written by Mike Shea on 11 June 2000
If you have spent any time looking at the fine print of your latest copy of Fight Club or surf through the latest news over at The Digital Bits, you might have seen the term "Anamorphic" or "16x9 enhanced". This article will help you understand what 16x9 enhancement is and why it is so important.
16x9 enhancement is also known as Anamorphic. There are a lot of good articles that get into the details of 16x9 enhancement including this Digital Bits article on anamorphic DVDs and this Cybertheater Guide to 16x9 enhanced DVDs so I am not going to get too deep. I will give you the basics though. In short, a 16x9 enhanced DVD's horizontal resolution is almost 30% greater than a non-16x9 enhanced DVD. When a DVD is made, it can be made to fit natively on a regular 4x3 TV (the kind you are used to) or a 16x9 widescreen TV. The 4x3 mode (sometimes mistakenly called the letterbox mode) only has 640x480 pixels of resolution. The 16x9 enhanced DVD has a 720 x 480 resolution, with the extra pixels going to the total horizontal image resolution. When a DVD player plays a 16x9 DVD on a 4x3 set it goes through a conversion process that properly displays the right aspect ratio or your TV. Sometimes, on older players, this reduces the quality of the picture or creates artifacts (little jagged nasties on flat surfaces). But when this 16x9 enhanced DVD is played on a widescreen display, it is played out at full resolution. A 4x3 DVD has to be zoomed to properly display on a 16x9 display and this lowers the picture quality of the DVD since it isn't as high a resolution. So here is the problem.
DVDs should last as long as they can. The investment that we make in our DVD collection should outlast the era of NTSC 4x3 technology and scale well into the world of HDTV and widescreen digital displays. If a DVD comes out in 4x3 native (non-anamorphic) than that disc is not as future proof as one that is 16x9 enhanced. In order for us to have high resolution movies that will scale well with the future of displays - HDTV widescreen sets - we need to have 16x9 DVDs.
Early on, adoption for 16x9 enhancement was not very stable. Many companies like Fox, Disney and Paramount only put out their best titles (like Titanic and Top Gun) in non 16x9 enhanced versions. The most troublesome of these companies was Criterion, a company known to bring out the highest quality movies for the home. Luckily a few months ago, Criterion chose to support 16x9 DVDs and brought out some excellent movies such as Rushmore and Insomnia.
A far more disturbing reason some companies avoid 16x9 enhancement is the thought that they are scared to bring out high quality DVDs for fear that they won't be able to sell a better version later. This theory isn't really founded in fact, but based on the rumors coming from "industry insiders" it could be true.
While most everyone was against the horrors of DIVX, not too many are really picking up the torches and rushing to the gates of Paramount like they should be. The majority of viewers still watch movies on 4x3 TVs so they care little if DVDs are 16x9 enhanced or not. This is a short sighted view, considering that the big push in the TV industry is for 16x9 digital televisions. In the next few years, it will cost only a fraction more for a 16x9 TV than a 4x3 and they will begin to proliferate into the home of everyday people. If half of our DVDs are of a lower quality when this happens, it will hurt the original material we fight so hard to protect, the movie itself. Because of this it is important that we continue to fight this war until every DVD released is 16x9 enhanced.
The fact of the matter is that almost all of the major movie studios have begun support for 16x9 enhanced DVDs. The majority of high profile movies are all coming out in this format and for the most part, this war is won. Still there are some nasty surprises that pop up, so it is important that we make sure to let the studios know that 16x9 enhanced DVDs are important to us. We need to make sure that the investment we put into DVDs will last a long long time.
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