Open Wide: Creating That Widescreen Look

Widescreen can have different meanings, depending on how you have to deliver. Here’s some tips on creating that widescreen look.

For years, the widescreen look has held a certain allure. Most widescreen imagery originated as film that was reframed for television, implying “classy”, “expensive” and “not of video.” Now, with the arrival of high-definition television, widescreen also means “cutting edge” and “the future”, and more clients want that look. The question is, how can you achieve it without hi-def sources? As strongly as our hi-def future beckons, the reality is that many productions for some time will need to be created or repurposed to standard definition.

When a client says they want to “do a project in widescreen”, they could mean one of several different things:

  • true high-definition video
  • playback of “anamorphic” standard-definition video on a widescreen monitor
  • squeezing widescreen content into a “letterbox” for display on a normal 4:3 video screen
  • merely adding black bars to the bottom and top of normal 4:3 video to fake the widescreen/letterbox look
  • a design that implies widescreen, even if the playback will be on a normal 4:3 screen

It’s your job to resolve the difference between what the client says they want and what they really need. The true high-definition case is fairly straightforward: The footage originates widescreen, and will be played back widescreen. It’s the standard definition cases that are trickier, and that’s what we’re going to focus on here. We’ll start by going over the technical issues, and then on the last two pages give a couple of case studies on alluding to a widescreen look inside a 4:3 frame.

Stretch to Fit

Let’s start with the anamorphic option. Normal video has a 4:3 image aspect ratio: in other words, the final image is supposed to be 4 units wide to 3 units high. Widescreen video has an image aspect ratio of 16:9, meaning 16 units wide to 9 high. Compare this to the 4:3 image, which can be thought of as 12:9 (just multiple by 3).

A normal 4:3 frame (left) by definition does not contain as much image area in the width as a 16:9 widescreen image framed to have the same height (right). So how do you fit one into the other?

All hi-def video is widescreen. However, you can’t assume widescreen automatically means high definition – for example, standard definition DVDs can hold widescreen format movies. Video engineers devised a way to cram a 16:9 image into a standard-definition video frame intended to hold a 12:9 (4:3) image: they merely squish the image narrower when they store it on tape, and stretch it out wider again when they display it on a monitor. This technique, usually called anamorphic widescreen, means a widescreen image can be recorded onto any normal tape – including BetaSP, DigiBeta, or DV – as long as you have some extra electronics at the camera to squish the captured image down from 16 units wide to 12 units wide. What concerns us here is how to deal with this distorted image when we capture them into our computer.

It’s not immediately obvious when a footage item was recorded using anamorphic widescreen – after all, its pixel dimensions are the same as normal 4:3 captures. If the footage was not already correctly labeled or tagged, you will have to stare at the footage and figure out if things look squished horizontally (which means it was recorded anamorphic), or somewhere between normal and slightly wide (typical NTSC D1/DV pixel aspect ratio).

It is not immediately obvious when a 4:3 video frame is holding an anamorphically-squeezed 16:9 image. Stare at the people in the clip at the left: What is the true aspect ratio of this clip? The people in the water in the upper left look normal, but there’s something about the surfer in the lower right…
Below is the same image, correctly stretched out its intended widescreen size. (Footage courtesy Artbeats.)

In an ideal world, our applications would handle the stretching and squishing for us automatically – after all, most video software today can deal with the slight anamorphic stretch required to handle DV and D1 video frames, which has more pixels across (720) than we need to describe a 4:3 aspect image that’s only 480 or 486 lines high. Indeed, most DV systems now tag and properly decode footage that was recorded widescreen. However, some older software doesn’t know how to deal with widescreen, and even when new software does, it doesn’t always display it on the computer monitor stretched back out to the width it would be seen during playback – it just shows it in its squished format. Things get even more confusing when you want to combine non-squished elements such as 4:3 video, still images, or vector art with your anamorphic video.

One working practice is to use a normal D1/DV size composition or workspace, but to make sure its pixel aspect ratio is tagged as being widescreen. When you add widescreen footage in, it should still look squished. When you drag in type or other square-pixel elements, they should look squished in this composition – this is the result of the anamorphic squeeze being applied to them. Do not try to out-smart your software by setting the pixel aspect ratio of your normal, square-pixel elements to be widescreen; your software will not know it has to treat them different than your widescreen footage.

This distortion can be a bit odd to work with. As a result, when working in a compositing or graphic program such as Adobe After Effects many prefer to work at what would be a square pixel widescreen size, rather than the squeezed anamorphic size. To do this, create a composition that is 486 lines x 16 units ÷ 9 = 864 pixels wide. Your software should allow you to tag your widescreen video as such (for example, use the Interpret Footage dialog in After Effects, and set the Pixel Aspect Ratio option accordingly), and as a result automatically stretch it out to this width for you in your 864-wide comp so it looks normal on your computer screen. If it doesn’t, you can stretch to fit manually (technically, by 121.2%, although most will use 864 ÷ 720 = 120% based on the common misperception that all 720 pixels are supposed to contain visible image).

