Pan Scan Venkman

Creator's Statement

In "Pan, Scan, Venkman," I consider the impact of selective framing on my interpretation of the narrative in Ghostbusters (1984) and specifically Dr Peter Venkman’s place in it. This is not framing as defined on set by the director or cinematographer, but rather the re-framing of the widescreen image for release on VHS, employing the much maligned Pan and Scan process (James, 2001; Salas, 2003). It is hard to think of any circumstance where a process which might result in as much as 50% of the image being stripped away is thought of as a good thing. However, in "Pan, Scan, Venkman," I offer some mitigation for Pan and Scan, or at least in this very specific case. 

I have been a fan of Ghostbusters since I first saw it in the early 1990’s, and my thesis concerning Peter Venkman and his place in the film developed over multiple viewings of the film. This was not the result of any investigative agenda on my part, but rather my desire as a fan of the film to engage with every aspect of it as closely as possible. As such, some of these viewings were partial or spread out over multiple days, while others where the film played in the background. Crucially, though, these viewings and my formative experience of the film was on VHS. It was that specific format of the film’s release which led to my ‘enhanced’ understanding of Dr Venkman’s place in the film. And it wasn’t the image alone, or lack of it, that influenced my reading of the film. Sound also played a role and, in particular, lines of dialogue delivered from the off-screen space, ‘acousmatically’ as Chion would term it (2012). Though entirely derived from the inherent restrictions of the VHS format, my reading enriched and enriches my appreciation of the film. It formed a textual template that I used to engage with the rest of the film, uncovering an additional level of complexity which I would later discover was solely predicated on the vagaries of the Pan and Scan process. 

In creating this visual essay I digitised my VHS copy of Ghostbusters, an ex-rental version produced by RCA in 1985. It is a fascinating physical artifact of the film, and indeed of the VHS rental process itself, and it raises some questions for me about film authorship and versioning. Though at the time this RCA VHS was considered a ‘definitive’ release of the film, it is not representative of the film shown in theatres. The soundtrack and picture have been intentionally modified for the transfer to VHS, and then further modified by the quality of the playback medium and, over time, the inevitable decay of that medium. Whilst there exists a ‘new’ definitive version of Ghostbusters on 4K Blu-Ray (released in June 2019) I can’t discount the authenticity of the experience I had with the VHS version, nor the pleasure and surprise I derived from uncovering my own cinephiliac moments within the film, all thanks to Pan and Scan.


Chion, M. (2012). "The Three Listening Modes." The Sound Studies Reader, 48-53.

James, M. (2001, Apr 09). "LETTER BOXING widescreen film formats have followed DVDs' rise in popularity - but not without a fierce debate." The Sun.

Salas, R. A. (2003, Oct 03). "Big adjustment for small screen." Deseret News.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, home video distributors regularly cropped films’ widescreen aspect ratios to fit the narrower confines of a 4:3 television screen. This practice of remediation, known as pan and scan editing, was abhorred by film enthusiasts. “Something strange,” indeed; the illusion than there was more to the image that was available to the eye could properly be called uncanny. Such anxieties emerged in a number of horror films of the VHS-DVD era, most notably Gore Verbinski’s The Ring (2002). However, Cormac Donnelly’s videographic essay Pan Scan Venkman observes that pan and scanning could be a generative as well as a subtractive process. As Anne Friedberg, Stephen Heath, W. J. T. Mitchell, and many other film theorists have argued, framing is always meaningful—even when the frame was not chosen by the filmmakers but imposed after the fact by home video distributors. Donnelly offers us a compelling argument for the hermeneutic power of the out-of-frame created by pan and scan editing. With droll remixes of key scenes from the 1985 VHS release of Ghostbusters (Ivan Reitman, 1984) contrasted against the 1999 widescreen DVD version of the film, Donnelly shows how pan and scan editing can elicit insightful readings of character relationships. The readings build on information about the film’s production and details the mise-en-scène and are not mistaken even if they are platform-contingent. While the widescreen version of the film ostensibly suggests that Donnelly’s interpretation of Ghostbusters is misguided, such correctives only pertain in as much as one accepts the widescreen edition to be the authoritative version of Reitman’s film. For RCA/Columbia sold 400 million copies of the Ghostbusters cassette in 1985, compared to 68 million tickets in its initial theatrical run. A video store in that era might rent one of those tapes many hundreds, if not thousands of times over, and thus it seems likely that during the 1980s more people saw Ghostbusters panned and scanned on video during the 1980s than saw it in widescreen in theaters. For them—indeed, for Donnelly—the panned and scanned version is the original Ghostbusters. Hence Donnelly provocatively suggests that we take seriously the poetics of pan-and-scan remediation rather than rejecting it as an outmoded commercial compromise. Indeed, his conclusion notes that there are certain “cinephiliac moment[s]” only available in panned and scanned films. These moments themselves are now threatened with loss, as the widescreen image was once itself lost to television viewers—a bitter irony for an allegedly bountiful era of multiformat viewerly choice.  

