Sometime around 1987, Siskel and Ebert did a special about home video, and one of the topics discussed was letterboxing versus pan and scan. At the time, I was unfamiliar with those terms, but I had noticed that when I saw a film on television, it looked very different from how it was shown in the theatre. Both terms are a common part of the lexicon today, thanks in some part to the interstitial that appears on TCM from time to time. An oversimplification of the difference is to say that letterboxed films have horizontal bars that appear at the top and bottom of the TV screen, which some of you find annoying, but it means you are not being cheated, in actuality, you are viewing the movie as the filmmakers intended. It’s pan and scan that’s annoying, and keeps you from seeing the entire picture.
In the Eighties and Nineties, millions of VHS cassettes were sold in the pan and scan format. This was due in part to the studios assumption that since the public had seen older films on TV this way for decades, they were the only versions they knew. That, and they didn’t think there was a market for letterboxed versions, except for maybe on laserdisc, which at the time was the prefered viewing method of the cinephile with a large bank account. That, and the willingness to flip the disc over, and/or change discs at regular intervals, as with a long playing record.
A lot of videotapes weren’t labeled “pan and scan,” and if they were, it was in tiny type on the back of the box. Besides, who bothered to look? At some point, many films were released in both formats, so I had to carefully read the box before leaving the store. Sometimes I was in a hurry and didn’t. That was no fun.
When the “special” edition of the Star Wars Trilogy was released, 20th Century Fox made it easy for consumers by putting the pan and scan version, now called “full screen,” in gold colored packaging, and the letterboxed version in platinum. Well, I say “platinum,” but it was closer to silver or chrome. I used the word “platinum” because it seems to carry more prestige than silver, which usually denotes “second place.”
I was in Walmart not long after the release, and was pleasantly surprised to see that the widescreen version was nearly sold out, while there were still a large number of fullscreen cassettes in the display. It almost restored my faith in humanity.
When widescreen TVs became the norm, some studios formatted films on DVD to fill the entire screen, thus eliminating the black bars. This was a good thing, since it utilized the full capabilities of the television. Yet, sometimes my subconscious would act up while watching a film. It would make me think I was watching a lousy full screen version. My subconscious is often unhelpful and untrustworthy.
In some cases, more is not always better. Fox recently reissued Buffy the Vampire Slayer in the high definition widescreen format. It can be seen on Pivot, for those of you with access to it. This new version of Buffy has issues, to say the least. Let’s just say that vampires shouldn’t be seen in broad daylight, and crew members should never be seen in shot.
I recently purchased the BBC version of the House of Cards trilogy on blu-ray, and it has vertical bars on the sides; that way it maintains the 4:3 aspect ratio of old school TVs. Yes, it was a bit offputting… For about a minute. After that, I was so engrossed in the story, I didn’t notice.