Have you ever watched The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly on TBS? I can't. It hurts too much. Here's why:
Your television, unless it's one of those HDTV numbers, has an aspect ratio of approximately 1.33:1. This is sometimes known as "Academy Ratio" after the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, and it was the standard aspect ratio of nearly every film made before the widescreen resurgence that began around 1953. That's why a lot of classic films, such as The Quiet Man and It's A Wonderful Life, look just fine on your TV.
But around 1953, several "widescreen" film formats began to be used. Three-strip Cinerama was one of the first, along with Cinemascope, Todd-AO, and many others. These formats used a much wider projected frame to encompass more of the viewer's field of view. This was intended to "immerse" the audience within the film. (In fact, during the 1950's widescreen formats were often referred to as "3-D" because an image that large seemed to "leap off the screen.") These formats have aspect ratios ranging from 1.66:1 (VistaVision) to 2.76:1 (3-strip Cinerama and Ultra Panavision 70, among others).
Obviously, when you fill a TV screen with an image from a widescreen film, the widescreen image doesn't fit. Here is a diagram showing the difference between Academy Ratio and CinemaScope (at 2.35:1 aspect).
Pan & Scan is one way of adjusting the picture to "fit" your TV. The original image is cropped at the sides so that a full-screen image may be displayed. The cropping frame may slide (pan) or jump (scan) from side to side, in order to view that portion of the original frame which holds the "important" information action, a character speaking, etc. Here is an example, a frame from the soon-to-be-major motion picture Kev and Kev (working title: Get A Haircut!), shot in the current-standard 'scope format, anamorphic Panavision. (Actually, it was shot in Todd-AO.)
Now, if one of the networks wanted to show this movie on TV, they would try to fill the screen with it using pan & scan. And this scene would look something like this:
or this or thisbut you would never see all of both figures in the same shot, and you would lose the awareness that they are standing on a narrow point of land. Or, the producers could insist on having their film letterboxed:
Yes, the overall image is smaller, but you get the entire picture. You see what theatre audiences would see.
The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (hereafter referred to as GBU) was filmed in Techniscope which, like CinemaScope, has a projected aspect ratio of 2.35:1. (I looked this up in the Internet Movie Database to be sure.) This means that when it is shown in pan & scan mode, over 43% of Sergio Leone's creation is missing from each and every frame. For extreme-widescreen films such as It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World and The Greatest Story Ever Told, over 50% can be missing!
Not only that, but in many older transfers to video, the pan&scan framing was not computer-driven, as it is today, but controlled by a technician turning a pan pot, choosing on the fly where to position the frame. Needless to say, this makes for jumpy viewing as the pan frame swings back and forth.
Most importantly, pan&scan breaks up the complete image the director had in mind into smaller chunks which don't necessarily relate to each other. Here is my textbook example:
At the climax of GBU, Angel Eyes, Tuco, and The Man With No Name (Tuco calls him Blondie) square off against each other in a round arena at the center of a large circular graveyard. They slowly move away from each other as a wide shot shows the entire arena and the three men moving to the points of an equilateral triangle. This three-way standoff is the culmination of the entire movie and this particular shot conveys a very important symbolism of the mutually adversarial relationship between the three men.
In the pan&scan version, however, this single shot is broken into two successive shots, the first showing Tuco and Angel Eyes...
...the second showing Angel Eyes and Blondie.
A jarring scan causes Angel Eyes to jump across the frame even though he hasn't really moved. Worse, the two shots convey a totally different idea than the original. One gets the impression that the standoff is Tuco against Angel Eyes, and Angel Eyes against Blondie. The concept of a three-way standoff is totally lost.
The solution is simple: Letterbox it! Here's the same scene in a letterboxed version.
Again, the overall image is smaller, but you get the entire picture. You see what the director intended you to see.
So next time you're at the video store, and you see those seemingly innocuous words on the back of the box "This film has been modified from the original. It has been formatted to fit your screen" think about how much you might be missing.
Sean Kennedy's Widescreen Comparison Page has some good examples of pan&scan travesties from The Empire Strikes Back and others.
The Widescreen Movie Center has TV listings of letterboxed presentations and a large database of widescreen films and formats.
Aspect ratio: the ratio of a frame's width to its height, usually expressed as xxx:1.
Letterbox: a method for displaying a widescreen picture on a standard-ratio screen without losing any of the original image. "The black bars at the top and bottom of your screen are normal for this format."
Techniscope: this film format was used primarily in the 60's and early 70's, by such directors as Sergio Leone (all of his spaghetti westerns) and George Lucas (THX 1138, American Graffiti). This was, in my opinion, a terrific format; it used standard 35mm film and had the same aspect ratio as most 'scope formats (2.35:1), but instead of using the 4 perfs-per-frame and anamorphic lenses of regular 'scope, Techniscope cameras shot a full-width 'scope frame using flat (non-anamorphic) lenses and only 2 perfs-per-frame. The most important result of this was that during shooting, cameras used half as much film as they normally would, thus saving a great deal on production costs. Techniscope negatives would then be printed to standard, 4-frame anamorphic 35mm film, which could be shown normally on any CinemaScope-type projector.
A little footnote is necessary here. I used the example of Superstation WTBS (Atlanta) in my opening comments because Ted Turner frequently shows widescreen movies in pan&scan format on this station. This is especially true of many westerns and war movies from the 50's onward, Turner staples such as Midway, Battle of the Bulge, and the Clint Eastwood spaghetti westerns. I've lost track of how many times Paint Your Wagon has shown up on TBS in a lousy pan&scan version. At least Ted has shown all three Eastwood/Leone westerns on TNT in letterboxed format without calling it a "special edition." It's a start.