you have some questions about anamorphic DVD. What does it mean when
DVD packaging says "letterboxed", or "anamorphic
widescreen", or "enhanced for 16x9 displays"? Why is
widescreen presentation on DVD better than pan & scan? What are
those black bars at the top & bottom of the screen? Why does my
DVD player make everyone look so thin?
Well, pull up a chair and I'll tell you. [Editor's Note: the more
expert among you will find the first part of this editorial an
over-simplification, but my intent is to make the topic as easy as
possible to understand for the average reader.] Let's start with a
bit of history.
First of all, everyone knows that a TV screen and a movie theater
screen aren't the same shape, right? Movie screens are much wider.
This hasn't always been the case. When films first appeared (just
before the turn of the century), they were roughly the same shape as
your TV set is now. If you are lucky enough to see a showing of an
old film like Citizen Kane or
It's a Wonderful Life in a
theater, the projected image will look squarish (aspect ratio
roughly 1.33:1), like your current TV.
But when TV became popular in the 1950s, it was a marvel. Virtually
everyone, who lived through that time, can remember when they saw
their first TV set. TVs were so popular, in fact, that people
started going out to the movies less and less. Hollywood producers,
noticing this trend, invented more and more ingenious ways to bring
the crowds of moviegoers back to the theaters. To start with, they
decided to make their films look different than TV - better if you
will. They invented widescreen and super-widescreen formats, like
CinemaScope and Cinerama. They made the colors more vivid
(Technicolor). They made films where the images started popping
right of the screen at you (via those silly 3D glasses).
Widescreen was the most popular of these changes, and it stuck.
Today, films generally come in one of two basic widescreen aspect
ratios: Academy Standard (or "Flat", aspect ratio 1.85:1),
and Anamorphic Scope (or "Scope", also called Panavision
or CinemaScope, aspect ratio 2.35:1). Films in Flat are widescreen
(like English Patient, Toy
Story or Silence of the Lambs),
but do not appear quite as wide as Scope films (like Star
Wars, Lawrence of Arabia,
or Apollo 13).
When transferring an older film (pre-1950s) to video there's no
problem - the film image has roughly the same shape as your TV. But
the problem remains: how do you transfer a widescreen film to video,
for use on a standard TV set?
There are two basic ways to do this. The first, is what is often
called pan & scan (sometimes incorrectly called "full frame").
The film is transferred in such a way that it fills your TV screen
vertically. But there's no way to get the whole horizontal image to
appear, so the camera "pans & scans" back and forth
during the transfer, to keep the main action centered on your TV
screen. Unfortunately, this often destroys the visual effect the
director and cinematographer intended you to see. At any given time,
you're not seeing as much as 33% of the original film image. To many
film and home theater buffs (such as myself), this is simply
The alternative that has long been available with VHS and
laserdisc, is letterboxing. In this case, the film is transferred in
such a way that the entire horizontal picture fills your TV screen.
Unfortunately, there's not enough film image to fill the screen
vertically, so black bars are created (often electronically) to fill
the empty space on top and bottom. Now you can see the film as
intended by the director, and as it was shown originally in the
theater. But there is a loss of vertical picture resolution. The
black bars take up space on your screen - the wider the film
horizontally, the thicker the black bars.
In the past, depending on which method you preferred, you simply
purchased a pan & scan or letterboxed videotape or laserdisc.
But the beauty of DVD, is that studios can often give consumers BOTH
options on the same disc, so that they can choose for themselves.
Watch side A for widescreen, or flip the disc over to side B for pan
& scan. Everybody's happy.
Unfortunately, for some longer films (over 160 minutes) it can be
very difficult to fit both versions onto the same DVD, and still
maintain picture and sound quality - there's only so much space on
the disc. This is even true of RSDL dual-layered DVDs. On a
dual-sided DVD (sometimes called a "flipper"), you have
two sides to work with. On a dual-layered DVD, you have two layers
(there's actually less space for data on a dual-layered disc than on
a dual-sided disc, for reasons which are too technical to get into
here). To make matters worse, if you start adding highly-valued
special edition materials to a DVD (commentaries, featurettes,
etc...), you have even less room to work with. So it comes down to a
choice - one or the other. This is why most Special Edition DVDs
tend to have widescreen-only presentation. The studios know that,
generally, people who are willing to spend the extra money for
Special Edition materials prefer the widescreen image. With any
luck, when they are finally perfected, DVD-18 discs (which are
dual-sided AND dual-layered) will help to remedy this situation.
