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06 What is letterboxing? (rec.arts.movies.current-films)


This article is from the rec.arts.movies.current-films FAQ, by Evelyn C. Leeper evelynleeper@geocities.com with numerous contributions by others.

06 What is letterboxing? (rec.arts.movies.current-films)

In case you hadn't noticed, movie screens have a different shape than
television screens. This means that when a movie is shown on a
television screen, it doesn't fit. Up until recently, this meant that
either the left and right ends of the picture were cropped off, or the
picture was "panned and scanned" (the camera would seem to go back and
forth between the left and right sides, usually done for scenes in which
the two characters speaking were at the far left and right of a scene),
or that the picture was warped so that everyone looked tall and thin
(this was usually done for credit sequences so the full names could fit
on the screen, or you would think you were watching "ne with the Wi").
Now some companies are releasing "letterboxed" versions of films on
videocassettes and videodisks. These have a black bar at the top and
bottom of the screen, allowing the full width of the picture to be
included, but resulting in a smaller picture--that is, a character ten
inches tall in a non-letterboxed version might be eight inches tall in a
letterboxed one.

Long answer:
From Matthias Walz (b228@mail.fh-wuerzburg.de)

Some remarks related to the pan&scan-theatrical-format-confusion in several
film-related groups (sorry for being lengthy, but the matter is

Once or twice a week I'm working as projectionist in a repertory cinema,
where four (!) different formats are used for projection (1.33:1, 1.66:1,
1.85:1 and CinemaScope, 2.35:1). My job includes assembling the different
reels (usually five for 90-100 minutes) of the film before showing it the
first time. During this process, the projectionist has to figure out which
picture format to use for projection. This is sometimes quite confusing -
a few remarks about the topic:

1. Up to the Fifties, all films were shot in 1.33:1 and also intended for
projection in this aspect ratio.

2. Since the Fifties, many films were still shot in 1.33:1 (probably for
financial reasons), but most of them are intended to be shown in 1.66:1 or
even 1.85:1. If you'd show them in 1.33:1, you'd see exciting things like
dolly tracks at the bottom or microphones and even studio lights at the top
of the picture. Once I used 1.33:1 (by mistake) for Hitchcock's "North By
Northwest", with the result that in the forest scene preceding the
Mt.Rushmore finale, studio lights as well as the top of the stage decoration
depicting the forest became visible. This ruined the effect of the scene
completely - the magic was gone.

3. To make things even worse, sometimes different aspect ratios are used in
one and the same film - up to three (the reason for tgis? I'm not sure.
Maybe the film studios use up film material that's left over from other
projects). I can remember a print which contained shots in all three
"normal" formats: 1.33:1, 1.66:1 and 1.85:1. In this case, you have to show
the print in the widest format (1.85:1), otherwise you'd have a "letterbox
effect" on the screen during scenes shot in 1.33:1 or 1.66:1 !

4. The reason why film companies don't bother about using different formats
for the same film lies in the fact that most cinemas use only two different
formats for projection anyway (one theater-specific lens in the range from
1.66:1 to 1.85:1, and 2.35:1 for anamorphic projection). Therefore, if a
1.33:1 film is shown in such a theatre, portions of the picture are cropped
at the top and the bottom of the screen.

Now to the film-on-tv-thing:

The normal TV screen has an aspect ratio of about 1.3:1. If the network
wants to show the film in the format intended by the filmmakers, it has just
the same problems as the poor theatre projectionist dealing with four
different formats. If the network doesn't care too much for artisitc
subtleties and follows a "full screen"-policy (as some German commercial
networks do), you'll see effects like the above-mentioned (North By


If the film is shown on TV in the aspect ratio it was intended to be shown,
it has to be letterboxed, except for the 1.33:1 films. In the case of
CinemaScope films, there's definitely nothing hidden by the black bars. In
all other cases of letterboxing, there may be something hidden behind the
bars - but something you wouldn't care for anyway.

I hope this brings all this nonsense (B. Faber et al.) about censorship by
letterboxing to a well-deserved end in cyberhell. Letterboxing is the only
way to show a film on TV as it was meant to be shown.


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