Tuesday, February 23, 2016

MaxIt Magazine Articles

It appears that the Musing Pictures articles that I wrote for MaxIt Magazine are no longer hosted on that website. If I get permission, I will re-post them here.

Musing Pictures: An American Tail (1986)

I recently re-watched one of my childhood favorites, Don Bluth's "An American Tail". The version that I saw, streamed through Amazon.com, was presented in a "widescreen" aspect ratio, pretty close to the 1.85:1 aspect ratio of the film's theatrical release.

It looked like this:

A screen-grab from a YouTube upload of "There are No Cats in America"

But something bothered me about the images. There were occasional moments when the shots were framed very awkwardly The above example looks fine in this aspect ratio, but consider shots like this:

Who would animate a character so close to the edge of the frame? It almost looks like part of the image is missing! Did Universal crop the image from a different aspect ratio?

Some context here:  There was a period of about fifty years when movies were made in wide aspect ratios, but televisions were square-ish (4:3, or 1.33:1). There were two ways to fit a widescreen film onto a square-ish screen. You could letterbox the image (present the entire breadth of the wide image, leaving black bars at the top and bottom of the screen), or you could "pan and scan" - only show the middle part of the frame, scanning left and right as needed to include bits of action. This second method would 'cut off' the sides of the frame. Unsophisticated movie viewers preferred pan-and-scan, as it filled their entire TV screen, whereas letterboxing left them feeling like something of the image was missing (even though, in fact, letterboxing presented the entire image!)

According to IMDb, "An American Tail" was released theatrically in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio, like the images above. But the "negative ratio" (the animation itself) was 1.37:1 - a square-ish shape called Academy Ratio, very similar to the ratio of old TVs!

A little investigation led to an older YouTube upload, likely copied off of a VHS tape, or maybe from a laserdisc. It presents the same scene, but in the aspect ratio of old TVs. Here's a side-by-side comparison of the "widescreen" and "academy ratio":

It turns out that yes! "An American Tail" was animated for Academy Ratio, not for 1.85:1! Although the film was released theatrically in a wide format, it looks like the best way to see it is if you can find a version that presents it in 1.37:1, the way the film was drawn. Although I don't own the DVD, Amazon.com lists it as presented in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The Blu-Ray is presented in the 1.85:1 that we got with the streaming version.

ADDENDUM 3/14/16: I recently spoke with someone who was intimately involved in the production of "An American Tail". His recollection was that the shots were designed for a 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratio. He suggested that there's a possibility that the digital transfer might have been done off a 1.33:1 master (which, itself, would have been cropped from a 1.85:1 source). If this is the case, it's pretty shameful (and shouldn't be promoted as the "original" theatrical version!) He's looking into it. I'll report back here when I know more.