In the pages that follow, you'll learn EXACTLY what anamorphic widescreen on DVD is. You'll discover how it works and (more importantly) you'll learn why you should care about it. We'll also give you a primer on film aspect ratios - how they came to be and what that means for DVD. My hope is that by the time you're through reading this, you'll know everything you need to know about the subject. And whether you own a widescreen TV or not, you'll want to call, write or e-mail the Hollywood studios, and insist that all your favorite widescreen movies on DVD be anamorphic-enhanced.
One note before we continue... in the text of this Guide, I'm going to be referring to the terms widescreen TV and Digital TV almost interchangeably. You CAN get analog widescreen TVs that take advantage of anamorphic DVD. They are very common in Europe and parts of Asia (Europe has had anamorphic for years). But here in the States, they aren't so common. Most peoples' first experience with a widescreen, anamorphic-ready TV here, will be when they eventually purchase a Digital TV. So to avoid undue confusion, that's what we'll focus on. Just FYI.
So let's get started...
If you've looked at the back of a DVD case these days, you've probably seen all the bewildering terminology: 16x9, anamorphic widescreen, enhanced for widescreen TVs… the list goes on and on. They're all referring to the same thing. Simply put, anamorphic widescreen is a special feature of DVD, that means that the video on the disc packs the most resolution possible by the TV standards of today and the near future. Mind you, we're not talking about high-definition television-like resolution. While there have been technology demonstrations of HD-DVD (High-Definition DVD), most industry experts believe that such a format is more than a decade away, at the very best case.
There are several reasons for this. First of all, it will likely be years before the DVD Consortium (the industry alliance that oversees the DVD format) agrees to an official HD-DVD standard. Second, bringing HD-DVD to the consumer marketplace at affordable levels will require breakthroughs in blue-laser technology, which are only now beginning to happen in the laboratories of the major electronics manufacturers. Finally (and probably the biggest roadblock), there are VERY serious digital piracy and copyright concerns that must be addressed on behalf of the Hollywood studios and other content providers before they'll feel comfortable releasing movies on disc in high-definition. This has become a particular concern in light of the recent hacking of DVD's current CSS encryption scheme.
But here's the cool thing about current DVD technology: by mastering widescreen movies on DVD using the format's anamorphic feature, content providers can ensure that today's DVDs will look great even on tomorrow's Digital TVs (which are starting to become available now). So in the same way that consumers will enjoy even greater audio quality from their DVDs by upgrading to Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1-capable audio equipment, they'll get better video quality too when they buy a new widescreen TV. And even if you don't have a new widescreen TV, you can still enjoy some of the quality benefits of anamorphic right now on your current TV (as we'll discuss later in this Guide).
To knowledgeable DVD fans, seeing the terms "16x9" or "anamorphic" on a disc is like having the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. It tells them that in today's blistering consumer electronics marketplace, where change and obsolescence can happen in the blink of an eye, the DVD they're spending their hard-earned cash on is at least a little future-proof. And that's important.
But Why Widescreen at All?
Before we get into how anamorphic widescreen works on DVD, we need to know something about the nature of widescreen. As most of you know by now, the vast majority of films made today are shot in widescreen aspect ratios, meaning that the shape of the film image itself is much wider than the screen of your current TV. The reasons for this date back to the 1950s and are quite interesting from the perspective of film history. But the result of it all, is that filmmakers (and particularly the Hollywood studios) face some tough challenges when working to bring widescreen films to home video so that you can all enjoy them in the comfort of your living rooms.
For years, there have been two major choices available when transferring widescreen movies for home video: pan & scan or letterbox. In a pan & scan transfer, the video camera "pans and scans" back and forth across the film image to keep the most important action centered on your TV screen. The problem with that, is that as much as 50% of the film's original image can be lost in the process. And the beauty of the artistic composition of objects and movement within the frame is destroyed.
Our position here at The Digital Bits (and it's a position shared by the vast majority of serious film buffs) is that it's ALWAYS preferable to view a movie at home in the aspect ratio that the film's director originally intended it to be seen. That means that we prefer to view widescreen movies in the letterbox format (in which the ENTIRE film image is presented, and black bars fill the unused screen area at the top and bottom of the frame). To us, pan & scan is as bad as colorizing a black & white film - it amounts to artistic butchery. But that preference for letterbox viewing has always come at a steep price - a loss of vertical picture resolution. After all, if those black bars are going to take up part of the screen on your TV, that leaves less picture area for the actual film image. Thanks to DVD's anamorphic widescreen feature however, that problem will soon be a thing of the past.
For the sake of this Guide, I'm going to assume that all of you share our opinion as to the proper way to view widescreen films at home. But we understand that lots of consumers don't understand this issue, or may not even be aware that there's an issue at all. So we've prepared a special primer on aspect ratios, that will explain exactly why films come in different shapes than your TV, and how it makes a difference when you watch them at home. And believe us... it's a HUGE difference (as you'll see). I've taken actual freeze-frames from several new and classic movies on DVD to illustrate things for you in an easy to understand way. You'll find that by reading our Widescreen-o-Rama! aspect ratio primer (you can also click on the graphic below). When you're done, come on back here to the Guide and we'll continue our explanation of anamorphic widescreen.
