Wednesday, September 30, 2015

An Introduction to "Open Matte" Films

Recently I've joined a private torrent site specializing in rare and out of print films and TV shows. This has led to my stumbling down an entirely new rabbit hole of movie-nerd collecting: The "Open Matte Version".

What is an "Open Matte" film?
Open Matte Example
(Augmented from Wikipedia)
Shooting in an "Open Matte" is the process of achieving a different aspect ratio than the one you are shooting in by masking part of the full frame image with black bars.

One of the main reasons people collect "Open Matte" films is that they contain extra image information (generally at the top and bottom of screen) giving the viewer a bigger glimpse into the world. However, since the cinematographers job was to frame for Widescreen first and the Open Matte second (or sometimes not at all), this is generally NOT what they intended the viewers experience to be.

For the most part, viewing the Open Matte version does not make for a more aesthetically pleasing image on screen (at least not in the traditional sense). In fact, this added information sometimes disrupts the movie watching experience for the typical movie-goer. For example, where black bars were intended to be, the viewer may occasionally see a ladder on screen, a rope pulling a prop, or just an oddly composed frame with too much headroom for the actors.

So why would you collect something that effectively makes the movie harder to watch? Because if you are like me and have viewed your most-coveted films several hundred times, these are new, rare glimpses into some of your favorite on-screen moments. Due to both changes in cameras and distribution, I'm organizing these "Open Matte" films into two categories: The Pre-Digital and Post-Digital Revolution.

Pre-Digital Revolution
Tin Edition
4x3 Matte Example
By the 1980's many movies were shot in widescreen on 35mm film despite the format's native size being a 4:3 square image. To accomplish this without the employ of expensive image-bending Anamorphic lenses, cinematographers would have guide-lines on their viewfinders and monitors showing them where the intended aspect ratio was in relation to what was fully being captured. Then in post-production (or sometimes exhibition), they would throw black boxes over-top of the image, blocking out the information that wasn't meant to be seen.

This was largely brought about by the rise of consumers watching movies via VHS and Cable TV. During this time, home viewers weren't open to having letterboxing "cover up part of their TV" and unfortunately, home distribution was exclusively catering to the 4:3 square format*. This effectively rendered widescreen obsolete after the movies initial run in the theatrical market (at least until the rise of Laser Discs). In order to force many films of the day into this TV friendly aspect ratio, production companies employed the use of "Pan and Scan" (a technique in which you crop the widescreen image and artificially move the camera's viewpoint).

4:3, widescreen
Pan & Scan Example
Thankfully, for some movies, pan-and-scanning was avoided as it looked cheap and suffered image quality loss. To avoid their art being butchered, many cinematographers shot their films in widescreen while "protecting" for a 4:3 frame as well. By extracting the square image from the original 35mm frame, it contained additional information at the top and bottom of the screen. Most Open Matte 4:3 versions of pre-digitally shot movies often come from either broadcast, Laser Discs, early DVD's, or accidental release.  

*Explaining to the general public that widescreen is how the filmmakers intended the film to be viewed was generally lost on them while explaining the concept of "pan-and-scan"  has yet to be accomplished.

Post-Digital Revolution
2.35:1 16:9
16x9 Matte Example**
These days, most movies are made with digital cameras and are thus shot in the 16:9 widescreen format. However, to accomplish a more extreme widescreen image (without Anamorphic lenses), the same technique as mentioned before is performed. The monitors and viewfinders have aspect ratio guide-lines on them (or in the case of indie film, gaff tape is often put over the monitor) indicating where the intended image is located. This extra information comes in very useful in post production where the frame can be moved up or down in order to fix a potentially wrongly-framed shot. 

These "Open Matte 16x9's" are more rare and are generally released on accident or in some cases, broadcast because the home viewer still can't handle having boxes on their screen. Additionally, many of the films that fall under this category have been exported from the studio because the engineer who is outputting the film has forgotten to turn the black bars back on overtop of the image.

**Yes, Seven was shot on film, however it's an excellent example of a 16x9 Open Matte and this version was more than likely accidentally released on Blu Ray in Canada. .

