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Visual ratios explained...

I tried to simplify most aspects of shooting/displaying for picture ratios because details can quickly become overhelming (although quite frankly interesting from a technical point of view). To let you understand what you should expect on your video system for each mode, I will add each time a typical 4/3 and 16/9 display sample (without and with zooming).

Jump to: [Academy Ratio/Video] [Letterboxed] [Pan&Scan] [Open Matte] [Squeeze] [PAL+] [Hi-Vision] [Others]

Academy Ratio / Video [1.33:1]

This is originally the ratio that emerged from the first years of filmed pictures. Directly linked with the reel frame size, silent movies without sound tracks could be shot in 1.37:1. Then soundtrack took some more space (double mono, one for backup, that later became stereo) and cut it down to 1.33:1. Most movies until the 50's were shot in this ratio. This is why TV sets for the 40 years to come would be manufactured with this "magic" 1.33:1 (= 4/3) picture size that would give its specific size to all later video standards (NTSC, PAL, SECAM, Beta, VHS, LD, etc.).

Anything shoot on film with a 1.33:1 ratio should be considered as "Academy Ratio", this includes TV Series shot on film.

Some movies/programs shot in Academy Ratio: Citizen Kane, Gone with the Wind, X-Files


Academy Ratio / Video

Standard 4/3

Widescreen 16/9
(zooming would cut 25% of the picture)

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Letterboxed [1.66:1~2.60:1]

Over the years, movie theaters and producers tried to enhance the experience by adding sound, color and eventually developping better mechanical camera/optical lenses to allow more pictures to be filmed and displayed. Since picture was supposed to be immerging and breath-taking, all your visual area had to be filled, and because your two eyes are horizontaly aligned, the picture started spreading on the right and left sides.

The film in a movie theater will look as filling the whole screen but the same ratio applied on a standard TV Set will show the so-called black bars on top and bottom of the screen. Since a widescreen TV is 16/9 (1.78:1), anything between 1.33:1 and 1.78:1 (typically 1.50:1 to 1.66:1) will still have grey unused spaces on the lateral side while anything wider than 1.78:1 (typically 1.85:1, 2.00:1, 2.20:1, 2.35:1) will still show some amount of "black bars" even on a widescreen TV.

Some movies shot in 1.85:1: The Godfather, Saving Private Ryan, Aliens


Letterbox 1.85:1

Standard 4/3

Widescreen 16/9

(without and with zoom)

Some movies shot in 2.35:1: Terminator 2, Star Wars, Fight Club


Letterbox 2.35:1

Standard 4/3

Widescreen 16/9

(without and with zoom)

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Pan&Scan [1.33:1]

Sadly, most people for a long time were not exactly happy with the fact that they bought a very expensive TV screen and ended up with black bars eating up as much as almost half the available space!

One way to get around this on a standard screen was zooming in the picture to fill up the screen, thus losing image information on both sides and killing director's intented photography and image composition! Watching 2001 or any Sergio Leone movie in Pan&Scan would likely kill the artistic and dramatic framing imagined by the director and eventually make some scenes dull and boring. But at that time OAR (for Original Aspect Ratio) was not a selling argument. And kids wanted to see it big on the screen, no way they would stand those awful black bars!


1.85:1 to be zoomed

1.85:1 in Pan&Scan
(28% of picture lost)

Standard 4/3

Widescreen 16/9
(zooming would cut 46% of the original picture)


2.35:1 to be zoomed

2.35:1 in Pan&Scan
(46% of picture lost)

Standard 4/3

Widescreen 16/9
(zooming would cut 58% of the original picture)

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Open Matte [1.33:1]

Open matting could be seen as the opposite of Pan & Scanning. For some programs, the director had both a letterboxed and a Academy ratio in mind (for theaters in 1.85:1 and later for TV broadcast and commercial release in 1.33:1). Open matting is actually removing the black bars to show more information on top and bottom of the screen! Some carefully composed movies will take advantage of this to keep visual consistency in both modes, but on some of them, you can expect to see wires, crew members, microphones or camera leading tracks on the floor!

Some movies released in Open Matte: Carrie, Full Metal Jacket


Original 1.85:1
(in Theaters)

1.33:1 Open Matte
(28% of picture gained)

Standard 4/3

Widescreen 16/9

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Anamorphic Widescreen [1.85:1~2.35:1]

Before DVD finally hit the stores all around the world, LaserDisc was already investigating both HDTV (720p/1080i, Hi-Vision in Japan: see below) and Widescreen TV sets. Research showed in the 60's that human field of vision was roughly between 5/3 (1.66:1) and 6/3 (2.00:1). Any easy was to accomodate this ratio range with existing 4/3 equipment was to add 33% horizontal resolution: 4/3 is also 12/9, 12 + 33% = 16, hence 16/9 (1/78:1).

