Putting all the blame for crappy letterboxed versions of films at the foot of the video magazines would be unfair. Sometimes the people that do the transfers just seem to have lost their minds, and they want us to participate in the insanity. We could go into the "deluxe letterbox" copy of Dr. Strangelove that is a full screen 1.33:1 transfer, but we'll pass on that and examine another MGM Home Video effort. It's actually a very nice looking transfer but it sure doesn't deliver exactly what the packaging says. And that packaging tells us that the film is transferred at the correct 1.66:1 aspect ratio from a new print.
The maximum useable image area in a VistaVision negative has an aspect ratio of 1.66:1. If the new video was produced from the maximum useable area then it would not be possible for the old version, produced decades ago, to have greater width AND height. Shown in the old version is a white rectangle that shows the area used for the new version. Maybe they just wanted the text to be easier to read...
The letterbox edition does show us more image width in this scene. But if they're really transferring the maximum image, how is it that the old transfer contains more image at the top and bottom of the frame? Below we see the two pictures overlaid.
Somehow, magically, there's a lot of VistaVision vertical information available for the old transfer that isn't there for the letterbox version.
Here's the way it's supposed to be done, and, by golly, the guys that transferred the film actually did it sometimes. The image area of the old transfer is shown by the white rectangle inside the letterboxed version. Why the inconsistencies in the rest of the film? Don't blame the video magazines this time.
©1997 - 2000 The American WideScreen Museum
Martin Hart, Curator