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THE LETTERBOX HERESIES OR: HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE PAN & SCAN
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James Cameron Wrote:THE LETTERBOX HERESIES OR: HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE PAN & SCAN

An open letter to video collectors from Jim Cameron

Film is film and video is video.
And the video of a film is NOT that film.
Like the parable of the cave, told by Socrates, the video of the film is a
shadow cast on the back wall of a cave by the real event taking place
outside. The shadow is not the thing itself. The video is an after-image
of the film, an electronic impression.

A widescreen film is a story told in images the shape of a mailslot (almost
two and a half times wider than they are tall) and about the size of a
Winnebago.

The video of that film is a story told in images which are almost square in
shape and about the size of a large cat (17 to 30+ inches, measured
diagonally... or from nose to tip of tail).

These are fundamentally different media.
Chalk and cheese.
Square pegs and round holes.
Turning one into the other has at best been a dicey business.
This discussion concerns primarily the problem of converting the most
dissimilar of the two media... a widescreen film, which plays in a theater at
a 2.4:1 aspect ratio transferred to video (squarevision). 1.85:1 films are
not discussed, because (a) they generally transfer reasonably well and (b)
I don't shoot in that format anymore.

The average home video monitor displays about 300 lines of picture
information. A 35mm release print of a film has the resolution, or ability
to show detail, equivalent to about 2500 lines (this number varies from
film to film and from expert opinion to expert opinion). It is safe to say
that film shows us at least six to eight times the amount of detail that
video does under the best of circumstances.

These points are made by way of preamble to the following statement:
Letterbox is NOT NECESSARILY the answer.

I make this statement as a filmmaker who has worked in the widescreen
format and who also believes himself to be of sound mind and body. I make
it knowing that many purists, aficionados and collectors will consider this
position heretical. Many of these people believe that a matted or
letterbox version of a film is the only acceptable or definitive version of
that film. And their reasoning is sound... that the director and cameraman
composed the shots for that shape of image. That cropping gives you less
picture... that some of the film is lost.

My answer to that is simple: on video, no matter what the format, ALL of
the film is lost. There is no film. There is only video.

The purpose of this discussion is to take a hard look at what is best for a
movie in this smaller, lower-resolution medium... What technique creates the
TRUEST version of the film on video... truest to the narrative, to the
excitement, to the emotion.

Consider the following: an NTSC video image letterboxed to 2.4:1 wastes
almost half its height in masking. Thus the remaining image consists of
between 150 and 200 lines of picture information. Even on the very best
pro-sumer monitors, this just isn't enough data to give a very clear
picture. In fact, another way of looking at it is that it is about half as
clear as a full-frame, unmasked video image.

If one accepts the fundamental premise that even full-frame video is a
compromise in available resolution compared to film, this near-halving of
image quality should be considered absolutely unacceptable. But purists
seek it out, even though it is not so much widescreen as shortscreen. You
are getting less, not more. The image is a furry, unresolved electronic
shadow of the original.

This problem is exacerbated by the fact that letterbox videos suffer a
further "distancing effect" by the very fact that they are preserving the
entire film frame. Its very virtue is in some ways a deficit. Since in
letterbox twice as much of the original image is visible while the width of
the picture stays the same, you don't have to have a degree in quantum
physics to conclude that everything on the screen is half the size that it
is in a pan & scan transfer. Actors' faces often become so small on the
tube that they consist of just a few pixels. Nuances of expression, and
even recognizability, are often lost.

The masking, and drstic reduction in size of the subjects in the shot,
combine to produce a distancing effect. We are "taken out of" the film.
We are less involved. In fact, we miss a lot that the actors are doing in
the scenes. A nuance of expression, a gesture, a texture, a twinkle in the
eye... all these are lost forever. Powerful and moving moments in a film
will seem somehow lackluster.

Not all directors punch in for a close-up every time a dramatic moment
comes up. That would be a boring, knee-jerk response to shooting a scene
and many great moments are allowed to play in master. In the theater this
works perfectly. We see all that we are meant to see. In a pan & scan
transfer of the film, the actors' faces will be big enough to convey the
same emotions as were experienced in the theater.

