If you remember the phrase ‘pan and scan’, you might just remember what a seismic shift the launch of widescreen VHS proved to be.
The introduction of the widescreen VHS tape introduced many a film fan to the concept of the original aspect ratio for movies.
For many of us of a certain age, there were only two ways to watch film in our youth. The first was obviously in the local cinema. Once that option had expired, the second was to wait for the film to receive a terrestrial showing on television.
There was of course a big difference between the two options, primarily the physical shape of the screen. In the cinema, you would be facing a huge rectangular screen, allowing you to see the film in whatever aspect ratio the director had decided to use.
At home, televisions were almost square with a ratio known as 4:3. Therefore, when films were shown on television, the rectangle viewing area of the original theatrical scope was usually chopped off at each side to accommodate the squarer dimensions.
This is a basic representation of what happened but more often than not, the film could be passed through a process called Pan & Scan. Film purists wince at the words. Depending of the aspect ratio of the film, there could be a lot of horizontal leeway either side of the television viewing area. As the film is processed, an editor had to decide which part of the frame would be viewable. For example, if two speaking characters are at each end of the frame, the editor could make jump cuts switching between them because it was impossible to fit both in the television frame at the same time.
This destroys the director’s artistic vision of the film and some of them fought back. Sydney Pollack decided to shoot his 1985 film Out Of Africa in the 1.85:1 ratio which only loses a small amount of picture when reformatted for television. He was annoyed with his previous films shot in the 2.39:1 ratio (very rectangular frame) being butchered for television and home video.
Pollack even brought a lawsuit against Danish TV after a screening of his 1975 film Three Days Of The Condor was broadcast in pan-and-scan in 1991. While the court agreed that the Danish television had “mutilated” his film and was against Pollack’s moral rights as an artist, he unfortunately lost to the television station on a technicality.
Even as recently as 2014’s The LEGO Movie, directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller created two versions of the film (one widescreen and one open matte, a better fit for old 4:3 TVs) because they also felt the same way.
Here’s is a wonderful example using David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia. A clever chap has overlaid the 4:3 laserdisc transfer of the film on top of the correct aspect ratio of a Blu-ray release. You can see that a character was entirely lost in the original pan and scan release of the scene in order to make the film fit the television format.
Going back to our younger days, we knew no better. Maybe this author was just too naive. The picture in the cinema was rectangular, the picture at home was square. It was what we had known growing up, it was the normal way of doing things. We didn’t question the obvious difference, which in hindsight just seems absurd. Especially since a lot of films on both VHS and television would actually start in a letterboxed format so the film’s opening credits could be displayed properly before returning back to pan and scan once they were over.
The very first home media release where the film was presented entirely in its widescreen aspect ratio was Federico Fellini’s 1973 film Amarcord. It was released on a very short-lived format known as Capacitance Electronic Disc in 1984 (anyone out there remember that?)
Some filmmakers started to push back and one of the first was Woody Allen, who insisted that his 1979 film Manhattan would only be seen in its original aspect ratio on both VHS and television. A very rare request at the time.
He wasn’t the only one, though. Over time, Steven Spielberg refused to have his film The Color Purple released in the pan and scan format on VHS in 1987. He also felt this way about Raiders Of The Lost Ark released on VHS four years earlier but for whatever rea$on, changed his mind.
In this YouTube clip taken from the start of the VHS copy of The Color Purple, an introductory message and visual example of black bars at the top and bottom of the screen are used to prepare the viewer before the film began.
In the case of Spielberg’s 1990 VHS release of Always, not only was there a disclaimer at the start of the film about the black bars but also a statement from the director himself.
It seems a change was coming to the way films were being presented on home media. That said, not everyone understood film aspect ratios. Many believed that the top and the bottom of the picture was being cut off and didn’t understand why you would want to watch a smaller picture. For many film fans, this was a conversation they would have many times over with their casual film watching friends.
