The Whys of Widescreen.
Hopefully this might answer a few questions on the whys of widescreen.
Why won’t someone release my favourite film in widescreen?: All the video companies have their own reasons why they release some films on video in widescreen format, and seemingly ignore others.
Film companies like Academy, Arrow, Arthouse, Artificial Eye, Connossieur, Curzon, Electric and Tartan Video release plenty of films each year in their original widescreen ratio, and the majority of these are foreign language films, otherwise referred to as Arthouse films as they would not fit in the mainstream line of fire, and generally get played in theatres devoted to such films, ie. arthouses.
Some of the best examples for top-selling widescreen videos include Nikita, Man Bites Dog, and the Three Colours.. trilogy.
For those which release mainstream films in widescreen, the question is which films are going to make a big profit for the video company?
Action should surely be one of the most profitable types, and those which are available include the Lethal Weapon trilogy, the first two Die Hard films, Basic Instinct and Speed.
Ever since the introduction of the Cinemascope format in the mid 1950’s, many a Western has benefitted from the extra expanse of the desert plains, and for those which have the width preserved on video you can enjoy the full experience at home with films like The Alamo, Unforgiven and Once Upon A Time in the West.
One type of film which is rarely selected for widescreen release is the comedy, which is a shame for those that have been made by a director who knows how to fill a screen properly. Two of the few comedies which are available are Groundhog Day and So I Married An Axe Murderer.
Some video companies release a P&S title at the same time as the widescreen equivalent, while some prefer to leave a six-month gap before the widescreen release. Presumably this is so that they can make people buy the same film twice!
Columbia TriStar are quite good sometimes for simulataneous releases in P&S and WS, thus giving the customer the best choice. Such examples are Wolf, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and In The Line of Fire.
CIC, on the other hand, are not as good, leaving six-months at least before the release of a widescreen version. February 26th saw the release of four much sought-after films in widescreen : Top Gun, True Lies, Forrest Gump, and Carlito’s Way.
Warner leave a lot to be desired sometimes by ignoring some choice titles like Falling Down and The Last Boy Scout out of their schedules while instead opting for older films. However, they do make up for this with their Beyond Vision and Terror Vision range, for fantasy/sci-fi and horror films respectively, both of which have some excellent films available.
Buena Vista are one of the newcomers to the widescreen list, with only Pulp Fiction and Leon to their credit.
What price widescreen – why do they cost more than P&S videos?
Although the first two releases in widescreen were Jesus Christ Superstar in 1986, and Lawrence of Arabia in 1990, these were both around £9.99, but in 1991 when Fox Video released the Star Wars Trilogy, Die Hard and Alien, the pricing went higher.
Die Hard was the lowest of the bunch at only £10.99, the same price as the P&S version, but Alien in widescreen was £12.99, and each title in the Star Wars Trilogy cost £14.99. The newly remastered THX editions cost £13.99 apiece, although the first film in the trilogy Star Wars, has now been deleted, pending an extended edition being released in cinemas in summer 1997, with the video to follow by that Xmas.
It became the norm for a while that if the P&S tape cost £10.99, the widescreen version was usually £12.99. The reason for this is because, unfortunately, P&S tapes still outsell widescreen, so the price of the P&S can be kept down while those of us who want the film in its original aspect ratio have to pay a premium.
Nowadays, with many P&S titles being released at anywhere between £12.99 and £14.99, you are usually expected to pay around £14.99 or £15.99 for a widescreen video, which is getting ridiculous considering that the price of most films on PAL laserdisc, a format with 60% higher picture and sound quality than video, cost around £25 to 35, and a few of those have already been reduced in price to £20.
When Widescreen isn’t Widescreen
…when the video hasn’t been transferred at its correct ratio. Examples follow:
The Abyss (*NOT* the Special Edition) (Fox Video): The SE is the proper width as would be seen in the cinema, so this semi-WS version which is the non-SE may be a mix of P&S and open-matte – another James Cameron fullscreen transfer special. Then again, it might just be a plain cockup.
B>Akira (Manga Video): Not entirely sure about this, but the box does say Original cinemascope ratio. Cinemascope was 2.55:1 when first invented, and later changed to 2.35:1. Maybe Akira was just mis-labelled. However, WS clips on the ‘making of’ appear wider than this version.
Always (CIC Video): I saw this one projected at 1.85:1, so when I saw Original Ratio on thebox and bought it I thought I was missing something. Maybe it was made at 1.66:1. Like the above, I could really do with some exact facts.
