SFA Theatre Arts Division's production of Six Characters in Search of an Author, February 21 to 24, at the BU Theatre Mainstage

Vol. IV No. 23   ·   16 February 2001 


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How are VCR movies formatted to fit my TV screen? Every time I see that notice before the feature presentation begins, I always wonder what it means. And does it matter what size TV screen I have?

Anyone who rents a VCR movie has seen this notice, "This film has been modified from its original version. It has been formatted to fit this screen," prior to the feature presentation. Charles Merzbacher, associate professor of film in the College of Communication's department of film and television, goes back to the 1950s to answer this week's question.

"One of the ways that the film industry combated the surge in popularity of television in the 1950s was to offer movies in a variety of formats," he says. "This ushered in the era of 3-D movies and other experiments in projection such as Cinerama. Among the few abiding innovations from this period are the assorted variations on wide-screen projection.

"Today commercial movie theater films are presented in a format in which the horizontal dimension of the screen is considerably greater than the vertical dimension. The exact proportions of the screen vary, depending on how and where the film was shot. The horizontal to vertical relationship, expressed as a ratio, varies from 1.66:1 (the European wide-screen standard) to 2.35:1 (the ratio for films shot using an anamorphic wide-screen process, such as Cinemascope).

"A conventional television set, however, comes with a screen that has a 'boxy' ratio of 1.33:1. This is why most videos carry the message that the film you are about to watch has been reformatted to fit your television screen. This notice -- which is required by law in some countries -- reminds viewers that they aren't seeing the film in the format in which it was shot. If you watch the video of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly on your television set, for instance, reformatting means you're seeing only 57 percent of the original film!

"Cropping takes place when a film is transferred to videotape. In this process, the film is essentially rephotographed. This can be done with a static camera, where the sides of the film image are uniformly cropped throughout, or by using a version of the 'pan-and-scan' technology, in which a decision is made about what part of each shot in the original film will be included and what part will be left out.

"Letterboxing -- which preserves the original film format during the transfer to video -- resolves some screen compatibility problems. Filmmakers love letterboxing, but it's pretty unpopular with viewers because they equate the black 'bars' above and below the picture with a net loss of image.

"The perennial clash of film and TV formats is entering a new era. Televisions in the wide-screen format -- so-called 16 x 9 sets -- have a horizontal to vertical ratio of 16:9, or 1.78:1. The screen's shape represents a compromise between the various wide-screen film formats, and while few movies will be a perfect fit, the 16 x 9 standard is a big improvement over the old 4 x 3. A great majority of motion picture professionals accept that the wide-screen TV format will replace the old standard; the only debate is over how quickly this will occur.

"Of course, this doesn't mean that format woes will go away. Once everyone has a wide-screen TV, how will we watch reruns of Bewitched? Perhaps all those hoary 20th-century shows will need to be preceded by this disclaimer: 'The broadcast you are about to watch has been reformatted to fit your television screen.'"

"Ask the Bridge" welcomes readers’ questions. E-mail or write to "Ask the Bridge," 10 Lenox Street, Brookline, MA 02446.


16 February 2001
Boston University
Office of University Relations