Re: Are 1.85:1 films "pan 'n' scanned"? (was: Re: NxNW/The Birds on Laserdisc)

From: David P. Hayes
Date: 1997/10/22
Newsgroups: alt.movies.hitchcock,

FilmGene wrote in alt.movies.hitchcock:
> > Pan and scan is only used for films wider than 1:85 (i.e.
> > anamorphic). If you disagree, give me an example of one.

response by in article

> Can someone please provide either an example of a pan 'n' scanned
> 1.85:1 film, or concrete technical information that 1.85:1 films
> can be/have been pan 'n' scanned, however rarely?


True, the 1.85:1 ratio can entail projecting a print made from a 1.33:1 negative, cutting off the tops and bottoms of the original image.  But 1.85 does require this.  Many movies shown 1.85:1 were shot that way, and when they are shown on a television screen one or both sides of the image will be cut off in that there is nothing on film that can be added above or below.


Studios came to see the benefit of planning ahead of time for 1.33:1 presentations with the advent of cable and videocassettes, which results in viewers paying to see films on television screens instead of getting them for free.Some films are shot in combinations of widescreen and non- widescreen, so that theater audience and video viewers each see details that the others don't.The three "Back to the Future" movies were shot 1.33:1 except for shots that required special effects, which were done 1.85:1 (so as not to waste money getting fine pixels of detail that would be lost on the television screen).  "The Player" was shot 1.33:1 except for close-ups, which were done 1.85:1, with the only detail cropped off on television being the often out-of-focus background.  (The widescreen laserdisc versions sometimes offer surprising revelations of this kind when compared to the non-widescreen discs and tapes.  The Criterion edition of "The Player" offers a widescreen presentation of the movie but a non-widescreen transfer of the trailer, exposing the differences I've mention here.)


"Once Upon a Time in America" is another 1.85:1 film that is mostly cropped in its theatrical form (and much improved for it), yet there is obvious pan-and-scan (in the most literal sense) for the shot on the Florida beach where the birds all fly away as James Woods and Robert DeNiro walk.  One can plainly see that the widescreen image was optically panned-upon as the shot progresses, with that horrid effect of the image being re-framed as objects move toward the side of the screen without the image revealing new depth details.  If a person's full face is seen, the face continues to be seen as from the front, without ears coming into or out of the image as the person comes closer to the edge of the screen; objects seem "flat."


One of the other respondents to this question mentioned "Body Heat." At least some of that movie was shot 1.33:1 and cropped for theaters--and it made quite a difference, with the TV version suffering.  In the scene where the little girl comes into Kathleen Turner's house when William Hurt is having an adulterous encounter with her, theater audiences--seeing Hurt only from the waist up, but seeing him bare for all of that--would presume him to have been totally nude.  Later dialogue in which it is reported what the girl saw, should confirm this impression.  Yet on TV, additional picture area at the bottom reveals Hurt wearing boxer shorts, thereby altering the tone of the scene, lessening the atmosphere of sexuality, and rendering unintelligible the report of the little girl having been shocked by the sight of genitalia.


It's easy for purists to say that the theatrical presentation reveals the artist's intent, but this may not be so. Elia Kazan likened scope to "shooting through a keyhole," and I've seen widescreen films where all the important action is confined to a slightly-wider-than-square portion of the frame, with the remaining side or sides used to show a door or other superfluous matter.  Obviously someone was planning ahead.  The video version of "True Lies," in the scene of Schwartzenegger saving his daughter by pulling her into his helicopter, shows us Arnie's head as his arm reaches out to her.  In the widescreen edition, only the arm and the top hair remain, leaving theater audiences (but not TV viewers) to wonder whether a stand-in had been substituted.


Early widescreen films that have spectacular subject matter do suffer when cropped.  I refuse to see "Gigi" (which is 2.35:1) except in widescreen.  However, the notion that widescreen presentations are always superior to non-widescreen is as specious as the argument that foreign films should always be subtitled rather than dubbed.  Think of a slapstick comedy such as "Airplane" wherein the intonations of comic delivery would be lost on foreign audiences, and wherein the audience would miss sight gags while reading superimposed wording, and you can see that films need to be judged individually as to what's the best presentation.

David Hayes

This article was adapted (both trimmed and expanded) from a "Letter to the Editor" of mine which had previously appeared in the L.A. Reader in March 1996.

In the version published in the Reader, there had been no mention of "Once Upon a Time in America" and "Body Heat," although I was aware of the differences between the widescreen and standard-ratio version of both films and would have included my observations in my letter had I not been pressed for space.  (As it was, the version I prepared -- printed in full -- was by far the longest letter in that issue.  It was a fortunate coincidence that another contributor to the newsgroup had brought up "Body Heat," giving me an easy transition to the remarks that had previously been formed only in my head.

The following passage appeared in the Reader version of the letter but not in the newsgroup version:

[Reader columnist Andy] Klein's--in his remark about the "anonymous technician" who "cuts off the sides of the image," etc., in creating a master videotape--paints a grim image that has a basis in truth, but in some cases the original filmmaker is at the transfer device.  Director Taylor Hackford, speaking many years ago at a LACMA screening, said that he at that time was supervising the video transfer of his then-recently-released White Nights, and that other filmmakers were similarly involved in the future presentation of their work.  Hackford, of course, was in the good position of having made his films at a time when video and cable release occurs a half-year to a year after theatrical premiere.  Earlier filmmakers, having made their widescreen epics at a time when commercial television was the only avenue to follow theatrical exhibition, were not called in to participate in this process when it finally occurred several years after the film was made.


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