The ongoing debate over the issue of "widescreen" airings of Justice League and Justice League Unlimited versus "pan and scan" airings has been a hotly contested one, with arguments ranging from original intent and artistic vision to image quality and image omission. It also has taken a new twist this past week with the announcement of the Season One DVD box set of Justice League, and the promise of a Season Two soon to follow after. However, before we go into detail over this, we must first understand the issue at hand and what is truly at stake.
During its initial season, Justice League was animated in the standard full screen format (it was made to fit a television screen rather than a motion picture screen; this is also known as the "standard" version), but then the video was "matted," meaning that black bars were added to simulate the widescreen format (imitating the aspect ratio that films aired in movie theaters have). This is an old animation trick used since the 1950s, particularly for theatrical releases—this was how Mask of the Phantasm was animated—and it allows a studio to create an animated picture that is able to be shown in theaters on a rectangular screen, but doesn't compromise the image when it is later released on video or DVD (or aired on television), as it would then be shown on a square television screen. In the case of Justice League, this tactic was used because it was the intent of the creative team to give their show a "motion picture" kind of feel, and Cartoon Network, to their credit, aired both the standard version and the widescreen versions on their network, the latter in special widescreen airings. For a size comparison, please click on the following images:
This artistic choice sparked a minor debate over which was the "true" version of the show. The show's creative team, along with a portion of the DCAU fan base, argued that this was the best version, as it was the original intent of the creators (creating the "epic movie" feel they desired), while others (like myself) found the widescreen versions to be distracting, as the black bars omitted almost a quarter of the screen...material that my mind knew was there in the standard edition (I know that the storyboard artists kept the top and bottom of each shot free of important information, but it still bugged me). Ultimately, however, it boiled down to a matter of personal preference, and there was enough airtime for both versions (though the debate was renewed when the series started appearing on DVD, where the standard versions were utilized).
However, this scenario was to change with the development of Season Two, as the creative team switched from matting a standard image to animating the show in true widescreen. Now the widescreen edition was the one with the most image and the "standard" edition was now a "pan-and-scan," meaning that the network cut off the left and right edges of the animation and zoomed in on the remaining material. For a size comparison, please click on the following images (taken from the episode "Starcrossed," the only Season Two episode to be released thus far):
As you can see, at its best, the "pan-and-scan" image creates a claustrophobic viewing experience, cutting off information much in the same way that the matted versions of Season One did but, at its worst, it reduces the spectacle of the action (this can be particularly seen in the third image). As of this writing, Cartoon Network appears to still be airing both versions of the show (although the two-week airing of Season Five was solely in widescreen, but those episodes only have had one airdate thus far), but a resistance to the widescreen editions is being displayed by the Warner Home Video division, who have only put out the "pan-and-scan" versions of Justice League Unlimited on DVD. The results maintain the claustrophobic feel, plus there are other difficulties as well, such as the omission of the Question's first appearance in the episode "Initiation":
Which brings us to the topic at hand: currently, the home video division of Warner Bros. is preparing a Season One DVD set for Justice League, which will hit stores on March 21, 2006. The plan calls for this box set to contain the standard, non-matted versions of the episodes, which—depending on your point-of-view—is either a blessing or a curse. That issue aside, the danger here is that the subsequent collections—seasons that, unlike Season One, have all been animated in widescreen format—may also follow this trend, cropping out animation that diminishes show's Unlimited scope and compromises the animation quality—the camera zooms in on the remaining portion, blowing up a small, detailed image into a larger, hazier one. Recently, Bruce Timm discussed this pressing issue on Toon Zone's DC Animation Forum (the thread can be accessed here):
Yes, please, by all means, send those cards and letters...and do it now.
We'll be starting special features stuff for Season Two in the next few weeks, which means a decision on full screen or widescreen will need to be made very soon. I've been doing my best to persuade the WHV [Warner Home Video] folks to release the Season Two set (and all subsequent JLU sets) in widescreen, but it's an uphill battle (full-frame format is the standard defualt mode for "family entertainment" DVDs). A deluge of polite, but emphatic letters expressing fan support for widescreen DVD sets just might tip the scales.
I debated pushing the issue while we were prepping the Season One set, but decided against it. I'd prefer to have Season One released in 1:85 [the aspect ratio for the show's widescreen], but since those shows were actually made in full-frame format, no visual information is actually being lost (and I argued with myself that the most "complete" version should be on DVD for posterity). From Season Two and onward it's a different story.
So please, please, PLEASE, if you want Season Two in 1:85, let WHV know.
So, what's at stake here? Following Season One, we may be subject to Justice League box sets of diminished quality, which will affect sales. I mean, c'mon, with a market price of $44.98 (plus tax), how many kids are going to shell out fifty bucks to get this set? Even if it's part of the "family entertainment" division of WHV, it's the older fans who will come out en masse to purchase these sets, and they won't be happy with pan-and-scan copies. Lower quality means that fewer fans will purchase these sets, causing Warner Bros. to lose money and rethink the marketability of future volumes or potential direct-to-video projects (there's still a slight possibility that the Justice League: World's Collide DTV could see the light of day...if the market is there for it). At the risk of being presumptuous, I'd hazard to say that anyone who frequents this website is more than a casual fan of Justice League, and want the integrity of the series to be preserved. Thus, to have our beloved show preserved in the DVD format in the best-possible edition, we must take our demands to Warner Bros. and politely, but firmly, inform them of their target audience's preference.
Does this tactic work? Surprisingly, yes, if enough people make their voices heard. To give an example, earlier this year fans of the Muppet franchise learned that Disney planned to re-release four of their recently-acquired Muppet films on DVD, but only in the pan-and-scan format. This news rallied the base, who wanted the original theatrical versions of the film released, and Disney heard their voices, adjusting their plans in a matter of days to include both versions on the disks (this may be too much to fit on Justice League disks, so let's stick to demands for widescreen). To reach these ends, we must begin a letter-writing campaign to let Warner Bros. know what we want. The address for Warner Home Video is as follows: Warner Home Video, 4000 Warner Blvd., Burbank, CA 91522. In addition, they can be reached by phone at (888) 954-6000 and by fax at (212) 954-7667. Again, remember to be polite, and don't bog down your letter with requests for tons of special features; one thing at a time, people. A template letter has been graciously supplied by Bird Boy of the World's Finest, which can be accessed by way of their own DVD petition page.
We can do this, people, but time is of the essence. Production on the Second Season DVD set is slated to begin in a few weeks, so we have to start now if we want our voices to be heard.
UPDATE: In a turnaround that literally took a matter of days, Warner Home Video has changed their plans in regards to the Justice League box sets. Season One will remain in its non-matted, "pan and scan" format, but Season Two and all of Unlimited will be released in widescreen, thereby preserving the original format (see here for a post from the website TV Shows on DVD). So congratulations go out to all who participated in the letter-writing campaign. You did good.
Images courtesy of Warner
and Toon Zone.
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