The evil of pan scan
By Craig Smye
When TV was switched from round to rectangular screens in the late 1940s, it had the same dimensions as movie screens of that time and has ever since.
The screen was slightly wider than it was high, a ratio of 1.33:1, or 4:3. By the late '50s, movie studios were fighting off TV's popularity with a number of technical innovations; better sound, smell-o-rama, and most importantly, widescreen film formats. Cinemascope was the most popular widescreen format, with an aspect ratio of 2.35:1. Feature films today are released in ratios between 1.85:1 and 2.35:1.
The wider film formats more closely approximate a person's natural field of vision, giving films a more immersive feel. They also allow more room for movement within the frame and more panoramic views of the action. All in all, a more "cinematic" experience than the one provided by a television screen.
When a film is transferred to video, it is subjected to a process called "Pan and Scan." The picture is cropped at the sides and in certain scenes will be scanned back and forth in an attempt to keep the action centered 30-45 per cent of the original picture is lost. Whole characters must be dropped from certain shots, often leading to instances where voices seem to come in from one side. Whereas originally, the audience would see the hero and villain at opposite sides of the frame with their guns trained on one another, we now get a close-up of one or the other, to less-dramatic effect. The difference is most notable in special effects films, or those with an emphasis on cinematography.
To most cinema enthusiasts, this is analogous to dropping words from a song in order to fit it onto a CD; it takes away from the artist's creative vision and reduces the impact of the piece.
Salvation comes in the form of "letterboxing," where the entire image is reduced and sandwiched between two black bars. Some image size is sacrificed for the sake of seeing the entire picture, a case of less-of-more, as opposed to more-of-less. Laserdiscs are almost always released in letterbox format.
Unfortunately, it is only recently that studios have begun to cater to the VHS widescreen market. The Star Wars Trilogy Special Edition release in late August has been a great boon to the cause, with consumers opting for the widescreen edition in one out of three cases. This served as a wake-up call to the studios, who promptly announced upcoming letterbox VHS releases of, among others, the Alien and Batman trilogies, both long overdue.
The upcoming HDTV standard will be somewhat wider than current TV screens, about 16:9, which will make the "black bar" effect less prominent and thus help promote the widescreen format. Certain shows filmed in wide formats like Babylon 5 and Lois & Clark, will finally be broadcast as they were originally intended.
Many video stores and retail chains now have dedicated widescreen sections, although the selection is invariably limited. For now, video renters should always check to see if the movie they're about to get is available in the widescreen section. If not, they should mention to the staff they would have liked to see the whole picture.
For renters in London, Flixx on Richmond Row has the most widescreen titles. People looking to buy should check out Music World in the Galleria.