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Different movie and TV picture size comparison (Aspect ratio comparison)

This page attempts to answer the following questions:

Why are there VERTICAL bars on your new HDTV?  Why does the picture some times look distorted or fuzzy?

In order to understand why you have black bars on the screen or why you have a weird looking image on your new TV you have to understand the source of the so-called problem.

There are dozens of different movie shapes and two TV shapes.  All are rectangles, but they have different widths.  It is very difficult to explain in words, so here are some pictures to show you the difference in shapes.  All the pictures are exactly the same height.  But they vary in width.  The difference in width to height is called the aspect ratio.  For reference, a regular TV has an aspect ratio of 4x3.  If the picture is 4 inches wide, it will be 3 inches tall.  This is also known as 1:33 to 1.  A new HDTV is 16x9 or 1.77 to 1.

From the first movies made until the mid 1950's and from the beginning of TV until 2000, every program and movie ever made was made in the 4x3 format.  This is no coincidence.  The standard TV is the shape it is because that was the shape of movies in the theater when TVs were developed. Also many movies were cropped in pan & scan mode (explained above) to fit the 4x3 standard TVs. Most broadcast and cable channels whether they have an "HD channel" or not, still air the "edited for TV" movies which are 4x3.  It is only in the last few years that all the broadcast networks started making many of their programs in the new screen size.  Some cable networks are just now (2007) starting to make their programs in the new screen size.

So what do you do when you have a wide screen TV and a standard size program?

You have three options:
1) Watch the program in its original size (OAR)

Regular TV/Older Movie on HDTV set (Pillarbox)

This allows you to see the image as it was originally recorded. Or in "Original Aspect Ratio".

2) You distort and stretch the image to fit the screen.

Regular TV / Older movie on HDTV set (Stretch-o-vision)

In this image it looks like Zeus put on a few pounds!  The cherubs to either side look completely unreal.  All the detail is lost in the distortion.


3)You "Zoom" the image.

Zoomed in 4x3.  The red rectangle represents the area that would be seen on an HDTV

It is difficult to see here, but there is a loss of detail since the image is zoomed in.  Essentially there is less information for every square inch of picture than there would be if it was the regular image.  Some times the higher quality of a high definition broadcast can make up for some of the difference by sending the best possible quality standard definition image possible.  But much of the time the image gets a little fuzzier than we are used to with regular TVs and much fuzzier than what you get used to with HD sets.  It still looks okay.  Just nowhere near as good as is should.

Every new HDTV on the market has at least some capability to zoom and stretch images to suit the viewer's taste.   This means that if you don't like the black bars, you can press the "aspect" or "Wide" button on your remote to adjust the picture to your taste.  However, no consumer TV set on the market today has the ability to UNDO the zooms and stretches perpetrated on the so-called HD channels.  If a picture arrives from the source already stretched out or zoomed, there is no TV set out there that can change that back thereby alienating many viewers who cannot stomach looking at a distorted or zoomed in images.

Discovery Networks' Solution:

The Discovery Networks use a type of "zoom" on some of their 4x3 programs for their HD channels which leaves a slight black bar on either side

Discovery Networks' style zoom.

Notice how there is a little more room below Zeus' feet.  But you still lose quite a bit of picture that you could see if the program were shown in original aspect ratio.  Discovery does a great job on the up-converts and the images are rarely fuzzy, but the picture quality is not anywhere near the level of a true HD program or movie.  The portion of the picture removed by this process cannot be recovered no matter how fancy your TV is.  That part of the picture is just plain lost.

A&E Networks' Solution:

A&E networks (A&E and History Channel) originally showed programs in Original aspect ratio (OAR) with pillar boxes or window boxes (explained below), but at the beginning of 2008 they decided that picture quality wasn't what people really wanted.  A&E decided that rather than guve the subscriber the choice to stretch the image if they wanted, they were going to stretch-o-vision all the 4x3 programs.  This is probably for the people too ignorant (I didn't say stupid) to figure out there is an "aspect" button on EVERY HDTV remote to do this for them if they wanted.  Now those that wanted OAR are out of luck unless their TV can "outstretch" the image.  Very, very few can.

A&E Stretch-o-vision of 4x3 program

However, A&E networks has a vast library of programs shot in standard definition 16x9.  Instead of "zooming" the image in to fill the screen without distorting it, they just stretch the letterbox image like this:

16x9 Standard Def letterboxed in Stretch-oVision

This is by far the most idiotic, moronic and utterly ridiculous formats ever to be shown on commercial TV.  It is an embarrassment to whomever actually looked at that and said, "That looks great!, Let's show our programs like this!"  These mental titans have stretched out the image horizontally, but cannot figure out how to do the same thing vertically in order to show the image full screen!  It wouldn't be a high def picture, but it would look at least the same and usually better than the standard definition version of the channel.  A good example would be "Cops" on Fox.  "Cops" is not in HD yet.  That program is videotaped in standard definition 16x9 and then zoomed in (up-converted) to fill the screen on Fox over the air.  A&E networks just got LAZY and show it with this imbecility.  As you may have guessed, there is no fix for this either with any TV set on the market.

