Most widescreen films are forced to fill the screens of standard televisions by subjecting them to a process known as "pan and scan". This process alters the film considerably, in many cases almost half of the original theatrical image is removed!

To illustrate, I've taken some screenshots from films that are available on DVD in both widescreen and pan and scan versions. All screenshots were sourced directly from the DVDs and were not modified in any way. I've included representative examples of most commonly used aspect ratios and cinematographic processes.

All screenshots are displayed just as they would appear on a standard television.

NOTE: Please don't confuse the anamorphic cinematographic process discussed below with anamorphically enhanced DVDs--they are not the same thing.

7 YEARS IN TIBET
Aspect Ratio 2.35:1
Cinematographic Process Anamorphic
Notes The picture on the left shows how the film looks at its original theatrical aspect ratio, 2.35:1 (which simply means that the image is 2.35 times as wide as it is high). The black bars, sometimes referred to as "letterboxing", allow the original aspect ratio to be preserved on a standard US television, which has an aspect ratio of 1.33:1.
The picture on the right shows how the film looks after it's been panned and scanned to fit standard 1.33:1 televisions. Almost half of the original image has been cropped. Notice that the composition of the original shot has been ruined in the pan and scan version, and the overall visual impact has been muted.

Original 2.35:1 theatrical aspect ratio Panned and scanned 1.33:1 aspect ratio

 

THE MUMMY
Aspect Ratio 2.35:1
Cinematographic Process Anamorphic
Looking at the first set of shots, you'll find that one character has been completely removed from the pan and scan version, while 2 other characters have been partially cropped.
The second shot, quite striking when viewed at the correct aspect ratio, has lost most of its visual impact after being subjected to the pan and scan process.
I think both of the pan and scan shots are poorly composed and look unnaturally tight.

Original 2.35:1 theatrical aspect ratio Panned and scanned 1.33:1 aspect ratio
Original 2.35:1 theatrical aspect ratio Panned and scanned 1.33:1 aspect ratio

 

STARMAN
Aspect Ratio 2.35:1
Cinematographic Process Anamorphic
In the first pan and scan picture, Karen Allen's character is completely cropped out. In the second pan and scan screenshot, another character has been removed, along with the attractive composition of the original shot.

Original 2.35:1 theatrical aspect ratio Panned and scanned 1.33:1 aspect ratio
Original 2.35:1 theatrical aspect ratio Panned and scanned 1.33:1 aspect ratio

 

THE FIFTH ELEMENT
Aspect Ratio 2.35:1
Cinematographic Process Super 35
Notes We've seen that almost 50% of the picture is cropped when anamorphic films are panned and scanned, but what happens to Super 35 films when they are "formatted for television"? Take a look at the first set of screen shots.
As you can see, picture information is still chopped off the sides, but not quite as much as anamorphic films. Also, you'll notice that some picture information is gained at the top and the bottom.
Is Super 35 a good compromise? Study the remaining three sets of pictures before you make up your mind.
After examining the remaining pictures, you may be wondering why the last three pan and scan shots are not cropped in the same way as the first pan and scan shot. The reason is because the last three shots all contain visual effects. Visual effects shots are usually "hard matted" to the theatrical aspect ratio. Because special effects shots are hard matted and there is no additional picture to expose, they must be panned and scanned to the same degree as anamorphic films. The end result is that almost 50% of the original theatrical image is cropped off.
I think the pan and scan shots look terrible compared to their original theatrical aspect ratio counterparts.

Original 2.35:1 theatrical aspect ratio Panned and scanned 1.33:1 aspect ratio
Original 2.35:1 theatrical aspect ratio Panned and scanned 1.33:1 aspect ratio
Original 2.35:1 theatrical aspect ratio Panned and scanned 1.33:1 aspect ratio
Original 2.35:1 theatrical aspect ratio Panned and scanned 1.33:1 aspect ratio

 

BLAST FROM THE PAST
Aspect Ratio 2.35:1
Cinematographic Process Super 35
Notes Take a look at the first set of shots. Notice that several characters have been completely or partially cropped from the right-hand side of the frame in the pan and scan version. While this may not seem like such a big deal, I think it ruins the composition of the original shot and is far less visually pleasing.
Looking at the second set of pictures, notice that the vertical framing seems loose, the horizontal framing is cramped and the overall composition of the panned and scanned shot is poor.
I don't think the sign growing from the top of the mail lady's head looks very good. Chances are, neither did the cinematographer--it is not visible in the theatrical version.

Original 2.35:1 theatrical aspect ratio. Panned and scanned 1.33:1 aspect ratio
Original 2.35:1 theatrical aspect ratio. Panned and scanned 1.33:1 aspect ratio

 

THE BIG LEBOWSKI
Aspect Ratio 1.85:1 "Soft Matte"
Cinematographic Process Spherical
Notes Now let's take a look at a film that uses matting to achieve its theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1.
Study the screen shots below. Notice that no picture information is lost when converting a  soft matte  film to 1.33:1. When shown theatrically, the projectionist must place a matte in front of the projector so that the film can be shown in its proper widescreen aspect ratio.
When 1.85:1 soft matte films are transferred to 1.33:1 video, the black bars are simply not used, and more picture information is visible.
Keep in mind that the director and cinematographer composed the film for widescreen, so the additional picture information that is shown when the film is viewed without a matte sometimes contains boom mics, dolly tracks, "gag spoilers" and other items that should not be in the frame. Sometimes these spoilers are simply left in (see the next film for an example), other times the telecine operator will pan and scan scenes that contain open matte spoilers.
In addition to equipment and prop problems, the framing of the open matte shot is often way too loose, and not as aesthetically pleasing as it is when viewed at its intended aspect ratio.

Original 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratio Open matte 1.33:1 aspect ratio
Original 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratio. Open matte 1.33:1 aspect ratio

 

A FISH CALLED WANDA
Aspect Ratio 1.85:1 "Soft Matte"
Cinematographic Process Spherical
Notes Here's an example of another film that uses matting to achieve its theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1. For the 1.33:1 home video & cable version of this film, the mattes were simply not used and the entire filmed image is allowed to show.
Anyone who's seen "A Fish Called Wanda" remembers the hysterical scene in which John Cleese's nude character is surprised by a large group of people. Unfortunately, the open matte  fullscreen  version blows the gag by inadvertently showing that John's character is actually wearing pants. John's character was shown completely nude just moments before, so this gaff presents a continuity problem, in addition to spoiling the sight gag.

Original 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratio Open matte 1.33:1 aspect ratio

 

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