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December 1994, Week 2


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Jeremy Butler <[log in to unmask]>
Reply To:
Film and TV Studies Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>
Tue, 13 Dec 1994 16:57:22 CST
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Author:  [log in to unmask]
Date:    12/13/94 8:16 AM
[Editor's note:  This message was submitted to SCREEN-L by the "Author" noted
above, and not by Jeremy Butler ([log in to unmask]).]
Recently, there is has been a lot of discussion on aspect ratios and
letterboxing of films.  I just want to throw a grain of salt into this
discussion.  Just because a movie has been letterboxed does not mean you are
getting the whole image or the image as projected theatrically.  Most of the
time you will get most of what the original aspect ratio was, other times you
will get something that is not even close.  Only with the best transfers will
you get something that is dead-on.  Sometimes the letterboxing can go too far.
Someone mentioned microphones coming into shots on films that were shot full
frame for 1.85 projection.  Well, on MGM's laser transfer of The Great Escape,
they transferred it almost from sprocket hole to sprocket hole.  In one scene
(Steve McQueen's first cooler scene) you can see the edge of the set on the
left side and someone standing on the other side of the wall.  This was
definately not meant to be scene.  Criterion's subsequent release of the same
film correct the improper aspect ratio (as well as the color!).  So be careful
thinking letterboxed editions are perfect.
Clouding the issue is what format the film was originally lensed in.  Super 35
leaves the option of composition to the director.  James Cameron uses this
format.  On his recent laserdisc releases of The Abyss and Terminator 2, he
supervised the transfer of  both the widescreen and pan/scan editions.  Since
he shot in Super 35, nothing was lost on the edges in the pan/scan xfer
(actually a full frame xfer, no panning or scanning was done) and material was
added at the top and bottom.  He stated he preferred this version to the
widescreen (I don't).  This is just an example.  VistaVision was another format
that left it up to theater projectionists to matte the film.  Hence, differing
transfers of films such as North by Northwest.  Another example is Kubrick's
Dr. Strangelove: Or How I ... which was shot at 1.33 and 1.66 in camera!  He
wanted that version to be released and it was on the Criterion Collection
laserdisc release.  Was it noticable?  Not really.
The reason:  Consumer monitors overscan the picture to varying degrees.  Which
means in extreme cases, you could be losing 10% of your full screen pictures!
It is usually less than that but 5-8% is not uncommon.  So that means you are
not even seeing the whole picture on 1.33 releases which were all films prior
to '53 (with a few exceptions).  Some companies are now windowboxing transfers
of films.  That is putting a slight black band around the entire picture.  The
Chaplin films that Fox has recently remastered are like this on laser.
I just wanted to add this into the discussion.  By the way, most films get a
pan/scan and letterbox tranfer to video (I worked in post-production for many
years.)  And success in laservideo for a title sometimes means a letterbox tape
will be released.  American Movie Classics and TNT are now showing letterbox
versions of films, as is the Sci-Fi Channel which recently broadcast the Star
Wars Trilogy lboxed.  AMC usually will list in TV Guide if a film is
If you are interested in learning more on aspect ratios and video transfers I
can recommend the publication The Perfect Vision and Widescreen Review.  Both
go into in-depth discussion on recent video releases and how faithful aspect
ratios have been recreated.  If response warrants, I'll post addresses.
GWeir @ Discovery.Com