Occasionally, the decision as to whether or not to include both
formats on a DVD is a cost decision. Having both costs more, and the
studios may feel that some films will not sell enough copies on DVD
to justify the extra expense. Overall, however, DVD consumers
generally feel that if a studio can include both on the same disc,
they should. DVD is about nothing so much as choice.
But we now find ourselves at the edge of a new phase of television
viewing - the advent of Digital TV. Many of you have no doubt seen
news stories about Digital TV (of which HDTV, or High Definition TV
is a part). Starting this fall, and continuing for likely the next
10 to 15 years, the United States will gradually begin a conversion
to Digital TV, with its potential for greatly improved picture and
sound quality. But one of the most interesting features of Digital
TVs, is their shape - widescreen. The aspect ratio of a Digital TV
is 1.78:1 (also referred to as 16x9 - current TVs are often said to
be 4x3). This is not quite as wide as either Flat or Scope films,
but the potential for much better presentation of widescreen films
This is where the anamorphic capabilities of DVD come into play (I
bet you thought I'd never get to it, right?). The DVD format allows
for a good solution to the problem of the black bars seen in
letterboxed widescreen, on 16x9 TVs. If a studio prepares an
anamorphic transfer of a widescreen film for DVD, a 16x9 TV can
display it with nearly full vertical resolution, while still showing
you the full horizontal film image. The improvement in picture
quality is dramatic.
It works like this: a widescreen film is transferred to video from
an anamorphic print (the actual film frame appears horizontally
squeezed), or it can be electronically squeezed after the transfer.
That video is then compressed via MPEG-2, and encoded onto your DVD
(I'm oversimplifying again, but you get the idea). If you were to
view the actual image on the DVD, it would appear squeezed on your
TV (more on that in a minute).
Now, before you can play the disc, you have to make sure that your
DVD player knows what type of TV set you have - a current 4x3 TV, or
a new widescreen 16x9 TV. This simply involves using your remote to
enter the setup menu, and making the appropriate menu selection (see
your player manual for specific instructions). Once this is done, if
you play the DVD on a 16x9 widescreen TV, the TV itself will
unsqueeze the image, so that it looks normal and fills the frame
vertically, while still showing you the whole widescreen image. If
you have a normal 4x3 TV, your player performs a clever digital
trick - it unsqueezes the picture electronically, then deletes about
every 4th line of horizontal resolution, and adds black bars on the
top and bottom, to create a standard letterboxed image.
So the first advantage of utilizing the anamorphic widescreen
capabilities of DVD, is that the discs you buy today will not only
look great on your existing TV, they'll look even better in a few
years, when you get around to buying a widescreen Digital TV. On the
flip side, DVDs that are not presented in anamorphic widescreen, but
just regular letterboxed widescreen, will look terrible. That's
because in order to have them fill the display on a 16x9 TV without
the black bars, the TV will have to electronically magnify the
image. Every flaw on the print will be enhanced, and the lack of
resolution will become much more visible. The difference in quality
between anamorphic and non-anamorphic widescreen on a 16x9 TV is
stunning. Bottom line - in a few years, you'll want to throw away
all of those non-anamorphic DVDs, and you'll be very happy that some
studios were thinking ahead.
OK, so you're still not convinced? Well there are other benefits to
anamorphic DVD as well, even if you have only a normal 4x3 TV. First
of all, creating an anamorphic DVD almost always requires doing a
brand new transfer of the film. This likely means that the best
quality print will be used, and the transfer will be done to today's
higher quality standards, using all-digital video tape formats (like
D1 or Digital Betacam). Remember, DVD is a digital format. It looks
best when mastered from all-digital sources - far less compression
artifacts will be apparent in the final picture. Also, older film
masters (transferred for previous VHS or laserdisc releases) will
often have edge-enhancement, or Digital Video Noise Reduction (DVNR)
in the picture, needed to make analog video look sharper and
cleaner. But because DVD is digital, the detail is already there.
Adding it artificially via edge-enhancement or DVNR actually makes a
great DVD look bad - it simply adds noise to an otherwise clean
picture (this is why you should always have your TVs sharpness
control turned all the way down when watching DVD).
Anyone who doubts how good anamorphic widescreen can look on DVD,
regardless of the kind of TV you have, need only watch a Columbia
TriStar disc. Look closely at A Few Good
Men, Seven Years in Tibet
or Starship Troopers - the
image quality is startling.
