Widescreen Unravelled Part 1
There are few topics related to DVD that cause quite as much confusion, consternation and annoyance as the subject of widescreen DVDs, TVs and how they work together. This all arises from an incredibly convoluted tangle of circumstances linked to the long-running war between the big and small screen, and the result has been a whole mishmash of standards that makes it very hard to come up with easy answers to seemingly straightforward questions.
The problem is that while TV screens come in just two shapes (up until very recently there was just one), for the past fifty years cinema films have been made in a far greater range of widths - most of which don't fit the TV screen without having to resort to some form of compromise: either cutting off part of the original image, or adding black bars to preserve the original shape.
This section of the DVD Times website explores the subject of widescreen, in terms of both cinema and TV and, more importantly, how the two fit together. It also explains what "anamorphic" means, and how anamorphic DVDs can dramatically improve your viewing pleasure.
It's a deceptively complicated subject, and while I've tried to keep things as simple as possible you should always bear in mind that there are bound to be major exceptions to every rule! I've also kept things as non-technical as possible, though you'll certainly need to understand the term 'aspect ratio' - which demonstrates the shape of a rectangle by setting width against height. For instance, a 1:1 ratio is a perfect square, while a 2:1 ratio is a rectangle that's twice as wide as it is tall.
A (Very) Brief History of Widescreen Cinema
For more than half the cinema's lifespan (from the 1890s to the early 1950s), there was essentially only one aspect ratio, which was 1.33:1 or 4:3, known as 'Academy ratio' (there were a few exceptions, most notably Abel Gance's 1927 epic Napoléon, but this certainly holds true for 99.9% of films from that era). When televisions were invented in the 1930s, it was therefore entirely logical that they should also adopt 4:3 - so for two decades or thereabouts everything was beautifully standardised.
By the early 1950s, though, it was clear that television was posing a major threat to the cinema: audiences were deserting the big screen in droves in favour of the box in the living room. So Hollywood decided to fight back by making their films more spectacular, in such a way that they'd look ridiculous on the small screen. After a brief, unsuccessful flirtation with 3-D (audiences never got on with the cardboard glasses), they settled for projecting films on screens that were bigger and, much more significantly, wider.
Cinemascope, introduced in 1953, was a dramatically different shape from its 4:3 predecessor - at 2.35:1, the picture was nearly twice as wide. Because the differences between 2.35:1 and 4:3 were so pronounced, "normal" films got wider as well - in the US, the standard aspect ratio became 1.85:1, while in Europe it was 1.66:1, and a few films were still shot in 4:3 as well, creating the situation we have today. These screen ratios are described in more detail here.
This certainly helped make films look bigger, but unfortunately the dominance of television was just too great - and when video became an issue in the mid-1970s it got to the point where a typical film would expect at least 90% of its revenue to be gained from small-screen showings.
The problem here is that these widescreen formats were created in the first place to ensure that films couldn't comfortably be shown on the small screen - and until very recently it was impossible to do this without resorting to two compromises: either lose a chunk of the original picture, or settle for a smaller picture and reduced definition. These problems are illustrated here.