"FULLSCREEN" DVDs and Original Aspect Ratio

Have you ever wondered why a film like Atlantis: The Lost Empire needs to be in widescreen on DVD, whereas a "Fullscreen" DVD for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is acceptable? Well, a film's ratio on DVD is supposed to preserve the ratio of the film's original theatrical release.

When Snow White was released in theaters in 1937, all films were created in the 1.37:1 Academy Ratio (meaning that the film is 1.37 times as wide as it is tall). The Academy Ratio was nearly always used for films through the mid-1950s. Live-action films made in this period, like The Wizard of Oz, Citizen Kane, and On The Waterfront were all filmed and exhibited in the 1.37:1 ratio. The dimensions of a standard television set happen to be 4 x 3, or 1.33:1. These are essentially the same dimensions of Academy Ratio films, which is why these older films appear in a "Fullscreen" viewing format on DVD. The first 14 animated features from Walt Disney (from Snow White through 1953's Peter Pan) all were created in this ratio and thus appear on DVD in "Fullscreen."

Now the "Fullscreen" term itself has become a misnomer, since watching 1.33:1 ratio DVDs will only fill a 4 x 3 'standard' television set. While most television sets in the United States are in this dimension, a growing number of newer televisions are 'widescreen' sets, with dimensions in the ratio of 16 x 9. The Pinocchio DVD, for example, will not fill the screen of a Widescreen television set. (While it is acceptable for films created in the Academy Ratio to not fill a widescreen TV, think of how ridiculous it is for Disney to release Pan & Scan DVDs of widescreen films, which are labeled as "Fullscreen." Not only will they NOT fill the screens of a widescreen TV, but had the widescreen film been presented in its original ratio, it likely WOULD, and you'd be seeing the whole film as it was created and meant to be seen.)

Now in the mid-1950s, a significant change in cinema took place. Filmmakers began to create their films in widescreen aspect ratios, ranging from 1.75:1 to the extremely wide 2.75:1. Disney's 15th and 16th animated classics Lady and the Tramp (1955) and Sleeping Beauty (1959) were created in widescreen ratios of 2.55:1 and 2.35:1, respectively. The Sleeping Beauty Special Edition DVD released in September of 2003 displayed the film in a widescreen ratio, with black bars on top and bottom of the film making up for the difference in ratio between the film and a 4 x 3 television set.

After Sleeping Beauty though, things get somewhat tricky. By 1961 when 101 Dalmatians was released to theaters, widescreen had already become the norm for films. Why then are the DVDs for 101 Dalmatians (1961), The Sword in the Stone (1963), The Jungle Book (1967), The Aristocats (1970), Robin Hood (1973), The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977), and The Fox and the Hound (1981) all "Fullscreen" 1.33:1 DVDs?! Some of these DVDs even contain the "This film has been modified from its original version" warning that informs the viewer when there is Pan & Scan video version of a widescreen film.

So are these seven films compromised on DVD? Are these DVDs the much-loathed Pan & Scan? Well, the answer seems to be no. Through the late 1970s, Disney Feature Animation was creating their animated films in the familiar 1.37:1 Academy ratio. By the 1960s, many theaters apparently did not have the capabilities to exhibit 1.37:1 films in their proper ratio, so these were likely matted down normally to a 1.75:1 ratio. Essentially, the animation frames were cropped on top and bottom for widescreen viewing. Now the animators who were creating these films in the Academy Ratio must have known this and safe-guarded the frame so that it would be suitable to view with a small portion on the top and bottom of the frame hidden, for theatrical display. The video releases for these films all displayed the full frame of animation, as created by the Animation Department. The DVD releases do the same, and since the DVDs provide the films in their original aspect ratio they were animated for, there is nothing to complain about. These titles have been called into questions by several DVD and animation enthusiasts, without much in the way of a definitive answer. Sources for information on the ratios of these films are hard to come by, and those that exist rely upon what is submitted by any individual, whether they know or are guessing. It is my belief that these fullscreen DVD releases are likely acceptable, from what I have read, what I have seen, and Disney's method of releasing animated films on DVD.

