LOOKING BEYOND THE EDGE
In this article we take a closer look at the problem of overscan on consumer TVs and monitors.
We discuss its impact on the DVD-viewing experience and present a possible remedy
to the problem, demonstrating some of its benefits through the use of graphic examples
taken from Contempt (Criterion), La Notte (Fox Lorber), and The Mystery of Picasso (Image
Entertainment). This article is © Nostalghia.com – it may not be reproduced without the
express permission of Trond T and Jan B. It may be freely linked to, and it may be quoted in part
provided proper credit is given.
Ever since home video and television revenues became vital to the commercial
success of theatrical films, cinematographers began to strive for compositions that would keep all vital
information within the so-called "TV safe area" of their viewfinder. Jaws (1975) appears to be
one of the last major Hollywood productions that did not take television screen dimensions into
consideration — there was not yet an established home video market at the time.
Motion pictures are today almost consistently confined to the "safe
area" of the frame. This effect is of course permanently burned onto the film by
the cameraman, and cannot be cured. "TV overscan," on the other hand, can be rectified
— which is the topic of this article.
Typical televisions and many monitors lose nearly 20% of the picture by "cropping" the image.
It is this lost portion that is commonly referred to as overscan.
The information is not actually "lost," but it has been banished
to an existence off-screen, in the twilight-zone found just beyond the borders of the
visible area of your TV screen.
Overscan is done intentionally, often to
conceal a deficient TV/monitor power supply and/or video processing circuitry. It is intended to ensure,
among other things, that screen real-estate remains filled and geometrically accurate at all times
despite power fluctuations and dynamic swings in picture brightness.
(Overscan must not be confused with actual "hard" cropping applied during the
telecine process. This cropping cannot be undone after the fact. It is therefore
of vital importance to make an informed choice on what version/region/release
of a particular DVD title to acquire. The by far best resource in this regard is
So, then, how may one reverse the effect of overscan?
It is very simple:
using a DVD player with a quality incremental zoom (such as the Malata PDVD-N996)
allows one to actually "zoom out" (i.e., underscan) the overscanned image in order to restore the entire original film frame
as encoded on the DVD.
No digital artifacts are introduced by such zooming — the effect is
exactly as if the cameraman had touched the zoom lever on the camera lens.
It truly is amazing what can be thusly revealed.
(Note: the sample images on this page were not in any way
resized on our computers to prove the point, what you see here is the actual incremental zoom in action.)
Clouzot's The Mystery of Picasso (Image Entertainment DVD)
This gem of a film suffers immense damage from
edge cropping by most home TV sets.
The Picasso commentary refers to "heads
not being entirely visible in the picture area" and
that fact being "inherent in the film process."
This might indeed be true in some cases but in the cases
shown here the heads are in fact visible — but you
have to zoom out the picture first. Several example screenshots
Standard TV image
The full frame — underscanned with the Malata
Standard TV — the author of the commentary says
the heads on top are cropped by the "film process"
Underscanned — the heads are back with a vengeance
Godard's Contempt (Criterion DVD)
The Criterion DVD is beautiful, but here is an amusing
thing: the author of the commentary mentions
Godard's habit of adding little unexplained elements,
like the lamp at Prokosch's villa
turning itself off and on. Except that in this case
there is no mystery at all: when viewing the entire
film frame... voila! There is Brigitte Bardot standing
right next to the left edge playing with the light
Normally she is almost completely lost to the overscan.
Needless to say, no self-respecting DP in Hollywood
these days would ever compose a frame this way. This is
truly a debilitating loss to film art.
Incidentally, this seems to imply Criterion do not
provide professional video viewing facilities to the
authors of their commentaries. Apparently, they use
materials displayed on standard consumer TV sets
— at home perhaps? — as basis for their work.
Standard TV — the commentary mentions small unexplained
details like "the light turning on"...
Underscanned — ...except the full frame reveals
Brigitte Bardot playing with the light switch on the left
Antonioni's La Notte (Fox Lorber DVD)
Entire Monica Vitti vanishes in one scene. She is
sitting on the floor in the millionaire's house
— the shuffleboard game sequence — then
stands up and slowly walks up to the camera, all
this while virtually glued to the screen's right
edge. In the regular TV overscan mode she is
invisible except perhaps her elbow comes into
view for a second. Which, again, is why cinematographers
now tend to avoid such image compositions altogether.