Turner Networks' Solution:

The Turner Networks (TNT / TBS) use a destructive method to fill the screen on programming that is originally 4x3.  They keep the central part of the image about the same, but the stretch out the edges more and more.

Turner Network' scaled Stretch-o-vision

Notice how Zeus look almost okay, but as you get further and further to the edges of the picture, the image is stretched out more and more.  Since the charub on the right is closer to the edge, you can see just how stretched out it gets.  Also look at the letters.  This makes people's heads look egg shaped when there is a two shot with people on the sides and nothing in the middle.  What makes this destructive is that there is no TV set in existence that can undo this kind of stretch.  You might find a combination of features on some sets and satellite boxes that MIGHT be able to un-stretch a standard :stretch-o-vision picture, but never one distorted in the the Turner Network fashion.  TNT is the worst at stretching like this.  TBS has a similar stretch, but they sometimens zoom the picture in some first so the effects aren't as noticeable, but they are there too.

ESPN/ESPN2 use a "frame" around their 4x3 programs.  The frames move and change in brightness and contrast very slowly to avoid the "burn-in" issue on some TVs.
Some Fox and Fox sports programs use a "mirror" effect to mask the black bars on 4x3 programs.


Anamorphic Solution:

There is one type of distorted image that is good.  Some programs are "anamorphic wide screen".  The composite, S-Video and RF (antenna) output of TV1* on the 622 and 722 Dish receivers have the ability to send "anamorphic wide screen".  When shown on a regular TV this image looks like the picture below. 

Anamorphic 4x3

The wide screen image is squished from the sides making everything tall and skinny.  Almost all 16x9 TV sets have the ability to stretch this image out to make a normal-looking wide screen image.  The picture is also full resolution standard definition.  This is a great alternative if you do not have an HD source or a way to run an HDMI or component video and audio cables to a wide screen TV.  The image is NOT an HD image, but it is as good as a standard definition image can look in wide screen mode.
(*NOTE:  TV2 out on the 722/622 does not have this feature for no known reason and when you call to ask why you will not be able to reach anyone who even understands the word "anamorphic".)

Why are there bars ALL AROUND the picture on your new TV?

16x9 image in a 16x9 TV (Window Box)

This type of effect drives quite a few people off their rocker making them want to go back to the store to punch the salesman in the nose!  You just paid lots of money for your new TV and you see something that has lots of real-estate showing nothing but a black screen!  It is nothing more than the TV station being very, very lazy and just passing through a letterboxed 16x9 image made for a "regular" TV screen (Left) shown on a 16x9 channel or HDTV signal with a pillar box (Right).

There is a simple consumer remedy for this.  On your TV's remote there is a "Zoom" or "Aspect" or "Wide" button.  Just press this button repeatedly to get the image to fill up the screen with no black bars anywhere.  Every 16x9 TV set will have this feature.

The real remedy to this is to have the broadcasters "up-convert" the window box programs to full screen rather than pillar box the letterboxed image, but that may be easier said than done.

Why are there HORIZONTAL bars on your new TV?
(Letterbox on HDTV sets?)

In order to see a movie on your new HDTV you have to compromise unless the program is new or the movie happens to be an Open Matte or Vista Vision print.  You have two real options.  Cut off the sides and concentrate on the area where the "action" is (Pan & Scan) or make the picture entire picture fit the frame in leaving black bars at the top and bottom (Letterbox).  Below are some examples.

Cinemascope (Wide) as seen on an HDTV set in Letterbox Format

The movie image on the picture above and below was left exactly the same size but the image above shows how it fits a box the shape of a new TV  (16x9).  The image below shows how it fits a box the shape of a regular TV (4x3). 

Cinemascope (Wide) as seen on a standard TV set in Letterbox Format

I personally called this type of letterboxing on a 4x3 screen "ribbon-vision", and I support letterboxing!  Unless you have a very large regular TV the resulting picture is so small that some find it hard to watch.  But on 16x9 sets. it's fine!  "The King and I" looks like this on letterboxed sets.

But some people just cannot stand the black bars on the screen no matter what!  So you can "zoom in" the image and concentrate on the "important" part of the picture. and cut off the "unnecessary" sides of the image to fit the shape of the screen. In the image below the action is in the middle so we concentrate on Zeus.

Cinemascope (Wide) overlay of HDTV and Standard TV in Pan & Scan mode

The red rectangle represents the size of an HDTV screen.  The yellow represents the area of the picture you would see on a regular TV set.

