Aspect Ratios: A Primer

I have a pet peeve, and it has to do with aspect ratios.  I’ve been wanting to put together a lesson for my faithful readers.  For those who don’t know, aspect ratios are the shapes that TV/movie screens and the programs they show have.  There are 3 standard ratios in my mind:


This is the ratio that a lot of movies are shot/rendered in.  It’s the wider screen you get at the theaters.


This is the ratio of standard definition TVs.  Most TV programming was done in this ratio, and still is for the most part.


This is the ratio of HDTVs and some movies.  This was chosen as a good medium between CinemaScope and SDTV.

My examples are going to be from Star Wars, because its awesome, and Adywan’s color-corrected version, because its more awesome.  I chose this particular image because it was the scene I saw in theaters where I first noticed the difference between aspect ratios.

Star Wars and other movies are filmed like this:

This is what was seen in theaters.  But how do you see Star Wars at home?  There are two ways: “widescreen” or “fullscreen”.

When you watch a widescreen DVD, this is what it looks like on your SDTV (also called “letter boxing”).  The big black bars at the top and bottom keep the aspect ratio of the movie the same as the original, meaning you can see the full image shot.

This is what fullscreen (or “Pan & Scan”) DVD’s look like on an SDTV.  The image is bigger on your screen, but you lose all of the information from the sides.  (This is how I grew up on Star Wars, so I never knew that Imperial officer was standing next to Vader the entire time.  I always thought he just appeared out of nowhere in the next scene!)

Its also called “Pan & Scan” because sometimes it actually pans across the widescreen image when a character is moving across frame or to show that a character is not talking to an empty space off the side of the screen.

Here’s an interesting factoid about most DVDs on HDTVs (I’ll get to the “most” part in the BONUS section).  The image on a widescreen DVD disc isn’t actually 16:9.  It’s a 4:3 image that your DVD player stretches to fill your HDTV.  So your DVD player takes an image like this:

and depending on what your DVD player is set on (SDTV or HDTV)  it either squishes the image down to fit your SDTV by adding more black to the top and bottom like the widescreen example above or stretches it to fill your HDTV like this (images meant to be at 4:3 are tagged as such on the disc and the player keeps it right):

This is how Blu-rays are designed.  They do no stretching, the above image is whats on the disc and presented on your HDTV, full quality.

So that is how movies shot in CinemaScope are presented on HDTVs, while movies and HD-filmed TV shows fill up all of black space.  But what about movies or TV shows that aren’t widescreen?  The proper way to view such content is called “pillar boxing”:

(Ignore the fact that the next few examples are from Star Wars)

Pillar boxing adds black bars down the side, but keeps the ratio the correct way.  In my experience, the Indianapolis local channels in HD, Comedy Central HD, SyFy HD, and a select few others do this for the shows/movies that they don’t have in 16:9.  The rest stretch the image to fill the screen, which I call “Stretch-o-Vision”.

You’ll notice that Leia has put on a few pounds, and that Stormtrooper’s head is huge.  Dare I say it, most people with HDTVs watch 90% of their shows like this.  If they don’t have HD channels (and except for the examples above, even if they do), they stretch their images to fill the screen because “they paid for that extra space, they’re going to use it” or they simply don’t know that they can set it so it adds the pillars and keeps people at the proper ratio (and weight!).

So that’s my peeve: Widescreen is supposed to be wide, and things that aren’t are supposed to be skinny.  Average TV viewers stretching their SD image to fill their giant HDTVs I can get past, its just a little education on settings.  It’s the HD channels that pre-strech their images to fill up the screen no matter what setting you have on your TV that gets to me.  They are un-educating their viewers by doing this.  Some simply stretch the image as I did above, but some just stretch out the sides so things get longer as they get closer to the edge of the screen, which is really visually distracting.  Some even do this, then label every show on their interactive guide as being in HD, even though its fairly obvious that “Cheers” was not shot in HD 20 years before HD existed and the actors weren’t that fat (back then).  The networks need to get on the ball and realize that their viewers aren’t dumb and can handle seeing things the way they were intended.


