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This section was originally written in 2002 and updated in 2003. That is why no mention of Blu-ray or HD-DVD is included.
Since so many readers find this information valuable it has been retained despite its age.

Your Curator has sworn that he'd take a beating before he let coverage of the DVD front enter the hallowed halls of The American WideScreen Museum. But it's apparent that those little silver and gold discs are probably the only way that we'll be seeing most of the films that are mentioned in this website. And with that in mind, the Curator has a few thoughts on the subject that he just insists on sharing in order to help the reader avoid major disappointment.

Technical Specifications are for NTSC. Slightly different standards exist for PAL.

There's a widescreen (16:9 aspect ratio) TV or monitor in your future, if you haven't already got one. Since you're on a website that tells the history of widescreen films then it's likely that you own one or more DVD players. If widescreen movies is a topic of interest to you then you most likely opt for widescreen or letterbox DVDs if you're given a choice. The Curator's Sherlock Holmes class logic sometimes even boggles his own mind.

The difference in screen shape is rather obvious.

But for some real fun you may want to make your widescreen
TV purchase with a change in screen size a bit more like this:

The ladies are correct, even if they don't admit it in front of you, bigger is better.
Even if you don't expect to be getting a widescreen set for another five or six or more years, it's important to start making your DVD purchases with the realization that you will ultimately own one. When The American WideScreen Museum installed its first HI-DEF 16:9 projector the Curator was a bit chagrinned at what he discovered about some of the prize films in the collection. So here's the straight poop on DVD formats and what you need to look for.

The DVD image is made up of 345600 pixels arranged in a matrix of 720 wide by 480 high (NTSC). The European PAL system uses a 720 by 576 matrix, but we'll restrict our discussion to NTSC, even though the same principles apply to PAL. All digital imaging equipment must interpret the aspect ratio of pixels, and there is substantial variation depending on the system used. But we're getting off topic. Regardless of the format of the screen image, it's contained in that 720 x 480 matrix. If those pixels were square then the picture would have an aspect ratio of 1.5:1. But the pixels aren't square. Depending on the format of the recorded image, the DVD player will interpret the pixels as either narrower than they are tall or they're wider than they are tall. Likewise, the monitor will interpret the width of the pixels depending on the user's settings. Here are two DVD images that are both 720 x 480 pixels but with different pixel width:
She Wore A Yellow Ribbon produced in a 1.37:1 aspect ratio. The DVD pixels are interpreted as being narrow in order to display the image in the proper shape. ©1949 RKO Pictures - Available from Warner Home VideoThe Sopranos First Season produced in a 16:9 (1.78:1) aspect ratio. The DVD pixels are interpreted as being wide.
©1999 Home Box Office - Available from HBO Home Video
As seen in the above illustrations, both images are identical in size. It's the hardware that will determine how it looks on a screen. If you use a conventional 4:3 monitor or television, the 4:3 image will fill your screen entirely and the DVD player will interpret the 16:9 image in a letterbox format, as seen below:
Images As Seen On A Conventional 4:3 Set
4:3 image fits standard TV screen because the software in the player interprets the pixels as narrow.
16:9 image reformatted by software in the DVD player to letterbox for a 4:3 TV screen
The Duke drops a few pounds and Tony Soprano adds a few when the pictures are formatted for the 4:3 display.

Standard Letterbox Versus Anamorphic Letterbox on 4:3 Displays
Standard letterbox, left and anamorphic letterbox, right, as they are recorded in the native DVD 720 x 480 pixel format.
Spartacus, produced in Technirama and transferred from a 65mm intermediate created during the Robert A. Harris - James C. Katz restoration. The extraction could properly be anywhere from 2.2 to 2.35:1. This image is from the Universal Home Video DVD made in conventional letterbox.
©1998 Universal Home Video
Spartacus, transferred from the same intermediate material on the same equipment as the Universal version. This time it was Criterion and they used the anamorphic format to retain more image detail for the letterboxed image.
©2001 The Criterion Collection
What you see on a conventional 4:3 display
Letterbox image as we've become familiar with them.
©1998 Universal Home Video
DVD player converts anamorphic image to standard letterbox. No startling difference.
©2001 The Criterion Collection

Standard Format Versus Anamorphic Widescreen
When A 16:9 Display Is Used - Big Difference!

