Letterboxes, the black boxes that appear on either the top and bottom or sides of film and television shows to preserve their original display format, have become so commonplace that most people don’t bat an eye at them. Instead, companies like Netflix have gotten in hot water from users for cropping videos that should be letterboxed. But it was not always thus, as a recent article from Atlas Obscura explains, tracing the origins of letterboxing from its early filmmaker advocates through its slow and begrudging acceptance with the film-watching public.
The reason why we need letterboxing at home in the first place is the result of a familiar story: Hollywood trying to gain an edge on new consumer technology–the home television.
See, the 4-by-3 layout of most televisions produced in the pre-HDTV era was fine for most early films, but in 1953 Hollywood shifted gears in response to the growing small-screen threat, releasing a wide array of competing technologies to allow for increasingly wider film resolutions.
One early technology, Cinemascope, compressed wide images onto 35mm film using an anamorphic lens, then stretched those pictures out onto a giant, slightly curved screen, to create an experience that theaters hoped would make television seem pathetic in comparison. A later variation of the format, Panavision, became the industry standard and is still in use today.
These new technologies were the 3-D, the Dolby Atmos, and IMAX hooks of their day, giving viewers a good reason to leave the living room and trek to the theater. But while this was great for the theater experience, in order to show films in these wide formats at home, they would be cropped and edited using a technique called “pan and scan” in order to fit the standard 4:3 aspect ratio televisions of the day. The article explains:
This technique… has some really negative effects on the films that used it. If a film was framed so that two people were standing far apart, for example, one would inevitably be cut off. Panning-and-scanning could hide moments of tension or even remove key characters from a scene.
This infuriated filmmakers who carefully planned and shot their scenes in their native aspect ratios. Luminaries such as Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorcese campaigned loudly for a home-viewing compromise that added black bars to either side of the image to preserve the director’s original vision for the film, i.e., the “letterbox.”
Unfortunately, consumers were slow to accept the benefits of letterbox, feeling cheated by the loss of screen real estate. It wasn’t until the concurrent rise of widescreen HDTVs and the DVD format that letterboxing as a preferred way of watching widescreen format films took hold.
Eventually, though, the release of the DVD helped ease mainstream interest in letterboxing. In 2003, the video chain Blockbuster, which was still influential at the time, formally decided to favor widescreen films in stocking DVD rentals, a move that effectively proved that widescreen films had gone mainstream.