Do you remember what pan and scan is? Did you ever rent or own movies on VHS tape, or even on DVD, that filled the entirety of your 4:3 aspect ratio tube television? If the answer to all this is yes, then you experienced “pan and scan” firsthand. But what is pan and scan, how can you identify it, and what happened to it now that we have streaming services and HDTVs?
Defining Pan and Scan
What does pan and scan mean?
This pan and scan issue ultimately comes down to aspect ratio, the dimensions of a film's image. The short answer is that images with a certain shape don't easily fit onto TV screens with a different shape. It's sort of like a "square peg in a round hole" issue.
To fully understand the pan and scan process, let's remind ourselves of how aspect ratio works. Then we can answer, "What does pan and scan mean?" with confidence.
Still asking yourself, "What is pan and scan?" A fair question since it’s mostly an outdated process. Let’s define pan and scan before digging deeper into examples like Seinfeld, Alien, and The Avengers.
PAN AND SCAN DEFINITION
What is pan and scan?
Pan and scan is the process of fitting a widescreen film into the confines of a 4:3 frame. In more common nomenclature, it was the process of making a “widescreen” picture into a “fullscreen” one. This was done in the days of VHS and early DVD, as most consumers still owned 4:3 sized televisions. The reverse issue came about later when 16:9 televisions became the norm and 4:3 movies and TV shows were retrofitted.
Pan and Scan Characteristics:
- The removal of visual information from a film, which can vary from 45% to 75%.
- Mechanical “pan” movements to accommodate lost visual info.
- Additional information to the top and bottom of the image not originally seen (open matte cases only).
To give you an idea of what pan and scan ultimately does, and why it posed such a problem for directors, take a look at the video below. Critics Siskel & Ebert talked about the process and why this controversial process was widely adopted.
As you saw in that example from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, the pan and scan version is basically "re-directed and re-edited." Now that we've seen an example of pan and scan in action, let's go back to the technological innovations that got us into this mess.
Pan and Scan History
Home video meets pan and scan
When television sets were first created, they were in the aspect ratio of 1.33:1, also known as 4:3. The widescreen boom of the 1950s soon followed, with CinemaScope (2.35:1) and VistaVision (1.85:1) providing audiences with experiences they couldn’t have at home.
Fast forward a few years where movies are being shown on 4:3 TVs. Movies were released on home video mediums that allow consumers to watch movies whenever they want. While there were some limited formats in the 1970s and ‘80s (such as LaserDisc), VHS tapes reigned supreme, beating out Betamax as the definitive home video format.
Due to many post-1953 movies being in an aspect ratio wider than 4:3, pan and scan was introduced. Many who grew up with pan and scan wouldn’t even know anything was wrong, but from the outset, filmmakers didn’t like the process.
The most obvious issue was that pan and scan removed information that could be seen in the film’s original form. It also created the need to “pan” between elements on-screen in ways the filmmakers never intended. Here's filmmaker Sydney Pollack on his frustration with the pan and scan process.
The viewing public at home got used to a movie always filling their 4:3 screens. The addition of black bars on the top or bottom of the screen created confusion and frustration. So, for years, as 4:3 was the only frame for TVs, both movies and TV (mostly) conceded defeat.
However, mediums like LaserDisc, which had a small but dedicated following. Laserdisc allowed movies to be presented in their original theatrical aspect ratios. There were also an extremely limited number of movies on VHS that had widescreen versions in letterbox format like Woody Allen’s Manhattan.
Additionally, there were certain movie channels, such as Turner Classic Movies, that always stuck to the original aspect ratio of a movie. The video below goes over that decision, as well as the issues associated with pan and scan.
So, while there were ways to watch movies in widescreen letterbox format in the ‘70s and ‘80s, they were mostly displayed in “full screen” around the world. Even so, things were poised to change dramatically in the next decade and beyond, not just for movies, but for all video entertainment.
Pan and Scan Home Video
Pan and scan in the DVD era
The 1990s saw VHS still on top of the world while LaserDisc was on its last legs. But the decade would also mark a massive change in the world of home entertainment: DVD.
Let’s take a look at how one franchise evolved in its presentation on VHS and LaserDisc before being released on DVD. Focusing on the Alien series, this video covers the availability of these films in the early ‘90s and how they were presented throughout the decade.
Introduced in the late ‘90s, DVDs changed the home video landscape, with digital technology and optical discs. It also changed the way most people watched movies. Whether still on 4:3 TVs or the rising 16:9 sets, movies were now being offered in both “widescreen” and “fullscreen.” This was notable, as most movies on VHS were still only available in “fullscreen,” due to the tapes being exclusively created for 4:3 monitors.
DVD looked toward the future, understanding that 16:9 sets were on the rise. DVDs provided a more consumer-friendly disc option that could let consumers choose between a film’s aspect ratio.
As the early 2000s roared along, the popularity of VHS was on the decline. And even as DVD technology improved and more films were being presented in their original ratios, pan and scan was “still a threat.”
However, by the time HD DVD and Blu-ray came around in the mid-2000s, the idea of buying a movie in “fullscreen” was becoming obsolete. Not only that, 16:9 TVs were becoming much more common, allowing people to more comfortably watch various aspect ratios in an all-in-one frame.
Pan and Scan Today
The legacy of pan and scan
These days, you will likely not hear about pan and scan nearly as much as you did before. Ideally, you should only now be hearing about it in a historical context, but the truth is that the legacy of pan and scan lives on in various ways.
For many people, like the video below shows, pan and scan is a relic of a bygone area that is often mocked or admired as pure nostalgia.
But with new standards come new problems. While 16:9 can now easily show films originally in 1.85:1, the actual problem is with films in 2.35:1 being formatted to fit into 16:9. Not every channel or service does this, but enough of them do, especially major network channels or popular cable networks.
What ends up happening is an evolution of the original pan and scan dilemma: channels want the movie to fill the whole screen and some audiences, now so used to 16:9, get confused whenever it doesn’t.
This can even be a problem for movies and shows originally in 4:3. The process of pillarboxing (with black bars on the sides) should eliminate this problem. The issue remains the same: people want their entire widescreen set filled with images, not black spaces.
So, images in 4:3 are thus cropped and stretched to fit 16:9. Here's how this worked when Seinfeld started airing in syndication.
Another recent and controversial example of this was with The Simpsons, which ran into this problem when it came to HD streaming platforms, first with FXX and now Disney+, though thankfully Disney is now letting viewers choose their preferred ratio.
Streaming sites like Netflix and Hulu, along with channels like HBO, were susceptible to showing films in this way in the late 2000s and early 2010s. However, some channels and sites still have this problem, such as Amazon or FX. Apparently, the legacy of pan and scan is still not relegated to the history of "what not to do with movies on home video."
Definitive aspect ratio guide
Pan and scan demonstrates how important aspect ratio preservation is when viewing a filmmaker’s work. Now that you have a better understanding of that concept, learn more about aspect ratios overall, along with tips on how they are utilized and what they can signify.