The programs we license go back as early as the 1960s, so there are a lot of technical difficulties to overcome. One thing that comes up a lot, and I often see being mishandled, is how to properly display a program.
The old standard was 4:3 (“four-by-three”). A television with this aspect ratio is nearly square, being 4 units wide and 3 units tall. About 10 years ago there was a shift to widescreen televisions, or 16:9, where the picture is 16 units wide and 9 units tall. These can both be shortened to 1.33:1 and 1.77:1 respectively, but using whole numbers is easier and widely accepted. Many of our programs were made well before the advent widescreen television. It’s important that we preserve the original aspect ratio when creating DVDs. This often means using letterboxing and pillarboxing.
You’ve almost certainly seen letterboxing on a 4:3 television. When a program is shot in a widescreen aspect ratio (1.85:1 and 2.40:1 are common for films, while 16:9 now the norm for television) black bars must be added to the top and bottom of the screen on a 4:3 television to preserve this aspect ratio. Fun fact: it’s called letterboxing because the image resembles the wide rectangular letter box through which mail can be delivered. Similarly, pillarboxing is when black bars appear on either side of the screen, which is necessary to properly display a 4:3 image on a 16:9 television. Many of the DVDs we release will appear pillarboxed on your 16:9 television because they were created before widescreen television became common. Fun Fact #2: the name comes from the pillar box-style mailboxes used in the UK.
These days the term “full screen” is a bit of a misnomer. It used to be that everyone had 4:3 television sets, so any program created or edited to fill a 4:3 screen would be dubbed “full screen” because it would fill the screen. Now most people use a 16:9 set as their primary television and any DVD purporting to be “full screen” will only fill about half! It’s one of these terms that we keep around because of its past association with the 4:3 aspect ratio and most people who read the spec lines of a DVD will understand what it means. We always use the term “4:3 full screen” just to be as clear as possible.
HDTVs often give you the option of stretching the picture, but just because an image can fill your screen don’t mean it should. All this does is distort the picture, resulting in a softer image and the impression that everyone in the program has put on about 30 pounds. Think of the programs as pieces of art, you wouldn’t want an artist to just fill in extra space to fit a particular frame; you’d want her to create a piece to match her vision and then frame it accordingly. The black bars on your TV screen are that frame, allowing you to see the film or program as the director wants you to see it.
My recommendation is to simply trust that the discs you watch were created in a way that will present the best possible image. Never use the zoom button to watch a program and, most importantly, make sure that the set-up menus on your DVD player and television match what you actually have in your living room.
Nick is a DVD developer at Acorn Media. When not obsessing over bitrates and audio streams he enjoys quality time with his wife, cats, and PS3. One of his life goals is to win a World Series of Poker bracelet.