Let's look at our sample images as displayed on 16:9 gear. Things take a different shape, and size.
Old films are displayed properly, just as in a decent theatre.16:9 programming offers improved resolution and larger image.
16:9 monitors and projectors offer ways of getting rid of the black bars on the sides of old 1.37:1 films. They can either stretch the image to fit the new 16:9 shape or zoom in to crop the image to conform to the new shape. These features are for really, really, stupid people.

So what happens to our two Spartacus DVDs when we show them on a 16:9 set?

Since the Technirama process is wider than the 16:9 format adopted by people that apparently never went to a theatre, letterboxing is still necessary on the new sets.
Standard letterbox inside 4:3 image used by Universal Home Video
Anamorphic letterbox used inside 16:9 image used by The Criterion Collection
I said you'd see a big difference.

Image size is not the only difference. Clarity and detail are substantially better when DVDs are "enhanced for 16:9".

Remember that I mentioned that 16:9 gear can get rid of the black bars on the sides of 4:3 programs? By using the zoom feature we can make the little Spartacus picture the same size as the 16:9 version. I'd give you an example but I just can't convey what happens when you do that. It's an ugly thing to behold, at least if you have a relatively large screen. We're using a 100" screen and it's unlikely that Universal's DVD will ever be displayed on it. But don't take this as an attack on Universal. There are other bonehead transfers that just break your heart. As an example, Fox used 65mm elements of Oklahoma! and South Pacific as well as the 55.625mm negative of The King and I in order to produce high quality transfers, and then they used the cheesy 4:3 letterbox format to make DVDs. They're bloody awful to look at on a big screen system. Is it too late to ask for a refund?


Well it's taken me long enough to get to the point. If you don't currently own a 16:9 display you will some time in the future. And there's nothing to compare with it. It would be a shame to find you've got a bunch of DVDs that look like merde when you view them on those hi-tech pieces of electronic wizardry. So look carefully at all that small print on the back of the DVD package. Any reference to the program material being enhanced for 16:9 display is your assurance that you're going to get a bigger thrill from the DVD when you upgrade, rather than getting a sick feeling in the pit of your stomach.

Read The Small Print Before Buying
That's what Caveat Emptor is all about.
Universal Home Video information block for Spartacus
It states 2.21:1 Widescreen but no mention is made of the disc being anamorphic or enhanced for 16:9, so that translates to standard 4:3 letterbox.

Criterion Collection information block for Spartacus
You've got to squint to see it, but the all important information telling you that the disc is enhanced for 16:9 widescreen TVs is there, and it delivers oh, so much!

An Interesting Comparison

Film Courtesy of Robert A. Harris

There's nothing especially wrong with the extraction area used by either Universal or Criterion, but it is interesting to see how they differ.
Area used in Universal Home Video transfer
Area used in Criterion transfer
Standard 35mm extraction area
70mm projector aperture dimensions
Universal copied more information than would be seen in either a 70mm or 35mm print, more than would wind up on the screen in a theatre. And while they state on the box that the transfer is 2.21:1, in fact it's 2.35:1 due to the fact that image information that is normally hidden by the magnetic sound stripes has been included on the sides. This is probably welcome by some film enthusiasts, but your Curator doesn't think it's an especially good idea considering the fact that the transfer was not in 16:9 anamorphic and the greater extraction area diminishes the ability to record fine detail. Criterion's transfer, while infinitesimally off-center, conforms to the 70mm projector aperture dimensions.

The good news is that DVD quality has been continually improving, and most post 1999 offerings from the major studios really shine, but beware discs sold by little known companies, they will transfer from bad VHS tapes or laserdiscs. Despite the efforts of evil corporations like Blockbuster Video to force the studios to produce nothing but pan and scan product so they don't have to educate their staff to educate their customers that letterboxing is beneficial, there has been a steady increase in the use of dual layer and anamorphic technology to turn out some exceptional looking discs. Despite it's improved image resolution, DVD still isn't a high definition format, but with proper equipment, the quality, even on extremely large systems, is breathtaking. The next major step in home video may actually look as good as film. And it kind of hurts to say that.

Remember, widescreen movies didn't become standard until after 1953, so films made before that time need not be 16:9 to look their best.

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©2003 The American WideScreen Museum       The opinions expressed here are those of the Curator and are absolutely correct.