The home theater experience isn't complete without a television to view your programming on. When going to the local consumer electronics retail store to pick out a TV, the potential buyer is sometimes overwhelmed by the sheer selection and sizes of TVs to choose from. Not only do TVs come in big and small sizes, there is also another factor to consider: Screen Aspect Ratio.
Screen Aspect Ratio Defined
Screen Aspect Ratio is basically a measure of the horizontal length of a television (or film) screen, in relation to its vertical height. In other words, a traditional television has a Screen Aspect Ratio of 4x3. This means that a traditional television has a screen that is four units long for every three units in height. Converting these units into inches would result in measurements of 4-inches by 3-inches or 8-inches by 6-inches, and on-and-on.
By the same token, on widescreen televisions (such as today's LCD and Plasma HDTVs), the Screen Aspect Ratio is 16 units long for every 9 units in height, or 16-inches by 9-inches, 32-inches by 18-inches, etc... A 16x9 screen aspect ratio thus results in a wider image display that a 4x3 aspect ratio. This wider image display allows both movies originally filmed in widescreen and new, widescreen television programming, to be displayed more accurately.
The Increasing Need For 16x9 Televisions
With LCD and Plasma TVs now the main types of TVs purchased, the consumer now needs to understand the 16x9 screen aspect ratio.
Televisions with a 16x9 screen aspect ratio is more suited to the increasing amount of 16x9 and other widescreen programming available on DVD and HDTV broadcasts. However, consumers are used to the traditional 4x3-shaped screen. For an illustration of the difference in shape of a traditional 4x3 aspect ratio TV screen and a 16x9 TV screen, check out this example.
With more and more programming available in widescreen formats, owners of older 4x3 TVs are watching a growing number of TV programs and DVD movies with black bars on the top and bottom of their screens (commonly known as letterboxing). Many viewers, not accustomed to this, think that they are being cheated by not having the entire TV screen filled with an image. This is not the case. Most films made after 1953 were (and continue to be) filmed in various widescreen formats, such as Cinemascope, Panavision, Vista-Vision, Technirama, Cinerama, or other widescreen film format.
How Widescreen Movies Are Shown On 4x3 Televisions
In order to show these widescreen films so that they fill the entire screen on an older 4x3 TV, they are sometimes re-edited in a Pan-and-Scan format, with an attempt to include as much as the original image as possible. To illustrate this, take an example where two characters are talking to each other, but each is standing on opposite sides of a widescreen image. If shown full screen on a traditional TV without further editing, all the viewer would see would be the empty space between the characters.
To remedy this, editors must recut the scene for video release by jumping from one character to the other as they speak and respond to each other. In this scenario, however, the intent of the film director is severely altered, because the viewer does not see the entire composition of the original scene, including any facial expressions or body language in response to the other character who is speaking.
Another problem with this Pan-and-Scan process is lost impact of action scenes. An example of this is the chariot race in the 1959 version of Ben Hur. In the original widescreen theatrical version (available on DVD and Blu-ray), you can see the entire impact of Ben Hur and the other chariot racers as they battle each other for positioning in the famed chariot race segment. In the Pan-and-Scan version, sometimes broadcast on TV, all you see is the camera cutting to closeups of the horses and reins. All the other action in the frame is totally missing, as well as the body expressions of the chariot riders.