Mike Frank asks what the 'standard anti-letterboxing argument' would be.
As I understand it, it holds that if a film is photographed in order to be
shown in a certain ratio, thern showing it in any other ratio (i.e.
carrying out the technical change necessary to achieve this) fundamentally
changes the visual qualities of the image from those which were intended by
the film-maker, and thus is not advisable. To this, however, I would add
1. Hollywood now generally adopts a 'shoot-and-protect' policy for films
in spherical ratios. Basically, the US, the UK, certain parts of Western
Europe and Japan uses 1:1.85 as the industry standard spherical ratio, and
therefore most Hollywood productions which are not in 'scope are designed
to look their best in 1:1.85. However, France, India, Australia and most
of South America use 1:1.66 as their standard, whilst Russia and China
still have 1:1.33 as their primary film format. Added to this, films are
increasingly having to be compatible with the widescreen TV standard of
16:9, which translates roughly as 1:1.76. Therefore, Hollywood films still
have to be showable in these systems, which is why the prints do not
generally have hard mattes. You could, if you wished, show MANIAC COP 4 in
the Academy ratio - but a large swathe of the frame would contain no
action. Ironically, this is exactly the opposite of letterboxing, i.e.
showing more of the original frame and magnifying it less.
2. Like subtitling, the quality of panning and scanning varies widely. If
the printer is constantly scanning an Academy-sized box in the middle of a
'scope frame, the result is guaranteed to look abysmal; but if it tracks
the essential action without moving too suddenly or often, then the film
can look surprisingly acceptable. Added to which, a television is not the
same as a cinema screen and therefore it could be argued that letterboxing
is essential in order to give a production an equal chance when transposed
to a different medium. It's not an argument I would personally accept, but
it's the only one I can think of in favour of letterboxing. After all, do
people regularly complain that films were originally released with
multi-channel soundtracks are regularly broadcast (or sold on retail video)
with mono sound?
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