Format Issues – Letterboxing, Colorizing of Classics, DVD, & HDTV


Format Issues – Letterboxing,
Colorizing of Classics, DVD, & HDTV

lassic Movie fans get excited over questions like whether or not Marilyn Monroe was a great actress, or which film deserved the Oscar in 1939. These will probably always be moot points. But there are a number of “technical” issues that get our juices flowing, and about which there is strong evidence on one side or another. I’ve collected information and opinions about all of them in this one article — at least what I know or can find on the Web. When you’re finished reading, you should know enough to try and figure out what side you’re on in the controversies over these concepts: colorization of the classics, letterboxing, DVD releases, and HDTV. If you’d like to contribute more, emailme. We’ll start with the most controversial:


Classic film fans are pretty much united in their opposition to colorizing the classics, an activity made notorious by Ted Turner. The argument that older black and white films have to be colorized in order to make them more appealing to younger audiences isn’t given much credence by classic fans, although there are some who believe that certain films either look better in color or should have been shot in color originally. Most disagree. There have been several Forum threads on the topic over the years in the Classic Movies Forum, and rather than tell you what Ithink, here are some pointed remarks about colorization from our Forum regulars:

“It’s not ‘full’ color anyway, just flat color tints over a black and white background…” Complete comments


“Colorised movies are ‘fakes,’ and to many serious movie fans that’s the problem…” Complete comments

Mike Taylor

“Colorization has been around for years…” Complete comments


“A few of the comments on the board have addressed the issue that kids like colorization because they won’t watch films in black and white…”Complete comments


I also received these comments by email some time after this article was written:


“What about La Jour de Fete? Jaque Tati wanted it to be in colour but couldn’t get the small stock of Agfa film that was available to him immediately after WW2 processed. He then tried to get it done with the old “Pathecolor” tinted process, even coloured some frames by hand himself, and after he was dead his grandson had the film colorised in the style of 40’s Agfacolor. The world’s first nature photographer Oliver Pyke was delighted with the Pathecolor prints that were made of some of his prints. Don’t you wish that some of these prints still existed? I certainly do! And the early (1890’s) “magic” hand coloured films coloured by girls who usually worked with lantern slides. Surely we shouldn’t dismiss these!”



“I would agree that most of the classic movies of the thirties and forties that have been colorised have been spoilt — especially the early ones with a restricted pallette, and those that were specifically meant to exploit the contrast range of slow, fine grain monochrome films, but some of the early silent hand coloured films are delightful in my opinion, and even some classics – such as La Belle a la Bete, which Jeane Cocteau would have made in colour if the material had been available in forties France, could benefit from colorization. I am afraid that I have been fascinated by colour all of my life. I took Dufaycolor films when I was a boy, printed colour when it was a several hours a print job to do so. If colour film had been invented first I don’t think anyone would have bothered to invent black and white and I note that several of the “Ah! but the real artists chose monochrome” arguments just don’t hold water. Just before he died Laurence Olivier let out the secret that his Hamlet of the forties was monochrome not for artistic reasons but because Technicolor had given him the runaround when he was making “Henry V” and even Ingmar Bergman, who resisted colour for years, never made a monochrome picture again once he had dipped his toes in the Eastmancolor water.”

George D. Thompson

What do you think?


What’s “letterboxing,” you ask? The question was answered most succinctly in the now-missing introduction to a site called Widescreen Cinema:

“In the early years of motion picture history, virtually all films were shot in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.37:1, which closely matches the Academy aperture of today’s television screen (1.33:1).


“When, in the 1950s, the invention of the television set became widespread and threatened the future of cinema, movie studios looked to develop new ways to keep audiences coming back to theaters. One of the most successful of these inventions was the introduction of widescreen movies.

“If you have not yet had a chance to compare a Pan & Scan and a letterboxed version of the same widescreen movie, you may literally not realize what you are missing. Try to place that subtle feeling of claustrophobia next time you watch a cropped film that’s full of unnatural close-ups and robotic, back-and-forth camera movements that rival a Ping-Pong match.”

“‘Pan-and-scan’ is the process by which a portion of the widescreen theatrical image of a film is selected to fill your TV screen. It is called ‘pan-and-scan’ because the video operator who does it can ‘pan’ or move across the widescreen image to (presumably) follow the action. He can also follow the action by creating additional ‘cuts,’ i.e.. by cutting from one portion of the widescreen image to another.”

What is essentially happening here is that an unknown technician somewhere is overruling the decisions of the film’s director, who chose to film a scene in a certain way, in the process delivering an experience that is not what was intended, an inferior experience for the viewer. Those who complain about “black lines” above and below the image need to pay attention to what the shape of the image is next time they watch a film at the theater, and then perhaps consider investing in a larger TV set!

See also Introduction to Widescreen and The Letterbox and Widescreen Advocacy Page.


More and more, DVD is becoming the standard for newly released films. But what about classics? Forum guru Tralfaz answered a question about it back in August, 1999, and although the answer if probably a little out of date, it’s still basically true (several posts are combined here into one answer):

“A lot of classic films are (or soon will be) available on DVD…” Complete comments


Tralfaz also offered a list of Classic films coming to DVD.


Finally, there’s High Definition Digital TV, or HDTV. Forum regular Actor has been involved in a number of discussions on the subject, and is our resident expert on HDTV. Here’s a combination of several of his posts:

“I am holding off getting DVD until I see what happens with HDTV… Complete comments


I’d love to wait, but there are these online services now that let you join for a modest fee and rent up to three DVDs at a time and keep them as long as you want at no additional cost. Considering that video rental companies such as Blockbuster and Hollywood Video make their profits from late fees, that’s a hard deal to resist. But I don’t think I’ll be transferring my entire collection to DVD just yet!


That’s about it, but if you’re interested in other technical issues related to film, be sure to check out the sites listed on my Net Links page entitled Technical Aspects of Film. Another site you should visit is Last Link on the Left’s Widescreen, Imax and Other Format Films article.

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