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Why am I seeing black bars when I watch movies?

Last Updated on Wednesday, September 23rd, 2009 10:27 AM

As you may or may not know, movies are composed in a variety of shapes, called aspect ratios. Most of these aspect ratios do not match the exact aspect ratio of your widescreen TV.

Most older movies were made primarily in the 1.37:1 aspect ratio. This means that the image is 1.37 times as wide as it is high.

This ratio was adopted by the first televisions, which modified it slightly into 1.33:1. As the popularity of TV rose, movie studios decided that they needed something to draw audiences to movie theaters, so they started using widescreen aspect ratios and wider movie screens to fill the viewers field of vision, making a very impressive image, and clearly demonstrating the difference between watching TV and seeing a movie at a movie theater.

As a result many different aspect ratios have been used over the years, and the most-used ones are:

Aspect Ratio
Examples
1.37:1

Casablanca
Rocky
Gone with the Wind

1.33:1 Example
1.66:1 E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
The Lion King
Rear Window
1.66:1 Example
1.85:1 Chicago
The Godfather
Aliens
1.85:1 Example
2.35:1

Casino Royale
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
Ben-Hur

2.35:1 Example

There are variations that fall close to these aspect ratios, and one could reasonably group them together (such as 1.33:1 and 1.37:1).

A typical widescreen HDTV set has an aspect ratio of 1.78:1. This means that it is 1.78 times as wide as it is high. This ratio was determined several years ago by looking at all the aspect ratios in use and 1.78:1 fit every aspect ratio within its borders in some way. Very few movies were ever produced in 1.78:1 (the most notable being Toy Story), so you are going to see black bars on many movies that are shown in their original aspect ratio.

A movie with an aspect ratio of less than 1.78:1 will have black bars displayed on the sides of a widescreen HDTV. A movie with an aspect ratio greater than 1.78:1 will have black bars at the top and bottom.

Even if it feels wrong to see black bars when watching a movie, it's OK! Seeing a movie in its original aspect ratio means that you are viewing exactly what the director intended you to see. That's a good thing!

Should I Use the Zoom Control?

The zoom feature on many widescreen sets allows you to "do away" with the black bars by zooming into the picture, thereby cutting off (cropping) the image or stretching it unnaturally to fill the full screen area.

Please don't do this! By cropping the image, you're losing part of the movie and the composition of scenes is going to be different from what the director intended. For example, if you were to zoom in on the movie Ghostbusters (a 2.35:1 movie), you would see only three of the four Ghostbusters in most scenes. Expansive battle scenes or natural vistas are now reduced to a small percentage of what the director wanted to show you (24% of the 2.35:1 image is lost if you zoom to 1.78:1, and a whopping 43% if you zoom to 1.33:1).

Worse than cropping is stretching. Many people do this when they first get a widescreen set, and find that some of the TV programming they watch is still 1.33:1. Annoyed at the black bars, they use the zoom control to stretch the 1.33:1 image to 1.78:1 to fill the screen. In most cases, the effect is horrible. Circles are turned into squashed ovals, people gain abnormal amounts of virtual weight because they have just been stretched to 133% of their actual width.

While this may be somewhat tolerable when watching a throwaway reality show, please don't demonstrate your lack of respect by doing this to a classic like Casablanca. It's wrong and your friends who know better will mock you. If your friends don't know better, please direct them to this article so that they can learn, and then mock you if you continue to do it.

What About Pan and Scan Versions of Movies?

Some movies are modified to fit the old-style 1.33:1 televisions, where the widescreen image is cropped to the near-square dimensions of 1.33:1 and that square box is panned around the widescreen image to try and capture what the person doing the conversion thinks is the important parts of the widescreen image. This is often done under the mistaken impression that the general public isn't smart enough to realize that seeing black bars on a TV when viewing a widescreen movie is still the proper way to view that movie. We give the general public a little more credit than that; we think that once a person is shown the differences and the compromises of Pan and Scan are demonstrated, they will see that Pan and Scan is a bad idea.

In the video above, Leonard Nimoy explains why Pan and Scan applied to a widescreen movie can damage the director's intent for the scene. The example shown is from Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (aka "The One with the Whales") and demonstrates how a simple conversation in a vehicle is hampered by trying to pan and scan the frame to fit within the 1.33:1 (4:3) aspect ratio of older televisions.

Even if you have the old-style 1.33:1 television now, the next TV you buy will most likely be a widescreen 1.78:1 model. If you buy Pan and Scan versions of movies now, they're going to look pretty odd on your new TV. Not only will you have black bars on the side of the image, you will also be losing quite a bit of the picture unnecessarily now that you have the ability to fill the entire screen with a widescreen image. 

Premium Movie Channels Still Pan & Scan or Crop Widescreen Movies in HD

A 2.35:1 movie in a 1.78:1 frame

Here you can see a 2.35:1 movie as it should appear on a 1.78:1 HDTV display. The black bars at the top and bottom are normal and should be there. If they're not, you're not seeing the entire width of this shot.

One might think that going to HD will solve all of these problems, but you'd be mistaken. You'll see in the examples above that the 2.35:1 movies displayed on 1.78:1 HDTV's are going to have small black letterbox bars at the top and bottom. Even 1.85:1 movies will have very small black bars. This is a good thing!

But many so-called "premium" movie channels think that it's a bad thing, so they do you the favor of cropping or panning and scanning the widescreen image for you. The effect it has on the movie is less severe than converting a 2.35:1 image to a 1.33:1 image, but it's still modifying what the director and cinematographer had in mind when they created the movie. If they wanted to shoot a movie in a narrower format, they could have, but they didn't.

If your premium movie channels are not letterboxing 1.85:1 and 2.35:1 movies, tell them that they should! If they won't listen, cancel that channel. You can take that $12 per month that you're paying for that channel, and put it into a Netflix membership that will provide you with unmodified movies on DVD and high definition Blu-ray, with a much larger selection, all delivered when you want them.

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