Understanding DVD Aspect Ratio: Pan and Scan and Letter Box

Aspect ratio is the ratio between the width and height of an image. The most popular aspect ratios are 4:3 and 16:9. The 4:3 aspect ratio is the standard aspect ratio for NTSC, PAL, and digital televisions. The 16:9 aspect ratio is the standard aspect ratio for high definition televisions.

Pan and Scan

It is awfully difficult to make a widescreen movie fit on a standard television that uses the 4:3 aspect ratio. That is where the pan and scan comes into play. The pan and scan is basically a method of adjusting a widescreen movie so that it fits within the constraints of a standard television aspect ratio. In most cases, the pan and scan will cut off the sides of a movie so that the main action of the movie is shown within the middle of the television. The major downside to this method is that over 30% of the original image can be lost due to the cropping of the picture.

Many film producers disapprove of the use of pan and scan. This is because they feel that this method changes the original vision and intent of the film. Panning and scanning a DVD requires a lot of technical skill on the part of the editor. The editor will go scene by scene and select the part of the movie that is the main focus of that specific scene. The main focus of that scene is then copied, or scanned. The effect of the pan shot is created when the editor moves the scanner to follow the important action of that scene.

Letter Box

Many DVDs have black bars at the top and bottom of the screen. This is called letter box. The black bars typically appear when one tries to play a widescreen formatted DVD on a standard 4:3 aspect ratio television. The purpose of the letter box is to preserve the 16:9 aspect ratio of the movie.

Letter box was developed as an alternative to the pan and scan method. There are some film producers who actually refuse to release their movies using the pan and scan method. Instead, they will only release DVD copies of their movie that have the letter box.

Watching Television

If you have a high definition television that you are watching high definition content on, you will not experience any black bars or distortion. If you have a high definition television that you are watching a pan and scan DVD on, you will see black bars on the left and right of the screen. If your television is equipped with the stretch or smart stretch mode, you may be able to remove the back bars that you experience when watching a pan and scan DVD on a HD television.

If you have a standard television and you are watching a pan and scan DVD on it, you will not experience any black bars as long as your DVD is set to the pan and scan mode. When trying to watch a widescreen DVD on a standard television, you will have the letter box black bars on the top and bottom of the picture.

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