There is a lot of confusion about screen formats on DVD. We'll discuss the major screen formats for you and show you why Widescreen is a better deal than Standard (Pan & Scan). Much information here is borrowed in some fashion or another from Widescreen.org, the best place to get a better understanding of Widescreen Advocacy. This is not intended to be a detailed technical discussion about screen formats, but to better educate the general public about it.
Screen Formats Uncovered
Widescreen format has been unfairly given a 'bad rap' by the general public. People just can't handle the black bars on the top and bottom of the screen; going so far as to even say that movie makers are CUTTING OUT that screen area and cheating consumers out of part of the movie! The reality is far from it.
Before we can look at it intelligently, you need to understand ASPECT RATIO. This is how wide a screen is to how tall it is. A perfect square TV (if there was one) would have an aspect ratio of 1:1 - that is, the screen is as tall as it is wide. TV screens are not square, however. A TV screen has an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 - that is, the screen is a third wider.
Understand that movies are made for theaters, not your TV. Movie theater screens are often over TWICE as wide as they are tall! This means that most movies are actually CREATED at aspect ratios of 2.35:1 - that is, the screen is two and a third times wider than it is tall! Therefore, there is no way that the movies can be made to fit your tiny 1.33:1 TV screen without butchering the video down to almost 40% less than the theater shows! Enter Widescreen format.
Widescreen movies are presented in the SAME aspect ratio that the movie was filmed in. In order to make these fit your screen, the height of the picture is reduced to ensure the picture remains unstretched or distorted. This results in those 'evil' black bars that people like to complain about. You aren't losing any movie with widescreen. In actually, you are seeing ALL of the movie. Check out FULL SCREEN FORMATS below to see how the movies are BUTCHERED to give you that full screen format of VHS.
The good news of it all is that people are getting educated about widescreen. DVDs are excellent outlets for widescreen because of the extra resolution that DVD has over VHS.
Now that you understand aspect ratio, those numbers like 1.33:1, 1.66:1, 1.85:1, 2.35:1 all make a little more sense. Now, see for yourself why movie lovers DEMAND widescreen. The images below show you the original movie aspect ratio versus what YOU see on your TV when a movie is converted to full screen.
What is an Anamorphic transfer?
With new widescreen, high definition TVs getting cheaper and cheaper, it makes sense the create DVDs that have more resolution (pixels on the screen) than a regular DVD. These 'anamorphic' DVDs are completely compatible with regular TVs and equipment,but when they are played back on a TV that can take advantage of it, the picture quality is vastly superior. On a standard TVs, a 'regular' DVD and an 'anamorphic' DVD are virtually indistinguishable. If you REALLY want to know the technical side of this process, once again, Widescreen.org is your best bet.
What is SuperBit?
SuperBit is Sony's special DVD style that are supposedly the 'best looking and best sounding' DVDs available. Instead of extras, commentaries, two versions (Full and Widescreen) - they use ALL the space on the DVD for the best quality picture and audio. Does it work? Check out The Digital Bits review of SuperBit titles.
FULL SCREEN FORMATS
First off, let me tell you that not all Full Screen presentations are Pan & Scan butchers. Some movies, like The Shining, and TV movies like The Stand, were filmed by the filmmaker in 'Full Frame'. They expected the film to be watched on TVs or simply preferred the 1.33:1'ish aspect ratio. When these films are transferred to DVD, they keep their intended aspect ratio, which just happens to be full screen. These sort of presentations do not upset DVD/widescreen aficionados because the film's integrity isn't compromised. It's when a film is 'hacked' to fit your screen, something has to go. The process is called Pan & Scan and it should be abolished.
What is Pan & Scan?
When a movie, like the above pictured Labyrinth, is shot in 2.35:1 aspect ratio, the film can either be transferred to the home medium (VHS, DVD, etc.) directly in its original format (which is cheaper, by the way) or it must undergo a 'cropping' process to reduce the visible area to 1.33:1. Here is where Pan & Scan comes into play.
An editor (and you can bet it isn't the director or producer or someone whose vision is going to be altered by the process) is required to edit the whole movie, basically through a 1.33:1 window, and decide where to 'pan' the visible window that will be subsequently filmed for the 'formatted to fit your screen' version. The editor decides what portion of the movie gets seen, and what gets dropped. Most often, this is whatever happens to be in 'focus' at the time (whose talking, what's blowing up, etc.). However, this process cannot take into account when the action is all over the screen!
This 'window' is panned and scanned around the full spread of the movie during the process. Each and every scene has to be edited so that the window is focused on the 'action'.
The original image used to create this are from Widescreen.org.