Widescreen, pan and scan, and the slow rise of letterboxing

It wasn’t until the late 2000s that widescreen viewing really became the norm in people’s homes – a decade after the launch of DVD…

It’s now the norm for us to watch TV programmes and films in our homes on widescreen displays. Yet this has been a norm for less than a decade now, in spite of widescreen TVs being around a lot longer than that, and in spite of widescreen film releases being available in the home before that.

The great irony, for a business known for trying to save a few quid wherever it could, was that the rise of pan and scan movie transfers – the most popular way to see films in the home back just two decades ago – cost Hollywood a lot of money. It added expense and time to the release of films on VHS, and expense and time are two words that studios don’t tend to be that keen on.

But still: in the 1980s, pretty much every video release was presented in a 4:3 aspect ratio, a practice that continue for most of the 1990s too. Never mind the fact the cinema releases were, by this point, almost exclusively in a widescreen format, primarily (but not exclusively) 1.85:1 or 2.35:1. Come the home formats release, the film would be reformatted to fit, quite literally, a different shape screen.

This was done through a process known as pan and scan. Just the mention of this process will have brought some of you out in proverbial hives, and for good reason. If you’re new to the phrase, this YouTube video gives you a snapshot overview of how, for instance, pan and scan framing affected a film such as Blade Runner

Pan and scan was a system that was brought about by Rank in the 1970s. It could be completed manually or automatically, but basically required the whole of a feature film to be sorted through, and reframed for a different sized screen. In effect, it’s a re-edit of the film, and thus whilst audiences were happy on the whole with what they were getting, many filmmakers were openly scornful.

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Even when done properly, it could spoil big moments of a film. Try and dig out the 4:3 framing of Alien 3, for instance, and the scene where the alien comes up close to Ripley’s face. In the cinema, that was all done in one frame. On the pan and scan home video, the picture needed to be panned across just to get both parts of the shot in view.

And that’s an example of when people cared about what they were doing. Horror stories of cheap conversion jobs where the technician nipped off for a fag half way through and let the process carry on automatically were not in short supply.

But still: pan and scan prevailed.

It’s why, if you look at many 80s and early 90s films, that time and time again you see the action and the stars in the centre of a frame. If there’s a conversation to be had between two characters, then in some instances, the edict from the executives up high was firmly to keep them stood in the middle. The reason? It saved a lot of time and expense come the video release.

So how did this, effectively a way of bastardising a movie, happen? And how did widescreen viewing in the home finally take hold? Both are very good questions…

In the beginning

To start the answer, we need to go back to the late 1800s, oddly enough.

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The early days of television were reflective of the early days of cinema itself. Whilst it’s easy to assume that cinema has always been a widescreen medium, the truth is actually anything but. The earliest picture houses, and by turn the earliest films, were all based roughly around an aspect ratio of 4:3. Wider screen formats were available, but they wouldn’t come to be used for feature films with any regularity until the 1920s.

That said, in the late 1920s and early 1930s, Hollywood studios did experiment with wide screen ratios for feature films, and at one stage, it looked as if they may prevail. Yet then fate intervened, and along came the Great Depression of the 1930s, bringing with it a heavy dose of austerity and cost cutting. The widescreen experiments were put on hold, and wouldn’t resurface again until the early 1950s, with the introduction of CinemaScope.

CinemaScope itself was in part a response to the growing threat of television, of course. With more and more people finally able to afford a television set of their own, cinema owners needed something to help persuade moviegoers to watch their screen entertainment in a picture house. Widescreen viewing was one such tactic, and cinemas duly started installing much wider screens.

Smaller cinemas who couldn’t afford the upgrade then unwittingly invented the letterboxing concept, by simply covering up the top and bottom of their screens to make the familiar rectangular shape instead. Letterboxing was born, and the vast majority of new feature films were soon being shot with wider screen formats in mind (although there remains hefty debate as to what is a true widescreen aspect ratio, and which is the most appropriate, a debate that’s not being had in this article).

The rise of TV

Long before CinemaScope was introduced, though, television had established itself, and it in itself had followed the lead set by the movies.

Television sets were being designed to reflect film at the point of their invention, and thus adopted a 4:3 aspect ratio that would be the norm until – staggeringly – the late 2000s. When cinema changed screen size, television simply didn’t: the sets themselves were expensive enough, after all. As such, if movie studios wanted their product to be shown in the home, they had to chop the films around to fit the different screen shapes. Thus: pan and scan.

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Not that television broadcasters didn’t experiment with widescreen.

In the 1960s, when the early CinemaScope films were sold to television companies for broadcast for the first time, they premiered the movies in letterbox format, with the infamous black bars at the top and bottom of the screen. But the complaints quickly tumbled in. Viewers, who hadn’t been told why films were being screened this way, thought there was a technical fault, and so the broadcasters switched to plan B.

This plan was to fill the black bars with – and this really happened – patterns and designs. More complaints followed, with audiences not unreasonably suggesting that the patterns were distracting from the main feature.

This phenomenon, incidentally, made it to the UK, too. Infamously, 2001: A Space Odyssey was screened by the BBC in the 1980s in widescreen, but with patterns filling in the black bars. The idea was quickly abandoned. The majority of films would be screened in 4:3. The complaints, on the whole, stopped.


