Air Pan-and-Scanada

Sunday, 27 September 2009 — 7:03am | Film

I refuse to watch films on planes. It doesn’t matter if it’s a three-hour flight or a ten-hour flight—I will not watch films on planes. On principle I am willing to make an exception for films made before the early 1950s and television programmes, but the quality of the selection has never been great enough for the exception to arise.

Never mind the censorship and bowdlerization that goes on among distributors to make every film suitable for the consumption of the airborne public. (I remember how the airline edition of Almost Famous—one of the finest works of American cinema in the past decade, by the way—eliminated the entire airplane sequence that is the critical moment of the film.) My real objection is to the pervasive butchering of films to fit a 4:3 aspect ratio. If a film is made in widescreen, I see it in widescreen. The pan-and-scan cropping that eliminates up to 45% of every frame is both generally criminal and personally distracting.

People who don’t know or care about cinema will never complain, which is why airlines can foist these travesties on us unpunished. I am fully aware that I am in an extreme minority of filmgoers—the informed minority—that appreciates the composition of images as essential to the cinematic experience. I know it is as uncommon as listening to melody and harmony in music. I am also willing to concede that when it was standard for airplanes to have small 4:3 television screens to serve several rows of passengers at once, widescreen presentation would have rendered the images too small.

There is no longer any excuse.

For a number of years now, Air Canada has installed personal entertainment systems for every seat. The clunky white hourglass cursors on the touchscreen interface tell you they run Windows, which should by itself condemn their choice of software development contractors. But that is beside the point, which is that Air Canada’s personal entertainment systems have widescreen monitors. Yet they continue to order widescreen films in the full-frame format. They are far from the only airline overhauling its entertainment devices to adapt to a digital world, and I am certain they are far from the only airline committing this offense.

Is this a failure on the airlines’ side, or the distributors’ side? I am guessing it’s the latter—that distributors produce a uniform airline edition that carriers around the world can order. But why do they continue to insist on slicing their films to pieces?

Is ordering films in the original aspect ratio more costly? No. But there is a substantial overhead cost to the production and distribution of these abominations in the first place. With the advent of digital formats that support anamorphic widescreen (i.e. the “black bars” adjust depending on your screen, and are not part of the image data as they are in letterboxing), the increasing awareness of original aspect ratios, and the widespread adoption of high-definition TVs, and there is no longer any reason for pan-and-scan to exist. The damage it has done to the public awareness of cinematic arts is considerable as it is, and digital formats ought to have redressed most of its harms. The DVD format went a long way toward doing this before ignorant customers pushed rental chains like Blockbuster to demand the production of pan-and-scan DVDs.

As an airline passenger, I am content to use my entertainment device for the only thing it does well—flight information and maps—but that doesn’t mean we should not push for change.

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2 rejoinders to “Air Pan-and-Scanada”

  1. I remember how, in a film class in the 1980s, I saw Dirty Harry in anamorphic form, and went to my optometrist the next day to see if I needed new glasses! Nobody else, including the instructor, seemed the list bit perturbed by it, so I wondered.

    Sunday, 27 September 2009 at 7:36am

  2. Jones

    Actually, I’m pretty sure they run Linux.

    Sunday, 27 September 2009 at 8:36am

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