During this time, television screens were getting larger and film enthusiasts were starting to demand to see films in their original aspect ratio. This is probably why the laserdisc format took off so well as films were nearly always presented correctly. Unfortunately, it was a format far more popular in the United States which would go on to have thousands of titles compared to Britain’s hundreds. You had to have very deep pockets to be a UK laserdisc enthusiast.
For the majority of the British film enthusiast, VHS remained the only option and 20th Century Fox decided to start the trend by releasing one of the biggest trilogies onto widescreen VHS in 1992. What else but Star Wars!
It’s hard to get across if you weren’t there what a sea change this was. This wasn’t art house films getting the widescreen VHS treatment. It was major mainstream titles.
The initial line up consisted of five films, Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back and Return Of The Jedi, Alien and Die Hard. If you’d bought the film by mistake or still wasn’t sure what a widescreen film was, 20th Century Fox created these brilliant explanatory commercials for the series and were found on the beginning of the tapes. Here’s the commercial for the Star Wars trilogy, another was also created which uses Die Hard and Alien as the examples.
20th Century Fox’s approach to differentiating these versions from the norm was to add a distinctive graphical banner at the top of the cover art. Most of the other film studios followed suit with their own variation.
But as you can see from the examples below, some studios weren’t so subtle. 20th Century Fox, along with most of the other studios, used this clear simple design and changed the colours depending on the box art. There is a strange grammatical anomaly here as well. The correct word is ‘widescreen’, yet on all the packaging it has been split into two words.
Miramax and Touchstone had other ideas and used this design which is quite frankly not only ugly but also takes up a lot of real estate on the packaging. If that wasn’t bad enough, this design was also transferred over to its early DVDs as well.
Finally, here’s another example. Considering Pixar used a variation of the first example in blue on a silver banner for its widescreen release of Toy Story, who made the decision when it came to design the box art for its second release, A Bug’s Life?
Another approach was to differentiate the packaging by break the normal conventions and creating the box art in a landscape format as you can see from these two examples of Men In Black and The Fifth Element.
Then there were the scrupulous executives that decided that if the true film fans really wanted their favourite films in the original aspect ratio, they were going to pay for it. To justify the cost, they would also throw in something extra and label it as a form of collector’s edition.
Here are two such examples from Warner Bros with its releases of Interview With The Vampire and True Romance. Both were both released on widescreen VHS and presented in collector’s edition (cardboard) boxes.
Interview With The Vampire contained a set of photo postcards and two audio cassettes of F Murray Abraham reading an abridged copy of Anne Rice’s novel, the source material for the film. True Romance’s extras weren’t so well thought out and the presentation box came with an exclusive t-shirt.
Many film fans probably thought that this kind of release wasn’t for them and would wait for a more standard film in the classic plastic box. However, both of these releases included as part of the marketing blurb on the back of the box, the following comment.
“THIS IS THE ONLY FORMAT AVAILABLE FOR THE PURCHASE OF THE WIDESCREEN VERSION”
Fork out your hard-earned cash because it’s this or nothing!
Widescreen VHS releases remained a niche market in the United Kingdom. There was never a guarantee the film you were going to buy would be available in your preferred format. The film connoisseurs with money were most likely to be importing US laserdiscs which offered not only the correct picture format but better picture quality and bonus material as well.
The struggle to obtain widescreen copies of VHS films would continue until 1998 when a new format called DVD was launched in the UK. However, despite the improved picture quality, the original aspect ratio problem wasn’t quite over yet but that tale is for another time.
For widescreen VHS tapes, there was still life some life left in the format with films such as Dances With Wolves and Pearl Harbor still being released in this way until the early 2000s. But by that stage, widescreen had already become the norm, rather than the exception…
Lead image: BigStock
Thank you for visiting! If you’d like to support our attempts to make a non-clickbaity movie website:
Buy our Film Stories and Film Stories Junior print magazines here.
Become a Patron here.