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Widescreen vs. Full Screen
Choosing a Format
When it comes to filling out a home video library, today’s consumer has more options than just a few short years ago. The popularity of the DVD format has overflowed beyond a small niche of videophiles and A/V gearheads, and is now attracting the casual consumer who enjoys movies, but may not have his or her den lined with the latest bone-shaking sound system and crystal clear plasma screens.
As a result, the choice of purchasing a full screen edition versus a widescreen edition of a movie is sometimes filled with confusion or misinformation. Aspect ratios can get even the most avid movie buff momentarily confused when terms like “4 x 3,” “pan-and-scan,” “2.35” and “cropped” are casually thrown about.
Come November 12, Episode II Attack of the Clones will be available on DVD in both a full screen and widescreen edition, and on VHS in full screen. Starting November 1, Episode I will be reissued on DVD, this time in a new full screen format. For those Star Wars fans that aren’t completists, which version is the right one for you?
A widescreen edition of a movie presents the film frame as it was seen in the movie theater. Since a movie screen is a wide rectangle and a television screen is more like a square in shape, the movie image has to be sandwiched between two black bars to fill up the space, because you can’t fit a rectangle into a square and fill it. This is also referred to as the “letterbox” format.
A full screen edition of the movie does away with the black bars, and instead fills your television from top to bottom with image. However, since it’s impossible to cram a rectangle into a square, the sides of the film frame have to be chopped off (or “cropped”). You’re only seeing a portion of the entire image, but that image at least fills up your television screen. This is what the disclaimer “This film has been formatted to fit your TV” means. It is also known as “pan-and-scan” format for reasons explained later on.
Most film enthusiasts will point you towards the widescreen edition. This is the version that best preserves the filmmaker’s original intent. You get to see the entire frame as it was envisioned; nothing gets cut out. Considering how visually dense a Star Wars movie is, scenes like the Geonosian arena, the Clone War ground battle or the Coruscant speeder chase are jam-packed with characters and action, so cropping the image invariably results in losing some intricately-designed detail. Easter egg-hunting viewers won’t be able to find the X-wing and TIE fighters in the full screen Episode II DVD, for example; they were cropped out of frame in order to fit the more important action on the screen.
But widescreen takes up valuable screen real estate with those black bars, and that annoys some. A viewer with a small television screen would be able to see the whole film frame, but at the cost of image size. With full screen, what’s visible is bigger and in a higher resolution. Sure, you see less of the total image, but you are “closer” to what you do see. Some viewers think full screen provides a more engaging experience, especially in dialogue scenes, since the characters are bigger in frame, and you can more closely study their performances.
The disparity between screen sizes is the result of a battle for viewers that has been waged between the big screen of cinema and the small screen of television. Many wonder why the TV was designed as a square since most movies are rectangular in shape.
It didn’t used to be that way. When televisions began to spread in 1950s, the square image area of the small screen was proportional to what you’d find in your local cinema as well. So, don’t bother trying to hunt down that elusive widescreen edition of Citizen Kane — movies of that vintage just weren’t as rectangular. Their then-standard size determined the aspect ratio used in the manufacturing of televisions.
The term “aspect ratio” refers to the ratio of the width of the screen compared to its height. A standard television’s aspect ratio is 1.33:1. That means it’s 1.33 times as wide as it is tall. This is also sometimes referred to as “4 x 3,” because mathematically, for every four inches across, your image is also three inches high.
Movies started to get wider and wider in order to attract television viewers back to the theater by delivering a truly unique experience. It was 20th Century Fox that developed the CinemaScope format, which became a standard in the ’50s and ’60s. Star Wars fans are very familiar with the rolling snare drum and horns that signify the start of a Star Wars movie. That extra flourish added to the end of the Fox Fanfare, which accompanies the Lucasfilm logo appearance on the screen, was originally used to denote movies shot in the CinemaScope format.
The term CinemaScope isn’t used much anymore, as the Panavision process gave its name to that particular aspect ratio. Though other aspect ratios exist, most movies are either 1.85:1 (called Academy Flat) or 2.35:1 (called Anamorphic Scope, Panavision or CinemaScope).
All Star Wars movies are shot in Anamorphic Scope, the wider of the two ratios. Transferring them to the television screen requires plenty of black-bar space in widescreen format, or plenty of cropping in the full screen format. Anamorphic Scope is so wide that even the newer widescreen televisions still need to put some black-bar space in order to fit it all in.
It was only until recently that video consumers began demanding a choice. Full screen was the standard for years for videocassette editions and television broadcasts of feature films. As a result, most of the Star Wars generation that grew up with the saga on video in the early ’80s were very used to the cropped editions of the film. So much so that when the films were re-issued theatrically in 1997, many presumed new elements were added to the film that were in fact always there. For example, in The Empire Strikes Back, as Imperial captains report to Lord Vader from the Hoth asteroid field, a Star Destroyer is severely damaged. That holographic captain flinches and suddenly vanishes mid-transmission. Many thought that was a new addition to the Special Edition, but it had been part of the film since 1980. It had been cropped out of previous video releases.
In cropping the widescreen image to fit a full screen frame, the focus of a scene is sometimes repositioned, so that something that was on the far left of the screen, for example, is now more centered. Sometimes, the action is on both sides — like two characters having a conversation from either end of the screen. To feature both characters in a full screen format, sometimes the scene will cut from character to character, introducing cuts that never existed in the theatrical edition. Other times, the image artificially pans from one side to another, even though the original widescreen shot had no camera movement. This is the source of the “pan-and-scan” nickname.
As home videocassette libraries grew, film buffs grew dissatisfied with the limitations of videotape and its default full screen format. Even on high-end systems, the muddiness of the picture quality and constant wear and tear on the tape would interfere with the presentation. Laser discs became the film aficionado’s first choice, and widescreen Star Wars movies found a natural home in that short-lived format. It wasn’t until 1991 that Star Wars came to VHS in widescreen.
When the DVD format first appeared, it was eagerly adopted by movie buffs, but it took a while for the casual home video viewer to switch from VHS to DVD. Now, the DVD audience is growing, and it’s no longer just for big-screen home theaters. For these new consumers, the familiar full screen option is there, though widescreen VHS has pretty much vanished as a choice. Consumers that are concerned about preserving the widescreen aspect ratio have already switched to DVD as their preferred format.