as these are closest to the director's and cinematographer's visions.

Michael Demtschyna (read my bio)
March 24, 2005