Some Great Open Matte Examples:
Pee Wee's Big Adventure
  • Pee Wee's Big Adventure: Legend has it that the guy who output the 4:3 VHS version of this film still gets shit for a few shots that blatantly showcase the special-effects in this movie. The best example can be seen HERE. In this shot, Pee Wee is pulling an endless chain and it's source was designed to be masked out. In this version, we clearly see where the chain is coming from.
  • Evil Dead: For years, only a select few, original VHS copies contained the original, unmatted 4:3 aspect ratio. The reason that so many die-hard fans clamored for this version is because this film was NOT shot with the idea of a widescreen presentation. Furthermore, when they did put the "black bars" over top of the image, they gave zero thought about re-framing the shots and blindly pasted them over the entire movie. Thankfully, the last few editions of the film have in fact contained the original, unmatted version.
Tin Edition
Evil Dead 2
  • Evil Dead 2: I was only recently alerted to this. The 2001 "Tin Box" release of this film contained not just the original 16:9 version, but also contained the unmatted 4:3 version of this movie as it was shot. There's no goofs in this version that I've found yet, but this is a great, rare copy of the film and is totally worth giving a watch.
  • Terminator 2: In the open matte version of this you can plainly see Arnold's pants when he's supposed to be naked.
  • Buffy The Vampire Slayer- Season 1: This is rare because it is the pillar box mattes that have been removed. The show was obviously framed for 4:3, but Fox wanted to re-release it in 16:9 anyway. That means throughout the season there are errors abound. On the sides of the screens you can see ladders, lights, boom poles, and even the occasional person. Pretty damn hilarious.
One film I have seen with my own eyes that had an Open Matte but I have yet to find commercially is the 2011 film Drive. While I worked at S*** we received a copy of it for Australia and I personally failed it myself for having the wrong delivery specs. 

Other great examples of "Open Matte Versions" include: The Matrix, Seven (shown above), Back to The Future 2, The Shining (and almost every Kubrick movie), Planet Terror, and Stephen Kings IT. There are a TON more, but I don't want to get carried away. Feel free to add your own favorites in the comments below.

In Conclusion:
He didn't actually say this...
but it was implied.
If I was a professional cinematographer and I saw an unauthorized version of a film I'd shot, I'll admit, I'd be pretty pissed off. And in the 80's and 90's I'm sure a lot of them were. Imagine being Victor J. Kemper (who shot Pee Wee's Big Adventure) and seeing that bike gag ruined on screen because of some post-production idiot. I'd personally be fucking furious.

Strange versions of classic films aren't necessary for the public at large, and for the most part, they probably offer a negative experience for filmmakers and most viewers... but for die-hard collectors, they give a whole new way to appreciate our favorite movies. Whether you collect them for an inside view into the process, to laugh at, to get that extra bit of screen information or just to have them on your hard drive so you can brag to your collector friends (who are also likely NOT getting laid), it's a great excuse to re-watch your favorite flicks one more time.


  1. This is a great article. The visible helicopter shadow in the OM opening of The Shining is likely one of the best moments as well - and Tom Cruise with pants on in Eyes Wide Shut almost makes it worth watching, haha! OM also preserve OARs of 1:33:1 in some cases, so some films shot in that way were never actually seen in the correct intended OAR even in theaters (Kubrick being a great example with at least one film this way) and only through errored OM releases did we actually ever get to see it. That was the thing that sealed my love of them, not only do you get to see cool goofs and stuff but you also sometimes get to see something as it was originally intended to be viewed and available in no other way even the theaters! Great piece!

  2. Thanks for this enlightening article.

    My favourites are: Gladiator, I Robot, Se7en, Showgirls, Titanic, Terminator 3, The Abyss, The Matrix and U-571.

    1. I agree. I also adore King Kong, True Lies, Underworld and Chronicles of Riddick open matte

  3. Great article.

    I Had to keep both 16x9 and open matte DVD versions of Death Race 2000, for example. You did mention additional information, but did not explain that some of the female actresses look even better in open matte format.

  4. Just curious...what private tracker has a good open matte collection?

    1. Email me and I'll tell you and invite you. josh at

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