Monday, December 26, 2011

Adventures in Letterboxing

I'm still at home with the folks, still watching more live television than I've seen in the last six months. I've finally found one thing that I think has improved about live TV in recent years. While channel surfing today, I came across the Reelz Channel, which was showing Michael Bay's "Pearl Harbor." What was interesting about this particular broadcast was that it was a pan-and-scan version of the movie, and a pretty terrible one. Josh Hartnett and Ben Affleck's faces were partially cut out of many frames, the scope of the big action sequences was severely reduced, and the print was noticeably grainy.

And that's when I realized that wider aspect ratios had quietly become the standard over the last few years. It's rare now to find a cable channel that doesn't have an HD counterpart showing letterboxed versions of newer movies to fit rectangular television screens. I rarely see films shot in the widescreen format presented in pan-and-scan anymore, because I don't tend to watch them on television. It's only in the cases where I can't find older films in any other format that I'll suffer through the cropped versions. Now, not only movies, but a lot of regular old television shows are shot in widescreen too. Even a good percentage of commercials are letterboxed. Ten or fifteen years ago, before the technology changed, this would have been unthinkable.

When I was younger, everything was shown in pan-and-scan, and it was only PBS and perhaps some of the higher end premium cable channels that would occasionally show a film in the original aspect ratio. The only indication that "The Sound of Music," "Ben-Hur," or "Fiddler on the Roof" were originally meant for a much wider screen, was that broadcasts would sometimes switch back to the correct aspect ratios for the last few shots of a film, usually the final, epic panoramas. On a square television screen, this meant that you'd end up with black mattes on the tops and bottoms of the frame, which is known as letterboxing, in order for the whole picture to fit. Viewers would actually complain about letterboxed broadcasts in the past, not realizing they were actually losing a huge percentage of the picture with the pan-and-scan versions.

It was only when everything went to digital and HDTVs were produced with longer screens, that the standard changed. Now the programs that aren't in widescreen sometimes have to be "pillarboxed," which adds mattes on the sides of the screen, or "windowboxed," which compensates on all four sides. There are also settings to have the picture be automatically stretched and skewed to fit, which is anathema to this particular film nerd, but some people honestly can't tell the difference in presentation quality and hate the mattes, so more power to them. The conversion to digital transmissions has made all of this possible, giving more control to the viewer to watch a program or movie in whatever format they want.

I've noticed that letterboxing has actually gained some major cultural cachet recently, possibly because it's associated with newer televisions and HD technology. I think the shift actually started well before televisions themselves changed, though, when DVD technology meant that it was possible to put multiple versions of a film on the same screen – pan and scan on one side, and widescreen on the other. And more people become familiar with the different aspect ratios as a result. Letterboxed television became a thing for a while – I distinctly remember boggling at the sight of a syndicated CGI cartoon called "Heavy Gear," back in 2001, being presented in letterbox format. Now I run into people who want to watch everything letterboxed, even the stuff that's not meant to be – a problem we only used to run into with movie theaters showing cropped prints of older films like "Snow White" from the age before widescreen existed. Strange how the world turns, doesn't it?

So it was a bit of a shock to see "Pearl Harbor" this afternoon in pan-and-scan. It's a 2001 film, not very old at all, but the awful presentation made it look like some relic from the 80s. Okay, Michael Bay's ham-handed direction didn't help matters, but still. I've seen broadcasts of "Battlefield Earth" on SyFy that looked better than this, and it's an older and much more incompetently directed movie. This was a stark reminder of the pretty awful quality of most television broadcasts most of us lived with up until only a few years ago, and the leaps and bounds that the recent digital conversion has allowed. It also makes me want to go seek out some of the other movies I only saw on television on a kid, and see how much I missed.

And I should clarify that I was watching the standard version of the Reelz channel. According to their website, they do have an HD channel, and a letterboxed version of "Pearl Harbor" was probably being broadcast there simultaneously with the version I saw, but I couldn't find it – I don't think my parents' provider carries it.

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