1. Why black bars?
TV and motion pictures have different picture aspect ratios. Your TV set has an aspect ratio of
1.33 : 1 (4 : 3) (not if you have a new 16 : 9 TV set, then the aspect ratio is, well, 16 : 9):
Movies have a wider picture, today most Hollywood movies are shot in either 1.85 : 1 or 2.35 : 1:
It's obvious that such a film doesn't fit your 1.33 : 1 TV screen. That's where the black bars come in.
2. How does the movie fit my TV set?
You have to know how motion pictures are filmed, because the transfer for video and TV is different
for each aspect ratio.
2.35 : 1 movies are shot with a special lense mounted on the film camera. This lense squeezes a 2.35 : 1
picture horizontally to an 1.15 : 1 aspect ratio of the film frame. The projector at the movie theatre has a
another lense which unsqueezes the picture back to 2.35 : 1. Such a film is called "anamorphic".
Films in 1.85 : 1 are different. The picture is shot without manipulation on a 1.37 : 1 frame.
The additional picture information at the top and bottom of the frame is matted in the movie theatre
("matting"), resulting in an 1.85 : 1 aspect ratio. Movies filmed that way are called "flat".
Examples for these two aspect ratios are below. The different filming process results in different
TV/video transfer techniques:
a) 2.35 : 1 - The entire film frame contains the film's visual information. You have to shrink the
picture until it fits a TV screen horizontally. That's why the top and bottom don't contain any picture -
the black bars appear. But you see the entire picture of the film as visually composed by the director
and the director of photography. The film can unfold its full visual power.
But most TV stations don't care for the intentions of the filmmakers. To fill the entire TV screen with
picture, they cut away half of the picture! An excerpt of the film frame is selected which can fill a
TV screen. This process is called "pan & scan" (P&S). But not only do you lose 40% of the film picture, "pan
& scan" creates annoying new camera movements which destroy the filmmakers artistic decisions. You have
to do these camera pans when two characters fill an entire picture, you can see only one person at a
time. Therefore an artificial camera movement is created which pans from one character to the next.
Original theatrical aspect ratio with three actors who fill the entire picture:
Artificially created picture excerpt of the mutilated full screen version with new camera movement from right
The alternative is to edit out other characters, here you can see the "pan & scan" excerpt within
the original film picture of the widescreen version:
"Pan & scan" results in the loss of picture composition, details, mood and often comprehension. Some
comparisons between widescreen and "pan & scan" from "Eraser":
There's another method by which anamorphic films are transfered for TV and video: an 1.85 : 1-excerpt of the 2.35 : 1-frame
is selected, losing less visual information and with smaller bars. But this is no alternative: usually the excerpt is
centered at a fixed position. If you have two actors, one at each side of the picture, both are cut off. The result
is a ridiculous picture. It's a common way for some video labels, example: the German "Pulp Fiction" VHS by BMG.
© 1998, 2000 Alex Klutzny
Special thanks to Rich Norman
"Eraser" © 1996 Warner Bros.