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Letterbox --- exactly what is it?


aimalac91748
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I'm familiar with what letterboxing is basically, but why is it sometimes there is such a small top and bottom banner that the movie almost appears full screen? And other times there is a thick top and bottom banner? One example that I can remember is Rebel Without A Cause. Once I've seen it with a small top and bottom banner and another time with a large top and bottom banner. Is that my television settings? or is it the broadcaster showing it differently?

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The simple answer is that there are different ratios for widescreen films. Where the old full frame movies were all shot, more or less, at the same ratio the widescreen films have several different processes.

 

Among some popular films for example "Rebel Without A Cause" is shot in a 2.55:1 ratio while "The Big Country is 2.35:1 and "To Kill A Mockingbird" is 1.85:1.

 

Check this site -

 

http://www.widescreen.org/aspect_ratios.shtml

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Letterboxing is the procedure of placing a black border across the top and bottom of a movie's image in order to preserve the original and intended widescreen shape, rather than cutting the ends off to fill a square tv screen. Different movies have been done in different ratios/shapes, depending on what the director or studio wanted or intended...that's why the borders are narrower on some movies and wider on others (like Cinemascope). The most common ratios are 1.66:1, 1.78:1, 1.85:1, 2.0:1, and 2.35:1. Some older Cinemascope movies have also been seen in a 2.55:1 ratio.

 

As far as the Rebel example you cited, it was more than likely you saw two different presentations...one was only partially letterboxed, and the other one with the wider borders was fully letterboxed. It's also possible your television settings (I assume you have a widescreen HDTV) may have been set differently each time, causing the movie image to be displayed differently each time, either stretched out or squeezed down differently each time you saw it with different letterboxing.

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> ...why is it sometimes there is such a small top and bottom banner that the movie almost appears full screen? And other times there is a thick top and bottom banner?

Well, the real point is that during the pre-production the director decides in what ratio he want to shoot his movie. Is it an epic that demands a huge physical canvas ("canvas" being the operative word, since filmmakers, like painters, can choose the shape of the picture they're going to paint -- though in film, only up to a point -- that best conveys the image and emotions they're trying to evoke), like BEN-HUR at an immense 2.76:1, or something more intimate, that works better within a more modestly-proportioned frame, 1.85:1?

 

When telecast, the transfer to TV screen doesn't do anything the cinema didn't do when the film was exhibited theatrically. Theatres come equipped with scrims that block off the top and bottom of the screen to fit the frame of the film with which the venue's been provided (sometimes it's done using different apertures in the projectors), so the screen visible at your local Bijou isn't the same size or proportion every time you visit, either.

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The most common widescreen ratios are 1.66:1, 1.85:1, and 2.35:1. The aspect ratio of a HDTV screen is 16x9, which is 1.78:1. These are *OARs*, original aspect ratios. But, these are often altered when put on DVD, or shown on TV.

 

1.85:1 is usually changed to 1.78:1, and little is lost. If it is kept in its OAR, you should see very thin bars on the top and bottom.

 

1.66:1 is rarely shown in its OAR. These days, it is usually cropped on the top and bottom, to make it 1.78:1. This is what you usually see on TCM. Before HDTV, they were almost always cropped on the sides to make them 1.33:1, the SDTV aspect ratio. Those still show up too. On the rare occasions when it is shown in its OAR, you should see thin black bars on both sides. This is very rare .

 

2.35:1 is usually shown in its OAR (when letter-boxed,) but is sometimes cropped to 1.78:1. I've seen that done on a few films shown on TCM. With 2.35:1 in its OAR, you will see wide bars on the top and bottom. With the wider aspect ratios of 2.55 and 2.75:1, you will see slightly wider bars top and bottom.

 

There is another important element of this discussion, affecting what you actually see on your TV. That is overscan. Most TVs have 2-8% overscan on the edges, meaning that much of the picture is cut off on the edges. I think TV manufacturers aim to have 3-5% overscan, so that you will not see edges and various artifacts around the picture. Some TVs will allow you to adjust this yourself, but most won't. Test signal discs will easily allow you to see how much overscan you have. But, to adjust it, you will usually need to call in a professional.

 

The effect of overscan is that if you have much of it, you will not see the thin bars of black on the tops and bottoms of 1.85:1 films shown in their true OARs, and you won't be able to see the thin black bars on the sides of 1.66:1 films shown in their true OARs. And, when these films are cropped, top or bottom, to fit a 1.78:1 frame, you will miss even more of the picture.

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