Did you know that back in the day, movies shown on TV were completely different than how they appeared in cinemas? That’s right. That is until something known as ‘letterboxing’ came along. What is letterboxing, you may ask? It’s a technique used in films and videos, where black bars are placed at the top and bottom of the screen. Might seem odd, but it’s a deliberate choice made to preserve the original aspect ratio of the film, ensuring viewers experience the movie exactly as the director intended. Stick around, and we’ll explain how it works.

What is Letterboxing in Film and Television?

First, let’s define letterboxing

Now that we've teased a little about the concept, let's dive deeper into understanding what exactly letterboxing is and how it works with a definition. 


What is letterboxing in film?

Letterboxing is a technique used in visual media such as film, video, and digital platforms to present an image in a widescreen format. The key characteristic of letterboxing is the black bars that appear above and below the image. These bars are added to maintain the original aspect ratio of the content being displayed. The term "letterboxing" was derived from the shape of a letter box slot, which is wider than it is tall, similar to the aspect ratio of wide-screen movies.

What is letterboxing in film mainly used for?

  • Preserves original aspect ratio
  • Enhances cinematic experience
  • Maintains director's vision
  • Avoids unwanted cropping

What is Letterboxing in Film Used For?

Letterboxing functions

You may be wondering, "Why go all the trouble of adding these black bars instead of just filling the entire screen?" Well, there are quite a few reasons behind this seemingly odd practice.

Maintaining Original Aspect Ratio

Letterboxing allows the original aspect ratio of a movie or television show to be preserved when it is being viewed on a screen with a different aspect ratio. This ensures that no part of the original image is cropped out or distorted, providing the viewer with the full cinematic experience as intended by the filmmakers.

The dominant aspect ratio in the early decades of film was the 4:3 aspect ratio. And when TVs were first produced, they maintained that basic square-ish shape. So, when widescreen movies came around, they didn't fit. It was like trying to put a rectangle in a square hole.

Aspect Ratios in Film  •  Subscribe on YouTube

Widescreen process like VistaVision gave us a nice, wide frame in theaters. But when that movie played on TV, the shape of the TV screen obviously couldn't accommodate the entire image. One alternative solution was what's called "pan and scan," where the artificial pans were added to a film to scan horizontally.

For filmmakers, this was like someone recutting the entire film with additional camera movement that felt unmotivated, and a truncated image.

One of the biggest complaints about letterboxing was that the image didn't fill the screen. People who bought big TVs wanted images the same size. Most people didn't realize that just because the movie filled their TV screen, they weren't actually seeing the entire movie.

Artistic Choice

Filmmakers often choose a certain aspect ratio for artistic reasons, to create a specific mood or feel. This is common with the 2:1 aspect ratio.

What is 2:1 Aspect Ratio  •  Subscribe on YouTube

Letterboxing enables them to convey this artistic vision to viewers, regardless of the type of screen they are using.

Consistency Across Platforms

With the variety of screen sizes and aspect ratios available today, letterboxing provides a consistent viewing experience across different devices. Whether you're watching on a large flat-screen TV or a small smartphone, you'll see the same image.

Avoiding Distortion

Without letterboxing, an image would have to be stretched or squashed to fit a screen with a different aspect ratio, leading to distortion. This can detract from the viewing experience and distort the filmmaker's original vision. Letterboxing avoids this issue.

Preserving Historical Content

Many older movies and television shows were filmed in a different aspect ratio than modern screens. Letterboxing allows these classic works to be viewed without any cropping or distortion, preserving their historical value.

These days, since most TVs are now shaped rectangularly, we have the opposite situation. Older movies shot in 4:3 wouldn't be stretched horizontally to fit your TV — instead they use a similar process to letterboxing call "pillarboxing."

This places the same black bars on the sides of the image instead of top and bottom. The value of this can be seen in classic films such as one of the most romantic movies of all timeCasablanca.

Here's Looking At You, Kid  •  Casablanca

The process of letterboxing might sound simple, but it requires a keen eye for detail and a deep understanding of aspect ratios to ensure the viewing experience remains undisturbed. 

Letterbox Format Advantages

What is the value of letterboxing?

Letterboxing is added during the post-production process of a film or video. The editor uses professional editing software to add black bars at the top and bottom of the footage. These bars are strategically placed to align with the original aspect ratio of the film or video. 

It's all about preserving the integrity of the original production while adapting it for various screen sizes and viewer preferences. Don’t see the point yet? Here is the value of letterboxing broken down by one of the best directors in cinematic historySteven Spielberg.

Spielberg on Letterboxing

Letterboxing is a crucial technique in visual media. It preserves the original aspect ratio of a film or TV show so that viewers can experience the content as intended. 

Even though the black bars might be distracting to some, the advantages of letterboxing outweigh the drawbacks. It's a vital tool in today's diverse media landscape, ensuring an immersive and authentic viewing experience.

Up Next

The Definitive Guide to Aspect Ratio 

Letterboxing is a valuable tool that filmmakers use to preserve the intended aspect ratio and enhance the viewing experience. In the realm of maintaining the integrity of visual content, let's explore the fascinating world of aspect ratios and dive deeper into its intricacies.

Up Next: Aspect Ratio Guide →
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