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Oh My Tech: Why the black bars for a movie on TV?

Published April 12, 2012 7:11 pm

Turns out they serve purpose, but device settings offer a solution.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

I have a question regarding the aspect ratio on your TV. Why or what can you do to prevent having to watch movies with the four-inch black bar on the top and bottom? I have been told that it is the movie's producers who prefer it that way. What can you tell me about this issue? It just takes away from the enjoyment of watching a movie.

Rachel Annis, West Jordan

Call me a movie snob, but I've always been passionate about a movie's aspect ratio and making sure it's properly presented on TV. But despite that, I won't leave Rachel out in the cold and still give some possible solutions. But not before I step on my soapbox first.

Aspect ratio refers to a movie's framing or the screen's width to its height. Here's a little history on why the aspect ratio is important.

Back in the Golden Age of Hollywood, movies were framed more like a square, or a ratio of 4 by 3. When televisions first came out, they copied that same movie-screen ratio. But as televisions became more popular, Hollywood studios began to worry about TV viewing stealing away movie audiences. So the movie studios began making widescreen films at a ratio of about 2.39 to 1, or more than twice as wide as it is high. That was an attempt to bring audiences back to movie theaters to give them a more "cinematic experience."

Meanwhile, televisions kept their squarish 4-by-3 screen ratio for the next four decades. That meant in order to show a widescreen movie, TV networks used a process called "pan and scan" where they would electronically pan the TV's square frame from side to side over a widescreen movie in an effort to keep all the action in the frame.

In some rare cases, the studio wouldn't pan and scan the movie but rather "letterbox" it, or show the whole widescreen in the square space. But in order to do that, they would insert black bars on the top and bottom to fill in the rest of the square space. Those are the bars the reader is complaining about.

With the advent of widescreen HDTVs, many movies can fit perfectly in the new wider TV screen. But not all of them. While movies shot at a 1.85-to-1 screen ratio fit nicely, there are some wider-screen movies shot at 2.39 to 1that still require thin black bars on the top and bottom.

The problem with not showing the entire movie on the screen is that it destroys the intent of the filmmaker. How a director frames a movie can play a big part in telling the story. Imagine a conversation between two people in a widescreen movie with each person on each end of the frame. That would originally be seen as one uninterrupted cut. But with pan and scan, it would look like the camera is panning back and forth from person to person in order to keep them in the same scene together. By panning and scanning, you're missing something like 20 percent of the movie.

Sometimes, a director with a really keen eye, like Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg or Martin Scorsese, can convey a lot of emotion or storytelling power with just the single composition of a shot. That shouldn't be wasted by the limitations of a TV screen.

OK, my sermon's over.

So if you're still intent on removing those black bars, check your TV settings first.

Most televisions — especially newer ones — have settings that allow you to change the aspect ratio of the screen. You can zoom in on the picture or stretch the image so that it fills the entire screen.

If your television doesn't have that kind of setting, then check for similar "aspect ratio" settings on your DVD player, cable box or satellite receiver. They too will allow you to set the image to the kind of TV screen you have and to whether you want to remove those black bars or not. But why would you want to?

If you have a question for Vince, email him at ohmytech@sltrib.com, and he'll try to answer it for his column in The Salt Lake Tribune or on its website. For an archive of past columns, go to sltrib.com/topics/ohmytech.