Letterbox vs. Pan-Scan: Debate Goes On


To letterbox or not?

That debate means nothing to videotape consumers, who have little choice in the matter.

Practically all widescreen films available on tape use the pan-and-scan method, primarily because a horizontal widescreen film does not fit the relatively square dimensions of the TV screen. So, technicians scan and then pan to the most strategic parts of the picture.

More and more laser discs now offer a choice, with most releases available in letterboxed or special widescreen versions in which the entire picture is seen. Two bands, usually black, on the top and the bottom of the screen make it possible to see most of the horizontal picture. Film ratios vary widely, so sometimes the video image is a thin strip overpowered by the black borders. More often, especially with contemporary films, the borders are thin and unobtrusive.


Most single-disc lasers, letterboxed or not, generally are listed in the $30-$40 price range. Those that take advantage of the technology with additional audio tracks can sell anywhere from $40 to $125, depending on the number of discs, whether the CAV or CLV format is used and the amount of supplementary material offered.

Most film purists abhor the pan-and-scan films, but many viewers and some experts prefer the full-in-your-face experience.

Director James Cameron, who has used laser discs to produce some excellent director cuts of his films, shocked purists recently when he said he prefers pan-and-scan versions over widescreen laser editions. He believes pan-and-scan is superior in many ways to letterboxing because of the poor resolving power of video. “The Abyss,” for example, was shot in the Super-35 process, allowing improved video transfer.

“The result,” claims Cameron, “is that the pan-and-scan transfer does not suffer many of the horrible cropping losses normally associated with a widescreen film. I feel it is the most dramatically involving and effective version of the film in the current low-resolution video medium.”


Few agree with him, however.

Many video companies are trying to play both sides of the street. MCA/Universal Home Video, for example, routinely releases both pan-and-scan and letterboxed versions of its current releases (“Matinee,” “Far and Away,” “Dr. Giggles” and “Cape Fear” are good examples).

Looking at both versions on a 32-inch screen with theatrical sound, it’s clear that too much video information is lost in the pan-and-scan versions. All of the details that make a film worth watching are washed away as the technician tries to emphasize plot over character, action over substance.

Nothing is more frustrating than watching a favorite widescreen movie musical in a pan-and-scan version. Some companies have tried to solve the problem by going pan-and-scan for the drama, then zooming out to widescreen for the dance numbers (“Sweet Charity” and “Damn Yankees” are two examples). But most musicals are simply panned-and-scanned.

After watching “Oliver!” “West Side Story,” “South Pacific,” “Oklahoma!” and “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” in both versions, one has to say it is no contest. The letterboxed editions capture all the drama and excitement of the big-screen movie musical. The pan-and-scan versions, especially in the crowded dance numbers in “Oliver!,” mutilate the director’s intentions.

The video industry, however, keeps treating videotape consumers as second-class citizens. How else to explain that the only way you can get many of your favorite widescreen films in letterboxed editions is to buy laser discs? This elitist position means that anyone who loves to watch and collect movies has little choice: Go laser or suffer the consequences.

One of the most acclaimed films of 1992, “The Crying Game,” has just been issued in laser (LIVE, $35) with a seal on the cover proclaiming: “Widescreen Available Only on Laser Disc!” That’s great for those who can afford a big-screen TV with theatrical sound and a state-of-the-art laser player, but what about the millions of consumers who can only afford a VCR and rental tapes?

New Movies Just Out


“Unforgiven” (Warner, wide-screen, $40); “Jennifer 8" (Paramount, widescreen, $40); “Leap of Faith” (Paramount, $35); “The Lover” (MGM/UA, letterboxed, $40, unrated); “Used People” (FoxVideo, widescreen, $40); “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” (Criterion, widescreen, $125, with commentary track, interviews and stills).