While many hate pan and scan presentations of widescreen movies on DVD, I am convinced that the worst possible way of presenting a widescreen movie is in non-anamorphic letterboxed format. The best way — and the way the great majority of movies are presented — is in anamorphic widescreen. I shall not buy Titanic until an anamorphic version becomes available.
Consider the Region 4 PAL version of The Great Escape, one of the greatest movies of all time (according to IMDB.com, voted number 70). The version I obtained in late 1999 is presented in letterboxed (ie. non-anamorphic widescreen). The aspect ratio is nominally 2.35:1. Because it is non-anamorphic, the vertical resolution of this DVD is just 322 pixels (I measured this from a screen capture, the presented aspect ratio is actually 2.38:1). If the movie were in anamorphic widescreen instead of letterboxed, you would get 430 pixels of vertical resolution. So this disc delivers just 75% of the possible resolution. In order to overcome the resulting fuzziness, the picture at points has been over-sharpened to produce horribly distracting artifacts.
Now this disc was an MGM one, distrubuted in Australia under an arrangement MGM then had with Warner Home Video. Since then MGM has set up its own distribution arrangements for DVDs in Australia, under the name MGM Home Entertainment Pty Ltd. And has released The Great Escape at the budget price of $14.95 — or at least that’s how much I’ve just paid for it the local supermarket.
Now why would I buy a DVD that I already have? For better picture quality of course. I am all too aware how DVDs are sometimes mislabelled, particularly with regard to aspect ratio and running time. So I inspected this DVD’s cover very carefully indeed. As you can see, the information box for this DVD is more wrong than right. For example, the time of the movie is shown as 172 minutes, when it is actually 165 minutes (PAL movies run 4% faster than the original theatrical presentation). The aspect ratio is shown by the icon at bottom left and the text to its right as 1.85:1, when it is nominally 2.35:1. But I focused mostly on the next marking to the right: ’16:9′. This is shorthand for 16:9 enhanced (or anamorphic). Whereas 4:3 is used for non-enhanced. So I was very hopeful.
The fact that the same 24 minute documentary was on this version as my previous one made me worry a bit. But then my eye lit on the ‘Language’ box: ‘English 5.1’. The old version is definitely mono, presented in Dolby Digital 2.0. So, I thought, maybe they have remastered it after all! I plonked down my money.
But it turns out that both the ’16:9′ — it is a 4:3 transfer — and the ‘English 5.1’ are totally wrong. Let’s recap: the run time is wrong, the aspect ratio is wrong, the formatting (anamorphic or not) is wrong, and the audio standard is wrong. Not a bad effort, eh?
In fact, the DVD contained within the box is identical to the 1999 version in every way, other than the label. It is identical in organisation, amount of data (7,292,649,472 bytes) and logical disc label (56680D4).
I shall try to establish contact with MGM Home Entertainment Pty Ltd tomorrow and see what they’re going to do about it. Not just my copy, but all the DVDs they’ve distributed with misleading or false information on their covers.
I was also contemplating buying A Fish Called Wanda for the same reasons (the new version also says ’16:9′ on its cover), but now I’m glad I didn’t.
UPDATE (Monday, 16 February 2004, 9:22 am): Reader Tom writes:
The Great Escape (2002 release) is reviewed on Michaeldvd (and three other sites) as 16:9 enhanced & 5.1 encoded. A Fish called Wanda SE is definitely 16:9 enhanced, I just checked my disc. I would expect the single disc version to be the same.
One disc I know of where the 16:9 is definitely incorrect is The Abyss. The original 2 disc version says Widescreen Version 16:9 and is letterboxed, the single disc rerelease says only 16:9 and is, again, the same disc in letterbox. With this one I made the same mistake you did! Bummer.
Unlike Tom, I would expect the single disc version of A Fish Called Wanda to be like my old copy. The information on the back cover on The Great Escape was presumably messed up through confusion with the standards of the SE version. Chances are this was also done with Wanda.
Here are a few others from my collection with incorrect claims on the cover that they are anamorphic:
- The Abyss (Special Edition) (1989)
- Beneath Clouds (2002)
- A Fish Called Wanda (1988) – the original single disc version
- Goodfellas (1990)
- The Great Escape (1963) – Discussed above, the original single disc version clearly stated that it was a 4:3 transfer
- Scent of a Woman (1992)