by Bill Hunt, Editor, thedigitalbits.com
So you have some questions about anamorphic DVD. What does it mean when DVD packaging says "letterboxed", or "anamorphic widescreen", or "enhanced for 16x9 displays"? Why is widescreen presentation on DVD better than pan & scan? What are those black bars at the top & bottom of the screen? Why does my DVD player make everyone look so thin?
Well, pull up a chair and I'll tell you. [Editor's Note: the more expert among you will find the first part of this editorial an over-simplification, but my intent is to make the topic as easy as possible to understand for the average reader.] Let's start with a bit of history.
First of all, everyone knows that a TV screen and a movie theater screen aren't the same shape, right? Movie screens are much wider. This hasn't always been the case. When films first appeared (just before the turn of the century), they were roughly the same shape as your TV set is now. If you are lucky enough to see a showing of an old film like Citizen Kane or It's a Wonderful Life in a theater, the projected image will look squarish (aspect ratio roughly 1.33:1), like your current TV.
But when TV became popular in the 1950s, it was a marvel. Virtually everyone, who lived through that time, can remember when they saw their first TV set. TVs were so popular, in fact, that people started going out to the movies less and less. Hollywood producers, noticing this trend, invented more and more ingenious ways to bring the crowds of moviegoers back to the theaters. To start with, they decided to make their films look different than TV—better if you will. They invented widescreen and super-widescreen formats, like CinemaScope and Cinerama. They made the colors more vivid (Technicolor). They made films where the images started popping right of the screen at you (via those silly 3D glasses).
Widescreen was the most popular of these changes, and it stuck. Today, films generally come in one of two basic widescreen aspect ratios: Academy Standard (or "Flat", aspect ratio 1.85:1), and Anamorphic Scope (or "Scope", also called Panavision or CinemaScope, aspect ratio 2.35:1). Films in Flat are widescreen (like English Patient, Toy Story or Silence of the Lambs), but do not appear quite as wide as Scope films (like Star Wars, Lawrence of Arabia, or Apollo 13).
When transferring an older film (pre-1950s) to video there's no problem—the film image has roughly the same shape as your TV. But the problem remains: how do you transfer a widescreen film to video, for use on a standard TV set?
There are two basic ways to do this. The first, is what is often called pan & scan (sometimes incorrectly called "full frame"). The film is transferred in such a way that it fills your TV screen vertically. But there's no way to get the whole horizontal image to appear, so the camera "pans & scans" back and forth during the transfer, to keep the main action centered on your TV screen. Unfortunately, this often destroys the visual effect the director and cinematographer intended you to see. At any given time, you're not seeing as much as 33% of the original film image. To many film and home theater buffs (such as myself), this is simply unacceptable.
The alternative that has long been available with VHS and laserdisc, is letterboxing. In this case, the film is transferred in such a way that the entire horizontal picture fills your TV screen. Unfortunately, there's not enough film image to fill the screen vertically, so black bars are created (often electronically) to fill the empty space on top and bottom. Now you can see the film as intended by the director, and as it was shown originally in the theater. But there is a loss of vertical picture resolution. The black bars take up space on your screen—the wider the film horizontally, the thicker the black bars.
In the past, depending on which method you preferred, you simply purchased a pan & scan or letterboxed videotape or laserdisc. But the beauty of DVD, is that studios can often give consumers BOTH options on the same disc, so that they can choose for themselves. Watch side A for widescreen, or flip the disc over to side B for pan & scan. Everybody's happy.
Unfortunately, for some longer films (over 160 minutes) it can be very difficult to fit both versions onto the same DVD, and still maintain picture and sound quality—there's only so much space on the disc. This is even true of RSDL dual-layered DVDs. On a dual-sided DVD (sometimes called a "flipper"), you have two sides to work with. On a dual-layered DVD, you have two layers (there's actually less space for data on a dual-layered disc than on a dual-sided disc, for reasons which are too technical to get into here). To make matters worse, if you start adding highly-valued special edition materials to a DVD (commentaries, featurettes, etc...), you have even less room to work with. So it comes down to a choice - one or the other. This is why most Special Edition DVDs tend to have widescreen-only presentation. The studios know that, generally, people who are willing to spend the extra money for Special Edition materials prefer the widescreen image. With any luck, when they are finally perfected, DVD-18 discs (which are dual-sided AND dual-layered) will help to remedy this situation.
