While I was watching Oklahoma on TV this past weekend (and yes, I really did watch it and not for the first time either), I was surprised by how much of the story was lost because of the way the movie was framed on the TV. Loosing part of a shot isn’t something new, when movies are re-formatted for television, this often happens. However, with Oklahoma, so much of the story is told through the wide, sweeping shots of the sets.
After watching the movie, I did a little digging. This technique, “one of the most notorious technologies ever developed in cinema history,” according to Wheeler Winston Dixon, a Film Studies professor at University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is call pan and scan. Here’s a brief video that explains the different general-aspect ratios of film:
While this may not be such an issue with newer movies, thanks to the ever-growing dimensions of the television screens, for older movies, such as Oklahoma, it’s a problem. Here’s a still from the movie in a widescreen format:
This scene was cropped in the version I saw; the camera was closer in on Curly (Gordon MacRae) and Laurey (Shirley Jones), completely obscuring the details in the background, like the horse and the edge of the cornfield. For this scene, the extra cropping wasn’t really a problem, but for other scenes, like the dance sequence where Will Parker (Gene Nelson) teaches the other cowboys some new dances at the train station and square dance, the scenes are mediocre representations of the large-scale shots.
In chapter four of Errol Morris’s Believing is Seeing: Observations on the Mysteries of Photography, Morris discusses Walker Evans’s photograph of Mrs. Frank Tengle, both torn and cropped, with William Scott, author of Documentary Expression and Thirties America. This is the picture:
The photo is closely cropped to Mrs. Tengle’ body, eliminating the children standing behind her. While the children could be considered “noise” that would draw the eye away from Mrs. Tengle, but they are also a huge part of her reality and her life. As the photograph is now, I think having bit and pieces of body parts in the background is more distracting than leaving the children in the photograph.
By cropping the children, Evans removed part of Mrs. Tengle’s story, just as the reformatting of Oklahoma changes parts of Curly and Laurey’s story as well. Now that I’m aware of how much of a movie I lose by watching the full-screen version, I’ll be sure to choose widescreen and put up with the black bars at the top and bottom of the screen. Hopefully TCM and TBS will make that decision in the future as well.