In a letterbox transfer, this won't be the case. Some of the emotionalism
is lost, some of the humanity. The story becomes somehow less compelling.
We are left with merely an intellectual appreciation of the director's eye
for composition, and sometimes an enhanced sense of grandeur because the
characters become dots in the landscape.

Granted these losses must be weighed against the aesthetic losses with a
pan & scan transfer (of a 'Scope film) in which a shot of two people
talking may be missing one whole actor.

I am not saying that all video is bad; I am simply pointing out that there
are fundamental differences between film and video, and that video must be
addressed on its own terms. There are solutions, and I have used them in
my recent films. But the solutions involve the way the film is shot
originally, as well as the way it is transferred.

There are two ways to shoot a film for release in the anamorphic format.
The first, and to date the most common, technique is to shoot with an
anamorphic lens. This lens puts a "squeezed" image on the negative. The
squeezed image is printed by direct contact onto the print. In the theater
it is unsqueezed with another anamorphic lens, creating a widescreen
projected image with a ratio of 2.4 (width) to 1 (height).

There is another way to do an anamorphic release at 2.4:1, and this was
used for both "The Abyss" and "Terminator 2: Judgement Day." It has been
around for about 10 years, and is becoming quite common. Generally called
Super-35, it consists of using "spherical" lenses to photograph the image,
creating a non-squeezed picture on the negative. The entire width of the
negative is used, from the perforations on the left to the perfs on the
right, including the area which is normally reserved for adding the
soundtrack later. In order to make a release print, the image on the
negative must be optically squeezed in a process called "formatting" onto
an internegative. This internegative is then contact-printed, yielding an
anamorphic release print which is indistinguishable from that of a film
which was originally shot anamorphically.

The important distinction between these two formats as regards video is
this: the anamorphically photographed film has NO additional picture
information at top or bottom beyond what is seen in the theater. Thus to
get it onto video you have to throw away about ONE HALF of the image by
cropping the sides.

At its worst this can mean that a shot which contained two characters
facing each other will now contain only one. Or maybe just the noses.
This is a horrible compromise. Even with modern telecine equipment with
naturalistic "non-linear" pans to simulate camera moves, transferring is
still basically image triage, trying to save what is the most important and
letting the rest die.

This situation is even worse if the director of the film is dead,
unavailable or doesn't care, and the transfer is done by some well-meaning
hourly-paid colorist who must make fundamental narrative decisions about
the film (this is essentially co-directing the movie without credit).

Obviously a letterboxed version is a truer representation of the film in
this case. The loss of image resolution and the "distancing effect" on
perfomances represent the lesser of the two available evils.

But if the film is NOT shot anamorphically, but is shot in the Super-35
process, another option is available. An option between the hard-to-see
letterbox and the dreaded pan & scan with half the picture missing.

It is possible to have a dramatically exciting and visually complete PAN &
SCAN transfer-to-video of a film which was exhibited in anamorphic
widescreen in the theater.

This option requires that the filmmaker take responsibility BEFORE the film
is shot, at the point that the photographic format is decided upon. And it
requires that the filmmaker shoulder the responsibility again, AFTER the
film is done, by carefully supervising the transfer.

If the film is shot in Super-35, the theatrical image uses only a band
across the middle of the negative. Think if it as letterboxing in the
camera. Just as a letterbox movie on video creates a 2.4:1 ratio by
masking the top and bottom of a square frame, the Super-35 negative doesn't
use almost 50% of its height, since a full-aperture 35mm film frame is
almost as square as video. The unused part of the negative is
photographed, but not used in making the theatrical release print.

This additional image area is available during the video transfer. It may
sometimes have a light in it, or a microphone or some dolly track. But
usually it's just fine.

It can be used to recompose the shots, so that all the actors are in frame.
In principle it would be possible to transfer the 1.33:1 full-frame
Super-35 negative almost dirsctly to the 4:3 ratio video frame (they are
almost identical in shape). In practice this introduces too much
dramatically extraneous stuff, and makes the shots feel too "wide." A
tight close-up becomes a medium shot and so on.

