Movie Formats: Letterbox vs. Pan and Scan

There is a world of difference between letterbox movie formats and the general pan and scan format films so many of us are used to. I have watched Desk Set with Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy in both formats. Since the movie was shown back-to-back in different formats, I was able to perform an in-depth comparison of the two versions. The pan and scan format was good, but the letterbox format was far superior because it showed portions of the movie not seen in pan and scan. One particular scene comes to mind. In pan and scan you see Tracy and Hepburn standing at the elevator, Hepburn is talking to an unseen man. The same scene in letterbox shows the person she is talking to, which is integral to the scene because he is the nosey office gossip-monger. You see his anxious facial expressions as he listens greedily to Hepburn, and you just know that he can't wait to spread this juicy bit of news among his colleagues. You miss this entirely in the pan and scan film.

A mystery movie in pan and scan format might show the protagonist holding his hands up because someone obviously has a gun aimed at him. In letterbox you would most likely see the person with the gun.

One of the objections I have heard time and again is that some viewers don't like that the film appears to be cut off at the top and the bottom. Others say that the film looks squeezed.

If you love letterbox movies, you will be happy to know that there is a list of letterboxed movies available for your viewing pleasure. Now that HDTVs are available in widescreen formats, most movies are available in your choice of either letterbox, sometimes called widescreen, or pan and scan, also known as full-frame, formats.

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