The Matting Issue

It’s possible you’ve noticed my blogging output the past couple of weeks has been a bit more sparse than usual. I apologize for that; I’ve had a few other projects going on, and that’s cut into my movie watching time a bit. One of those projects was a DVD inventory program for some friends and I, and it’s managed to remind me of a particularly irritating issue that can come up if, like me and my friends, you do a lot of your DVD buying in the form of used discs. Theoretically, it shouldn’t be a problem if you’re only buying new releases… but if the movie you’re looking for is a bit older, and hasn’t had a recent DVD release (used DVD stores, pawn shops, and make it relatively easy to find such), it can give you an unpleasant surprise.

The problem is matting, a trick to correct the aspect ratio of films.

The aspect ratio of a screen or image is its width compared to its height. Now, it’s no secret that films tend to be wider than the TV screens we all grew up with. Current widescreen TVs alleviate the difference some, but there are still sometimes differences. The TVs and computer monitors we all had up until a few years ago (and which some of us still have — it’s worth noting “fullscreen” still refers to squarish pictures) were in an aspect ratio of 4:3, or 1.33:1. Current widescreen TVs and monitors are typically around 16:9, or 1.78:1.

Yup, boxes. My pictures are going to be really exciting for this post.

The problem that comes in with films is that even before most TVs were widescreen, the films were (except for some very early films). In fact, even today they’re sometimes wider than a widescreen TV. You probably won’t notice the difference when it’s 1.85:1 (which is about 16.65 to 9, so it’s really close, and is typical for DVDs), but when the film is 2.35:1, you’re going to notice.

It’s like putting together a puzzle; there’s always one piece that doesn’t quite fit.

Now, even then, you’re not going to be too worried about it. It’s just a little bit of letter-boxing. You’re still mostly getting the full use out of your screen. But suppose that instead, you’re viewing things on a “standard” 4:3 screen — like most people throughout most of the history of DVDs so far.

Things are starting to go awry.

On the 1.85:1 version, it’s only a little worse than the letter-boxing a widescreen TV has for a 2.35:1 movie… but it’s not a 2.35:1 movie. With the 2.35:1 movie, you’re looking at a large difference, not getting use out of nearly half of your screen. But that’s not the big problem — the big problem is that screens are meant to display things across the entire screen. Which means you get distortion if a picture with the wrong aspect ratio is displayed — unless something is done to correct that. Unless you want to see Danny DeVito look like he’s seven feet tall and thin, an adjustment has to be made somewhere.

For most of the VHS era — and continuing on into the DVD era on discs labelled “Fullscreen” or “Standard” — the solution was “Pan and Scan”. The image is cropped, and the film is edited so that the “interesting” part is always on the scree. While this was accepted for a while, naturally the more people got into viewing films as they were meant to be seen, the more they wanted to not have significant parts of the picture deleted from their TV screen.

Only half of the shot is interesting anyway, right?

When people started asking for widescreen versions of films, there were two possible solutions. One was to simply include the film as-it-was, and make the DVD player able to determine what the aspect ratio should be, and have the player digitally letterbox anything that’s uncovered. This is the “layman’s terms” version of anamorphic widescreen, and is a good, sensible way of doing things. Most DVDs made nowadays use anamorphic widescreen (and Here’s a handy Wikipedia link detailing how different companies label their anamorphic discs). Now, anamorphic widescreen properly refers to how the data is stored on the disc itself, but it’s the technology for the player that makes a proper display possible, so that’s what we’re interested in.

The problem is that in the early days of DVDs, only some manufacturers made discs that just contained the film data and left it up to the player on how to handle it (my first DVD player had a menu option to switch the aspect ratio on its output, independent of the disc). Others decided to take matters into their own hands, and therein lies the problem. Their solution was matting — since the film should be letter-boxed on a 4:3 screen, why not just add the letter-boxes into the data itself? Why that’s a problem only becomes apparent when you take such a disc and view it on a widescreen TV or monitor. On a 4:3 screen, it looks the same as a non-matted widescreen disc — letter-boxes look the same whether they’re put there by the disc or if they’re simply not filled in on the screen. But when you play a 4:3 disc on a 16:9 screen, you get the same “not the right size” problem as you do the other way around; it’s just that now the letter-boxes are vertical instead of horizontal.

It’s OK. Vertical stripes are slimming.

Again, that’s not a particularly big problem, if you’re OK with not viewing widescreen material (particularly if the programming you’re viewing isn’t meant to be widescreen, such as an older TV program or a much older movie.) But matted discs create a situation where the supposed “widescreen” movie — showing all the details that were in the film, because that’s what you’re after — is arguably a worse viewing experience than the full screen disc. Because the truth of the matter is that when they digitally matte it, it is a full screen picture. And it gets treated that way by your player and widescreen TV. And then it has the letter-boxes within that.

That’s… less than optimal.

That light grey area is your total viewing area on a 1.85:1 film. It’s even worse if the film is attempting to preserve a 2.35:1 ratio — remember the picture above comparing 2.35:1 to 4:3. You wind up with letter-boxing on all sides, and a huge amount of wasted space — plus, at this point, it’s possible the picture is getting too small to see well, and it’s certainly not as good as a proper widescreen film at any rate.

So you just don’t buy matted movies, right? But that’s where the problem lies. These discs were made to provide a widescreen appearance on a standard 4:3 screen… and so often they’re labeled as “widescreen”. Just like the anamorphic widescreen DVDs. I have a “Deluxe Widescreen Edition” of Monty Python and the Holy Grail; it’s label mentions “widescreen” no fewer than 3 times, but at no point does it ever say it’s matted. And the thing is, you can’t even go entirely on age — I own older DVDs that don’t have that problem. And the original (unaltered) Star Wars trilogy, when released as bonus discs with the Special Editions, were matted even though the Special Editions weren’t (yes, I’m picking on Lucas again). They were that way on the LaserDiscs, and apparently it was too much trouble to fix them for the DVD release, even though it was well past 2000 at the time.

So buyer beware when picking up older discs… just because it says “widescreen” doesn’t mean it’s formatted in a way that will be to your liking. Look for the words “anamorphic”, or “enhanced for 16:9 televisions”. Because it’s seriously disappointing to buy a “widescreen” movie and get a very suboptimal picture, and whether or not you can adjust it with your player is very much a crap shoot.

About Morgan R. Lewis

Fan of movies and other media
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