It turns out that treating the Super-35 negative as if it was originally a
1.85:1 negative works almost perfectly. Some slight panning is required,
but it is mild enough to be virtually invisible on today's equipment,
especially if it is artfully hidden within existing camera moves. I have
found that with the extra picture available, panning, tilting and even
zooming can be used to really enhance the dramatic impact of the shots. In
somes cases, the shots can be made even better than they were on film.

In fact, the transfer of a Super-35 film to video offers a whole palette of
techniques to optimize the image. For example, let's say you have a wide
establishing shot in a film, in which the camera slowly approaches your
principal actor. The goal of the shot is to show the setting and the
character's relationship to the setting. Recognizing the actor is
important, and some facial reaction that he has may be critical to the
moment. This may seem to be a no-win situation in video. You either
sacrifice the grandeur (in pan & scan) or you sacrifice intimacy with the
actor (letterbox).

With Super-35 you can have both, with a z-axis move (zoom) added on the
telecine, hidden within the existing camera move.

You start by scanning almost the entire negative area at the beginning of
the shot. This gives you almost all of the width you had in a theater,
plus some stuff above and below frame that you never saw. Then as the
camera pushes in, you can use the telecine to scan closer on the z-axis
(zooming in) so that your final frame is close enough to read the actor's
thoughts on his face. The theatrical "experience" of the film has been
approximated or "simulated" using subtleties of the advanced transfer
technology currently available. The zoom is absolutely undetectable within
the existing camera move.

In the pan & scan transfer of "The Abyss: Special Edition" I had the
following problem shot: Bud (Ed Harris), wearing the fluid-breathing suit,
stands at the edge of the cliff overlooking the great abyss. Then he
gathers his courage and leaps off. A very important shot dramatically.

In the letterbox version, you get the scope of the shot, and a sense of the
vastness of the abyssal depths, but because Bud's figure is so tiny, it
might as well be a G.I. Joe doll. Since the reality of the shot comes from
seeing that this is a real human being standing there, it wasn't working.
In the pan & scan transfer, I framed in closer to Bud, so that we see him
clearly, gathering himself for the jump. Then as he starts to go, I pan
and tilt down to emphasize the black void beneath him. This type of
tilting move would not have been possible on an anamorphic negative. The
result is the most dramatically powerful version of the shot possible in a
video format. It is also a different shot, in a sense, than it was in the
film. In the theatrical release, there was no movement in the shot.

Some would call this blasphemous. But, as an actor once said to me, we're
not writing pages for the Bible here. This is movies. There are no rules.
And only one commandment: tell the story the best damn way you know how.
In video I can't tell it using a 50-foot-wide screen to make my point, so
I'll do it differently.

I don't feel too guilty about using these techniques to make the video
image as good as it can be. Video is a compromise medium to begin with, so
a little revisionism in the service of a better viewing experience is, I
think, justifiable and desirable.

The point I'm trying to make is that it's not as simple as it was a few
years ago. There are more than two ways to skin this cat. I am asking
discerning fans and collectors not to think in binary terms... that pan &
scan is bad and letterbox is good.

If (and only if) a film is shot in Super-35, you should consider the
possibility that the pan & scan transfer is a superior viewing experience
in the video medium. Clearly letterbox will still have a certain archival
value, in preserving compositional elements of the film. It is a necessary
record of the way the movie looked on film.

Todays movies have a dual life. Most films are seen by more people for the
first time on video than in theaters. In fact the entire business of
financing films these days is the business of selling or licensing video
rights to make the damn things in the first place. Very few films are
profitable in the present marketplace solely on their theatrical returns.

So I believe it is more and more important for filmmakers to consider the
needs of the video market while they are making the film, or even before
they start. It creates a much better product later.

To properly transfer a feature film to video may take 50 to 100 hours of
painstaking supervision on the part of the director. Brightness, primary
and secondary color correction, frame size and position... all these factors
have to be optimized for every single shot in the film (3000+ shots).
Often the color is corrected at several points within a single shot by
adding undetectable color dissolves, and all the moves on the x, y, and z
axes must be programmed and checked for smoothness and organic flow.

