Re: Letterbox vs reformatted

Myles Jaeschke (
Wed, 25 Mar 1998 08:58:42 -0800

Just a little history on why letterboxing is done for videos. (There does
seem to be some confusion the terms letterboxed and widescreen.)

The reasoning for this process is to show the film in its proper aspect
ratio, the way the director intended it to be. Now before 1953, nearly
all movies were filmed in the aspect ratio of 1.33 to 1. A film thus
would be 1.33 times wider than its height. By the way, this aspect ratio
is exactly what your television set is at home.

In 1953 a new process called CinemaScope was introduced to the movie
going public. The first film to use this process was the Robe. Now the
aspect ratio for a CinemaScope film (today refered to as just scope) is
2.35 to 1. Films in scope are 2.35 times wider than their height.

Today many movies are filmed in scope which is an aspect ratio of 2.35 to
1. If they are not in scope then they are filmed in "flat". A "flat"
films aspect ratio is 1.85 to 1.

What does this all mean to us and videos?? Well if a film transfered to
video is not letterboxed, then some of the picture is lost. (Which we
have already discussed.) How Much?? Look below...

2.35 to 1 aspect ratio at movie theater
1.33 to 1 aspect ratio shown at home if not letterboxed
this equals a 43.4% loss in picture. Almost half the picture is cropped

1.85 to 1 aspect ratio at movie theater
1.33 to 1 aspect ratio shown at home if not letterboxed
equals a 28.1% loss in picture. Over a quarter of the picture.

This is a significant loss! There have been several articles in various
magazines that discuss this in more detail. I have seen similar info in a
magazine called Widescreen Review.

BTW--other aspect ratios have been used. Ben Hur was a huge 2.75 to 1. A
non letterboxed version results in a loss of 51.6% of the picture! Wow!

Leonard Maltin's Movie Guide is an excellent source that tells which
films were originally shot in "scope" processes. He goes on to explain
the different types of "scope" camaras in the beginning of the guide.
Check it out.

Sorry for being so long winded. If you have any questions about anything
I've just typed feel free to email me.

Myles Jaeschke
Tulsa City County Library Film Librarian and
Movie Theater Projectionist