Secret Uses for 16:9 Cinema - Wide TV Receiver/Monitors
Feature Article - December, 1996

By Scott Marshall, Publisher - Wide Gauge Film and Video Monthly


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Cinema Wide Screen Video Receiver/Monitors are marketed by RCA, ProScan, Proton, Panasonic, Pioneer, and Toshiba.


When one first sees a cinema-wide video receiver/monitor in an electronics show room, one typically experiences an immediate feeling of amazement (Why is this television shaped like a movie screen?), then perhaps confusion (What's it for?), and then sometimes outright dismissal (Who would want that?). Even sales staffs are frequently confused about what, exactly, they're good for.

These sets are, in fact, much more useful than most of us imagine. It is the purpose of this article to reveal the many secret ways to use today's cinema-screen TVs.

Our Example, the ProScan Model PS34190:

This set will be used as our example in the article, since we have reviewed it (Wide Gauge Film and Video Volume 1, Number 1). A nearly-identical set is available under the RCA trade name, and the other cinema screen sets have similar modes and features.

About Cinema Wide Receiver/Monitors:

These are, in many ways, normal sets. The difference is the extra-wide picture tube. The aspect ratio (the screen's width divided by its height) of normal televisions is 4:3, or four units of width for every 3 units of height (this ratio normalizes to about 1.33:1). A standard for High Definition Television (HDTV) has been proposed that includes widening this proportion to 16:9 (normalizing to about 1.78:1). In anticipation of the acceptance of this standard, direct view, front and rear projection video units are now marketed that are capable of displaying the anticipated HDTV programming. The current sets have been designed with features that make their wide screens useful today. (Although they have 16:9 shaped screens, they are NTSC rather than the higher scan rate HTDV.)

Cinema Modes:

When the ProScan is turned on, it is in the normal display mode showing 4:3 broadcasts displayed in a 4:3 window which fills the screen vertically, but leaves empty space, or black bars, on both sides of the picture. The cinema modes make this set really interesting.

Fill Mode:
This mode is useful only for programs specifically designed for it. It is an anamorphic mode, similar to film formats like CinemaScope and Panavision. Anamorphosis refers to the practice of using different magnifications in different dimensions. The picture is simply stretched across the screen's full width while keeping its normal height. A few laserdiscs and satellite broadcasts have been designed for this mode, the picture looking squeezed in normal mode, but in Fill mode, is stretched to fill the cinema screen. Normal programs look distorted in Fill mode.

Mode A:
This is the most useful of the cinema modes. It is designed to magnify the picture horizontally and vertically the same amount. The result is a picture that just fits the width of the screen, but some picture is cropped off from the top and bottom. The most obvious use for this mode is to blow up wide screen letterbox programs to their maximum size. Letterboxed Flat movies, made for an aspect ratio of 1.85:1, fit the 16:9 cinema screen almost perfectly, with just a small amount of black bar still remaining above and below the picture (depending on the set's overscan, there may be no black bars at all). Scope movies (made in the process formerly known as CinemaScope) can have aspect ratios from 2.35:1 to 2.55:1. Letterbox versions of these films look good in Mode A, but there are many other, little known but surprisingly appropriate ways to use this mode. They are complex to explain, so they are covered later in this article after some more background.

Mode B:
This mode enlarges the picture a bit more than Mode A. More is cropped from the top and bottom, plus some from the left and right. This completely eliminates black bars from letterbox programs of flat films, and nearly eliminates the black bars from scope films.

Mode C:
This mode enlarges the picture to the maximum amount. Scope films will now fill the height of the screen, and a considerable amount is cropped from the sides.

Drawbacks of the Cinema Modes:

The Fill mode has too few programs prepared for it, even though it offers the highest potential picture quality. Using Mode A for programs that are not letterboxed may crop away some picture area that may need to be seen. The high magnifications of modes B and C can make the picture look unsharp or snowy.

Secret Uses for the Cinema Modes:

Modes A and B have valuable uses that are unadvertised and not widely known. Manufacturers are either unaware of them, or feel the public would find them too confusing to explain. They are being revealed here because readers of Secrets of Home Theater and High Fidelity and Wide Gauge Film and Video will have a definite interest.

Secret Use for Mode B:
One might ask why a film or video purist would want to enlarge a scope film to crop away the sides. Many scope films were, in fact, soft matted to aspect ratios close to 16:9. Sometimes an effort was made to assure that no important action occurs at the extreme sides of the frame. This is done partly in recognition of the fact that many neighborhood theaters crop scope films to screens not wide enough to show the whole picture. The other reason is to make pan-and-scan conversion (cropping to ordinary TV screens) easier and less harmful. Therefore, many scope films will play just fine if blown up to fill the height of a 16:9 video screen. Mode B is watchably sharp with high resolution laserdiscs, but sometimes not for VHS cassettes or typical telecasts.

Secret Uses for Mode A:
There are many unadvertised uses for Mode A. Most flat films, and the frequently-used Super 35 film format, are perfect for it.