Anamorphic DVD At Last!
All right - here's where we get to the meat of anamorphic widescreen. As most of you know, those of us here in the U.S. have a Digital TV in our future, like it or not. The reason for this, is because the Government has mandated a full conversion of American television broadcasting to Digital TV by the year 2006 (although the realities of the marketplace will probably mean that the actual conversion will take as much as a decade longer). Digital TV (aka DTV, as determined by the Grand Alliance - the industry consortium which decided upon the standard) is really some 18 different formats labeled under one umbrella term. Some of these formats are Standard definition (SDTV - meaning that they use the same 525 lines of picture resolution that current analog NTSC does today) and some are High-definition (HDTV - broadcasting at a full 1080 lines of resolution). All are fully Digital, which should result in much better reception quality - with a DTV, you'll either get a perfect picture, or no picture at all (gone are the days of watching electronic snow on your TV). Some of the DTV formats don't even deliver video at all, carrying instead simply computer data, for such things as live stock quotes, sports scores, Internet access and more. In fact, one of the big controversies at the moment, is that the major TV networks want to use the extra bandwidth that DTV provides to broadcast MORE channels of SDTV, instead of the HDTV we all expect (you see... by broadcasting MORE channels instead of better channels, they can sell more advertising).
But I digress. You all want to know what Digital TV has to do with anamorphic DVD. Here's the deal: one of the cool things about DTV is it's aspect ratio - 1.78:1 (also known as 16x9). In other words, the future of TV is widescreen. Surely, you can already imagine how much easier that will make it to bring widescreen movies to home video. No longer will TV's aspect ratio require the butchering of widescreen films.
Ah... but it gets even better. Digital TV is "anamorphic ready". Which means that if a widescreen movie on DVD is recorded in the anamorphic format, a Digital TV can "unsqueeze" the video image contained on the disc, so that it fills the full width of the TV screen, while retaining a LOT more vertical resolution. In other words, the video's vertical resolution will blow a standard letterbox transfer away. The image you'll be seeing will contain a LOT more lines of vertical resolution (still not fully high-definition, but much more than on a Standard TV), so the picture will be clearer and cleaner than you've ever seen it before... and you'll still be seeing the original widescreen aspect ratio as the director intended you to. And all this is with the current anamorphic DVDs that you all have in your movie libraries today - there's no need to buy new discs. How do you like them apples?
So How Does Anamorphic Work?
Given all of the early foot-dragging by the Hollywood studios toward anamorphic on DVD, you're probably convinced that it must surely be an expensive and time-consuming process. You couldn't be more wrong. All that's required from the perspective of the Hollywood studios, is to request an anamorphic transfer during the telecine stage. I've done some digging, and discovered that this generally costs no more than it does to commission a standard letterbox transfer, as long as the proper film elements are available (extra costs are usually only incurred if the original film elements are in need of restoration). The best possible film transfer would, of course, be a high-definition anamorphic transfer. That will run you several thousand dollars more... but there are advantages to it. The most obvious of these is the higher video quality an HD transfer will afford you. Also, you'll get a digital master of your film that can sometimes be digitally cleaned up and restored to better than original theatrical quality. This master can be stored to preserve the film for future generations in pristine condition (the data won't degrade like film will). Better still, this master can be used to originate the film on every home video and broadcasting format currently available today, from VHS and Laserdisc to DVD and HTDV.
Once the transfer is done, and you've got a digital master of your film in hand, all that's required in the DVD authoring stage is to tell the technician that you want the widescreen video to be in anamorphic mode. The tech simply goes into his authoring software, and presses a button to insert the necessary flags onto the disc (so that the DVD player and DTV will recognize the anamorphic signal). That's it. That's as hard as it gets.
Okay... so your disc is anamorphic, and you've got your DVD player and DTV ready to go. I'm sure by now you're all wondering how anamorphic works after you pop the disc into your player... and more importantly, how it looks. I'm more than happy to explain it to you. In fact, it's probably easier if I just SHOW you. Below you'll find links to demonstrations I've put together using actual video from a pair of films that are available on DVD in BOTH anamorphic widescreen and standard letterbox (non-anamorphic). I'm using two films as examples, because I want to show you the difference between films in Academy Flat (1.85:1) and Anamorphic Scope (2.35:1) aspect ratios. So go ahead and click over to those (first one, then the other), and by the time you come back here, you'll know exactly how anamorphic on DVD works.
Okay... if you've come back after checking out the two demonstrations above, you no doubt know that the widescreen video signal on an anamorphic DVD appears to be be "squished". Here's an interesting side note on this before I continue: This squished picture is why a lot of people early on thought their DVD players were defective. Many of the early players shipped from the manufacturers in Japan preset for widescreen TVs, and unknowing consumers here in the U.S. simply hadn't told their player that they had a Standard TV instead. And it wasn't just consumers making this mistake - you could walk into almost any Best Buy or Circuit City early on and see the same problem right on the sales floor. Go figure.
I Don't Have A Digital TV - Why Should I Care?