Anyway, we’re slightly ahead of ourselves. When the video format was first launched in the late 1970s, it was designed too around the-then current framing of television. Thus, 4:3 became the de facto norm for films in the home, and it wasn’t until the early 1990s that change began to be felt. By this stage, in Britain at least, Channel Four had launched, and had begun showing films in a widescreen format. BBC Two followed the lead. But the norm this was not.

It was the announcement of 20th Century Fox re-releasing some of its classics in widescreen that turned my head, though, and arguably began the process of re-educating the wider audience.

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Fox announced, in the early 1990s (through extensive trailers on its releases), that films such as Alien and Die Hard were to get a widescreen release on VHS. These weren’t niche movies anymore: these were big hits.

Ironically, even though the master was cheaper to put together (there was no need to pay for panning and scanning, after all!), the widescreen releases (admittedly with smaller production runs) came with a premium price tag. I duly stumped up around fifteen quid for Alien, though, and notwithstanding the fact that I only had a 14” portable at the time (effectively reducing the size of the film to somewhere around the size of a generous tablet), I found much to enjoy I’d not seen before. And that was thing: many of us, who hadn’t experienced widescreen in the home by this stage, were discovering more to films that we’d never had a chance to see as they were shot before.

It should be noted that for some distributors, the choice to release in widescreen wasn’t a luxury. Even low rent panning and scanning of a film could be an expensive business, and smaller distributors put their films on in a letterbox format because they couldn’t afford to do it any other way. Oftentimes, this would be for cheap imports, rather than major blockbusters. But the tide was still starting to turn.

Still the niche

Widescreen, however, remained a niche format still for nearly two more decades. It was seen, not unreasonably, as the film buff’s choice, and few were doing anything to battle that conception.

Laserdiscs certainly contributed to that, but then, the format also arguably was also pivotal in turning the tide. Laserdiscs were clearly for film enthusiasts, but they – time and time again – proved just what difference properly framing a film could make.

Yet laserdiscs were still niche, and the public weren’t ready to turn just yet. To test the water, back in January 1993, Film Review magazine reported on a survey that the BBC had conducted, and as then-head of research Stuart Harvey reported, “most… found panning and scanning more acceptable than letterboxing”.

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And if you didn’t know the difference, you can see their point. It’s easy to be snobbish about this in hindsight, but if all someone knew when they switched on their perhaps expensive TV was that there were unexplained black bars, a preference for pan and scan is hardly a surprise.

As such, in the same issue of Film Review, ITV’s then chairman of its Film Clearance Committee, Pat Mahoney, added his voice. “If there were a groundswell in favour of letterboxing, there’s be no reason not to do what viewers wanted. But there’s no such groundswell”.

And he was right. It would be remiss too to say that all movie buffs were in favour of widescreen releases and broadcasts. The letters page of the same magazine carried no shortage of debate, with vehement arguments for and against widescreen releases. Even the people who, in theory, should have craved widescreen the most weren’t unanimous in their support.

The DVD format

Still, the home video widescreen releases – both art house and mainstream – continued and began to grow in the 1990s. And then DVD entered the equation.

DVD players first went on sale in late 1996, and over the subsequent three to four years, the format would be the fastest growing of its type, ever. Moving from VHS to a disc-based format wasn’t a tough sell, and suddenly, the luxury benefits that laserdisc owners had been enjoying were available far more affordably.

DVD swiftly became mainstream, whereas laserdisc remained niche. That was the crucial difference.

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Even then, there was no instant switchover to widescreen. Studios were still grappling with the pan and scan/widescreen conundrum. Furthermore, just to muddy the waters a little more, there was also a debate over anamorphic and non-anamorphic widescreen, that fortunately was eventually settled in favour of the latter (anamorphic containing notably more picture data, expanding the image vertically to fill most of the black bars). Certainly, widescreen got the shot in the arm it needed from DVD, but the likes of Warner Bros, Disney and more were either offering pan and scan releases, or dual sided discs with widescreen on one side, 4:3 on the other. They would not phase them out for some time.

What ultimately changed things, though, was the increasing affordability of widescreen televisions.

As more and more people adopted the DVD format, so the benefits of widescreen became clear. The old economic rules applied: if the customer demand is there, manufacturers tend to follow suit. The more who demand a product, the cheaper it tends to get. And all of a sudden, widescreen televisions were tumbling in price.

Furthermore, as displays switched to TFT and LCD technologies, you no longer needed to break a bone or two in your back to lift a widescreen display. It wasn’t just an affordable way to watch films, it was becoming a liftable one too!

Technology had finally got to a point where a widescreen display was natural on the eye (and it’s far more natural than a concentrated square-ish picture), and – crucially – within the price range of more people. Thus, when prices of widescreen tellies matched the price tags of 4:3 units, the mass market opted for the latter. And, nearly two decades after ITV had noted no obvious audience demand, it followed the trend and it – along with other broadcasters – started not only screening films in their native aspect ratios (on the whole; not all widescreen transmissions are created equal, but again, that’s one for another time), but even making their own programmes that way.

Now, in 2016, it’s jarring to see a 4:3 transmission of anything, and to see huge black bars on the left and right of the screen. But it seems a small price to pay for seeing all of the picture that you were intended to. Even finding a 4:3 display for sale now requires some hefty Googling.

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Yet it wasn’t an easy victory for widescreen. From its first use over 100 years ago, it’s taken a long, long time to become the norm. Now, there’s just the small matter of the various widescreen aspect ratios to quibble over…

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