The Controversial History of Letterboxing for Movies on Your TV

When you watch a wide-screen movie on a TV set (or on your computer), you often get black bars across the top and bottom to “letterbox” the film, which makes it seem small. It makes you want to go buy a bigger TV! Why did movie formats become so incompatible with TV formats? It started in earnest in 1953 when movie producers wanted to make the theater experience better than watching TV at home. We got Cinemascope, Cinema, and Panavision, all glorious wide-screen formats that became all the rage before Hollywood confronted what happens when those movies were later shown on television.

Many television networks decided to tackle the issue by using "pan-and-scan" versions of the films, which basically involved a film engineer selectively focusing on small parts of the screen and shifting the layout so as to match what was happening on the screen.

This technique, as you imagine, has some really negative effects on the films that used it. If a film was framed so that two people were standing far apart, for example, one would inevitably be cut off. Panning-and-scanning could hide moments of tension or even remove key characters from a scene.

There are videos that compare the pan-and-scan with the original versions that make this clear. After you get a glimpse at what you miss in the movies, you don’t mind the more modern letterboxing so much. Read about the history of letterboxing at Atlas Obscura.

(Image credit: Bubba73 (Jud McCranie))

Pan & scan isn't just cutting-off the sides. Many times the 4:3 TV version shows MORE vertical picture than the theatre version... that's right, they go back to the raw film and include MORE of the pciture. With more vertical, they can then crop-off less of the horizontal, without any black bars showing at the top&bottom.

I was a videophile back in the day, and yet I preferrred pan & scan onn VHS. It was a real necessity, before DVD. VHS only had a resolution of 1/4 that of DVDs and VHS didnt have a special anamorphic/16:9 mode that lets you use the whole resolutionn in a different aspect ratio. Waste 1/3rd of VHS' picture quality on black bars, and what's left is even blurrier and awful to watch. Even now, on DVDs, using the way-too-wide original aspect ratio can be awful. Movies like A Boy And His Dog look pretty bad.

Pan & scan for 16:9 widescreen TVs is AWFUL! Take Robin Hood-Men in Tights, Mortal Kombat, etc., and to get a 16:9 picture on those DVDs, they just cut off the top and bottom of the 4:3 picture! You actually lose a huge amount of the picture in the widescreen/letterboxed version. That's the worst of all worlds!

The public is vastly more aware and concerned about this issue, because the FCC forced them to change TVs... When people's whole home video world was their 4:3 tube TV, everythig was simple, and directors trying to force letterboxing were complicating it. With the switch, there's nowhere to hide... Old TV shows will be 4:3, while new ones will be 16:9. Even then, some people choose to disgustingly stretch one of those to fill their screen rather than see letterboxing. Still, we were forced to confront the problem, daily.

I'm not a purist... I prefer a little bit of each. I zoom-in just a little, cutting off a bit of the picture, and using more of the screen, but only about halfway, as I dont take it far enough to hide the black bars. It's a shame most TVs dont have such an option built-in, to allow all of you to do similarly if you chose.
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