Going way back to the early days of the cinema there has been what is known as the widescreen format: A film with its image being wider than it is tall. This format is also called landscape, because it’s the best format for capturing the horizon in nature. And in those early days, there was also a more square format for movies. Both formats were fairly common until Hollywood (and the rest of the world) was plunged into the Great Depression and in the early 1930s movies went to the more square image. It was a move to help limit costs.
Then, in the early 1950s with the American economy booming, televisions became more and more common and Hollywood began to worry it would lose its movie-going audience. Theaters installed air conditioning and some movies experimented with 3D in hopes of pulling people away from their TV sets.
Another way Hollywood tried to entice movie-goers was to return to the widescreen format with VistaVision and CinemaScope. Using that wider screen, filmmakers made epics even more epic; filling the screens with luscious colors, vast landscapes, and thrilling action. And it worked. People went to see those magnificent spectacles.
Then a new problem arose. Audiences wanted to see those movies on TV and the networks wanted to show them, but how? Ben-Hur (1959) was certainly not going to fit on a more square-like screen. What could they do?
The solution was to have someone crop the image and move that crop from side to side to shift the focus. The process was called pan and scan. Most people wouldn’t notice, but filmmakers and movie lovers did.
Pan and scan made the images and characters feel too close to the camera. Many films felt claustrophobic. Action scenes became confusing and far less impactful. The use of pan and scan essentially was a re-directing or re-interpretation of the film. The technician doing the cropping had to decide which part of the image to show and which part to leave out. The process changed the films. And absolutely ruined them.
Of course, I didn’t realize this when I was a kid. But even then I would notice that, when one of those epic films would start on TV, the opening with the title and the actors’ names would have black bars across the top and bottom of the image. Once the opening credits were complete the image would then fill the TV screen. Eventually, I understood why. They needed those bars to change the aspect ratio of the screen in order to not have the title and the actors’ names cut off at the sides.
When home video became a thing, most movies, maybe even all, were released in the pan and scan or full screen format. Eventually, filmmakers and movie lovers began to demand widescreen or letterboxed videos and DVDs. They wanted the entire picture, which would give the full and intended vision of the filmmaker. That meant the black bars would stay for the entire movie.
Well, a couple weeks ago I watched the mess of a movie Mackenna’s Gold (1969) on DVD. It came into Nostalgia Zone and I borrowed this favorite from when I was a kid. It is a mess. The producers realized the movie was so confusing they had to rely heavily on a narrator to keep the audiences clued in on what the hell was going on.
It was also in full screen. Ugh.
I was able to grab an image from the internet that shows how this particular shot was supposed to look. I then cropped the image to look the way it appeared in the pan and scan.
In a movie as lousy as Mackenna’s Gold it probably isn’t vitally important to see Telly Savalas in the same shot. But, let’s look at a shot from Tombstone (1993). A sometimes silly (I mean just how many bullets does Holliday have in his two six-shooters during the big OK Corral gunfight? 40?), but very rousing and entertaining Western telling the tale of the Earp Brothers’ and Doc Holliday’s battle with the lawless gang known as The Cowboys. The shot (sorry about the poor quality of the image) is from the scene in which Johnny Ringo (Michael Biehn) and Doc Holliday (Val Kilmer) meet for the first time.
As you can see in the widescreen shot, the two gunman are intended to be on screen at the same time. This adds to the tension of the scene. We are supposed to see the two interact with each other and we are also meant to see the reactions of the surrounding characters – all at the same time.
A full screen version of this scene would be laughable. In the wide shot, it would have to pan back and forth between Ringo and Holliday. It would be distracting and would kill the impact of the scene.
I think you get the idea.
As the headline of this blog suggests, I realize that we live in great times for film lovers, because our TVs have all gone widescreen. This also means that full screen videos and DVDs are old hat. No one does the pan and scan anymore, so why am I complaining?
Eh. It’s what I do.
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Images used under Fair Use.
Warehouse Find is the official blog of NostalgiaZone.com, where you can find books, games, toys, cards, and a huge selection of Golden, Silver, Bronze, and Modern Age comic books. Jim also has a podcast called Dimland Radio. He’d love it if you checked it out. It’s available on iTunes.