Alien (VHS Alien Facehugger-Boxset version) (Fox Video): I checked this with the single-tape version with my double-decker VCR, so I could sync them, and flick between the two. It’s very noticeable from the start when the word ALIEN slowly appears. On my slightly-overscanning TV, the boxset tape has the A and the N slightly fall off the side. With the single-tape version, there’s no problem. The strangest thing is that Fox Video would have to get the boxset version re-rated, rather than just re-release due to the fact that the BBFC would classify it as a ‘different film’. Hence, extra costs!
Close Encounters of the Third Kind – Special Edition (Columbia/TriStar): The film was made at 2.35:1, but the PAL video, laserdisc and even the NTSC LD was apparently a transfer supervised by Spielberg, and he wanted it like the 2:1 ratio it is. Even the end credits fall off the side of the screen which is noticeable.
Godzilla films (Toho Company Ltd.): Each of these films are originally 2.35:1 (approx) but the correct ratio has not been given for the current video releases.
The Hairdresser’s Husband (Tartan Video): The correct ratio of this film should be 2.35:1, but the video is approx. 1.9:1. So much for Original Aspect Ratio written on the side of the box!
The Indiana Jones Trilogy (CIC Video): I thought all of these were 2.35:1 films, but as you go from no.1 to 2 to 3, they get slightly less-wide. I remember the following scene in the library near the start of the 3rd film: As Connery and Ford are talking, and Alison Doody walks towards them coming through the aisle of books, I’d lay money on seeing some P&S-ing taking place.
The Lost Boys (Terror Vision/Warner): This one is meant to be 2.35:1, but for some reason, it’s just a mere 1.85:1. Apparently the NTSC LD is the same! What’s going on?
Even a Widescreen film cannot always escape the censors
In 1992, Fox Video were allowed to release an uncut 18-cert version of Die Hard 2, reinstating over 50 small cuts made to the 15-cert pan-and-scan release.
Nowadays, the BBFC steadfastly refuse to release a widescreen version of the same film with a different certificate, which is very annoying for those who like to consider widescreen as the ultimate format.
A film like True Lies would be uncut if an 18-cert video was released, but the current 15-cert release contains 8 seconds of cuts (only 1 second was cut for cinema 15-cert release). This is the version used on fullscreen video, widescreen video, and widescreen PAL laserdisc. James Cameron, the film’s director, was NOT happy about this decision, so insisted on a statement on the back of the video and LD to tell people that
the film’s content was edited. The fullscreen release states something like this film has been formatted to fit your television screen, which usually means that it has been pan-and-scanned, but more on this process later.
Pulp Fiction has also been edited, but not cut. Confused? Read on…
The only ‘cut’ I know of is not a cut time-wise, but goes like this: When John Travolta shoots up in Eric Stoltz’s place, in the cinema version you see the needle pierce the skin of Travolta’s arm. In the video, it is P&S so the actual piercing has been P&S’d off the screen because the BBFC did not want us to see the piercing.
As to the widescreen version, there was one problem to overcome:
The BBFC don’t want us to see the needle piercing the skin, a la the theatrical versoin, so that part of the film would either have to be cut or P&S’d so we don’t see it. In the end, what you see on the screen during that moment is the same image of the P&S version, but with black bars stuck over the image. The rest of the film is as it should be though.
How Widescreen movies are treated on TV
Different TV channels have their own ideas on widescreen, and most these days seem to compromise with a 16:9 ratio (ITV and Channel 4 are doing PAL-Plus transmissions, in accordance with an EC directive, which are mainly in 16:9 but they could show films in wider format than that if they wished), but whatever the ratio a TV channel shows the film in, it’s bound to be a better bet than the corresponding pan-and-scan version in most cases.
Three cheers to TNT who are showing more widescreen films than any other channel at the moment.
There have been two widescreen oddities on television lately.
TNT recently showed Douglas Trumbull’s Brainstorm in widescreen format, which was 2.35:1 for special FX scenes, but seemed to expand to fill the screen a bit more (giving a ratio of approx. 1.85:1) for non-SFX scenes. I later discovered that this is the same with the NTSC laserdisc, and was intended by the director.
The laserdisc, for non-SFX scenes, actually window-boxes the picture, rather than enlarging it like TNT’s broadcast. The end result is the same though.
