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Letterboxing vs. Pan-and-Scan: Most Viewers Don't Know What They're Missing

by John Cunningham 1997

"Pan-and-scan" is the process by which a portion of the widescreen theatrical image of a film is selected to fill your TV screen. It is called "pan-and-scan" because the video operator who does it can "pan" or move across the widescreen image to (presumably) follow the action. He can also follow the action by creating additional "cuts," i.e.. by cutting from one portion of the widescreen image to another.

The basic problem in all of this is that the theatrical widescreen image is long and horizontal (a long rectangle, if you will) but your TV screen is basically square (at least for purposes of this discussion). The problem is: how do you fit a long rectangle into a square?

There are basically two methods. You can present the rectangle as a "strip" across the center portion of the square. This we have come to call "letterboxing" (because it resembles a horizontal letterbox slot). OR, alternatively, you can select a portion of the rectangle and fill the square with that. This, of course, is pan-and-scan.

What's lost with Pan-and-Scan:

It is a real shame that some people don't understand letterboxing and still think they're being cheated by those pesky "black bars" at the top and bottom of the screen. People frequently ask me how I feel about the colorization controversy, but the fact is I feel a lot more strongly against pan-and-scan. At least with colorization you may be able to turn the "color" off on your TV set, but with pan-and-scan you end up with only about 1/3 to 1/2 of the image (OR LESS!, see below) --and you can't do anything about it.

I'm not a math whiz (and don't have time to try), but Anton Wilson (who is a bit of a math whiz and technical cinema scholar) has written an excellent article on this subject with all the aspect ratios, diagrams, documentation, percentages, and pertinent info.

Strictly speaking of aspect ratios only, pan-and-scan probably seems to yield around half of the anamorphic image area. BUT when you take into account the cropping of the broadcast picture, the yield becomes substantially worse.

When a film is broadcast, it sustains picture losses at two main points: first, when it is "scanned" for broadcast (or video transfer) and later on the home TV. During scanning, not all of the film frame is scanned, or transferred, to the video master. The experts tell us that there is an image loss of approx. 6% at this stage. The approx. 94% that is transmitted is termed "transmitted area." However, your TV doesn't display the full 94%!

The greatest loss comes when the picture reaches the home TV. All TV manufacturers build their units to "overscan" the image somewhat. This means that picture information is lost off the edges of the home TV screen. Depending upon the manufacturer this loss is said to be between 9 and 15% in each direction (horizontal & vertical). It can be even greater on older TV sets.

Compared to the theatrical image, this overscan typically loses from 15 to 25% of picture area (even in a 1.33:1 film). This area varies from TV to TV. But for a widescreen film, when you add this to the lost picture from the pan-and-scan process, the overall lost-image figure worsens.

Since a "letterboxed" movie is only victimized by lost "transmitted area" and overscan on it's sides, the figures for it are a whole lot better (only approximately 10% loss). (The pan-and-scan image is victimized by the loss on ALL four sides.)

Speaking in terms of a TV pan-and-scan print: when all the math is done, for a film shot in 1:85:1 (today's "normal" standard image-width to image-height ratio) the home viewer sees 41% to 53% of the film he would have seen projected in a theatre. For Panavision (and "later Cinemascope," [see below])-- that is, for a film shot in widescreen (with an image ratio of 2.35:1)-- the home viewer watching a pan-and-scan print sees only 32% to 41% of the theatre projected image. Without letterbox you see only about 1/3 of the picture. When are you going to watch the other two-thirds of the film?

Also, due to the severe overscanning on some TV sets (and I've seen some like this--I used to have one!) Wilson says that some viewers watching a pan-and-scan transfer of an anamorphic (2.35:1) film may be seeing as little as 1/4 of the theatrical image! (And judging by my old TV set, I'd say he's right!)

Also, when dealing with classic films, it must be borne in mind that during the first years of Cinemascope, the ratio was 2.55:1 (wider than Panavision and later Cinemascope). This was changed several years later (presumably late 50's) when optical soundtracks were added to Cinemascope prints and also because Panavision had by then come along with the more moderate ratio of 2.35:1, and the folks in charge of the "Cinemascope" trademark (Fox) decided to standardize to that (mainly because Panavision's lenses were superior to the Bausch & Lomb lenses originally developed for Cinemascope).