So you don't have a Digital TV yet - you're not alone. Some of you may be wondering why you should give a rip about anamorphic if you plan on keeping that Standard TV for quite a while to come. That's a question I get a lot, not just from consumers, but from the studios as well. Believe me - you'd be amazed how many studios execs use that as an excuse not to go anamorphic.
The bottom line is this - doing a new anamorphic transfer is almost always going to result in better quality, even if you still only have a Standard TV. The reason for this, is that today's telecine processes are fully digital. The state-of-the-art in film transfer technology is much better today that it was even a few years ago, especially with high-definition transfers being done more and more. When a studio simply re-uses an "off the shelf" laserdisc master (done even just a few years ago), you're going to see unnecessary edge-enhancement and all kinds of other NTSC and analog artifacts in the video. A new digital transfer will be clean and crisp, with vibrant and correctly timed color. It may even have been digitally cleaned, with little spots of print damage, hair and dust actually having been digitally erased from the image altogether.
And remember how much money you're all spending now to replace your VHS collection of movies on DVD? Do you really want to have to re-purchase all your films again when you get that new Digital TV? Of course not. Making sure to buy anamorphic widescreen DVDs now, means that your money is well spent. You can rest easy, knowing that your current DVD library is a least a little future proof - your discs look great now, and they'll look even better on that new widescreen TV you buy in a few years.
So doing anamorphic on DVD is a win-win situation for everyone, right? Sure. But there was a time, early on in the history of the format, where the studios were reluctant. In many cases, they simply didn't understand the anamorphic feature of DVD. You'd be surprised how many studio executives in charge of DVD that I had to explain it to early on. And some were concerned that all that electronic "squishing and unsquishing" of the video signal would degrade the picture quality on current TVs. To be fair, some early players weren't so good at the process. But that problem has long since been resolved. Current DVD players almost universally render amazing widescreen images from anamorphic DVDs.
All said, it took a couple of years for some studios to finally make the move to anamorphic widescreen on DVD. Buena Vista and Fox have only recently started doing anamorphic transfers for their discs (Tarzan is anamorphic, for example, as will be Fox's upcoming Fight Club disc). But some studios have been doing right by DVD straight out of the gate, like Columbia TriStar, Warner Bros., New Line and DreamWorks (once they finally hopped on the DVD bandwagon). Others, like Paramount, MGM and Universal, soon adopted the feature on at least some of their releases. The bottom line, is that for many of the studios, anamorphic widescreen has become the rule for DVD, instead of the exception. And every major studio has now released at least a few anamorphic discs.
How Do I Know A DVD Is Anamorphic?
Few studios seem to label the anamorphic widescreen feature on their DVD packaging in exactly the same way, and some don't label it at all. But the following are some words to look for in general.
20th Century Fox : Enhanced for Widescreen TVs, sometimes not labeled
Anchor Bay: Enhanced for 16x9 TVs
Artisan: 16:9 Fullscreen Version, or Enhanced for 16:9 Television
Buena Vista: Enhanced for 16x9 Televisions
Columbia TriStar: Anamorphic Video (recently), often not labeled
Criterion: Enhanced for Widescreen Televisions, or simply "16:9"
DreamWorks: Anamorphic Widescreen
Image: Enhanced for 16x9 TVs
MGM: Enhanced for 16x9 TVs
New Line: Enhanced for Widescreen TVs
Paramount: Enhanced for 16x9
Trimark: Widescreen (if it says "Letterboxed", that's non-anamorphic)
Universal: Anamorphic Widescreen
USA: Widescreen 16x9
Warner Bros: Enhanced for Widescreen TVs
But what if you've got a widescreen DVD and you can't find any markings about anamorphic on the packaging? Many of Columbia TriStar's widescreen DVDs are anamorphic (but not labeled as such). How do you tell? Well... remember that problem we mentioned a few minutes ago, where people were seeing "squished" pictures on their Standard TV? You can use that to find out - simply go into your DVD player's setup menu and tell it that you have a widescreen TV (it may be labeled simply "16x9"). On your Standard TV, if a disc is anamorphic, it will look squished. If it looks the same, it's non-anamorphic. Don't forget to switch your DVD player's setup back to Standard "4x3" TV mode when you're done!
So have I convinced you yet? Well don't take my word for it - go out to your local electronics store and ask to see a demonstration of anamorphic DVD on a widescreen TV yourself. Once you see it firsthand, I think you'll be converted. And remember, you don't have to have a fancy $5,000 TV to see the improved picture quality that a new anamorphic transfer can provide on DVD. They'll look great on your current TVs right now.
Anamorphic widescreen DVD is all about giving you the most lines of picture resolution (and thus quality), while still allowing you to watch widescreen movies as they were meant to be seen. All you have to do is open the pages of any major home theater magazine (or web site online), to find the experts in agreement with me on the benefits of anamorphic on DVD. I think Stereophile Guide to Home Theater's Fred Manteghian said it best, when extolling the virtues of anamorphic in his regular column in the magazine: "All else being equal, the image with the most lines wins." Amen, brother.
As always, I welcome your comments.
Bill Hunt, Editor
The Digital Bits