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By Joshua Zyber
As most of our regular readers know by now, I'm an advocate of 2.35:1 Constant Image Height Projection. A 2.35:1 projection screen eliminates (or nearly eliminates) the need for letterbox bars during movie playback, and restores the original intended theatrical experience in which "scope" movies are displayed larger and wider than movies of narrower aspect ratios. I use a CIH screen in my own home theater and will never go back. There's something really thrilling about watching a 2.35:1 movie on a 2.35:1 screen in the home that just can't be beat. See my earlier tutorial on this subject for more details.
In practical terms, Constant Image Height projection poses its share of challenges and logistical inconveniences. I can't pretend that it's appropriate for every home theater. CIH users are, admittedly, a niche within the home theater hobby. Not that there should be anything wrong with that. Everyone I know who's made the commitment to Constant Image Height viewing has found that the advantages far outweigh the hassles of getting there.
Unfortunately, since we are such a niche, the home video studios releasing their movies on Blu-ray rarely give any thought to the needs of CIH viewers. At times, this leads to immense frustration. One of the biggest obstacles in this regard involves the placement of subtitles on movies with foreign-language dialogue.
When you go to a movie theater to see a foreign-language film, the subtitles are of course always projected right there on screen as part of the movie. That only makes logical sense. And yet, when it comes time to bring the same movie to home video, some studios choose to move those subtitles down into the letterbox bar on 2.35:1 pictures.
While that's not a big deal when watching on a typical 16:9 HDTV screen, this poses a huge problem for CIH viewers who zoom the movie to fill a 2.35:1 screen, thus cutting off the letterbox bars.
Now at least half (and sometimes all) of the subtitles are missing, which makes that movie unwatchable on the screen.
Some studios – such as Universal, Paramount, Disney, and Criterion – are usually good enough to author their discs with all subtitles inside the movie image, so that they can be read on any home theater screen.
Sadly, other studios routinely place subtitles in the letterbox bars. The biggest offenders in this regard have been Sony and Warner Bros., while 20th Century Fox is inconsistent. (Some Fox discs are CIH safe while others are not, with little rhyme or reason.)
Just over a year ago, a representative for Sony Pictures agreed to take the issue under consideration. He hosted a poll on the subject which asked respondents to vote whether subtitle position should remain in the letterbox bar or be moved up into the active movie image. CIH viewers were very pleased and relieved when the results of that poll showed an overwhelming preference to have subtitles moved up into the movie image. The Sony representative assured us that this information would be passed up the chain, and that action would be taken.
And then nothing happened.
The Sony representative claimed that discs already in the production pipeline prior to the poll couldn't be altered, but that a rolling production change would correct the issue on subsequent titles in the near future. That certainly sounded plausible and reasonable enough.
And still nothing happened.
Keep in mind that this change we requested would cost the studio absolutely nothing to implement, and is literally as simple as pressing a few buttons on the console during disc authoring. Nonetheless, Sony continued to issue Blu-ray discs with subtitles in the letterbox bar all along – even for movies that hadn't even been released to theaters at the time of the poll (and thus couldn't have been in the production pipeline). Eventually, I gave up hope that anything meaningful would result from this poll, and resigned myself that the bureaucracy of major corporations suffered from too much inertia and too much resistance to change.
But then, I made a very surprising discovery when reviewing the Sony Pictures title 'A Single Man' recently. This is a movie with a 2.35:1 aspect ratio, and has one scene with Spanish dialogue that automatically triggers English subtitles.
And those subtitles are inside the movie picture!
One solid year later, the studio has finally taken the action it promised. At least, that's the case for this disc. I can only hope that this signals a true policy change for the studio and will affect all new titles going forward.
Is 'A Single Man' truly the first Sony Blu-ray to make this change? I'm not certain. Perhaps there were earlier discs, but this is the first that I've personally come across.
In any event, I say this not to chastise the studio for taking so long. (Although, I'll be honest, I've been pretty annoyed with the delays.) Instead, I'm posting this article to say a hearty THANK YOU, SONY PICTURES HOME ENTERTAINMENT! Thank you for listening to the needs of your consumer base, no matter how small a niche. And thank you for finally taking action. This may seem like a trivial matter to some, but this problem has been a huge burden for many home theater viewers. Please continue to author your subsequent Blu-ray discs in this fashion. Your attention to this matter is greatly appreciated.
Now, who can tell me how to get the attention of someone at Warner Bros.? That studio needs a good talking to.
The HD Advisor may not be answering any questions this week, but our readers still need help. If you can help to answer the following question, please post your response in our forum thread linked at the end of this article. Your advice and opinions matter too!
Inexpensive Audio Solutions
Q: So I just splurged and bought myself a PS3. The Blu-ray looks gorgeous but I have a less than ideal audio setup. Namely, I have it hooked up to stereo computer speakers. I am certainly aware of what a receiver does, but I'm not a rich person and I've already spent too much money. So I'm wondering if there is a more inexpensive solution to good quality audio than a full blown receiver? My ideal device would be something as simple as an HDMI switcher but that also has a 5.1 output that I could get a cheap home-theater-in-a-box to go along with. Does any such device exist or do any other inexpensive solutions?
JZ: My inclination here is to suggest that you should probably go with a soundbar. Most of these are relatively simple all-in-one devices. You'll plug in an audio cable from the Blu-ray player, and it will do all decoding and amplification without a separate A/V receiver. You probably won't be able to attach surround speakers. However, many soundbars offer simulated surround modes, where they throw the audio in such a way that it sounds like it's coming from the back of the room. I have not used one myself, though. So I can't make any specific recommendations. I'll leave it to our readers to discuss that, or to offer alternate suggestions.
Check back soon for another round of answers. Keep those questions coming.
Joshua Zyber's opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of this site, its owners or employees.