Obviously, a "letterboxed" video transfer will still suffer broadcast overscanning on it's two sides, but only negligibly on top or bottom. I don't know how the exact math works out, and maybe saying that pan-and-scan only sees 1/3 is overstating the case by just a tiny bit, but not by much.

Judging by Wilson's figures, there would be an approximate 10% loss in image area on a letterboxed transfer (meaning you see 90%), as opposed to a 59% to 68% loss on a pan-and-scan transfer. (You see 32 to 41%, or an average of 37%, depending upon your TV.)

Thus, talking averages here, the pan-and-scan would represent about 41% of the Letterboxed image (and about 37% of the theatrical image).

You can call this 41% pan-and-scan "one-half" of the letterboxed image, or call it "one-third" --whatever-- the point is that either way it is a significant loss of the picture which the filmmakers intended us to see.

[A fun experiment, if you have two VCRs and two TV screens, is to run the pan-and-scan version of a film on one screen and the letterboxed version on the other in as close sync as possible and see what you're missing when you don't watch letterbox. I did this with "Lawrence of Arabia" for my wife and now she is as crazy about letterboxing as I am! "Doctor Zhivago" also works well for such an experiment as does almost any musical with dancing, and of course "Pillow Talk" is completely useless in a pan-and-scan version.]

[Based on my own visual comparisons (admittedly subjective, and with two different TV screens) I'd say that at best on a pan-and-scan print you're seeing only 40% or so of the letterboxed image--especially on a true Cinemascope (2.55:1) print.]

All of this is probably mumbo-jumbo to most, but THE BOTTOM LINE (math notwithstanding) is that those pesky "black bars" are wonderful things!

Knowing what you're missing-- how they choose what to scan:

A competent director and cinematographer (a.k.a. "director of photography") working in a widescreen format will work very hard to fill the width of the screen and compose shots that will play across the whole width of the wide screen. When you convert this with pan-and-scan there is always compromise--sometimes severe compromise--in what the filmmaker originally intended.

Here's a simple example from AMC's recent presentation of PEYTON PLACE (1957). This is just an example I happened to notice, and I'll admit it's not a critical scene in this particular instance--but it could be! (This is from memory...)

There is a scene in which Selena (Hope Lange) enters the back part of Constance's dress shop and Betty (Terry Moore) is trying on a dress as a group of her friends look on. In the letterbox presentation, Selena enters the scene more or less in the middle of the screen. Betty is at far screen right trying on the dress. The friends are grouped on far screen left watching her. Selena enters between them (thematic symbolism by the director here: Selena is uneasy when "caught" in the middle of the popular crowd).

In the pan-and-scan version the video operator chose to divide the shot into two separate shots by means of "cuts" back and forth. So, on the square screen, we see Selena enter on the left of the screen (i.e., we are watching the RIGHT side of the widescreen --the group of friends are chopped off) as Betty tries on the dress on the right. We don't even know that the friends are there! Selena and Betty have some lines and, finally, one of the group speaks up. The pan-and-scan operator then cuts to the far left of the widescreen and we see the group of girls on the left and Selena (who is center screen in the widescreen) is now on the right of the pan-and-scan.

Thus, not only is the visual symbolism lost, and not only did we not know the group of girls was there at first, but in the pan-and-scan version, Selena "jumps" from screen left to screen right! Any director, cinematographer, film editor or first-year film production student will tell you that this is a MAJOR no-no. But what can the poor pan-and-scan operator do?

Some pan-and-scan operators are competent, intelligent people who are sincerely trying to cover the action the best they can with the "compromise" means they are using. Many others, frankly, don't care. Many times they are rushing to transfer as much film footage as they can in a day's time ($$$!) and they don't feel they have the time to give thought to the best way to cover a scene in pan-and-scan. Also, many times they do not have the creative training (in film editing, matching action, composition, etc.) to make these creative decisions. There can be no question that in pan-and-scan, the filmmaker's vision is altered.

Personally, I like to see all of the films I watch. I like to see the compositions (framing) the way the director and cinematographer intended and not have the decision made for me (by an anonymous video technician) as to which portion of the screen I should be looking at at any given moment!

© 1997 John Cunningham

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Last updated: March 10, 2011.
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