To be fair, one can occasionally notice a very slight side-effect
of the player's electronic creation of a letterbox image from an
anamorphic DVD. The effect appears as a slight shimmering in
vertical movement, usually most apparent when watching the credits
roll at the end of a film. It's more obvious on early, 1st
generation DVD players - new players are much better at making the
conversion. The effect is entirely related to how your player
handles the process - as players get better at it, this problem will
go away. In any case, the effect is very difficult for most people
to notice, and even a highly-trained eye will quickly overlook it,
as one becomes absorbed in the film. It is (in my opinion) a very
small price to pay for the increased quality of a new transfer, and
the increased life of the disc, given that the DVD will look better
than ever when you eventually buy a Digital TV.
So how do you know a DVD has anamorphic widescreen? Usually, the
packaging will say one of two things: "anamorphic widescreen"
(Universal and very recent Columbia TriStar titles) or "enhanced
for 16x9 displays" (Warner, New Line, HBO, etc...).
Unfortunately, labeling can be a bit vague on this subject - most
Columbia TriStar DVDs simply say nothing about anamorphic at all (I
believe Thunderheart was the
first recent title from them to label this feature as "anamorphic
So lets say you already own a DVD, and you can't tell if it's
anamorphic or not. Here's a little trick - go into your player's
setup menu, and tell it that you have a 16x9 display, even if you
don't. When you play the widescreen side of the disc, you'll see the
un-enhanced, squeezed picture if it's anamorphic (simply reset your
player to 4x3 to play it normally again). If it looks normal, it's
not anamorphic (but be sure to reset your player anyway). This trick
is why so many people complain that their DVD player makes things
look squished - they simply haven't set their player up properly.
Unfortunately, many DVD players come shipped from the factory preset
to 16x9, so things look squished right out of the box. This has no
doubt resulted in some players being returned as defective. It's
also common to walk into the electronics department of a store
carrying DVD players, and see this same problem on an improperly
set-up display (I've seen this amusing, but frustrating, situation
at Circuit City, Best Buy, Sears, Suncoast - you name it).
Ultimately, the exciting thing about the DVD format, is that it
gives the studios the ability to include all three options on the
same DVD. You can have the choice of watching pan & scan or
letterbox now on your current TV, and you can take advantage of a
DVD's anamorphic widescreen capabilities on a Digital TV in the
future. No studio has been more supportive of all of DVD's
presentation capabilities than Columbia TriStar. Disc for disc, they
have released a greater percentage of DVDs with both pan & scan
and anamorphic widescreen than anyone else (although Warner Brothers
is not far behind). In fact, virtually every major studio, with the
sole exception of Buena Vista (Disney) has released at least some
DVDs in anamorphic widescreen. It should be noted, that as of the
time of this writing, we have yet to see if Fox and DreamWorks SKG
will adopt anamorphic widescreen for their DVDs.
Bottom line - it is my opinion, that every widescreen film
(originally released theatrically in a widescreen aspect ratio),
should be released in anamorphic widescreen on DVD. If possible, a
pan & scan presentation should be included for those who prefer
it in the near term. Clearly, it can be done, if the studios are of
a mind to do so. In certain cases, I can understand that it is not
economically possible. But every major or marquee film (in short,
all the widescreen classics) should be so treated. Only in this way,
will consumers get the choice they want, the quality they deserve,
and the value of knowing that the DVDs they buy today, will continue
to look great well into the future.
Since this editorial was first written, DreamWorks has adopted the
anamorphic widescreen feature of DVD as standard on all of their
releases. Paramount began releasing anamorphic widescreen DVDs,
abandoned the practice for a time, and has since returned to it for
almost all of their titles, with the puzzling exception of their
Titanic DVD. Fox used the
anamorphic feature on all four of their Alien
Legacy series DVDs, abandoned the practice for a time,
and now includes the feature on their DVDs occasionally, without
labeling the discs as such (The Thin Red
Line, Patton and a
few other recent titles are 16x9-enhanced, but do not indicate this
on the packaging). Buena Vista and Criterion have each released a
handful of anamorphic widescreen titles on DVD (Buena Vista's
A Bug's Life: CE &
Miramax's Shakespeare in Love,
and Criterion's Insomnia &
Monty Python's Life of Brian).
Both companies have indicated that they will become more aggressive
with anamorphic in 2000. Warner, New Line, Universal and Columbia
TriStar continue to support anamorphic vigorously (with only
The Digital Bits has been (and
will continue to be) very aggressive in promoting anamorphic
widescreen on DVD. All of the discs that we review which are
enhanced for widescreen displays will feature the following stamp:
In this way, you can be sure that the DVDs
that you buy are "future-proofed" for use on widescreen
TVs. As always, I welcome your comments.
The Digital Bits