Notice that on a straight "zoom in" you lose both side statures completely on both wide screen and regular TV sets.  On the wide screen you have a hint that there is something else happening on each side.  On a regular size TV you don't even have a hint that there is anything more on either side.

On most movies that are "zoomed in" the post production team (the people who make the version for DVD or Broadcast on a TV station "pan and scan" to find the action.  So you may see something like what is shown on the picture below

Cinemascope (Wide) overlay of HDTV and Standard TV in Pan & Scan mode showing the left horseman

In this case the post production people think that the "important" part of the movie is the horseman on the left.  So they shift over to one side showing you the horseman on the left and Zeus in the middle while completely cutting out any hint of the horseman on the right.  They can also electronically pan across the image imitating a camera movement to show the other side of the frame.  That particular option makes movie directors and cinematographers want to take out a mob hit on the post production team.


A much more common shape used for current movie releases is Panavision (wide) and Super 35.   Movies like "Lord of the Rings", the "Indiana Jones" series, the "Star Wars" series, "Terminator 2 and 3" were made using one of these movie formats.  Panavision is just slightly wider than "super 35" but the difference is so small that these pictures will suffice.

Panavision (wide)  / Super 35 as seen on an HDTV letterboxed


Panavision (wide)  / Super 35 as seen on a standard TV letterboxed


Panavision  (wide) / Super 35  overlay of HDTV and Standard TV in Pan & Scan mode

Again, the red box represents the screen shape of an HDTV set.  The Yellow box represents the shape of a standard TV


Below is the same comparison with Open Matte (Wide)/Vista Vision formats.  Panavision has a "narrow" format this size.

Open Matte / Vista Vision as seen on an HDTV

Notice how small the black bars are on the top and bottom.  This movie size is quite common in theaters today and is really the reason why HDTVs are the shape they are now.  The new HDTV set size is a compromise between Panavision, Open Matte and "regular" TV and older movies.  Open Matte is so common in current movies that many HDTVs have a feature that will stretch the image up and down to make up the difference distorting the image very slightly.  They also have a "zoom" feature that cuts off the sides a little to give you the same as "pan & scan" shown two pictures below.  The difference is so small that most broadcasters will just zoom it in for you and crop the edges off to show the image full screen.  Even the most ardent supporters original aspect ratio (OAR) accept this as a viable solution.

Open Matte / Vista Vision as seen on a regular TV

Here letterboxing helps give the picture scale on the 4x3 "regular" TV while at the same time the bars at the top and bottom aren't too large.

Open Matte / Vista Vision overlay of HDTV and Standard TV in Pan & Scan mode

As mentioned earlier, very little is lost if the broadcaster or DVD just cut off the sides to fill the screen on an HDTV.  However there is substantial loss of picture if the image is cut to fit a standard TV.

Some Background into movie and TV sizes:

Shown below are some of the most common movie formats. There are dozens of different sizes but most popular and classic movies are in one of the sizes shown below.

Super Panavision

Ultra Panavision (2.76:1)

This is about the widest screen image most people will see in the movies.  This is known as "Ultra Panavision".  The image is about 2 times wider than it is tall.


Cinemascope (Wide) (2.66:1)

Cinemascope (Wide) format is about 2.7 times wider than it is tall.  This movies

Panavision  (2.4:1) / Super 35 (2.35:1)

This is one one above is just under 2 times wider than it is tall.  The one below is about 2 times wider than it is tall.  Both of these formats are very common now. Many movies are made in these sizes.  The size above was used for the "Lord of the Rings" series.  The size below was used for the "Indiana Jones" series.

Super Panavision 70 (2.2:1)


Open Matte (Wide) & Vista Vision (1.85:1)

The image above is also very common today due to the Open Matte format.  The Open Matte "wide" format is the same size as one of the more common Vista Vision sizes.  It is 1.85 to 1.  That means the image is 1.8 times wider than it is tall.  The picture below shows the size of a new HDTV.

New "wide" TV or HDTV (1.77:1)

The Open Matte and the HDTV picture sizes look the same size, but they are not.  The HDTV picture is about 1 times wider than it is tall.  The Open Matte picture is just slightly wider.  Notice you can see the hand on the statues on both sides on the Open Matte image while they are cut off on the HDTV picture. 

Good Ol' regular TV and
Standard Movie size from the beginning to the mid 50s (1.33:1)

The standard TV picture is almost square.  It is about one and a third times wider than it is tall

Corrections, additions, comments welcome.  Please e-mail

For those interested, the picture used in this example page was taken by myself near the U.S. Supreme Court Building in Washington, DC. in May 2007..  This is actually a "merge" of three individual pictures forming a wide screen shot in much the same way as the old "Cinerama" format.

2007 Echostar Knowledge Base.

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