Why Widescreen Is Better Than Full Screen

Here’s another rejected piece that I always wished was published. Turned down by The New York Times Op-Ed page and, possibly, The Hamilton Spectator, it was written in either late 2003 or early 2004.

Most of the original manuscript has been preserved but a major change had to be made in the original third paragraph after Roger Ebert corrected me on something important. From time to time, I submit questions for the Movie Answer Man, his popular biweekly Sunday Q&A column in the Chicago Sun-Times, and 2 of them have been published with the answers I was seeking. (He’s even emailed me personally a couple of times, as well. I’ll never delete those messages.) On May 2, 2004, he published my question about old movies only being available on DVD in full screen.

(To read my question and Roger’s response, click here.)

Thanks to him straightening me out on a major misconception I had, this revised version of Why Widescreen Is Better Than Full Screen plays a lot stronger and hopefully, it’s understandable to anyone not at all familiar with the business of aspect ratios and how important they are in terms of watching movies.

Other minor things have been changed to make the piece more timeless. With that settled, enjoy.

 
 
WHY WIDESCREEN IS BETTER THAN FULL SCREEN
By Dennis Earl

I was in a video store a while ago when I overheard a customer complaining to a clerk about widescreen DVDs. He grumbled about letterboxing in particular. (You know, those black bars that sandwich a movie?) His beef was that it shrunk the size of the picture he was seeing. He much preferred full screen DVDs because the picture filled the entirety of his Television screen. I was in the new release section when I overheard this and I wanted to throttle him. Let me explain why. Widescreen DVDs are the greatest thing to happen to movies in a long time. Not since the Laserdisc has it been possible to not only showcase a film the way it was meant to be seen, but to also include numerous extras, like deleted scenes and audio commentaries, that enhance your enjoyment. What that silly customer doesn’t realize is that full screen movies, specifically VHS tapes, have been ruining the home movie experience since the 1970s.

You see, most movies today are shot in widescreen. When you’re looking at the back of a DVD jewel case you’ll probably notice something called an “aspect ratio”. This lets you know how the film is going to look when you play it no matter what you’re using to play back movies. Widescreen aspect ratios are usually 1.66:1, 1.85:1, 2.35:1 or 2.40:1. The higher the first number is in an aspect ratio the wider the image since that first number represents width and the second represents height.

Before 1954 (as Roger Ebert informed me by both email and through a printed response in his Movie Answer Man column) every movie was shot in full screen. I always thought old-style TV sets were square, but he corrected me by saying that they have an aspect ratio of 4:3 (or “four units wide for every three units high,” as he wrote on May 2, 2004 in the Chicago Sun-Times).

Therefore, it is impossible to show a widescreen movie on a full screen set without having to cut the left and right sides of the original print. Basically, this means when you watch a full screen version of a widescreen movie, you’re only seeing the middle. The left and right sides have been excised. The movie industry has a nice spin on this butchering technique: “This film has been modified from its original version. It has been formatted to fit your TV.” Sounds a lot better, doesn’t it?

The only way to see a widescreen film properly on a full screen set is through letterboxing. Yes, the size of the picture is smaller but you see the film the way the director wanted you to see it and exactly the way you saw it in a theatre. A true movie fan knows that. That guy in the video store is obviously clueless and needs help.

How would you change his mind? 2 words: widescreen TVs. During one recent Christmas season, there was so much demand for them that manufacturers couldn’t keep up production. They remain popular today. One of the great advantages of having a widescreen TV and widescreen DVDs is that you no longer need to see a film with rectangular black boxes on the top and bottom. With a simple click on your remote control, you can see a widescreen movie on a widescreen TV without letterboxing and, more importantly, without losing any part of the picture.

I don’t have a widescreen TV myself, but, like everybody else, I’ve seen the in-store displays. I was in a store a while ago and caught the tail end of Spider-Man on a widescreen TV and it was just like seeing it in the theatre. Now if a full screen copy of that movie was playing on that same TV, I would’ve seen black bars on the left and right sides of the screen in place of images. And if that grumbling video store customer had seen his precious full screen DVDs on a widescreen TV, he would’ve instantly realized what longtime movie fans have always known. Full screen video is a brutal rip-off.

As DVDs started to infiltrate the marketplace in the mid-90s, there was mass resistance on the part of Blockbuster Video, the largest North American chain, to stock widescreen titles. Although, Canadian stores have been smarter to stock, for the most part, both widescreen and full screen versions of movies, American outlets stuck with full screen only. Apparently, there were a lot of unhappy customers who complained loudly that the store was shortchanging them with these butchered versions. As a result, Blockbuster changed its policy. It would stock widescreen titles after all.

I have to admit I’ve seen plenty of movies in widescreen and full screen form and there’s no question that widescreen is always best. Before the emergence of DVDs and those 12 inch Laserdiscs, your chances of finding a widescreen version of your favourite movie on tape were remote. Even today, when you check out the tape section of any store that carries electronics, the full screen section is much larger than the piddly space given to widescreen VHS tapes.

I wonder how big that grumbling customer’s TV set is. It’s an important point when talking about widescreen vs. full screen. If he has a very small set – I have a 13 inch TV myself – it’s understandable that he would prefer full screen. (Smaller TVs aren’t always suited for widescreen, although I’ve seen a few on my set. My only complaint involves graphics which sometimes are just too small to read.) But if his set is, say, 17 inches or more, I would recommend widescreen instead.

Legendary film critic Roger Ebert always complained about full screen video in general but he has a compromise solution that may change that customer’s mind in a heartbeat. He feels that because not everybody has the good fortune to have in their possession a large, top-of-the-line widescreen or 4:3 set, it’s best to have DVDs that show movies in both full screen and widescreen. That way, the viewer can decide which version works best on his or her set.

Sometimes, all you can get is a full screen version of a movie on DVD. That’s particularly true of films made before 1954 in the era that preceded CinemaScope. But if you have choices, widescreen wins out every time.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Friday, March 24, 2006
5:20 p.m.
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Published in: on March 24, 2006 at 6:05 pm  Comments (4)  

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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Amazing. You *actually* gave 0 evidence as to why widescreen is better.

    • “…it is impossible to show a widescreen movie on a full screen set without having to cut the left and right sides of the original print. Basically, this means when you watch a full screen version of a widescreen movie, you’re only seeing the middle. The left and right sides have been excised.”

      “The only way to see a widescreen film properly on a full screen set is through letterboxing. Yes, the size of the picture is smaller but you see the film the way the director wanted you to see it and exactly the way you saw it in a theatre.”

      “One of the great advantages of having a widescreen TV and widescreen DVDs is that you no longer need to see a film with rectangular black boxes on the top and bottom…you can see a widescreen movie on a widescreen TV without letterboxing and, more importantly, without losing any part of the picture.”

      “…if a full screen copy of that movie was playing on that same TV, I would’ve seen black bars on the left and right sides of the screen in place of images.”

  2. Yes but why do they start shooting films exclusively in widescreen in the first place? There is a much greater emphasis on character and expression in full screen, whereas in widescreen, the emphasis shifts to landscape, and the result is impersonal and cold. 1:1.66 is ok, but 1:2.35 is almost unwatchable, characters are reduced to the insignificance of ants in great swaths of empty screen real estate. for most movies besides Lawrence of Arabia this is a bad choice.

    • Widescreen began in order to compete with full-screen TV in the 50s.


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