page created: 3/6/00

All About Aspect Ratios

back to Widescreen-o-Rama! (Page 1)

Widescreen vs. Full Frame (2.35:1 Ratio Films)

Let's take a look at some comparisons between widescreen and full frame presentation of Scope films (aspect ratio 2.35:1). Since this ratio is the wider of the two common ratios in use today, it only stands to reason that you'll be missing out on the most picture area when watching a full frame version. All of the examples shown on this page are freeze frames of actual DVD video, taken from discs which include both full frame and widescreen versions. The widescreen version will always be on the left.

Warner's Blade Runner (widescreen)Warner's Blade Runner (full frame)

Above is an example of a shot taken from Warner's Blade Runner. Deckard (played by Harrison Ford - center) is talking with Rachel (Sean Young). Note director Ridley Scott's striking composition and the imagery in the background on the widescreen version. But in the full frame version, we lose much of the visual impact of the background and fully half of the conversation.

Buena Vista's The Black Hole (widescreen)Buena Vista's The Black Hole (full frame)

Here's another example from Buena Vista's The Black Hole. The whole point of this shot is to show off the vast scale of the setting, in this case, the bridge of the spaceship Cygnus. The set is sweeping and alive with color, but look how much of it you miss in the full frame version.

MGM's A Fistful of Dollars (widescreen)MGM's A Fistful of Dollars (full frame)

No one used the widescreen ratio more dynamically than director Sergio Leone, as seen in the widescreen version of MGM's A Fistful of Dollars (above left). Clint Eastwood's legendary "Man with No Name" has just arrived in town, only to be challenged by a group of outlaws. Notice how Leone spreads his action across the entire frame to enhance the tension and the visual impact of the scene. But in the full frame version, we're missing one of the bandits completely and the action is crowded into the frame, resulting in a much less dramatic image.

Columbia TriStar's A Few Good Men (widescreen)Columbia TriStar's A Few Good Men (full frame)

Above is an example of how full frame actually changes the editing in Columbia TriStar's A Few Good Men. Kaffee and Weinberg (Tom Cruise and Kevin Pollak - on the left in the widescreen image) are talking with Barnes and Galloway (Noah Wyle and Demi Moore) during a jeep ride in Cuba. They're all there in the widescreen version, but in they don't all fit into the full frame, so the film has actually been re-edited. In the full frame version, the film cuts back and forth from one side of the screen to the other to show the whole conversation.

Columbia TriStar's A Few Good Men (widescreen)Columbia TriStar's A Few Good Men (full frame)

Here's another example from A Few Good Men. In this scene, Kaffee (center) is pressing his case against Colonel Jessep (Jack Nicholson - right). The widescreen image provides a fine example of how a film technique called "deep space" has been used to increase the dramatic tension in the scene. Notice that Kaffee (in the midground) is locked in a staring match with Jessep (foreground). Meanwhile, Ross (played by Kevin Bacon - background left) is objecting to Kaffee's argument. But in the full frame version, we lose Jessep completely, along with much of the tension.

Universal's October Sky (widescreen)Universal's October Sky (full frame)

And here's Universal's October Sky (above). The "rocket boys" are watching the launch of their latest homemade rocket, but we don't even see them at all in the full frame version.

Widescreen vs. Full Frame (1.85:1 Ratio Films)

Scope (2.35:1) films aren't the only ones to suffer from full frame presentation. Here are some examples of films in Academy Flat (1.85:1) aspect ratio, in both widescreen and full frame versions. While the problem isn't quite as severe here as it can be with wider aspect ratios, the result is just as bad in most cases. Once again, all images are actual DVD snapshots (widescreen is on the left).

Columbia TriStar's As Good As It Gets (widescreen)Columbia TriStar's As Good As It Gets (full frame)

Here's Carol (Helen Hunt) and Melvin (Jack Nicholson) in Columbia TriStar's As Good As It Gets. Since Carol's doing the talking in this shot, the camera angle naturally favors her. But at this angle, we almost completely lose Melvin from the shot in the full frame version.

Columbia TriStar's Jason and the Argonauts (widescreen)Columbia TriStar's Jason and the Argonauts (full frame)

And here's another Columbia TriStar title - Jason and the Argonauts. A giant metal statue has come to life to threaten Jason and his crew (cowering on the right), as we can plainly see in the widescreen version. But in the full frame version, we lose the crew completely. Once again, the dramatic tension is completely undermined.

Other Options

These are just a few of the examples we could have shown you - there are literally thousands. Now that you've seen what a difference there is between widescreen and full frame presentation, we should note that there are a couple of techniques that can be used to get around the problem of bringing widescreen films to home video. The first is a film/camera lens format that some directors use (including James Cameron), called Super 35.

Columbia TriStar's Air Force One (widescreen)Columbia TriStar's Air Force One (full frame)

Above are the widescreen and full frame versions of Columbia TriStar's Air Force One, starring Harrison Ford and Gary Oldman. Here, director Wolfgang Peterson has shot the film in Super 35. The film was presented in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio in theaters (left), but we WEREN'T seeing the whole filmed image - just a portion of it. When it was time to transfer this film to home video, Peterson simply let us see more of the frame as filmed (on the right). I've added the white box outline on the full frame image to show you exactly what portion of the picture was seen theatrically in widescreen. This can be an effective technique, which has been used on such films as Terminator 2: Judgement Day, Titanic and The Abyss. But it also confuses many, and leads to some controversy. For example, director James Cameron has gone on record as saying that he actually prefers the full frame versions of several of his movies (much to the consternation of widescreen fans).

There is one other very new process that can be used to create more effective full frame presentations for home video, but it only applies to films that are generated entirely by computer (like Disney and Pixar's recent A Bug's Life). But we'll mention it here, because it will probably become more common as more computer animated films are released in the future. The process involves re-composing and re-rendering the image for both widescreen and full frame formats.

Disney and Pixar's A Bug's Life (widescreen)Disney and Pixar's A Bug's Life (full frame)

In this example from A Bug's Life, we can see the differences in the composition of the frame in the original theatrical widescreen presentation (on the left) and the re-composed full frame (on the right). For the full frame version, Pixar's animators have actually re-positioned characters within the frame. I've added arrows to the full frame image, so that you can see how the ant on the right has been moved to the left, and the entire leaf both ants are standing on has been moved slightly to the right. The result is an effective image, regardless of which version you're watching. But once again, this is very rare (this is the only film to have been so modified as of the time of this publication).

So who's job is it to educate the public about the benefits of widescreen presentation on home video? Well, we think the studios should make greater efforts to do so (below is an example of a note that MGM includes in the booklets of many their widescreen DVDs - this one from Stigmata). We also think that major retailers and "rentailers" like Best Buy and Blockbuster should post signs on the subject to help educate their customers.

MGM's widescreen notice, included in DVD their booklets.

In any case, I hope by now you can see the difference between widescreen and full frame... and that widescreen is almost ALWAYS preferable. But once again, widescreen presentation on home video has always meant letterboxing, which some people find objectionable. Thankfully, DVD's anamorphic widescreen feature provides a nifty solution to this problem on new widescreen TVs. So let's jump back to our Anamorphic Guide to find out more about it...

back to The Ultimate Guide to Anamorphic Widescreen DVD