Since there would be period with both 4/3 and 16/9 technologies would live side by side, some compromises and optimizations were to be invented. One idea was that storing black bars in the disc was a waste of space and could be used in a smarter way. With 16/9 screens making slowly their way to the market, it was no more necessary to zoom the picture to fit the screen (enhancing the picture size but not quality).

The idea of anamorphic transfer was to store, in a 4/3 picture, stretched (or squeezed) information that would natively fit the 16/9 ratio screen once unstretched (or unsqueezed). This picture is only intended for 16/9 display and will appear distorted on standard 4/3 displays. This ultimately gives a 33% increase of the number of line displayed, improving picture quality compared to standard letterboxing.

Some programs available in squeeze mode: Alaska, Gaia's Daughter, Ordinary Europe, Tahiti


Original 1.78:1
(16/9 aspect)

Actual 1.33:1
(in 4/3, looks distored)

Widescreen 16/9

(without and with zoom)

Some movies available in squeeze mode: Terminator 2, Showgirls (NTSC and PAL), Microcosmos


Original 2.35:1
(16/9 aspect)

Actual 1.33:1
(in 4/3, looks distored)

Widescreen 16/9

(without and with zoom)

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PAL+ / PAL Plus [1.78:1~2.35:1]

Back in the early 90's, European Broadcaster defined and designed an extension of the PAL standard that would fit upcoming 16/9 requirements but still keep backward compatibility with existing PAL TV sets. The idea was to include an extra line (along with extra hidden format information) every 3 lines making the default 430 lines go up to 574 lines of information.

While very nice for 16/9 display, the titles mastered for PAL+ format were probably not showing the best display on regular 4/3 display. The resulting display would not dither/adapt the signal from 4 to 3 lines but rather "forget" to display 1 line every 4 lines of information. This is one step better than NTSC Squeezed LDs, but still one step below true anamorphic transfers has found on DVD today.

Movies available in PAL+ mode (Germany): Showgirls, Mikrokosmos, Schlafes Bruder

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Hi-Vision Widescreen [1.78:1]

Hi-Vision (either in compressed MUSE or uncompressed HDVS) is natively widescreen 16/9. Any picture shot in Hi-Vision video will be 1.78:1. Movie transfer more than 1.78:1 wide will show some black bars on top and bottom. If a movie shot in Academy Ratio was released in Hi-Vision, there would be black bars on the right and left sides. When standard NTSC LaserDiscs were mastered based on a Hi-Vision tapes, they would be either letterboxed, squeezed or both (letterboxed on one side and squeezed on the other side). Hi-Vision widescreen is also intended only for 16/9 screens.

Some movies available in Hi-Vision: Cliffhanger (Hi-Vision, letterboxed, squeezed), Alaska (Hi-Vision, HDVS, letterboxed/squeezed)


Original 2.35:1
(16/9 aspect)

Widescreen 16/9

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Some more details (Super35, Matting)

To be completely honest, Pan&Scan is not always that bad because director knows that simply shooting 2.35:1 will end up in a bad framing on classic 4/3 ratio. One way to accomodate these opposite constraints has been promoted under the shape of Super35 films (by James Cameron among others). Terminator 2, The Abyss or Titanic have been shot in Super35 mode which is located somewhere between Pan&Scan and Open Matte. Frame is shot full 16/9 and will be latter cut (matted) to 2.35:1 (blue rectangle) or 1.33:1 (yellow rectangle) in different zones. Describing these 4/3 releases as Pan&Scan is not completely accurate but is the closest choice since information from the theater version is lost on right and left sides.


Original framing
(16/9 aspect)

Super35 matting(s)

4/3 Result

16/9 Result

When buying a Widescreen DVD of video contents (Live Concerts especially), be careful to check before that the source material was indeed shot widescreen. Most of the time, just for the sake of putting "Widescreen" on the cover to please people who just bought an expensive 16/9 TV set, the picture will be eventully matted from an original 4/3 video. You will end up losing information just for the sake of filling up the screen of your 16/9 TV screen, which is just as silly as losing information to fill up a 4/3 TV set with Pan&Scan. This is the exact opposite of "Open Matted", this is "Matted".

One example I know for sure of this (LD full video, DVD matted) is: Peter Gabriel: Secret World Live


Original framing
(4/3 aspect)

1.85:1 matting

4/3 Result

16/9 Result

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