Relaxing at home with a movie should be easier than ever given the sheer amount of technological advances of today. We have bigger and better TV sets, along with Internet connectivity, 3D and streaming ability. But still those black bars persist. In some cases black bars frame the top and bottom edges of movies, in others there are side black bars. You may or may not understand that those black bars are the result of a process that compresses movies that were shot for wider screens so they can be viewed on smaller screens without chopping off part of the image. They are like mattes that fill the empty space in a picture frame – and that’s what they are called. Back in time, movies were designed to be slightly wider than their height. This refers to the concept of “aspect ratio,” which is a term that describes a shape in terms of the ratio of its longer length to its shorter length.
The passage of time brought us increasingly wider screens which meant larger aspect ratios. And these were fine until we started watching movies on TV screens. A process known as “letterboxing” reduces widescreen movies into smaller screen formats but it leaves us with those black bars on the top and bottom. Another process called “pillarbox” leaves us with black bars on the sides of an image that was not originally shot in widescreen but is being shown on a widescreen TV. Viewers who are annoyed by the black bars would like to see some sort of standardization that would make the bars disappear. But others believe that standardization would be like asking artists to use only one size of canvas. Movie directors decide to shoot in different aspect ratios for the sake of the art. Close up to increase the drama or far away to give a more dramatic sense of say, an unforgiving landscape. Meanwhile, when picking up a movie, you might consider checking the listed aspect ratio. An aspect ratio of 1.78:1 will not have the bars while one at 1:85 or 2:35 will. The side black bars will be on Blu-ray and DVDs of older movies with an aspect ratio of 1:33. Or you could just go out to the movies.