The Basics

I think the best place to start is an examination as to why movies and TVs are different. The root of this problem is that movies are filmed and shown in much wider dimensions than TV programs are. The proper term for this is the aspect ratio. Your average TV show is broadcast with an aspect ratio of 4:3. That is, for every 4 units of width, there are 3 units of height. This is what gives your TV screen it's slightly rectangular shape. Movies, however, are shot and presented usually in one of two aspect ratios, either 1.85 : 1 or 2.35 : 1. These ratios are much wider than they are tall, which gives us the familar widescreen look we all know from movie theatres. The two diagrams below illustrate the two different aspect ratios.

So what happens when you try to fit the movie image on to a TV screen that is a different shape? There are two solutions. The first solution, which is what VHS tapes do, is called Pan and Scan (or full frame). In this solution, a rectangle which is the same shape as a TV screen, is digitally carved out of each and every frame of the movie. In essence, you chop off the sides of the film frame so that a 4:3 rectangle is left. This rectangle will then fill the entire TV screen because of its' shape. Unfortunately two problems are created when you use this solution. First, by chopping off the sides, you never get to see what the director intended you to see in those parts of the frame. Like a painter, some directors use every bit of the celluloid canvas available to them. Much thought is given to how a shot is composed sometimes. For example, some directors will position their characters at opposite extreme edges while having a conversation. To ensure that both characters can be seen in a shot, a technique called Pan and Scan is used. The cropping 4:3 rectangle is digitally moved to the left and right (panning and scanning) to make sure that all elements in the original frame are seen. Sadly, this amounts to an artificial camera move that the director never intended to make and that was never in his/her original vision. It ruins whatever the director wanted you see. The second problem with Pan and Scan is that by limiting the viewable area to that 4:3 rectangle, you are essentially zooming into the original frame for the entire movie. Zooming in like that reduces the resolution of the movie and brings out the film grain. You get a crappier image is the end result.

The second, and best solution is to present the movie in its' original aspect ratio, all in widescreen glory. To do this, the whole 2.35:1 movie frame is fit into the 4:3 TV screen. The only drawback is that a small portion of the top and bottom of the TV screen is not utilized, the much talked-about "black bars". Geometry being what it is, the bars are unvoidable. The benefit, however, is that you get to see the whole movie frame and the director's original vision is never compromised.

The diagrams below illustrate the solutions mentioned above.

Original film frame

Movie cropped to fit a TV screen

Movie presented in widescreen - no missing elements

Next, I'll show you how using Pan and Scan can really ruin a movie and what you're missing without Widescreen. It's worth it!

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