Instantly Dated: The Great Pan and Scan VHS Controversy – By Chris McHugh



Remember pan and scanned VHS tapes? Now we have the opposite problem!

I got interested in laserdiscs when I learned about widescreen versus pan and scan. If you remember, back in the 80s, laserdisc was practically the only way to see a movie in its original aspect ratio. I even remember doing a speech in junior high where I showed an example of how all the people on the screen were missing when the shot was cropped.

So it’s all about the aspect ratio you see. Our old TVs were 4.3. New TVs are 16×9. But that still isn’t the same aspect ratio as film. So even these days we still can’t completely getting rid of those black bars at the bottom and top of the screen. That’s because films, which put a value of 1.0 to the video image’s height, are typically 2.35:1 or 2.4:1. But our HDTVs are 16×9!

The first movie that I ever saw widescreen on VHS was Woody Allen’s Manhattan — a cinematic masterpiece. They didn’t even use black bars on the bottom and top. Instead, it was actually gray. I guess they thought that would be the least intrusive color to use.

It wasn’t until DVDs and widescreen TVs came out that distributors finally stopped hacking off almost half of the screen of motion pictures.

But let’s look at it from the VHS distributors perspective. In a segment highlighting Steven Spielberg’s unanswered wish to have Indiana Jones and the last crusade letterboxed for its VHS release in 1990, Gene Siskel makes the case for all that panning and scanning. Because if you remember, back in the day, everyone didn’t have a 50” screen.

It’s been said that the first use of letterboxing in consumer video started with the RCA Capacitance Electronic Disc or CED. At first the letterboxing was just used for opening and closing credits. But then, they started doing it for the whole film. The first fully letterboxed CED release is said to have been the Fellini film Amarcord in 1984.

So nowadays we have the opposite problem. People have to convert 4×3 TV shows like Star Trek the Next Generation to 16×9. So what do they do? You guessed it, pan and scan.