A Brief and Basically Correct Explanation about How Widescreen Films are Transferred to Television (with illustrations)

In the mid-1950s, the cinema adopted a new format for displaying its works, primarily as a response to increased competition from television: the widescreen format. This concept involves a reshaping of the projected image so that each frame is now considerably wider than it is tall. Whereas most films produced before this time were presented in an aspect ratio of 1.37:1 (width:height), common widescreen processes allow for ratios of 2.35:1 or 1.85:1, among others.

Cinema is foremost a visual medium, and it is therefore important for the audience to be able to see a film as the filmmakers intended it to be shown. Ideally, viewers would be able to see sparkling prints of whatever films they choose, projected at a comfortable theater and at a convenient time. But since this is not yet feasible, the current home formats should be made as accommodating as possible and should always show films in their proper aspect ratios.

Obviously, screens at movie theaters are usually equipped to show films in the appropriate dimensions, but the standard television set presents certain problems. As the graphics below specify, however, these problems can be prevented.

Film strip with 2.35:1 frame (hard matte)

A frame of a film shot in a widescreen 2.35:1 ratio. The entire image should retain its content and shape wherever shown.

Standing room only

The movie screen in a theater is wide enough to display the entire projected image.

Where's the rest of me?

Older television screens are rectangles with an approximate ratio of 1.33:1, and this means pre-1950s films lose very little when shown on this medium. But often widescreen films are reformatted for TV viewing which amounts to a dramatic loss in visual content. Additionally, the image becomes grainy and loses some sharpness when enlarged to fill the TV's entire frame. "Pan-and-scan" refers to the unnatural optical panning that is required to display some of the lost visual information. New TVs have a 16:9 ratio (or roughly 1.78:1), meaning that they also cannot accomodate 2.35:1 widescreen films without some letterboxing.

Less is More

Films presented in the letterbox format preserve the intended aspect ratio and provide a crisp, complete image.

For viewers interested in best approximating the original visual presentation of widescreen films, letterboxed home formats are clearly preferable over "pan-and-scan", full-frame versions.

Back to BLDKF Main Page or Viewing Guide

Or, return to the home page.