Home / Interview With Widescreen Advocate John Berger

Interview With Widescreen Advocate John Berger

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A recent report by Nielsen VideoScan reveals a trend in DVD sales. Consumers are making the shift to widescreen. The gap between discs being released in both widescreen and full screen is now 13%, with widescreen taking a commanding lead. John Berger is the owner of The Letterbox and Widescreen Advocacy Page, a site created with the purpose of educating people on the process of widescreen and what you’re missing without it. Berger discussed with Blogcritics why the shift is happening, education efforts, and some of the remaining confusion on the topic.

What are the main causes for this shift to widescreen?

It’s one or a combination of three things. I’d like to of course claim some of the credit for continuing education, but there are other sites like Widescreen Advocate that have been pushing this for a lot of years. Continuing education is certainly part of it. I still get e-mails from people saying they’ve used my site to educate others.

I also think that if you look at a lot of what’s being shown on TV, there are a lot of shows being broadcast in 16×9 widescreen. Sci-Fi Channel has always been a widescreen advocate. They’ll show movies in the widescreen format at 3 o’clock in the afternoon. Battlestar Galatica, Stargate, those are all shown in widescreen.

Even if you look at stuff like the Discovery Channel, more and more is being shown in widescreen. It’s acclimating people to those dreaded black bars.

Also, when I thought about this when you first contacted me, you cannot find a TV over 35 inches that’s not in widescreen. That has to be part of it, because the one question I always get is that people who get these big 4×3 TVs is that they bought this big screen and the want to use every bit of it. So now, these people who buy a 16×9 TV, they can’t do that. Their 4×3 shows, they’ll need to stretch it to make everybody look larger than they should be or pillar box it.

Are consumers surprised by the lack of available 4×3 TVs?

I would think some people are surprised. But, it comes down to that you’re getting a HDTV, it’s 16×9, and hi-def content is 16×9. That’s just the way it is. From a manufacturers standpoint, having a 4×3 big screen is actually a drawback.

Now they’ll try to go back and watch their “full screen” DVDs because they hated the widescreen version and now the full screen DVD won’t fit on their new 16×9 TV.

How shocked are they when they bring home something like Star Wars and they still have those black bars?

I actually have had people complain to me. It just depends on the person. I’ve seen people in specialty audio/video stores that say they don’t mind the black bars on the sides, but don’t want them on the top and bottom.

Do you believe the public is educated about what they’re actually watching as to why those black bars are there or they have a widescreen TV and widecreen DVD and go with it?

That has been one of the biggest frustrations that people like me have had. The studios will not explain what widescreen is about. I remember when ABC showed a movie in widescreen without actually telling the people what it was about and got flooded with complaints. Meanwhile, back when AMC was about showing classics instead of trying to become HBO, they’d run spots every now and then about what widescreen was all about. They’d even have a widescreen month where they show the movie in full screen and then play it again in widescreen.

Certain DVDs and TV shows may have examples as well. Leonard Nimoy had a great widescreen discussion on his director’s cut video for Star Trek 4. He explained this is how he wanted the film to be shot, when it’s formatted to the TV you can’t see all the characters from side to side. Martin Scorsese has stated that if it’s filling your TV screen, you’re not seeing the whole frame.

I remember when Fox was releasing their special widescreen VHS series, they’d have a special clamshell casing with the same motif. At the beginning of those movies, they’d have side to side comparisons between pan and scan and widescreen. There were some outlets that were trying to educate. For the most part though, it’s frustrating because no one would try to explain it.

Then of course there’s this backpedaling that “Oh, we’ve got so many complaints from people about the widescreen version,” but then you just have to say that you didn’t try to tell them what it’s about. I really put the blame on the networks or studios for not putting forth a real education effort.

Do the studios do enough to push the original aspect ratio (OAR) content? Should we have all widescreen DVDs at this point?

I’ve always said that DVDs should be in widescreen. When the site first came out, I said everything should be in widescreen and that’s the way it’s meant to be. Now it’s more of, whatever it was supposed to be. Take Stanley Kubrick. He wanted his Eyes Wide Shut to be 4×3 and that’s the way he filmed it.

The problem is that no theater can do 4×3 anymore, except maybe Imax. So, when it shown in the theater, it was 1.85:1 just because that’s the only way they could show it. Then, he released it on DVD the way he wanted it to be. There should be no widescreen version.

The whole widescreen thing does catch some people off guard in respect that some movies should be shown that way. I have people e-mailing me, “When is Gone with the Wind going to be shown in widescreen?” I have to inform them that it was made before widescreen, and there is no widescreen version and that actually catches some people off guard. I think it’s a problem that when a movie comes out that’s not in widescreen, people wonder what’s up with this?

What made DVD the format that finally pushed widescreen in? We had laserdisc before that which was more of a niche, and VHS was almost entirely pan and scan. How did DVD finally break through that barrier?