Why do certain films lend themselves so readily to remix, recurring again and again as source material in works of disparate intent and tone? Why have The Shining and Psycho proven such popular raw materials for experimental filmmakers, video essayists and appropriation artists while, say, Avatar, has not?

The answer, I’d hazard, is that some films are so culturally ubiquitous as to feel immediately familiar, even to a first-time viewer. That familiarity makes such films — somewhat paradoxically — easier to neutralise, and therefore build upon. Like paintings hung on a wall for too long, you barely notice them at all, at least until the moment they’re altered.

Cormac Donnelly’s Pan Scan Venkman exploits exactly this kind of familiarity by taking as its base colour Ivan Reitman’s totemic 1984 comedy Ghostbusters, a film that looms so large in the cultural imagination that even its detractors, myself included, can quote large swathes of its dialogue from memory.

In Pan Scan Venkman, as in countless other videographic explorations of Reitman’s film, the basic plot details are no sooner established than pushed into the background, allowing Donnelly’s argument to the fore. Unlike most riffs on Ghostbusters, however, here our baseline familiarity with the source material is central to the point at hand: we’re told that Donnelly’s thesis emerged as he watched the film “over and over, absorbing every detail”. 

Donnelly adeptly marries content and form, illustrating even neutral background information not with a crisp HD download of Ghostbusters but with what we’re told is a transfer of his personal “ex-rental VHS copy” of the film (though here, and elsewhere, I suspected a degree of artistic license).

This choice establishes the degraded pan-and-scan version of Ghostbusters as a strange kind of urtext, allowing us to share in the comfort Donnelly finds in the tape’s hazy images and compressed soundscape. From there, we’re soon collaborators in his conspiratorial thesis, which posits a “privileged paratext” devised by two of the film’s creators. Neatly, as Donnelly unearths clues in the 1984 film, he buries his own in Pan Scan Venkman: small snatches of dialogue that foreshadow the critical arguments to come.

Belatedly, he also introduces the original, anamorphic version of Ghostbusters, inducing a sense of the uncanny by replaying sequences already shown to the viewer — only now in slick high-definition. It’s a gleeful inversion of the received wisdom that pan-and-scan represents a corruption of the cinematic ideal. Here, that feeling of corruption is born not of increasing distortion, but increasing clarity.

As Donnelly witnesses his thesis rendered null and void by the film’s original aspect ratio, he defiantly rejects cinephile orthodoxy and champions pan-and-scan as a potentially constructive cinematic force. In a final act of sacrilege, he even isolates another moment from Ghostbusters which, in his words, “suffers” from being seen as its creators intended.

This is a provocative riposte to the near-universal repudiation of a technique that shaped an entire era of home viewing experiences, and an ambivalent study of how commercial forces complicate notions of artistic intentionality.