Another widescreen oddity came with BBC2’s showing of The Hour of The Pig, which was shown just before the New Year. The opening sequence of a man being hanged alongside an animal of his was at approx. 1.75:1. As the opening credits began a few minutes later, the ratio changed to 1.85:1 to fit all the words on screen.
Halfway through the credits, the picture enlargened to give a ratio of approx. 1.45:1, which does cause the film to suffer somewhat in certain scenes, including when Colin Firth is on one side of the screen, and a naked woman was on the other side. Sexism aside, the picture was panned-and-scanned such that we saw Colin Firth looking excitedly at the woman on the right, who was off the picture, so we couldn’t see what he was getting worked up about until he exited, and the picture panned to where she was standing.
The film is available in the correct 1.85:1 ratio on video.
The sort of widescreen films that the shops stock
When widescreen videos first appeared in shops, it was treated as a bit of a fad, with the occasional promotional stand centreing on a few films from the same video company.
Shops like WHSmiths now have a separate section for their widescreen content, but there’s not a great deal of variety. Our Price and HMV tend to mix the widescreen in with the rest of the videos in my nearest store, but some branches do have a separate section.
Obviously the titles most branches will stock will be the ones that sell the most, which is generally the Hollywood titles, plus the well known foreign films. Some shops get a few copies in of the ones which don’t sell so well to try to keep all the punters happy.
Some shops have exclusive rights to some titles. For example, WHSmiths have exclusivity to some of Fox Video’s range of biblical epics like The Agony and the Ecstacy. Generally if a particular shop has exclusive rights to one film, it may be come available in every shop within about six months.
Wot no laserdiscs?
Only a few shops actually stock Laserdiscs, in my area at least. The Virgin Megastore, and Bill Hutchinson’s Hifi both in Manchester, stock a fairly good selection of PAL LDs, with a few NTSC titles too.
Shops tend to stock NTSC LDs (the American format) less and less these days, especially if they’ve not been certificated by the BBFC, because in this wonderful land of ours, they’re not looked on too favourably by the Government. Sounds crazy, but that’s the way UK law goes. For
Pan-and-scanning of films, and how wide should a Widescreen TV be?
For those not in the know, the pan-and-scanning of a film is the process used to fill a TV-shaped screen (4:3) with a cinema-shaped picture.
Not an easy thing to do because since 1953, as TV began to take a hold on the market, and less people went to the local cinema, the film-makers had to come up with something to get punters coming back.
They made the films wider, so that people would get something at the cinema which they could not get at home. As the film is pan-and-scanned for the video release, up to half of the picture is sacrificed just to fill the screen. The most common ratios used are 1.85:1 and 2.35:1, but can go as high as 2.66:1 (eg. Ben Hur), or How The West Was Won which was filmed with a 3-screen process called Cinerama. The widescreen video of that title is apparently not quite all there, but is wide enough, and yes, you can see the joins between the three screens 🙂
16:9 is the format picked as part of the European Initiative, which is meant to be a standard used throughout Europe, and is the ratio of a widescreen television . However, very few films were actually shot at that ratio. Two which spring to mind are Prospero’s Books and Richard Attenborough’s Chaplin, so that ratio seems rather a bad idea to me.
If I had the money (and at the moment that’s a big ‘if’), I’d spend the money on a larger 4:3 TV, so actual widescreen broadcasts/videos would have the effective same size image on the screen, but regular 4:3 broadcasts/progammes would be much bigger than that on a widescreen TV.
A brief list of some recent widescreen releases, and how they would fare in pan-and-scan
Reservoir Dogs (18, Polygram, £14.99): This video fares comparatively well in fullscreen, even though the cinema ratio was 2.35:1, which would generally lose at least 42% of the picture when transferred to fullscreen video. Why?
The film was filmed with the Super 35 process in which an image with a ratio of around 1.60:1 is filmed, and the picture is masked to give a 2.35:1 image.
For special-effects films which have been shot with Super 35, (eg. True Lies, The Abyss, and Terminator 2) the special-effects sequences are shot at a ratio close to the intended cinema ratio, so they will have to be P&S’d for the non-widescreen video.
As Reservoir Dogs isn’t a special-effects film, on the non-widescreen video there will be more picture top and bottom, but sometimes you will lose some picture at the sides. The reason for this is because there may be something in the 1.60:1 filmed image that the director did not want to keep, such as boom mikes getting in shot by accident.