Underscanned — Monica Vitti miraculously appears
This example shows legs mercilessly chopped off.
| Standard TV image
These examples show objects — the car and the cross-like
telegraph pole, respectively — running prematurely
into the frame's edge, ruining image composition.
| Standard TV image
| Standard TV image
Words of advice
Such exhibits are endless.
Suffice to say, we
try to watch all DVDs in the underscanned mode. There is only
one caveat: most consumer TV
sets are rather cheaply made and suffer from the so-called
"monitor bloom," a contrast-dependent distortion
of the image geometry. This is normally not
noticeable as image content usually
changes fast enough, but a zoomed-out image presents
a problem: the bright rectangle of the film frame
set against the now completely black screen
background means a static transition from black to
white which results in a bending of the vertical
screen edges on most home
TV sets. A highly undesirable effect and, we suspect,
the main reason why no consumer TV set offers
the "underscan" button normally found on professional
monitors. Fortunately, the cure is very simple:
turn the "contrast" control way down,
until the bending goes away. Naturally, the
ambient room light has to be turned down
correspondingly low. With the contrast down
the underscanned film frame stays firmly rectangular
and the whole image acquires a gorgeous tack-sharp
"filmic" look. The picture is also improved by
turning the "sharpness" control all the way down,
as its real function is only to add severe
The overscan problem is presumably somewhat less severe with the newer higher quality
progressive scan and HDTV monitors. We welcome comments on
this from our readers. Of course, viewing DVDs on a PC monitor
or an RGB computer-grade projector is most likely 100% overscan-free.
Those who do not own a DVD player with an incremental zoom feature
may still be able to reduce the overscan somewhat by entering their TV's
"service mode" and tweaking the appropriate values therein.
Some useful links
On choosing a DVD player...
We cannot recommend a particular make or model number
as things on the market change literally every few weeks.
What we'd like to offer is a few guidelines and some
First of all, if you are lucky enough to own a zero-overscan
monitor (like a computer-grade projector or a high quality
HDTV) you obviously do not need to worry about the
problem. Check the overscan test pattern on
the Video Essentials DVD (or the upcoming
Digital Video Essentials) to make sure.
For everyone else, the key feature of the DVD player
we are interested in is what's usually referred to as
However, pay attention to the following caveats:
That's our two pennies' worth. We hope you find it helpful.
- It's important to doublecheck that the zoom
includes the ability to zoom-OUT — that's
the key! We are not interested in zooming-in.
- The quality of the zoom is critical.
It depends on the image-processing algorithms embedded
in the player's video processor.
Most of the zooms in home
players are not incremental and are of abysmal quality.
Look at the underscanned images above again: those
images were grabbed straight from the player's outputs,
after the player had zoomed them out. This is
the sort of quality you are looking for.
Unfortunately, there is no fast and easy way to
find out which make/model number has the feature.
What follows are some rules of thumb and an invitation
to do your own research:
- Find out which microprocessor (DVD decoder chip) has
the high quality incremental zoom-out feature built in.
As of this writing (August 2003) we are certain of only one such
Mediamatics Pantera 2
from National Semiconductor. Its predecessor
Mediamatics Pantera is equally recommended.
(As an added bonus, the Mediamatics are free of
the so-called chroma bug and play both
NTSC and PAL discs.)
- For those of you in North America, the web page
referred to above contains a
of DVD players using the Mediamatics processor.
- Make sure the player you've selected actually
utilises all the capabilities of the chip in
question. For example, some of the Mediamatics-equipped JVC players
in the past
in their infinite electronic wisdom did not tap on all of the
chip's capabilities, such as the incremental zoom!
The software was there on the chip but the
players provided no hooks for the user at home to reach it.
(We are not sure if JVC fixed this problem in their
Only fixed-ratio zooming-in was available: 2X, 4X,
and so on (which is rather useless).
- One way to find out about those details is to
post questions on the excellent bulletin board
Scroll down the page and you'll see threads for multitudes
of DVD player manufacturers.