Back in the day when we only had square screens and movies were wider than they were taller, home media releases tended to butcher the image. Not only were wider images often just cropped to fit the more square screen, but pan and scan was applied to showcase and focus more on certain parts of the picture. Take a look at the comparison video how pan and scan was made with Ghostbusters and how much the intended picture was lost, or how extra editing had to be done.
This isn’t just something that was done throughout the existence of mainstream home media. Even Laserdisc, the format that was touted as the film fanatic’s choice, suffered greatly for many releases being pan and scan. The reason is the same why older media that was produced before the HD media hit around the corner is being cropped and slapped with some effect on top. The resulting ruination removes information on the screen, causing actors’ and surroundings to go unseen. In comedic media, you often see jokes and even scene important elements lost to pan and scan as the focus has to be on the speaker. To use Ghostbusters as an example, Spookcentral has a good three-point comparison what’s the core issue.
At the top, we have the original picture, with a cropped version to fit a different aspect ratio, and then at the bottom a pan and scan. The pan and scan version would have to move the image left and right to cover the whole scene to show all of the picture. Sometimes it simply doesn’t, which results in static cropping. This results large areas of information being lost to the viewer, in this case, we either lose Winston, or both Egon and Winston. This isn’t a single case; almost every single movie released on VHS, Laserdisc and DVD have pan and scan version out there well into the mid-00’s before HD screens took over. You would think this issue would be solved. After all, all modern screens are wider than they are taller by standard, but that’s not the case. The pendulum has swung to the opposite direction.
As older televisions programs use older standards for the screen size, they don’t fit modern screens without empty space. Hence, shows like The Simpsons are being cropped to fit the new standards, losing large amounts of information and destroying the scenes’ layout. Bart and Lisa on the above shot lose all of their torsoes and the luxurious house is almost completely gone. The scene has become too cramped, there’s less room to breath. Here’s an example how cropping removes whole jokes from scenes.
Nabbed from Tristan Cooper’s Twitter
The whole joke about Duff Classic, Duff Lite and Duff Dry all coming from the same pipeline got axed. This repeats throughout the whole show on Disney+, and worse all, Fox has been selling these versions to overseas markets to be rerun on television. This means the only way to see The Simpsons as it was meant to be seen is on DVD or VHS. In one of the DVD commentaries Matt Groening mentioned that there will never be Bluray realease of the show, because the DVD is already at the resolution the show was made in. However, as you can see on the cropped version, they’ve upscaled the image and applied some smoothening effect to it. Recently I watched half an episode of the show on local television, and witnessed how a classic episode was effectively ruined by cropping and by this smoothening effect, destroying detail and sharpness of the picture. This was made in order to make the show look like modern contemporaries or newer episodes, as no line ended in a sharp stroke but to a round end. Colour variation and balance had been destroyed in an attempt to move any sort of grain or scratch off the screen and making things higher in contrast. Tristan also pointed out how in certain scenes you don’t only get cropping, but stretching too.
The Simpsons is the most cited example of this, but it is far from the only show that experiences this. The He-Man Official Youtube channel has a long history of stretching and cropping full episodes they upload, with all episode of The New Adventures of He-Man being cropped. Originally, their He-Man and the Masters of the Universe episodes were both stretched and cropped, but after someone kept bitching at them episode after episode they slowly began to upload episodes in proper aspect ratio, only return to stretching and cropping. Take a look at how Castle Grayskull looks between their normal and stretched videos.
As you can see, the image was simply stretched to fit the new standard’s width without any consideration what it does to the image. Everything is simply wider with no reason behind it. There’s no lost information in this way, but it’s not how it should look like. At least there isn’t information lost. There is also no rhyme or reason how or when Filmation’s cartoons get what treatment, as an episode of Bravestarr that was uploaded a month ago still has its proper aspect ratio, but every upload after that suddenly begun to be cropped or stretched, starting from this episode, from 25th of July onward.
There are massive amounts of shows in streaming services and on home media that does these exact same things, cropping and stretching. In effect, it is the same fear of the empty screen space that was driving cropping and pan and scan. Both the game and film industry, television included, are too fearful of those black bars. This may be because some of the home consumers think the picture has been cut off or their screen is broken. Sony even has a support article explaining that there are media in a different aspect ratio, and even recommend zooming or widening the picture via TVs own settings, something now self-respecting consumer would do. The results would be as you see above; lost information and screwed-up picture. I’m not sure if it’s just inbred stupidity or lack of education that makes people think something is wrong with the picture if they don’t have their whole screen filled, or if it’s simply sheer ignorance.
The consumer, ultimately, is not responsible for these despite there being a group that doesn’t apparently understand aspect ratios. However, we have all the information we could hope for at the tip of our fingers, this information is readily available for anyone who wants to see what’s with their picture. Then again, almost all home media, at least physical media, lists the aspect ratio at the back of the box. This, of course, would mean the consumer would need to learn something about aspect ratio. Not everyone is interested in that, but really, it’s one of those little things everybody should learn about as part of their normal media education.
After all, film and television are considered a form of art. Consuming both in their proper, intended format is necessary in order to fully experience the effects and intentions the creators have used the screen for. Be it Jurassic Park‘s higher than standard screen or TV’s square-ish format, it’s all about what it has been designed and intended to be in. We should not hammer a square peg into a round hole, like so many studios and services are at the moment.