The Dragon Ball Z Movies Were Originally Widescreen / Cropped
The 1980s/1990s Dragon Ball and Dragon Ball Z movies were, indeed, originally screened and released in widescreen format in theaters and on home video. Mostly. Little bit of an asterisk on that statement there.
Many fans are unaware that these movies were originally animated in a fullscreen, traditional 4:3 format. Some of the earliest films did actually debut in this fullscreen format (depending on the local theater’s equipment), and were only later cropped/covered to widescreen. All of the later Z-era films, however, debuted exclusively in a widescreen presentation. While nothing important was lost due to the movies being animated with this potential cropping in mind, some of the image — the top and bottom — was indeed obscured.
This widescreen home video release carried over to the run of early VHS fansubs. Along comes FUNimation (and Pioneer) beginning in 1997 releasing all of the movies straight through in a 4:3 format, and suddenly you have a confusing situation on your hands! In this case, we were the ones getting the full picture, not the Japanese fans! FUNimation used the original 4:3 prints as-is, rather than using the same “cropping” technique used by the Japanese. Most foreign (read: non-Japanese) Dragon Ball movie home video releases were the same.
“Overscan” is one slightly-inconsequential excuse often lumped into this discussion. Due to the limitation of glass-technology in early televisions, it was impossible to produce a rectangular image. To compensate for this, a process called “overscan” was developed. In order for the image on the television to stretch across the entire viewable area — and not have black borders surrounding it — parts of the image are “off screen,” so to speak, outside of the “safe-zone.”
There are actually two areas in the safe-zone: action-safe and title-safe. The action-safe area is approximately 90% of the viewing area (576×432 on a 640×480 window). On most televisions, everything produced within this window should be seen. The title-safe area is defined as approximately 80% of the viewing area (512×384 on a 640×480 window). On even the most badly-adjusted television sets, you should be able to see anything within this window (which is most often titles and logos; companies definitely want those to be seen!). In a nutshell, if you are “not seeing” something you think you should be seeing but are on an older tube TV, chances are it is simply outside of the “safe zone”. Note that modern monitors and television sets do not inherently have overscan, but will often times simulate a tiny amount of overscan; this can be adjusted with the set’s viewing modes, sometimes called “pixel-by-pixel” or even simply “normal” mode.
That all being said, overscan — despite what FUNimation’s orange brick marketing in 2007 may have led you to believe — has nothing to do with the significant image cropping done with a widescreen transfer of the Dragon Ball Z television series or its movies. To achieve this “widescreen” effect, FUNimation literally did crop (fully remove) approximately 20% of the vertical resolution (despite only gaining approximately 5% of the horizontal resolution through their “remastering” process).
Beginning in 2008, FUNimation began a series of “double feature” movie releases in this same faux-“remastered” style, removing the top and bottom of the image to achieve a “widescreen” aspect ratio. The difference here is that cropping the movies is a bit different from cropping the standard television series, in that the movies were animated and intended to have this “cropped” viewable image space in the first place.
Incidentally, Toei Animation’s own “Dragon Box: The Movies” DVD release in 2006 also opted for a widescreen transfer (albeit a completely new, anamorphic transfer from the original film source and optical audio masters). The company’s later 2018-2019 Blu-ray releases followed suit in a widescreen presentation.
Hopefully now you see the full picture!