[NOTE: certain term pairs, like “format” and “aspect ratio” or “pan and scan” and “full screen” may be used interchangeably below. I know there are technical differences between the terms, but I think my meaning is clear.]
Recently, I’ve been doing some research into the history of film formats. I’ve been trying to wrap my head around what formats appeared at what times, what aspect ratios result from what formats, when the term “anamorphic” applies, and exactly what the physical film might look like for some of these formats. There’s an easy to understand (but jam-packed) video about some of this (well, mostly aspect ratio) that I highly recommend.
This research led me to the realization that, as someone born in the mid-80s, I was raised on pan and scan movies. This shouldn’t have come as a shock, but it got me thinking: if most of my original exposure to movies, during my formative years, was on television in a pan and scan or cropped presentation, what effect has that had on my ability to understand film form? Am I irreparably damaged by my inferior native visual language? Am I doomed to be the Salieri who’s passion for the art of film can never equal that of those lucky Mozarts who were “born” into film appreciation through countless hours in actual movie theaters? Or, horror of horrors, is some teenaged movie geek who has never lived without a 16:9 widescreen TV, who has never handled a clunky VHS tape, who has never had to beware of accidentally purchasing the inexplicable “Full Screen Edition” of a DVD, going to be more qualified than I am to understand film simply because of when he or she was born? And the most terrifying implication of all: Is an entire generation unable to truly appreciate film on the proper level due to growing up under the malicious tyranny of pan and scan?!
I don’t suppose it’s as dire as all of that, but it’s worth examining.
A Note on Television: Full screen was the native presentation format for TV shows up until the late 1990s. Even after the advent of widescreen TVs, shows were shot with a full screen presentation in mind, since not everyone had a widescreen TV. My family got a widescreen TV in 2003. I didn’t really watch a lot of prime time TV before then, and the shows I was really interested (The X-Files and 24) were presented in widescreen on the DVD sets I purchased. As far as my TV show viewing goes, I feel as if I’m relatively unscathed.
Movies are a different story. Sure, a full screen format (or perhaps more appropriately 1.33:1, or 1:33, OR 4×3–or 1.37, which is close enough) was the standard for a lot of movies that appeared before the early 1950s. Anything I might have seen on TV that was produced before the advent of CinemaScope would’ve been in relatively untouched. When widescreen film formats came along (to combat the rise of television and get people out to theaters where they could see more picture on a bigger screen) their presentation on TV stayed the same. Unfortunately for me, I wasn’t really watching pre-1953 movies when I was a kid, I was watching what was new. And doubly unfortunate, what was new was widescreen, and was therefore panned and scanned to be shown on TV. That’s just the way it was.
I didn’t start to see a lot of movies until the mid-1990s, but even then, the differences just didn’t register with me because the 2 hours I might spend in a movie theater each week couldn’t compare to the hours of TV I was watching at home. I’d never be able to afford to see every movie I wanted to see in the theater, and cable stations like TBS, TNT and USA offered plenty of (pan and scan) movies anyway. I don’t suppose it helped that all of the VHS releases of the movies I loved enough to own (Independence Day and Mission: Impossible were among the first) were in full-screen formats. I do recall my sister loving Titanic so much that she bought both the full-screen and widescreen VHS releases. I also remember having the option preordering the Star Wars: Special Edition trilogy from Suncoast in widescreen (the silver one) or full-screen (the gold one). I foolishly opted for the latter, because who wouldn’t want to make use of the entire screen (and gold’s better than silver, right)?
It was around that time, which would’ve been 1998 or not long after, that I saw this video produced by TCM and featuring directors Syndney Pollack, Martin Scorsese, Curtis Hanson and Michael Mann discussing the cinematic butchery that is pan and scan. What an eye-opener! More than convincing me never to buy or watch a movie that isn’t in its proper aspect ratio (if I can help it), this 5-minute clip changed my perspective and my understanding of how films are created and constructed. I’d say it should be required viewing for any introductory film class, but honestly, I (idealistically?) hope that the pan and scan process will soon become a memory too.
Cable TV is the wild card here, I guess. I don’t have cable, so I don’t know if widescreen TVs have allowed more movies to be broadcast in the proper format. Netflix is constantly improving and making sure their titles are formatted properly. Also, full-screen DVDs seem to be disappearing from retailers (though to be fair, a lot of DVDs are gone from store shelves as consumers turn to amazon for physical media and any number of streaming services for digital fixes). There are still (and always will be) issues regarding definitive presentation of some films, often in regard to home video formatting (like pillarboxing and windowboxing), but I feel as if widescreen has won out (of course, the war between TV and movies rages on).
Now, what about my initial fears? Has my full-screen upbringing destroyed my ability to read, understand and appreciate the art of (widescreen) film? As suggested above, I think there’s definitely a wider discussion to be had about this topic and just what it means for a certain generation of viewers. If we grew up knowing exclusively pan and scan movies (on TV at home anyway), does that mean we view appreciate them on the same level as properly presented films? This would suggest a diminished reverence for the “true” film format in favor of a more equal playing field. If we lump everything together, does it become more difficult to understand just what is so special about the framing, staging and editing of a film? These questions (and many more unstated) are troublesome. I don’t want to admit that I can’t appreciate how a film is crafted because I inherently can’t see the “proper” format. I don’t want to unwittingly buy into the idea that “how you watch it is how it’s supposed to be,” but is my pan and scan upbringing getting in the way?
I recently watched a pan and scan version of The Other Woman on demand at a friend’s house, and the incoherence of the framing was unrelentingly distracting. Even though I grew up full-screen, everything simply looked wrong (and it wasn’t just that the movie isn’t very good). Does this mean that I’m free, cured of the full-screen-vision of my youth? It’s hard to say. I’d like to hope that I’ve gained a more disciplined and discerning eye as my love and knowledge of film has increased. Maybe I’ll take the Socratic view. Sure, I know nothing, and I may not have solved anything here, but at least I’m learning.