I mentioned earlier that most widescreen DVDs are formatted to fit your HDTV screen by stretching the widescreen image to its proper ratio.  However, this isn’t the case for all DVDs and the biggest culprits may surprise you.

After the Star Wars Special Editions were released on DVD in 2004 (even more “Special” this time!), there was an uprising by fans to have the original theatrical versions available on DVD to replace the highest quality to-that-point Laserdisc version.  Although it was said it wouldn’t be done, in 2006 they released the theatrical versions as a bonus disc to the new Special Editions (meaning you had to buy both to get the original versions).  People who bought this new bonus disc were surprised at what was inside.

This is an approximation of the same scene straight from the DVD.  You’ll notice that its not enhanced to fill your TV.  Its statically letter boxed.  In fact, its the master they made in 1993 to make the Laserdisc and isn’t any better quality!

Watching this disc in a properly set DVD player on an HDTV gives you this image:

In an improperly set DVD player that stretches the 4:3 image, you get this:

which manages to both squish and stretch the image, so even though you can see everything, they’re stretched out.

The only current way to watch the theatrical versions properly on an HDTV is to use the zoom function on your TV, which gives you the right image:

but shows off the lackluster almost-20-year-old scan of an over-30-year-old movie even bigger on you screen.  I, among others, don’t believe this should be the case.  The movies we grew up on should be preserved the way we remember them in a format we don’t have to mess with to watch properly on our TVs.  That’s why I support’s petition to have the original theatrical versions of the original Star Wars trilogy rescanned using modern technology and presented in a modern format.

Oh, and the other popular DVD that is formatted like that in 4:3?  All copies of Titanic before the 2005 “Special Edition” DVD.

5 thoughts on “Aspect Ratios: A Primer

  1. Shaun Brown

    The TBS HD station makes shows like Seinfeld and Friends, which were not filmed in a widescreen format widescreen and it looks awful. The thing about it that pisses me off the most is that for some of the shows, the quality looks better on the HD station even though everyone looks fat, while the quality sucks on regular TBS, but everyone is at the correct height and weight. I’ve been impressed, however, by the HD network channels here, because they broadcast reruns of Frasier and new shows like Supernanny which are not broadcast in HD in 4:3 while broadcasting 16:9 shows in 16:9.
    What really bothers me is before we got our HDTV, our local channels were not letter boxing shows like “The Office” and so you would have a scene in which two people were talking to one another, one on the far right and one in the far left, and you could barely see either of them because they were both cut in half.
    I’ve been trying to explain aspect ratios to people and they just don’t get it, so thanks Drew for making this visual presentation that I can show to others.

  2. I know all of this. What drives me nuts is that my TV doesn’t know all of this! Actually all 3 of my TV’s exhibit a deficiency in allowing me to view OAR all of the time. I have some 4×3 Letterbox movies. I either have the option of letting the TV/DVD player give me a stretched-h but not stretched-v image, or zooming so far into the picture so as to lose much of the sides. Stupid people that don’t want to see black bars ever regardless of the consequences!

  3. doubleofive

    Warbler on posted this:

    I totally agree with everything you said in your rant. I remember one time a local tv station was show some three stooges shorts. As you know, they are all 4:3. They stretched the image on their HD channel. But it gets even worse. We still have some standard TVs in the house. I turned on the standard version of that station. Guess what they did? They showed the image they were showing their HD channel but the sides cut off! That’s right, they took a 4:3 image, stretched it to 16:9 proportions, and cut the sides off to make it 4:3 again. That, is the definition of insanity.

  4. doubleofive

    Ironically I watched Cheers the other day on HDNet (I think), and it was HD, or at least cropped to 16:9. It looked a lot nicer than I’ve seen it…

  5. I’m all for the Pillar box formatting for TV shows and other items shot in 4:3. Blu-ray and other players should have selectable templates for the content of the pillar box. It could be the familiar black bars, a red velvet curtain like at a theater or maybe an old television, so you would see the channel and volume knobs on the side.

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