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  • [3.5] What's widescreen? How do the aspect ratios work?

    Video can be stored on a DVD in 4:3 format (standard TV shape) or 16:9 (widescreen). The width-to-height ratio of standard televisions is 4 to 3; in other words, 1.33 times wider than high. New widescreen televisions, specifically those designed for HDTV, have a ratio of 16 to 9; that is, 1.78 times wider than high.

    DVD is specially designed to support widescreen displays. Widescreen 16:9 video, such as from a 16:9 video camera, can be stored on the disc in anamorphic form, meaning the picture is squeezed horizontally to fit the standard 4:3 rectangle, then unsqueezed during playback.

    Things get more complicated when film is transferred to video, since most movies today have an aspect ratio of 1.66, 1.85 ("flat"), or 2.40 ("scope"). Because these don't match 1.33 or 1.78 TV shapes, two processes are employed to make various movie pegs fit TV holes:

    Letterbox (often abbreviated to LBX) means the video is presented in its theatrical aspect ratio, which is wider than standard or widescreen TV. Black bars, called mattes , are used to cover the gaps at the top and bottom. A 1.85 movie that has been letterboxed for 1.33 display has thinner mattes than a 2.4 movie letterboxed to 1.33 (28% of display height vs. 44%), although the former are about the same thickness as those of a 2.4 movie letterboxed to 1.78 (26% of display height). The mattes used to letterbox a 1.85 movie for 1.78 display are so thin (2%) that they're hidden by the overscan of most widescreen TVs. Some movies, especially animated features and European films, have an aspect ratio of 1.66, which can be letterboxed for 1.33 display or sideboxed ( windowboxed ) for 1.78 display.

    Pan & scan means the thinner TV "window" is panned and zoomed across the wider movie picture, chopping off the sides. However, most movies today are shot soft matte , which means a full 1.33 aspect film frame is used. (The cinematographer has two sets of frame marks in her viewfinder, one for 1.33 and one for 1.85, so he or she can allow for both formats.) The top and bottom are masked off in the theater, but when the film is transferred to video the full 1.33 frame can be used in the pan & scan process. Pan & scan is primarily used for 1.33 formatting, not for 1.78 formatting, since widescreen fans prefer that letterboxing be used to preserve the theatrical effect.

    For more details and nice visual aids see Leopold's How Film Is Transferred to Video page.

    Once the video is formatted to fullscreen or widescreen form, it's encoded and stored on DVD discs. DVD players have four playback modes, one for 4:3 video and three for 16:9 video:

    • full frame (4:3 video for 4:3 display)
    • auto letterbox (16:9 anamorphic video for 4:3 display)
    • auto pan & scan (16:9 anamorphic video for 4:3 display)
    • widescreen (16:9 anamorphic video for 16:9 display)

    Video stored in 4:3 format is not changed by the player. It appears normally on a standard 4:3 display. Widescreen systems either enlarge it or add black bars to the sides. 4:3 video may have been formatted with letterboxing or pan & scan before being transferred to DVD. All formatting done to the video prior to it being stored on the disc is transparent to the player. It merely reproduces it as a standard 4:3 TV picture. Video that is letterboxed before being encoded can be flagged so that the player will tell a widescreen TV to automatically expand the picture. Unfortunately, some discs (such as Fargo ) do not flag the video properly. And worse, some players ignore the flags.

    The beauty of anamorphosis is that less of the picture is wasted on letterbox mattes. DVD has a frame size designed for 1.33 display, so the video still has to be made to fit, but because it's only squeezed horizontally, 33% more pixels (25% of the total pixels in a video frame) are used to store active picture instead of black. Anamorphic video is best displayed on widescreen equipment, which stretches the video back out to its original width. Alternatively, many new 4:3 TV's can reduce the vertical scan area to restore the proper aspect ratio without losing resolution (an automatic trigger signal is sent to European TVs on SCART pin 8). Even though almost all computers have 4:3 monitors, they have higher resolution than TVs so they can display the full widescreen picture in a window (854x480 pixels or bigger for NTSC; 1024x576 or bigger for PAL).

    Anamorphic video can be converted by the player for display on standard 4:3 TVs in letterbox or pan & scan form. If anamorphic video is shown unchanged on a standard 4:3 display, people will look tall and skinny as if they have been on a crash diet. The setup options of DVD players allow the viewer to indicate whether they have a 16:9 or 4:3 TV. In the case of a 4:3 TV, a second option lets the viewer indicate a preference for how the player will reformat anamorphic video. The two options are detailed below.

