It's no secret to anyone who knows me that I am the Aspect Ratio Diva. I take frame dimensions very seriously, because when they are not correct, the end result can be very unpleasant to look at. What's the point of making a fan video when everyone's faces are all squished or smooshed out of proportion?
This is a problem, I suspect, that is more of a problem with Windows-based computers. Something goes amiss with the user's DVD player software or DVD-ripping (or editing) software, which messes up the aspect ratio. I'm not blaming Windows users specifically for these problems—I tried some Windows vidding apps and also found it difficult to retain proper aspect ratio. It is frustrating. (But I did find a solution, and have now written a vidding tutorial for Windows users.)
Fortunately, Macs don't seem to have too much problem with displaying DVD proportions. Furthermore, the DVD ripping apps most commonly used (Mac the Ripper, Handbrake) seem to be excellent at consistently keeping good aspect ratio.
However, in order to keep proper frame proportions in your fan video, you must take care to make sure that your completed video retains the proper proportions, so that when it is finished and made ready for the web, it'll look right. So, let's explore the three most common frame dimensions ("aspect ratio") that you'll be using for your fan videos.
Aspect Ratio of 4:3 (Commonly set at 640 x 480 pixels in video)
The aspect ratio of 4:3 will often be used for older TV shows and movies. You'll also see it in the "Full screen" versions of commercial DVDs. As you can see, the picture window is a slight rectangle, but closer to square-shaped.
Aspect Ratio of 16:9 (Commonly set at 640 x 360 or 720 x 405 pixels in video)
The "letterbox" (anamorphic) aspect ratio of 16:9 is more obviously rectangular. You'll often see it in current commercial television shows and DVDs (as in the example above, from the 2004 BBC miniseries "North and South"). Some feature films may have 16:9 aspect ratio as well.
Aspect Ratio of 2.35:1 (Sometimes set at 720 x 306 pixels in video)
This is called Widescreen Anamorphic, and you'll see it in a lot of commercial DVDs these days. In fact, it's safe to say that many new DVDs are using this aspect ratio.
When the aspect ratio or proportions of a picture get out of whack, you will see something like this:
I wish I could say that I only rarely see images distorted as severely as the ones on the right (photos are of Emily Mortimer and Richard Armitage, by the way). But I can't say that. I see this a lot, in still pictures and in fan videos. I am not sure why so many people create pictures or videos with this level of distortion but don't ask how they can get it looking better.
A fan video with inconsistent aspect ratio will proceed something like this: Some video clips (like the one on the far left) are normal-looking. Some clips will be normal. Some will be too tall and skinny. Some will be too fat and squat. Back and forth, back and forth the video goes—from normal, squished, squat—over and over again. Horrid!
Some initial causes for inconsistent aspect ratio in fan videos:
No matter what other factors contribute to fluctuating aspect ratio, the real culprit for any problem lies squarely at the feet of the vidder. They need to be able to detect the problem and either fix it before finishing the video, or they should never use the errant clips in their video.
Needless to say, inconsistent aspect ratio is a major pet peeve, because there's no way for the viewer to adjust it in order to view it properly. No matter what custom settings are used in a media player, part of the video will never look right. Making a video with inconsistent aspect ratio is a significant vidding flaw and should be considered wholly unacceptable.
Okay, now that we've identified some of the possible problems that can happen with proportions, it's time to get down to business: learning how never commit these awful abuses against aspect ratio! Don't feel intimidated by the process—as I'll repeat a few times in these tutorials, it's not as easy to abuse aspect ratio when editing on a Mac. Follow a few basic guidelines, and you should be fine.