by Allison Seale
LIKE TRADITIONAL ARTISTS WHO USE LIGHT, SHADOW AND COMPOSITION TO BRING THEIR SUBJECTS TO LIFE ON CANVAS, a film’s director and cinematographer compose each frame to communicate mood and to progress the story. In the end, a film becomes something very personal to those who toiled to create it. It is the sum of all of their experiences embodied within the confines of the story.
Operating under the premise “of a picture is worth a thousand words,” Parker prepared a book designed to show Disney executives that Evita, which was shot in a very rectangular widescreen format, was a film that needed to be seen in its original aspect ratio (the proportion of width to height) which is 2.35:1 for its release on video. To fit more squarish television sets, a version of the film was cropped to an aspect ratio of 1.33:1. The process, called panning and scanning, resulting in a picture loss of almost 50 percent, dramatically altered composition, lighting and even story.
The alterations are, sadly, a fact of life for most filmmakers. Many studio executives and video store owners report that the public either doesn’t like or understand “letterboxed” films. Confused by the black bars that appear above and below, they feel that some of the image is missing. Parker refutes this notion implicitly. “You have to put things into perspective. In the early days, no one ever thought the video business would take off as it did. It’s an extremely crude technology, and no standards were ever applied to it because no one took it seriously. Consequently, it crept up on all of us, and what is now regarded as the ‘norm’ is in fact a complete bastardization of the original cinematic work. Studios did nothing to protect us because there were, frankly, too many extra windfall profits to be made in the video business. But improved technologies are upon us, and filmmakers now have to be much more vociferous in protecting their original work.”
In reality, no known motion picture produced for theatrical release since the 1950s has been shot in an aspect ratio that fits a television set. That means that every movie since then that makes it to the small screen, without letterboxing, has been altered. How much is sacrificed depends on the movie.
“This book,” Parker says, “is quite revealing. So much so that it helped to win part of the battle.”
Parker’s book, which contains 77 of the worst case scenarios of cropping a widescreen image to fit television screens, clearly demonstrates how much of each frame would be lost in the panning and scanning process and how certain artistic effects within the film might have been destroyed or severely compromised.
Setting precedent, and due in no small part to Parker’s demonstration, Disney is going to release and market a widescreen, letterboxed version of the film on video as the “original” version, as it was intended to be seen. For those who still mistakenly believe they are missing something when they see the black bars above and below the image, however, they will still release a panned and scanned version. That leaves consumers with a choice, and it is hoped that marketing the letterboxed version as the original will lead them to choose it over the panned and scanned option.
Grateful for Disney’s willingness and efforts to promote the widescreen version, Parker did as much as possible to protect the film during the required panning and scanning process. In fact, he actually supervised the panning and scanning process and was able to retain as much of the artistic integrity of the original film as possible.
“If I didn’t do it, they would,” he says. “It’s heartbreaking, though. You’re mutilating your own film, but you have to do it; it’s in your contract.”
Parker’s contract stipulates that he be given the opportunity to be present during the process. But that isn’t always possible. In the past, when video transfers weren’t done until months and sometimes years after editing, often directors would be off on other projects when the panning and scanning was done. When the director and other artists aren’t included in the process, the results can sometimes be difficult to live with.
“Even if they are the best video engineers,” Parker says, “they are not trained for all of the roles they’re asked to play during the panning and scanning of a film. Usually, they do it without the cinematographer being there, the director being there and without the editor. They make editorial decisions, and they are not skilled in all of those areas.”
Too often, these engineers are forced to rely on instructions to “follow the money,” which means that in a two-shot, the bigger “star” is the one who survives the cutting room floor. In an example Parker noted in his book, Eva Peron’s husband is serenading her. She stays; he goes — even though he was the one singing.
“It’s absurd to have it cropped like this,” Khondji says, pointing to the first frame in the book. “This shot was drawn for me very early on by Alan and excited me about the project.”
The first frame is a long shot of a funeral procession. Since not all of the image can fit on a television screen at once, had Parker not supervised the panning and scanning, a video engineer would have followed a standard procedure and zeroed in on the maximum point of interest: a horse-drawn buggy carrying a casket. But, in order to show the full line of mourners, they would have had to pan right to left— against the movement in the scene—an effect cinematographers call “camera creep,” and something an experienced cinematographer, Khondji says, would never do. Not only would this have misrepresented his work but, he says, this would have destroyed Parker’s planning for the way the story would be told.
If it had been shot for television, Khondji notes, “We would have framed it differently. There were not supposed to be movements at this point, only tableau.
“Sometimes in movie-making we build up a concept of energy—movement of the film. In this film, the concept was static, with movement not coming in until later.” The effects of panning and scanning are most noticeable in the wide shots but he also cringes over the way the process affects two-shots because, if there is time, the video technicians will typically pan over to the other character. “I would never do that,” Khondji says. “No operator, no director of photography would pan inside a scene like that.”
Lighting nuances within the movie are also adversely affected in the panned and scanned version. An artistic technique known as “chiaroscuro,” a method of mixing light with shade to produce a dramatic effect, was used extensively in this film. If the light source was too far from the key actor, the light source is cropped out, thus destroying the artists’ desired effect.
“The light source, ” Parker explains, “is nearly always in the top right corner of the frame in widescreen and is usually the first thing that gets chopped. When they do that shot after shot, it ends up looking like different films spliced together. It destroys the film’s look.” Khondji agrees.
“Contrast in a film is like an actor,” Khondji explains. “It’s like another character of the movie. A movie with three main characters is really a movie with four main characters, with the contrast being the fourth character.”
Most of the examples in Parker’s book address the removal of this “fourth character,” distorting the balance of lightness and darkness and minimizing the dramatic power of the composition.
Scale and geometric composition are also often victims of a video technician’s cuts, as well as a few arms and bodies that happened to fall out of the squarish template.
Khondji is also grateful for Disney’s decision to allow viewers the choice to see the film in its original form, but as for the panned and scanned version, he is most upset not for what has happened to his cinematography, but for Parker who, he says, was always filling up the shot—the whole image—with detail and meaning.
“I can remember how much time, how much effort it took to put this together,” he says. “I can imagine how miserable Alan feels seeing it cropped like this."
The most dramatic loss of image is with anamorphic films, films such as Evita with aspect ratios of 2.35:1. Some filmmakers, such as Sydney Pollack (see our April-June 1997 issue), stopped shooting anamorphic because so much of the image was lost in panning and scanning. But Khondji predicts that a new production process, called Super 35 for 2.35, that reduces the normally expensive choice of shooting anamorphic films, may entice more filmmakers to give it a try. If he’s right, others will soon have to face the heartbreak of seeing their work cropped to fit television screens—unless laws and/or contracts change to protect a filmmaker’s rights to object to the process, or consumers start to demand the original version of a film.
It’s difficult to understand why films aren’t protected. Some artists don’t have to worry about seeing their work altered in a way they wouldn’t approve. Congress passed the Visual Rights Act in 1990 to prohibit the alteration of paintings, drawings, sculptures and some still photographs without the artist’s permission. But film was omitted from Congress’ definition of “visual art.” In fact, the law excluded all works “made for hire.”
Khondji objects to the omission. “Film,” he says, “is the most modern canvas to interpret what’s inside you.”
A canvas. In this case it will have two frames. Both Parker and Khondji hope that the release of both versions of the film will prove successful and that other studios will follow Disney’s lead in giving the public a choice.