Make sure this composition is set to use a square pixel aspect ratio, not D1/DV or widescreen. Treat all of your other elements as you did before, and mix them to your heart’s content – they should look normal. When it comes time to output back to widescreen, you need to squeeze the width of your composited image back down to 720 pixels wide. In After Effects, you can do this in a second composition, or using the Stretch option in its rendering Output Module. This chain is shown in Figure 2. The rendered movie will look squished horizontally, but a widescreen display will stretch it back out to its proper width.

When creating anamorphic widescreen imagery for a standard-definition DVD, plasma screen playback, and the such, we often work at the corresponding square pixel size. Workflow ideas are discussed in more detail in our more recent column Non-Square Strategies.

sidebar: More Anamorphic Math

If you want to work at a natural square-pixel widescreen size for NTSC video, the math works out to 486 pixels high x 16 units wide ÷ 9 units high = 864 pixels wide. If you are working in 480 pixel high DV, the width should still be 864 pixels. DV should be thought of as D1 video with six lines missing – the pixel and image aspect ratios are otherwise the same. For PAL, the math is similar, merely with different numbers plugged in: 576 lines x 16 ÷ 9 = 1024 pixels wide.

Getting Boxed In

The workflows we’ve discussed so far are intended for playback on a widescreen monitor. However, not everyone has a widescreen monitor yet; in the near term it is still likely your creations will be played back in 4:3. How do you fit widescreen inside a normal screen?

The simplest way is to chop off the left and right edges, and just display the 4:3 (or “12:9”) center section of a 16:9 image. You may laugh, but a lot of current hi-def widescreen production is being shot with the knowledge this is precisely what will happen when it is downcoverted to standard definition video. (See the sidebar Pan and Scan below for how film is handled when transferred to normal video.)

But one of the points of this article is maintaining as much of the original integrity of the widescreen image as possible, even when you play it back on a 4:3 monitor. To do this, you have to scale down your widescreen image so that the edges fit into a 4:3 frame. The result is the top and bottom no longer fill up the entire height. These gaps are typically filled with black; the result is called a “letterbox”.

How much do you scale down by? The technical answer is 12 ÷ 16 = 75% for a 16:9 source (different film formats have different image aspect ratios). But the result is quite a shrinkage in the size of the original video, making details appear relatively small on the screen; you also get rather large black bars above and below. Some feel the average viewing public would be turned off by this. As a result, this is where management bumps the technician out of the chair and starts fiddling with the numbers.

A common compromise (which I learned years ago from fellow PVC Founder Frank Capria) is to scale the source as if its original aspect ratio was 15:9, not 16:9, and fit just that portion of the image into a 4:3 frame. This means scaling the source by 80% and centering it in the frame. A bit more image gets lost on the left and right edges (note that even with 16:9 letterboxing, you’re losing some of the edges to the overscan margin on a monitor), but you also get smaller black areas and taller actors on the screen. The BBC goes one step further and scales the source 85.7% to fit a 14:9 viewing area into the 4:3 screen. These options are illustrated below:

The above image on the left is our original widescreen frame; the image on the right is how it would look “center cut” to a 4:3 frame by keeping the height at 100% and cropping the left and right. This is a common practice when hi-def programming is rebroadcast on standard-def channels!

Here are three different variations on letterboxing the same image: Scaling it down 75% until it all fits in (upper left), or scale it less so that only a 15:9 (upper right) or 14:9 (left) center portion is kept, with only some of the edges being cropped off (indicated by the white outlines in the gray pasteboard area). Image courtesy Artbeats.

In reality, none of these numbers are written in stone; you can pick whatever scaling value aesthetically works for you (and the cinematographer, and the producer, and the director, and the station’s management, and…).

sidebar: Pan and Scan

We mention in this article that with a lot of widescreen high definition video production, the path many take today to produce a 4:3 version is to merely chop off the left and right sides – not polite, but fast to keep up with tight production schedules. This is also how film is often treated when transferred to video, but often with the added touch of deciding from scene to scene how much to slice off of each side, or even to animate this window around to follow the action – a procedure known as “pan and scan.” An example of this is shown below; the outlines show the portion of the original image that has been panned off-screen (click on each image to see it full-size):

Others take advantage of the fact that when film is shot, a 4:3 image is actually exposed, with just a widescreen stripe out of the middle projected in the movie theater. If the camerapeople were careful to keep the rest of the frame clean, you can use this entire original image for 4:3 video (meaning you get to see more of the image than originally intended).

Black Bars and White Lies

So far, we’ve been working under the assumption that the source material was actually shot as widescreen. However, we know how clients are; some of them are going to come to you after the entire show’s been shot using a normal 4:3 aspect ratio, and ask you to “just make it widescreen” after the fact.

The simplest approach is to merely overlay black bars along the bottom and top of the image to give it a letterboxed look. As hinted elsewhere, this is what in essence happens when film is projected in a movie theater: the top and bottom portions of the 4:3 film frame are masked off. The difference is, their source material was shot with this in mind. Go through your footage and see if you can get away with this cropping. If necessary, move the source up or down in the frame (by an even number of lines, to maintain interlaced field order and sharpness) to make sure important parts of the image don’t get cropped off.