Definitely the resolution difference. DVD is of much higher quality, so when it comes to the amount of scanlines, the picture is clearer on a widescreen DVD than it would be when it comes to a widescreen VHS. That was a complaint that I got from a lot of people early on. You can hardly look at a widescreen VHS because the resolution is so bad.

Now you get to DVD and plug it into an S-video connection and the picture is much, much clearer, so I think that was one of the reasons.

Another reason is that when DVD first started to gain popularity, it would contain both versions on one disc. They could have the widescreen and the non-widescreen version right in the same package. Now they could see the difference right there if they wanted to. Places like Netflix, as far as I can tell, only rent widescreen versions. If they want the movie, they have to rent the widescreen version.

What effect does HD DVD and Blu-Ray have in this regard? Will it make a difference as there are only widescreen versions available?

The big difference between DVD is that there’s not much of a leap to HD except for resolution or video quality whereas the jump between VHS and DVD was huge by comparison. Not only did you have the better video, but you have a five-inch disc as opposed to a big bulky tape and you could go where you wanted. Behind the scenes, different audio tracks, and so forth.

I don’t know how much of a push that’s going to be. Right now, a lot of people are jumping on the hi-def bandwagon because of the better video quality. I can’t deny that there are people out there who are doing this simply because they can. “It’s the newest thing on the block, I’ve gotta have that!”

Obviously, since that’s meant for a 16×9 screen, I think it would help. I’m concerned that studios may do like a “half” widescreen or something. People have been writing to me regarding HBO’s HD channel saying that’s what they’re doing. They’re taking a really wide movie and they’re still cropping it down to fit a 16×9 TV. There’s a little bit of concern that they’re going to do that. That really depends on the studios and the filmmakers.

There are some filmmakers that have said flat out “we don’t want our movies in pan and scan.” Now it’s going to come to that we don’t want it cropped to 16×9 either.

So, it’s difficult to tell if the hi-def thing will make a difference, but at least they’ll have a 16×9 image in front of them. I don’t see it hurting widescreen, but I don’t see it becoming as much of a help as some people may think it is.

Is the various terminology (1080, 16×9, LCD, DLP, etc.) too confusing to get on the widescreen bandwagon?

I’ve had various people from video stores over the years e-mail telling me that they’ve taken a piece of paper or envelope and drawn on it for a customer and people still fought it and said just give me the full screen. It’s just something most people don’t think about, or they didn’t before and they just want to watch stuff on their TV.

More and more though, they’re starting to see black bars on the top and bottom of their TV show.

Should the directors be doing more like asking the studios why they’re doing this to their movies?

There have been some directors who have asked that. The director of End of Days, I’ve actually seem a quote from him that said, “Let the idiots have their pan and scan.” He just slammed them.

One of the reasons I understand that the Matrix movies were not initially available in widescreen was because that’s what the Wachowski brothers said. They wanted it in widescreen because that’s the way they filmed it. With the strong arm Wal-Mart has, I’m not going to take anything for granted, but I don’t think there has been a pan and scan version.

Some discs like the Lion King tell users to us the zoom feature. Is that frustrating?

No, it’s not frustrating. I think at least they’re saying that hey, here’s the widescreen version. If you want it to fill your TV screen, do it on your own. The intended way of seeing it is on the DVD.

How did you finally learn about widescreen?

I can’t think of the exact time when it happened. I used to work for a movie chain and at that point when I had to go change the different lenses in the projection booth and change the different apertures for the screen, that was probably not the point when it all clicked, but when it came together.

I remember the first set of movies I bought was the original Star Wars trilogy. Being a geek, I had those movies completely memorized. Every scene, every note, every bit of dialogue, and when I watched it for the first time in widescreen, I was completely shocked. It was like “That guy wasn’t in there before!” Of course, he was, but I didn’t know.

In 50 years, how will people look back at the pan and scan process? Granted we'll be into some virtual reality thing by then, but what will the history books have to say about this? Will it be just a footnote in the history of film, or something future people can hold against us?

I think that pan-and-scan will probably be a little bit of both but it will be put into its proper perspective. It came about because for a while it had to be. There was no way to adequately show wide movies on TV screens that on average were less than 12" diagonal. It became the de facto standard of TV viewing. Some habits are hard to break. My guess is that it will be listed as more of a fad, like the 3D phase in the '50s and '60s when people couldn't wait for the next movie to put on those red/blue glasses. Just as the 3D phase is looked upon now as a passing moment in movie history, so too, I suspect, will pan-and-scan.

Thanks a lot John!

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About Matt Paprocki

Matt Paprocki has critiqued home media and video games for 13 years and is the reviews editor for Pulp365.com. His current passion project is the technically minded DoBlu.com. You can read Matt's body of work via his personal WordPress blog, and follow him on Twitter @Matt_Paprocki.
  • You should have added links to your annual wide screen vs. full screen rants 😉