It comes down to this: every single animated classic Disney has released on DVD has been in its original aspect ratio, whether that is 2.55:1 widescreen, 1.33:1 "Fullscreen" (basically, Academy Ratio), or something in between. It just doesn't make a whole lot of sense for Disney to randomly select the films from the 1960s through the 1970s and release them in compromised ratios. Clearly, since the DVDs are in the ratio that they were animated in, Disney feels that this is the Original Aspect Ratio for the titles in question.

12/7/02 Update: The Region 2 European DVD release of The Rescuers (1977) is in the widescreen format, and readers' comparisons have noted that the DVD actually presents more of the animated frame on the sides, indicating that the Fullscreen VHS release was actually Pan & Scan for The Rescuers. The Rescuers has yet to be released on DVD in Region 1, but this information would suggest that it SHOULD be released in widescreen. The only DVD releases that seems to be affected, though, is The Fox and the Hound. It's been confirmed from actual cels that Robin Hood (1973) was animated in the 1.37:1 Academy Ratio, and thus the fullscreen DVD presentation is correct. Likewise, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977) was edited together from a series of shorts animated in the 1960s, when Disney was believed to still be working in Academy Ratio. So, if The Rescuers marks the first Disney animated feature to be created in widescreen (not counting the two Cinemascope features of the 1950s), then logic would have it that all animated features since 1977 should be in widescreen on DVD. And all of the animated features post-1977 ARE in widescreen on DVD...except for The Fox and the Hound (1981). This leads me to withdraw the claim that Fox and the Hound was animated for 1.37:1 and matted for widescreen theatrical presentation. Oddly enough, it seems that The Fox and the Hound is the ONLY animated feature that Disney has released to DVD in a compromised Fullscreen ratio, i.e. Pan and Scan. It certainly seems odd for just one film out of the whole batch to be released in the wrong ratio, but this is my new conclusion. With accurate information on the aspect ratio of these films so hard to come by, it's difficult to draw conclusions...but from the best information I've gotten, The Fox and The Hound is the only Disney animated classic to not be in the aspect ratio it was animated or exhibited in.

A similar issue is raised regarding Disney's recent animated features, which on DVD are presented in the 1.66:1 widescreen ratio. Disney's current system for animation (the CAPS program) animates these features in the 1.66:1 ratio (a compromise between the 1.85:1 theatrical ratio and the 1.33:1 ratio used for home video, so that framing will still work for both of these modified ratios). Many of these films were frequently exhibited theatrically in the more common widescreen ratio of 1.85:1. But the fact remains that they were animated for 1.66:1, so even the theatrical release compromises the animation's dimensions. In the case of these 1.66:1 films like The Emperor's New Groove, Tarzan, and Hercules, the DVD's presentation is favorable to the 1.33:1 cropped video release and the 1.85:1 matted theatrical release. In fact, the DVD is the only proper exhibition of the Original Aspect Ratio and the only way to see the entire animated frame.

Some have expressed concern at the "Family Friendly Widescreen" phrase that Disney used on the packaging for Return to Never Land, assuming that the film is presented in a ratio other than the ratio in which it was created. This is not the case, though, as the Return to Never Land DVD presents the film in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio.

October 2002 Update: I felt the need to add a note about Beauty and the Beast, which was released to DVD this week. The DVD presents the film in a 1.85:1 widescreen ratio, which preserves the theatrical display ratio of the movie. However, like the other 1990s animated features, Beauty and the Beast was animated in the 1.66:1 widescreen ratio. The DVD presentation essentially mattes the top and bottom of the animated frame, so that we are not seeing 10% of the frame. This results in some odd framing at the top and bottom of the image, but perhaps the theatrical ratio is the one preferred by producer Don Hahn and Directors Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale. Wise and Trousdale's The Hunchback of Notre Dame also appears in the 1.85:1 widescreen ratio; as does Mulan (in its Limited Issue DVD, later revisited). The result is that the top and bottom of the animated frame are not seen; take that whatever way you will. It's certainly preferable to the 20% loss of picture that a 1.33:1 Pan & Scan transfer of a 1.66:1 would entail. Although I'm in the camp that would like to see the film in 1.66:1 if that's what it was intended to be seen in, it's a judgment call that the filmmakers decide upon.

To read more on aspect ratios and see examples, check out Widescreen.org.
To read more on Disney's recent practice of releasing films exclusively in Pan & Scan on DVD, click here.

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This page was created on September 5, 2002.
Last updated February 28, 2006.