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How to Get Rid of Black Bars on Movies (and why they are there to begin with)

Which way would you rather watch your movies? Do you prefer the image in the top illustration, or the bottom?

I can bet most of you picked the bottom image. That is, after all, how movies shot in the "Scope" (or 2.35:1 / 2.40:1) aspect ratio are meant to be viewed. Movies shot in this ultra-widescreen format are intended to be viewed larger than standard 16:9 content, not smaller. In almost all cases, that is the intent of the filmmaker. That's why they specifically chose the Scope aspect ratio when they shot their movie.

One of my favorite subjects is film history. When I'm not busy with The Screening Room, I often can be found giving lectures and presentations on film music, motion picture sound design, and the history of film aspect ratios.

That last - "the history of aspect ratios" - specifically goes into detail about the dreaded black bars seen in the top picture, and the story behind them. What I've found over the years is that many people have no idea why those black bars are actually there - and why their presence is actually a good thing, not a bad one.

That said, I can totally identify with those who complain that those black "letterbox" bars take up too much screen real estate, and end up diminishing the impact of such major films and film franchises as "Star Wars," "Harry Potter," "Lord of the Rings," "James Bond," "Star Trek," "Mission Impossible," "Wonder Woman," "Black Panther" and many many others. In fact, about 75% of major motion pictures are shot in what is known as Scope, or the 2.35:1 / 2.40:1 aspect ratio. And it's been that way since the mid-1950s. That means that most of the big blockbuster films you watch at home are being viewed smaller than intended by those who created them.

However, there is a way to recapture the original intent of the filmmaker. Not only is it possible to get rid of the dreaded black bars, but there is also way to gain an 80% larger image in the process. The secret is in building a home theater around a projection system instead of a flat panel. Many of today's home theater projectors are capable of delivering exactly the experience I describe, provided they are also paired with a projection screen in the same "Scope" aspect ratio discussed above.

Curious? Or possibly confused? If so, the below video should really help you put things into perspective - and get your films into the correct format. This is an interview I did with Scott Wilkinson of the Home Theater Geeks Webcast a few years back when I was working as a consultant to Panamorph, a manufacturer of anamorphic lenses for home theater projectors. In the interview we define - in simple terms, and with lots of illustrations - what exactly a film aspect ratio is, why the black bars exist, and ultimately how to get rid of them (and gain an 80% larger image in the process!). On the way, we touch on such fun subjects as 3D and Smell-o-vision - all gimmicks designed to lure people back into the theater instead of sit at home and watch TV. We hope you enjoy the interview, and find the brief history lesson fascinating. And, as always, feel free to reach out to us to discuss how to create a true widescreen cinema in your home!

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