Occasionally, the decision as to whether or not to include both formats on a DVD is a cost decision. Having both costs more, and the studios may feel that some films will not sell enough copies on DVD to justify the extra expense. Overall, however, DVD consumers generally feel that if a studio can include both on the same disc, they should. DVD is about nothing so much as choice.
But we now find ourselves at the edge of a new phase of television viewing - the advent of Digital TV. Many of you have no doubt seen news stories about Digital TV (of which HDTV, or High Definition TV is a part). Starting this fall, and continuing for likely the next 10 to 15 years, the United States will gradually begin a conversion to Digital TV, with its potential for greatly improved picture and sound quality. But one of the most interesting features of Digital TVs, is their shape—widescreen. The aspect ratio of a Digital TV is 1.78:1 (also referred to as 16x9; current TVs are often said to be 4x3). This is not quite as wide as either Flat or Scope films, but the potential for much better presentation of widescreen films is obvious.
This is where the anamorphic capabilities of DVD come into play (I bet you thought I'd never get to it, right?). The DVD format allows for a good solution to the problem of the black bars seen in letterboxed widescreen, on 16x9 TVs. If a studio prepares an anamorphic transfer of a widescreen film for DVD, a 16x9 TV can display it with nearly full vertical resolution, while still showing you the full horizontal film image. The improvement in picture quality is dramatic.
It works like this: a widescreen film is transferred to video from an anamorphic print (the actual film frame appears horizontally squeezed), or it can be electronically squeezed after the transfer. That video is then compressed via MPEG-2, and encoded onto your DVD (I'm oversimplifying again, but you get the idea). If you were to view the actual image on the DVD, it would appear squeezed on your TV (more on that in a minute).
Now, before you can play the disc, you have to make sure that your DVD player knows what type of TV set you have—a current 4x3 TV, or a new widescreen 16x9 TV. This simply involves using your remote to enter the setup menu, and making the appropriate menu selection (see your player manual for specific instructions). Once this is done, if you play the DVD on a 16x9 widescreen TV, the TV itself will unsqueeze the image, so that it looks normal and fills the frame vertically, while still showing you the whole widescreen image. If you have a normal 4x3 TV, your player performs a clever digital trick—it unsqueezes the picture electronically, then deletes about every 4th line of horizontal resolution, and adds black bars on the top and bottom, to create a standard letterboxed image.
So the first advantage of utilizing the anamorphic widescreen capabilities of DVD, is that the discs you buy today will not only look great on your existing TV, they'll look even better in a few years, when you get around to buying a widescreen Digital TV. On the flip side, DVDs that are not presented in anamorphic widescreen, but just regular letterboxed widescreen, will look terrible. That's because in order to have them fill the display on a 16x9 TV without the black bars, the TV will have to electronically magnify the image. Every flaw on the print will be enhanced, and the lack of resolution will become much more visible. The difference in quality between anamorphic and non-anamorphic widescreen on a 16x9 TV is stunning. Bottom line: in a few years, you'll want to throw away all of those non-anamorphic DVDs, and you'll be very happy that some studios were thinking ahead.
OK, so you're still not convinced? Well there are other benefits to anamorphic DVD as well, even if you have only a normal 4x3 TV. First of all, creating an anamorphic DVD almost always requires doing a brand new transfer of the film. This likely means that the best quality print will be used, and the transfer will be done to today's higher quality standards, using all-digital video tape formats (like D1 or Digital Betacam). Remember, DVD is a digital format. It looks best when mastered from all-digital sources—far less compression artifacts will be apparent in the final picture. Also, older film masters (transferred for previous VHS or laserdisc releases) will often have edge-enhancement, or Digital Video Noise Reduction (DVNR) in the picture, needed to make analog video look sharper and cleaner. But because DVD is digital, the detail is already there. Adding it artificially via edge-enhancement or DVNR actually makes a great DVD look bad—it simply adds noise to an otherwise clean picture (this is why you should always have your TVs sharpness control turned all the way down when watching DVD).