People have different opinions about whether they prefer the widescreen or regular version with a film shot with the Super 35 process. The widescreen version will always be the way the director originally intended though. (*)
(*) Except for director James Cameron, who for some reason prefers his fullscreen version of The Abyss to the widescreen one.
Herranen Henrik writes: “If some of your friends have the NTSC T2 Special Edition laserdisc, you might ask him/her to show you the example of one scene that is shown in both P&S and WS versions, and you’ll get the point”.
Carlito’s Way (18, CIC, £14.99): Brian De Palma’s tale of a gangster finally trying to go straight stars Al Pacino on excellent form, and now gets a proper lease of life with this widescreen release.
The fullscreen release was a terrible mix of P&S and vertical-compression (ie. stretching some scenes to fit more on, at the expense of making people look very tall!)
Forrest Gump (12, CIC, £15.99): This award-winning film has an aspect ratio of 2.35:1, with plenty of subtle special effects used in many scenes from the crowd at the table-tennis tournament, right down to a feather blowing about in the wind.
True Lies (15, CIC, £15.99): Despite being filmed in Super-35, there’s always the action sequences to consider, most of which will be badly harmed when not viewed in widescreen.
Dr Who and the Daleks (U, Warner/Beyond Vision, £12.99): The first big screen adventure based on the BBC TV series. Doctor Who travels to Skaro, the birthplace of the Daleks who are plotting to EXTERMINATE their enemies, the Thais, with a massive neutron bomb. Stars Peter Cushing, Roy Castle and Jennie Linden.
When Channel 4 showed this a while back, it was in the usual 16:9 format, so treat yourself to this proper digitally remastered 2.35:1 edition which
also includes the cinema trailer.
And everyone knows the way to defeat the Daleks is to hide upstairs. After all, they can’t climb stairs can they?
Top Gun (15, CIC, £14.99): If you’ve ever wondered just what those aerial dogfights were about, you were missing part of the action off the side of the screen.
This film was also made in Super-35, but the aspect ratio is approx. 1.9:1 giving a little more height than the cinema’s 2.35:1 ratio, but losing no
information from the sides.
…and if you have a surround sound system, give your neighbours an earful!
Leon (18, Buena Vista, £14.99): Luc Besson’s superb thriller about a hitman who ‘moves without sound, kills without emotion and disappears without trace’, but still finds time to water the plants in his window-box. A quiet afternoon’s exercise is disturbed by corrupt cop Gary Oldman who pays a visit to the family next door (I won’t describe it in detail so you can experience it for yourself, but it’s quite a treat), and safe to say, a little girl, played by the 12-year-old aspiring actress Natalie Portman (currently in the cinema hit Heat) is made an orphan.
She is befriended by Leon the hitman (Jean Reno) who shows her how to become a hitman and as the film goes by, their relationship bonds. She wants revenge on Oldman, and asks Leon to help her. Will Leon match up to this latest hit? You’ll have to watch and find out.
For those who thought all the corrupt-cop-against-good-guy ideas had been taken, here’s one you can’t afford to miss!
This video is 2.35:1. Avoid the pan-and-scan release which does lose almost half the picture, something which should be made a criminal offence to sacrifice Luc Besson’s widescreen vision.
The Deer Hunter (18, Warner, £12.99, Remastered plus trailer): The Deer Hunter stars Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken and friends going
to hell and back in Vietnam. The original ratio is 2.35:1.
The Elephant Man (PG, Warner, £12.99, Remastered plus trailer): The Elephant Man is the true story of John Merrick, the victim of a horrid disease that distorted his face and body. The original ratio is also 2.35:1.
Another film recently shown on TV (BBC2 this time) at around 16:9:
Once Upon a Time in America (18, Warner, £12.99, Remastered plus trailer): Once Upon a Time in America is the four-hour version of a violent and passionate gangster film tracking the destinies of four friends from childhood in the old Jewish quarter of New York, to their maturity as notorious gansters. The original ratio is 1.85:1.
This version is cut for a nipple scene near the start in which some guys come looking for Robert De Niro in the Chinese Opium den. One of them opens the front of a young woman’s coat with the barrel of his hand gun (revealing she has nothing on underneath) and brushes/plays the end of the barrel across her exposed nipple.
Reviewer of movies, videogames and music since 1994. Aortic valve operation survivor from the same year. Running DVDfever.co.uk since 2000. Nobel Peace Prize winner 2021.