All About Aspect Ratios, Widescreen, Anamorphic, and Other Fun Screen Stuff

Why Doesn't My 'Widescreen' DVD Fill My Wide Screen?

You have to begin with the term 'widescreen'.  It isn't very specific, it is just a comparison.  Kind of like the word 'hot'.  Ohhh!  That's hot!  Well, compared to an ice cube, the room you are sitting in is 'hot'.  Compared to, say, boiling water, the room you are sitting in is 'cold'.  Likewise, widescreen is just a comparison to your old television.  New screens are wider, and are therefore ALL called widescreen.  But, compared to most movies that come out of Hollywood, your wide TV, is actually pretty narrow.


Okay, let's show some examples...

First we start with the original movie clip.  This movie was shot in a very common film format called Cinemascope which has a 2.35:1 aspect ratio.

Now, we are going to take this 2.35 image and put it onto your old television which has an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 or 4:3.  Let's see what it looks like when we preserve the original film aspect ratio...

Ouch!  That's a lot of black bars we see isn't it?  Because it makes the image so small, it is common for DVD manufacturers to use a process called pan and scan which automatically zooms in on the film so it fills up your old 4:3 television...

Well, that definitely fills the screen up, but now you get a good idea of how much information you lose from the original film when you fill your screen with a movie.

Now, let's move up to current display technologies and take that same 2.35:1 film, and put it on a newer 16:9 (1.78:1) HDTV display...

You can see that the black bars are much smaller and that the image does a much better job of filling the screen.  To get this out of your DVD player you must first buy a 'WIDESCREEN' DVD, and you must go into your DVD player's menu to set the television type to '16:9 DISPLAY'.  Typically Sony, Panasonic, and most other DVD players are set to 4:3 displays right out of the box, so it is important to read the owners manual or have a professional properly set up your player for you.  This is the most common way to see a 'widescreen' DVD presented on your 'widescreen' display and the black bars are a normal part of the presentation.  It is okay that they are there.

What happens to a non-widescreen DVD that you play on your 16:9 television?

Now you have a lot of black bars completely surrounding the image.  Hardly worth watching at all.

What happens if you have a widescreen DVD, have your DVD player set to widescreen, but you play the movie back on a 4:3 television?

You can see that everything is squished side to side.  That's one skinny Spiderman!  This is the effect of an anamorphic DVD.  It uses as much of the DVD resolution that it can and is designed for playback on your widescreen, 16:9 display.

Finally, lets take a look at what would happen if we were to zoom in on the film using our 16:9 widescreen displays...  Not likely we would lose to much of the film's content is it?

Well, quite clearly, even on a widescreen DVD we would lose a fair bit of the film's action when we crop in on the image and cut off part of what the cinematographer was trying to present to us.

So, how do you find out what your DVD has on it?  Read the back of the DVD!  There is information there that should let you know exactly what format the DVD is in and how it was put on the disc.

You will typically find that on the back of the disc there is some pretty small type, so bring your glasses, but with Spiderman you get pretty standard disc info on the back and this is the info for the full 2.40 film.  Note, some films are 1.85:1, some are 2.35:1, and some are 2.40:1.  Films do NOT have a set width, though those are the most common you see.

Perhaps a bit hard to read but in the box at the bottom on the right it reads "2.40:1 Anamorphic Widescreen"

Is there a 'full screen' version for the older 4:3 (1.33:1) televisions that chops half the movie off?  Sure!

Same box, but this time in the right hand box it reads "1.33:1 Full Screen"  Obviously what they consider full screen and what a director considers full screen is completely different.