|First TV Drama | Series One | Series Two | PBS | Enterprise | 24 | Help Us | Fun Stuff | Sci-Fi Central | About Us||Privacy Statement|
WHAT IS LETTERBOX?
WHAT IS WIDESCREEN?
Both the "Letterbox Format" and the "Widescreen Format" are the same thing. Here is an explanation of what they are.
Did you ever notice how when you go to a Movie, the Theatre Screen is really wide? Kinda like it's in the shape of a rectangle? But the screen on your Television Set is not that wide. It's more closer to the shape of a Square. The "Widescreen", or, rectangular screen in Movie Theatres was originally chosen that size a long time ago in the 1950's by Hollywood film-makers to get a bigger image in the Theatres, to give it a much grander scope on a large magnitude, "engulfing" the viewers in an attempt to lure in more Ticket-Buyers to the Movies to fight the recent advent of TV.
But a problem arrose when those Theatrically produced movies later went to air on TV. The image was wider than could fit on screen. How do you fit a rectangle image in the shape of a square to view it? The answer? You don't. Hollywood basically cuts off the left and right side of the Theatrical version of the movies, and puts the middle "square" onto your TV screen. More recently, when Movies begun using the explanation "This Movie has been modified from its original version. It has been formatted to fit your screen", this is what they mean by it. They cut off the ends to get it to fit.
The only other alternative would be to "squish" (compress) the image, which is often done to the opening and closing Credits of movies where cutting part of the image off is not possible without cutting off names. You know those movies where the Opening Credits are scrolling over the live action? You notice how the Live Action suddenly got stretched tall-like, and you suddenly have really tall thin people walking around in the background? That's because they compressed or squished the rectangle to fit your square.
Because many people want to see the "complete" Movie, the "Letterbox Format" came about. I do NOT know what the word "Letterbox" actually means, or how that term was chosen. To get the complete Rectangle into that Square, they discovered that they could shrink the entire rectangle to fit that square. Meaning, what used to take 2 inches on your screen, now may only take 1.75 inches. Now a problem arrose. When you shrink the WIDTH to fit your dinky Square of a TV, the HEIGHT also has to be shrunk along with it, or else you're stretching the image as if it was on silly-putty ("Compression"). When the image was shrunk to fit the TV Screen, they were left with a gap at the top and bottom of the screen. So they simply fill it in with "Black". I guess the only alternative was to leave it snowy.
THE BLACK BARS:
There is a common misunderstanding that when you see the Black Bars at the top and bottom of the Screen, you're not getting the whole picture. People believe that for some unknown reason they can't figure out, the top and bottom was blacked out to hide stuff from you. This is not true. Not only are you seeing everything, but you get the added bonus now of viewing the Side material that was otherwise cut off when the Theatrical Movie was transferred to Television Ratios. It's just that in order to see the extra stuff, the entire image has to be shrunk sometimes as much as 30 to 50 percent smaller. If you're thinking about complaining about that, then maybe you don't realize that this means as much as 30 to 50 percent of the footage is taken out when you air it the regular way. It's not that the Black Bars are covering stuff. The Black Bars are merely a Side Effect to uncovering the sides.
PAN & SCAN:
So what part of that rectangle do they get to fit in that square? There's two ways they decide. The first is editing. For example, if in the original scene it showed two people talking, one on each side, and just placing the camera in the middle wouldn't get either of them, then they may add some "edits" in the scene, by first showing the man on the left, then cutting to the man on the right, even though the original shot was one continous shot. The second way they decide is called "Pan&Scan". Basically, imagine if they pointed a square lensed camera at that rectangle shaped screen, and panned, or "slid" it back and forth to film from one side of the rectangle to another. This is what is usually done.
TELEVISION SHOT ON FILM:
Remember how the old sitcoms like "Facts of Life" and "Three's Company" used to look in the 1980's? Compared to the image quality of today, old episodes of "Facts fo Life" look like they were shot on a Camcorder. Later, Television Series begun using "Film" to record their programs instead of "tape". It looked better, but because the original Master Copy was in the Widescreen Format, they had to come up with a Pan & Scan version for the Television broadcast (blocking out the sides). This is why the Opening Credits of "Babylon 5" had all of their scenes in the Letterbox Format, because that's how they were originally filmed.
I for one would be really interested in buying and viewing a copy of certain episodes of Space: Above & Beyond and Star Trek: Next Generation in the Widescreen Format. Unfortunately, this is probably impossible, as when these programs were filmed, the Directors and those involved knew only the center square of that rectangle would actually be broadcast, so even though they see both the square and the rectangle on the monitor showing what they are filming, they didn't bother to prevent the extra stuff on the sides to match up. I may be wrong about this, as evident by the fact that Babylon 5 is airing on the Sci-Fi Channel in Letterbox, however its Pilot episode was not produced in Letterbox and was aired with Black Bars artificially overlayed over the pre-existing image to give the false illusion of a Letterbox Format. Also, there have been instances of Stage Hands popping up in the corners of the Babylon 5 Letterbox episodes that were not there before, as seen in the first season episode "Babylon Squared" (Babylon 4) when Sinclair was thrown across the room after touching the blue spacesuited man in the corridor (himself from the future). Thus, it's quite possible that if you were to actually see the "Side Material", you might end up seeing part of the Set, the Boom Operator, or wires hanging from the lights, making many Widescreen versions of many series not broadcastable.
Many of the Digital (High-Definition) Camera companies have decided that because the Widescreen Format is so much better, they put this capability in their new Cameras, even in the Television Cameras. This is why many of the "High-Def" programs that air on PBS air in Letterbox (Black Bars). They were intended to be best viewed on the High-Definition Television Sets that very few people in this country actually own.
Although they're just starting to come out, Widescreen Television Sets are beginning to be manufactured here in America (commonly available already in other countries). Widescreen TV's allow Letterbox Format Movies to air full size, without the need for the Black Bars. It's interesting however, that they can also air regular common programs that are not in Letterbox, by simply putting Black Bars now on the sides of the Widescreen to cover up the gap on the left and right of the image.