The problem with Super-35 is that all of those wonderful options in
transfer are a double-edged sword. If they are used as creative tools by
the same director who shot the film in the first place, then they are valid
enhancements. If that director is not present, then these options become
merely additional ways to screw up. Shots can be too wide, too tight, or
the emphasis can be in the wrong place. So the bonus is really on the
filmmaker to make it all work, to deliver the highest quality product to
the marketplace. It is a new responsibility of the video age, and
directors must accept it.

But let's face it, a pan & scan transfer is a lot more work than a
letterbox transfer for the director. And even hard-working directors, who
are demons of energy on the set, tend to get lazy come transfer time. But
if they do... they are ripping you off. You deserve the very best version
of that movie which can be wrested from the film emulsion and put down in
pixels.

What I do is lay down the pan & scan transfer first, because it is far more
labor-intensive on my part, and then let the colorist do the letterbox
transfer using the same list of color corrections (recorded on a floppy
disk). Because letterbox requires no repositioning or XYZ moves it is
therefore, ironically, a much easier process. My creative/technical chief
at Lightstorm, Van Ling, supervises the letterboxing and I check the
results before it is laid down to DI tape, to make sure the color hasn't
drifted.

So in selecting a collector's edition of a recent film, one must probe
beneath the surface. Did the filmmaker supervise the transfer? What
format was the film shot in? The 1.85:1 format? The Super-35 2.4:1 format
(shot spherical/projected anamorphic)? Or the various older 2.4:1 formats
(shot anamorphic/projected anamorphic) such as Cinemascope, Technovision,
and Panavision?

This factor alone makes a huge difference. In the first two cases, the
best extraction of the image for video may well be the pan & scan version.
In the case of the anamorphically-photographed films, the best version will
likely be the letterbox transfer. It is still probably the lesser of two
evils for films shot in "'Scope."

At least until we get some kind of high-definition video. Then, of course,
the poor directors have to go back and transfer their movies all over
again. Oh well.

The important thing in the meantime is to make sure that both letterbox and
pan & scan versions are available, and that collectors consider all the
facts in deciding which to buy.

To sum up: I wanted to catch your attention by saying letterbox is not the
answer, but clearly, it has its place. For classic films shot in
anamorphic, it is the best record we have on video. But looking forward,
to a future where we still have a choice how to shoot the films and
subsequently view them in the video realm, both consumers and filmmakers
should be more flexible in their thinking.

Super-35 makes little sense other than as a way of shooting a widescreen
film and having it be video-friendly later. If this technique is not
embraced, and indeed lobbied for and rewarded by those it benefits the most
- the video consumers - then filmmakers will be slow to change their
thinking.

Just what you need, right? Another crusade, just when the letterbox crusade
was starting to have some effect. Think about. Look at both versions of
"The Abyss" or "T2" and judge for yourself. (See... this was just a ploy to
get you to buy both.)

Sincerely,
Jim Cameron
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#2
Sporv, ever seen one of those leaflets this was printed on? I never spotted one. I bought the P&S LD of The Abyss but there wasn't that text in it.
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#3
Sadly not...
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#4
Weird right?
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#5
Some of these essays were part of the LD special features, others were printed letters included in the LD sleeve. I don't know about this one though, it's quite a ramble so it might be a video essay.
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#6
Looks written to me, but in all my years of collecting LDs, I never came across someone who had a hard copy.
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#7
(2019-03-12, 08:56 AM)Stamper Wrote: Looks written to me

Not sure if this a joke but what I meant was that in the special features Cameron was prone to including letters/essays but they were stored on the disc and read by stepping through the frames (in CAV mode). This was alongside the 'printed' letters that would be included in the sleeve.

Anyway according to the lddb entry this was indeed a 6-sided essay included with the Pan-and-scan boxset of The Abyss Special Edition. So unless you bought the p&s (or knew somebody with it) you wouldn't have seen the letter.
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#8
Well I bought it, it wasn't there. I asked at the store and they opened others, still not there.
I have never seen a printed version either online. That's really weird.
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#9
The irony is, his stuff was rarely pan and scanned
It was open matte super 35
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#10
Actually no, it was P&S but using the bigger room of the open matte to place framing.

Is it me, but I think those transfers like T2 also use some weird squeezing on certains shot.
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