Flat Motion Pictures:

The original meaning of the term flat, as a motion picture format, was not 3-D! Until the 3-D and wide screen revolutions of the fifties occurred, virtually all movies were made in the 4:3 aspect ratio Academy frame. The wide screen processes that came later, such as Cinerama and CinemaScope, were originally ballyhooed as "3-D you can see without glasses." Once 3-D and other wide screen process fell out of favor, films generally fitted into two categories: flat (sometimes called "spherical" for the normal spherical shape of the photographic lenses) and scope (the lenses in this case were not spherical, but, rather, originally they were cylindrical). Theatrical movie projectors have a lever on them with two positions to select the choice. In 1953, Hollywood concluded that the 4:3 aspect ratio should be phased out. New markings were added to camera viewfinders to show the 1.85:1 cropping for the theater, even though cameras typically continued to photograph the whole 4:3 academy image (outside the U.S., 1.66:1 may be used). During filming, both frames are watched by the filmmakers to assure that the 1.85:1 theatrical cropping contains all the action to be seen at the theater, but the full 4:3 frame would contain extra image suitable for uncropped viewing on TV. This is sometimes called soft matte, because the 1.85 cropping of the picture on the film is postponed until projection. Some films are made hard matte either with 1.85:1 camera apertures which block the top and bottom of the image from getting onto the film, or soft matte and converted to hard matte for theatrical projection prints (called the release print).

When soft matte flat films are viewed on a normal 4:3 television set, one sees more of the filmed image than was seen at the theater. It is possible to see some additional action, like an actor's body language, that might enhance the film, but it is generally best to see the original (usually optimal) theatrical composition. Sometimes during filming, there is not enough care taken to assure that the full 4:3 frame is clear of extraneous detail. An example from The Bad News Bears in this article's accompanying illustrations shows the invasion of a mic (microphone) boom into the top of the frame, invisible at the theater, but intrusive on TV.

Soft matte flat films are excellent for cinema screen receiver/monitors in Mode A. The 1.78:1 aspect ratio is only slightly less than theatrical 1.85:1. These films come across beautifully on these sets.

The Super 35 Format:

This is a very popular wide screen format today. Its origins date back to the 1950s. Originally known as Superscope 235, it is now, usually, the Super Panavision 35 format. During filming, the camera exposes the entire silent film frame area (movie sound is always recorded with separate, syncronized audio recorders). The camera viewfinder is typically marked with a rectangle of scope dimensions (the full width of the frame and about 56% of its height). For the preparation of a theatrical projection print, the scope area is optically reduced horizontally to make room for the sound track, and stretched vertically to make a print for projection in the usual scope format (a 1.85:1 cropping option is also available for Super Panavision 35, but is seldom used).

The camera viewfinder is also marked to television proportions, using less of the frame width but more of its height than in the area for theatrical presentation. During filming, it is typical to compose for the theater, and "protect" for television.This means that everything important is in the area that overlaps the two cropping areas, and nothing inappropriate will be in either area designated for one or the other croppings. The amount of picture seen at the theater ends up to be about the same as on television, but we see more width at the cinema, and more height in the home.

The area where these two regions overlap contains only what is essential to see. It is almost exactly the aspect ratio of the cinema screen receiver/monitors.

Super Panavision 35 normally comes in two formats, symmetrical (the area of interest is in the center of the film, with the top and bottom cropped equally), and common headroom (the area of interest is at the top and center, with the bottom cropped), although many filmmakers have their own custom viewfinder markings and cropping preferences. The ProScan's cinema modes default to symmetrical cropping. That is, the image is centered, cropping equally above and below the screen. The common headroom format is popular with filmmakers because it eliminates the need to watch for extraneous items above the action like lights, the tops of sets, and microphones. To effectively display common headroom programs on the ProScan, one would select Mode A, then select the pan function, and pan upwards to view the very top of the picture, cropping only from the bottom.

Clues To A Film's Format and Best Cinema Mode:

If cinema screen sets become popular enough, film distributers might begin to print recommended settings on video packaging (ie: "For 16:9 cinema screen viewing, set to Mode A, center pan"). If manufacturers could agree on a coding system, the tape could potentially contain a hidden signal that receiver/monitors could detect and set themselves automatically to the appropriate cinema mode. For now, we have to select it ourselves. Below are some tips to determine a good setting for cinema screens.

The Tops of Actor's Heads:
It is normally good composition to frame actors' heads so they just about touch the top of the screen. If there's always a space (about 15% of the screen's height) between the tops of their heads and the top of the picture, it's likely that it is a flat or symmetrical Super 35 production. Mode A should give good results.

If the tops of actors' heads are right up against the top of the screen, then it may have been filmed Super 35 common headroom. To determine this, examine the bottom 30% of the frame. If there is seldom anything there worth looking at, then it may either be a Super 35 common headroom film or it may simply reflect the fact that the 4:3 frame is often difficult to fill, and the bottom portion of the screen will get the lowest proirity in assigning action. In either case, one can just try Mode A panned up to the top. Sometimes, titles are specially prepared for video versions that may be cropped off of the bottom or appear lower than the center of the screen even though the rest of the film is best viewed with the bottom cropped away. If it is clear that important action (disregarding text) is cropped from the bottom, then one can go back to normal viewing.

Scott Marshall
Wide Gauge Film and Video Monthly

Copyright 1995, 1996, 1997 Secrets of Home Theater & High Fidelity
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