    For automatic letterbox mode, the player generates black bars at the top and the bottom of the picture (60 lines each for NTSC, 72 for PAL). This leaves 3/4 of the height remaining, creating a shorter but wider rectangle (1.78:1). In order to fit this shorter rectangle, the anamorphic picture is squeezed vertically using a letterbox filter that combines every 4 lines into 3, reducing the vertical resolution from 480 scan lines to 360 (576 to 432 for PAL). If the video was already letterboxed to fit the 1.78 aspect, then the mattes generated by the player seamlessly extend the mattes in the video.) The vertical squeezing exactly compensates for the original horizontal squeezing so that the movie is shown in its full width. Some players have better letterbox filters than others, using weighted averaging to combine lines (scaling 4 lines into 3 or merging the boundary lines) rather than simply dropping one out of every four lines. Widescreen video can be letterboxed to 4:3 on expensive studio equipment before it's stored on the disc, or it can be stored in anamorphic form and letterboxed to 4:3 in the player. If you compare the two, the letterbox mattes will be identical but the picture quality of the studio version may be slightly better. (See 1.38 for more about letterboxing.)

    For automatic pan & scan mode, the anamorphic video is unsqueezed to 16:9 and the sides are cropped off so that a portion of the image is shown at full height on a 4:3 screen by following a center of interest offset encoded in the video stream according to the preferences of those who transferred the film to video. The pan & scan "window" is 75% of the full width, which reduces the horizontal pixels from 720 to 540. The pan & scan window can only travel laterally. This does not duplicate a true pan & scan process in which the window can also travel up and down and zoom in and out. Auto pan & scan has three strikes against it: 1) it doesn't provide the same artistic control as studio pan & scan, 2) there is a loss of detail when the picture is scaled up, and 3) equipment for recording picture shift information is not widely available. Therefore, no anamorphic movies have been released with auto pan & scan enabled, although some discs use the pan & scan feature in menus so that the same menu video can be used in both widescreen and 4:3 mode. In order to present a quality full-screen picture to the vast majority of TV viewers, yet still provide the best experience for widescreen owners, some DVD producers choose to put two versions on a single disc: 4:3 studio pan & scan and 16:9 anamorphic.

    Playback of widescreen material can be restricted by the disc producer. Programs can be marked for the following display modes:
    - 4:3 full frame
    - 4:3 LB (for sending a letterbox expand signal to widescreen TV)
    - 16:9 LB only (the player is not allowed to pan & scan on a 4:3 TV)
    - 16:9 PS only (the player is not allowed to letterbox on a 4:3 TV)
    - 16:9 LB or PS (the viewer can select pan & scan or letterbox on a 4:3 TV)

    You can usually tell if a disc contains anamorphic video if the packaging says "enhanced for 16:9 widescreen" or something similar. If all it says is "widescreen," it may be letterboxed to 4:3, not 16:9. Widescreen Review has a list of anamorphic DVD titles.

    Additional explanations of how anamorphic video works can be found at Greg Lovern's What's an Anamorphic DVD? page, Bill Hunt's Ultimate Guide to Anamorphic Widescreen DVD , and Dan Ramer's What the Heck Is Anamorphic? . More information can be found at the Anamorphic Widescreen Support Page , the Letterbox/Widescreen Advocacy Page , and The American Widescreen Museum . You might also be interested in Guy Wright's The Widescreen Scam . See 1.38 for further discussion of letterboxing.

    Anamorphosis causes no problems with line doublers and other video scalers, which simply duplicate the scan lines before they are stretched out by the widescreen display.

    For anamorphic video, the pixels are fatter. Different pixel aspect ratios (none of them square) are used for each aspect ratio and resolution. 720-pixel and 704-pixel sizes have the same aspect ratio because the first includes overscan. Note that conventional values of 1.0950 and 0.9157 are for height/width (and are tweaked to match scanning rates). The table below uses less-confusing width/height values (y/x * h/w).

    720x480 720x576 704x480 704x576 352x480 352x576 4:3 0.909 1.091 1.818 2.182 16:9 1.212 1.455 2.424 2.909

    For gory details of video resolution and pixel aspect ratios see Jukka Aho's Quick Guide to Digital Video Resolution and Aspect Ratio Conversions .

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