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Letterbox is the practice of copying widescreen film to video in the original aspect ratio. Often the letterbox video does not reproduce the compositions of the original film, but the technique offers an alternative to the older pan and scan method of copying that cropped the image to suit the 4:3 ratio of the television screen.

Pan-and-scan results in the loss of about 25-40% of the image, depending on the original aspect ratio. With letterboxing the original aspect ratio is retained, and black bars are left at the bottom and top of the image.

Some filmmakers state a preference for letterboxed videos of their work. Woody Allen's insistence on a letterboxed release of Manhattan probably inspired this treatment of other films. One exception to the preference is Milos Forman, who finds the bands distracting. However, most video releases are made without consultation with either the director or director of cinematography of the film. The letterboxing is often careless, and the common 16:9 ratio does not precisely correspond to aspect ratios of the commonest widescreen systems.

HDTV, a newer digital video system with its TVs in widescreen format, is becoming the broadcast standard in the US. The wider screen will make it easier to make an accurate letterbox transfer. Some contemporary television programming is being produced in letterbox format. This is done both to give a "classier" look to the image (particularly in the case of advertising), and to facilitate the production of widescreen programming for later syndication in HDTV.

16:9 widescreen television is also becoming common on European digital television systems. Although this is not true HDTV it uses the same aspect ratio, and the majority of programming in countries like Britain and France is now made in letterbox format. Of course, on a true widescreen television set the "letterboxed" picture is no longer letterboxed since it fills the entire screen.

See also motion picture terminology, widescreen, pan and scan

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