One area of slack is that, as above, you don’t have to stick to a religious 16:9 letterbox: Play around with smaller bars that still give a widescreen impression but don’t chop off as much of the image. Supplement this by designing your opening title, chapter heads, and other support graphics with the widescreen aspect in mind, and you should be able to pull this cheat off convincingly enough.

Of course, you can always turn a “cheat” into an “artistic decision.” Now that we’ve personally had a taste of widescreen, we find ourselves wanting to design to that format more and more. But again, many jobs call for 4:3 aspect delivery. Beyond imposing a fake widescreen on our sources, we’ve started playing around with this layout in a more creative fashion: we restrict the main image to a letterboxed widescreen center, but go ahead and use the rest of the frame for additional graphics. Here’s a couple of examples.

Isuzu Axiom

One of our regular clients was Kogei America, then the marketing arm of American Isuzu Motors. A common task of theirs is creating videos about new Isuzu vehicles, aimed at the press and Isuzu sales staff. A recent project for Kogei included opening and closing titles plus additional graphics for a video about their new Axiom crossover vehicle. The Axiom, descended almost directly from one of their concept vehicles, incorporates Isuzu’s most cutting-edge technology, and we wanted to carry this high-tech theme over to the graphical look. We decided part of this would include using widescreen framing where possible. Fortunately, most cars in profile or from above also have a widescreen aspect ratio, making our jobs easier.

For jobs like these, we normally create a loopable full-screen background texture (some refer to this as “wallpaper”), and composite any technical illustrations on top of this. For the Axiom video, we still used a full-screen background so the transitions between full-screen video and our inserts would not be too jarring, but otherwise restricted the layout to a 16:9 widescreen box. The backing plate for this box was a simple black solid with a graph-paper-like overlay (carrying over a theme from some of their print materials for the Axiom), run at 50% opacity to subdue the background where the action was taking place to make it easier for the viewer to focus. The technical illustrations then went on top of this graph paper background.

We carried this “widescreen inside of 4:3” theme wherever else it made sense. For example, we had a close-up of the car recede back from full frame until it filled just a 16:9 letterbox over our background. In other shots where we had to create montages of concept vehicles or competing cars, we irregularly masked the cars down to suggest individual widescreen aspect ratios (as shown here to the left).

Xerox On Demand

Another long-time corporate client we enjoy working with is Xerox, for whom we create a lot of trade show graphics. In this case, the client knew from the outset that they wanted a widescreen look; they even considered running two 4:3 monitors with different video feeds side-by-side. Logistics ruled this out, but we decided to keep the widescreen idea.

A habit of many companies, when they have a revolutionary new product (in this case, an extremely high-speed full color copier), is to want to trace their own history in the context of the evolution of all of mankind – in somewhere between two minutes and thirty seconds. Xerox pre-selected the music (Right Here Right Now by Jesus Jones), which gave us a structure to hang off of. We noticed three distinct sections in the music, and decided to split our video into three different eras in time: pre-xerography (represented by a typing pool), during the development of the photocopier up to before color photocopying, and from then up to the present.

We decided the third section (the present) should be represented by a modern video look. For this we used a widescreen letterbox with black bars above and below, and filled this box with a television monitor shot close up to show the screen’s mask grid (also from Edit FX 2). Our hero shots were composited over this.

Since the singer in Jesus Jones does not exactly enunciate clearly (and trade show floors can be loud anyway), the client wanted us to overlay key words from the lyrics. Since we didn’t want to obscure the footage too much, and we already had these large black areas along the top and bottom of the screen, we decided to use the areas outside the box for the words, occasionally overlapping them into the video’s widescreen area to tie things together.

Wide Open Future

Widescreen is refreshing to design in, and also to watch because of its current novelty. It also is our inevitable future. By breaking the rules a bit and blurring the lines between 4:3 and widescreen, we’re getting to work with it more today, and are having fun creating some new looks to boot.

sidebar: Stretch Marks

This article illustrates several techniques for going between the normal 4:3 and widescreen worlds. One technique we do not suggest is the “just stretch it” approach: namely, stretching 4:3 source material to fill a widescreen image. We see this in particular at trade shows that have rented eyecatching widescreen plasma displays, and then realize later all of their videos were created for a 4:3 screen. So they stretch it to fit. And it looks wretched.

Likewise, you may be tempted to go shoot your next production in widescreen because your new camera allows you to, only to realize later that you have to blend in previously-shot 4:3 source material. And although many NLEs now allow you to choose between 16:9 and 4:3 image aspect ratios, they most likely do nothing to help you combine the two. This puts the burden back on you to figure out a way to combine them.

Pick which format you’re going to deliver in, and then decide how to treat the footage that doesn’t match. If you don’t have time to re-render these segments in a new format, consider using the system’s DVE to zoom the 4:3 footage up to full width (cropping the top and bottom), or zooming 16:9 footage down to a letterbox.

The content contained in our books, videos, blogs, and articles for other sites are all copyright Crish Design, except where otherwise attributed.

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Chris & Trish Meyer founded Crish Design (formerly known as CyberMotion) in the very earliest days of the desktop motion graphics industry. Their design and animation work has appeared on shows and promos for CBS,…