Anyone who doubts how good anamorphic widescreen can look on DVD, regardless of the kind of TV you have, need only watch a Columbia TriStar disc. Look closely at A Few Good Men, Seven Years in Tibet or Starship Troopers—the image quality is startling.
To be fair, one can occasionally notice a very slight side-effect of the player's electronic creation of a letterbox image from an anamorphic DVD. The effect appears as a slight shimmering in vertical movement, usually most apparent when watching the credits roll at the end of a film. It's more obvious on early, 1st generation DVD players; new players are much better at making the conversion. The effect is entirely related to how your player handles the process; as players get better at it, this problem will go away. In any case, the effect is very difficult for most people to notice, and even a highly-trained eye will quickly overlook it, as one becomes absorbed in the film. It is (in my opinion) a very small price to pay for the increased quality of a new transfer, and the increased life of the disc, given that the DVD will look better than ever when you eventually buy a Digital TV.
So how do you know a DVD has anamorphic widescreen? Usually, the packaging will say one of two things: "anamorphic widescreen" (Universal and very recent Columbia TriStar titles) or "enhanced for 16x9 displays" (Warner, New Line, HBO, etc...). Unfortunately, labeling can be a bit vague on this subject—most Columbia TriStar DVDs simply say nothing about anamorphic at all (I believe Thunderheart was the first recent title from them to label this feature as "anamorphic widescreen").
So lets say you already own a DVD, and you can't tell if it's anamorphic or not. Here's a little trick—go into your player's setup menu, and tell it that you have a 16x9 display, even if you don't. When you play the widescreen side of the disc, you'll see the un-enhanced, squeezed picture if it's anamorphic (simply reset your player to 4x3 to play it normally again). If it looks normal, it's not anamorphic (but be sure to reset your player anyway). This trick is why so many people complain that their DVD player makes things look squished—they simply haven't set their player up properly. Unfortunately, many DVD players come shipped from the factory preset to 16x9, so things look squished right out of the box. This has no doubt resulted in some players being returned as defective. It's also common to walk into the electronics department of a store carrying DVD players, and see this same problem on an improperly set-up display (I've seen this amusing, but frustrating, situation at Circuit City, Best Buy, Sears, Suncoast—you name it).
Ultimately, the exciting thing about the DVD format is that it gives the studios the ability to include all three options on the same DVD. You can have the choice of watching pan & scan or letterbox now on your current TV, and you can take advantage of a DVD's anamorphic widescreen capabilities on a Digital TV in the future. No studio has been more supportive of all of DVD's presentation capabilities than Columbia TriStar. Disc for disc, they have released a greater percentage of DVDs with both pan & scan and anamorphic widescreen than anyone else (although Warner Brothers is not far behind). In fact, virtually every major studio, with the sole exception of Buena Vista (Disney) has released at least some DVDs in anamorphic widescreen. It should be noted, that as of the time of this writing, we have yet to see if Fox and DreamWorks SKG will adopt anamorphic widescreen for their DVDs.
Bottom line: it is my opinion that every widescreen film (originally released theatrically in a widescreen aspect ratio), should be released in anamorphic widescreen on DVD. If possible, a pan & scan presentation should be included for those who prefer it in the near term. Clearly, it can be done, if the studios are of a mind to do so. In certain cases, I can understand that it is not economically possible. But every major or marquee film (in short, all the widescreen classics) should be so treated. Only in this way, will consumers get the choice they want, the quality they deserve, and the value of knowing that the DVDs they buy today, will continue to look great well into the future.
[Last updated 11:15 PM, 1/29/99]
[4/13/99 - Editor's Note: since this editorial was first written, DreamWorks has adopted the anamorphic widescreen feature of DVD as standard on all of their releases. Paramount began releasing anamorphic widescreen DVDs, abandoned the practice for a time, and has since returned to it for many upcoming titles. Fox will begin using the anamorphic feature on some DVDs starting in June 99. Neither Buena Vista or Criterion has yet released anamorphic widescreen titles on DVD, although that may change later in 1999.]