THE LETTERBOX DILEMMA
a commentary by Tony McRae


A while back I wallpapered Vermeer's The Music Lesson onto my computer screen (left image). Now I was able to examine the two figures surrounded by those beautiful rectangular shapes to my heart's content. Then one day I saw a reproduction in an art book and received a jolt. What I had been looking at on my computer screen was not the whole picture: the ceiling beams and some of the flooring were gone. What was missing was the room's depth, its recessive space, its insistence on the viewer's distance. Without realizing it I had been looking at a nearly squared image, subtlety flattened out, a distorted image, if you will.

What I want to argue here is that the current practice of truncating movies for television has the same deleterious effect as chopping off the top and bottom of Vermeer's The Music Lesson. I would further argue that the better the movie, the greater the negative impact. A good example is Stanley Kubrick's  2001: A Space Odyssey, originally shot in Super Panavision 70. Below is a still from the last segment of that movie, the section Kubrick labeled "Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite." The first image is in its original aspect ratio--the relationship of a picture's width to its height--of 2.2 to 1.


(Photo credits: 1968 Warner Bros. All rights reserved.)

This next image has been reformatted to fit a standard television screen of 1.33 to 1:

In this smaller image the essential action is still included: the ageing astronaut Dave Bowman lying in bed, hand upraised toward the monolith. All that's missing, one might argue, is some furniture and the side walls. But look at the two pictures again. The smaller image contains no inherent dynamic, due partly to its now symmetrical composition. What is really missing is the incredible space where Bowman is being kept, where all his needs are taken care of, where he will soon die. The bedroom as a kind of gilded prison, if you will.

I intentionally chose an image where there is no appreciable movement aside from a hand being raised.  The action in the larger picture is the interaction between the viewer and the image.  Our eyes are on the move; we are creating the dynamic. In the truncated picture, on the other hand, we can take in the entire scene with little or no effort. A dynamic scene becomes a bland one. 

So why aren't all widescreen movies shown on television in their widescreen format?  Why show only part of the image?


THE ARGUMENT AGAINST TV LETTERBOXING

The term "letterbox" refers to a widescreen film televised in its original dimensions. To do this, however, requires that part of the television screen be blacked out. The wider the film, the more black space on your television.  Here's what the letterbox picture we've been using would look like on TV:

letterboxing


What strikes us first is that the televised picture is much small than either image above. Someone watching this film on a small television set, say 21" or 25", would probably feel cheated. While the picture's integrity is maintained, it's too small to matter.


To avoid those black bars and not reduce the size of a picture, television has come up with a technique called "pan-and-scan." Instead of showing the entire scene at once, a television camera moves across a picture to show us the entire shot.  To illustrate, here's a still from the climatic shootout of Sergio Leone's The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. 


original widescreen shot in Techniscope 2.35 to 1

A beautifully composed shot, right?  The three gunslingers form a triangle within a round arena. The question for television technicians is how to show this scene without letterboxing and still give the viewer a sense of the spatial relationship of the three gunslingers. 

 
camera pans and scans from screen  left to screen right → → → →

The television viewer is first shown the left side of the picture containing two of the three gunslingers (left image); then the camera slowly pans right until the rest of the picture comes into view and we see the third gunslinger (right image). With pan-and-scan, at no time does the viewer see all three men at once. What is so disconcerting about this panning movement is that there is no camera movement in the original movie. Leone has chosen to increase the drama and the tension of the shootout  by using a stationary camera. That drama is gone now. Instead we have the silliness of having to figure out who's where. 

For this reason the pan-and-scan alternative is sometimes dropped in favor of simply chopping off the two sides of a scene and fitting the center into the 1.33 to 1 television set. You've probably seen movies in which two people are talking and you see only one, and if you're lucky part of the second person.

A SOLUTION
During its festival of Hitchcock films, American Movie Classics showed the reformatted versions of Rear Window, Vertigo, and The Birds in prime time and the letterboxed versions later in the evening.* This is an enlightened practice. Turner Classic Movies has gone one step further and made a commitment to show the letterboxed version of a film when it becomes available. I've just seen John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence in letterbox. What a treat! Would that HBO and the other premium channels were so inclined. In fact, HBO** has made the announcement that it will show NO movies in letterbox, even when it has multiple screening of the same film!

It's my hope that with the increased popularity of DVDs and letterbox VHSs, and with the sales of larger TV sets, letterboxing will become the norm.  But until then, we should encourage television stations to follow the lead of TCM and air films in their original format.

(*Alas, American Movie Classics is now showing movies interrupted by commercials; their screenings of letterbox films have fallen off drastically.)

(**HBO has been showing its popular series "The Sopranos" and some of its the mini-series in widescreen, so perhaps there's hope.)


Related links
Widescreen Movie Center 
The Swedish Widescreen Centre

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