The Widescreen Scam - Part 2





Going Back From Widescreen to 4:3
There are still a few movies kicking around that didn't put the mask on the camera during shooting. This wasn't a big deal until Hollywood began to see the revenue potential of TV and the VCR explosion and began wrestling with the problem of transferring all those widescreen films back to 4:3.

When converting "scope" or "widescreen" films to be shown on TV you can A) letterbox the image by putting black bars across the top and bottom of the frame, B) distort the image horizontally (usually only done for credits and titles), C) pan-and-scan the image (where the 4:3 frame is moved back and forth if necessary to follow important action), or D) simply cut off the sides of the original widescreen frame. In fact, just about all movie transfers use method D because most widescreen films concentrate the majority of the action in the center 2/3 of the screen anyway. Many film directors have said that even though they shoot widescreen films they try to be aware that sooner or later that film will be shown on a TV set.

In addition to the four accepted methods of transferring widescreen to 4:3 there was a curious little mistake made by a few transfer houses in the early days of VHS cassettes. There are instances of film to tape transfers where they used the original full-frame 4:3 version of a widescreen film - the version that was supposed to have been shown with a mask on the projector. In one VHS version of "Pee-Wee's Big Adventure" in many shots you can see the boom microphones overhead and cables on the floor at the bottom of the frame - images that were supposed to be cut off in the theater.

Today, pretty much all studios use the camera mask technique rather than counting on the projectionist to put masks on the lenses at the theater (or relying on film-to-tape transfer engineers). No matter what technique they use, masks or anamorphic lenses, film makers have to use some trickery to produce widescreen films because there is no such thing as widescreen film stock! 35MM film stock today is 4:3 and has been 4:3 for over 110 years!!!

Why Widescreen?
People may have been conditioned over the years to think that widescreen equates to expensive, Hollywood-produced feature films and 4:3 means cheap, commercial TV. You might even think that people find widescreen more aesthetically pleasing, but all the information I have ever seen about the physiological and perceptual issues about widescreen actually points to the opposite -- audiences (and cinematographers) prefer taller than wider.

Beyond the costs of special lenses or masks it turns out that film makers have to take extra care to adjust their shot framing when shooting widescreen. Panoramic vista shots of the horizon look great in widescreen, but intimate kisses and tight shots are problematic. Most film makers find that 4:3 framing is easier because they can direct and focus the viewer's attention to what is important. In a widescreen shot the viewer's eyes tend to wander off target. If you watch closely, you will rarely see two characters talking to one another from extreme edges of the frame in widescreen films unless it is for a particular effect.

Those with a calculator will have also noticed that the 16:9 aspect ratio used in new TVs and letterbox DVDs is actually a compromise on the part of the TV industry. 16:9 equals 1.77 to 1 -- halfway between the 1.66 to 1 and the 1.85 to 1 aspect ratios of most Hollywood features made today (and a far cry from the 2.35 to 1 aspect ratio of CinemaScope).

We're probably stuck with the idea that widescreen equals quality and Hollywood will probably never go back to the Academy Aperture. But when people say wider is better, remember that widescreen started out as little more than a film studio gimmick half a century ago.

Guy Wright

(Return to Part 1)

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