Maintaining proper aspect ratio isn't just an obsession with me (The Aspect Ratio Diva), it's something that should concern any quality-minded vidder.
On this Frame Size (Aspect Ratio) tutorial, I go into more detail about aspect ratio and why you should care about it. I hope you will read it later, as you become more advanced in making videos. In this tutorial, I'll try to just cover the essentials. Let's get started.
Almost all of all commercial DVDs on the market will fit into two aspect ratios: Letterbox or Fullscreen. Have you ever seen two different versions of a movie on DVD (widescreen or fullscreen)? This is exactly what we're talking about here.
This is a video in the 4:3 aspect ratio. You'll see that its dimensions are very close to square. It's the same dimensions for most regular (not widescreen) TVs and computer monitors.
These days, most of the DVDs that are in the 4:3 fullscreen aspect ratio are either recently released theatrical movies that are recorded in the "fullscreen" format (and labeled as such) or older television shows (and sometimes old movies). For example, my DVD of the 1980's show "Moonlighting" is in the 4:3 aspect ratio, as is my copy of the old Film Noir classic "Laura."
Here's an example of the 16:9 or widescreen aspect ratio. Almost all current television shows, as well as many theatrical films are going to be in this aspect ratio. The odds are extremely high that your DVD is in this aspect ratio (with the exception, perhaps, of some anime titles).
2.35:1 widescreen fitting in 16:9 window
The aspect ratio of 2.35:1 (super widescreen, often seen in theatrical movies but rarely in television) usually still fits into the 16:9 aspect ratio on your DVD. In other words, while the picture itself is narrower (causing the need for black letterbox bars), the frame size for the video adheres to 16:9. So, you should treat this video's aspect ratio (with its black letterbox bars) as if it were 16:9 in your video editing program.
If your video is from a fullscreen DVD, choose 4:3 aspect ratio whenever you are exporting video out of your editing program. For instance, when using Windows Movie Maker, go to Tools >> Options >> and choose the "Advanced" tab. Select "4:3."
If your video is from a widescreen DVD (either with or without the black letterbox bars, as shown above) then choose the 16:9 aspect ratio.
For best results, follow the instructions in this tutorial when ripping clips from your DVD. I will not guarantee that all other DVD ripping and converting programs will give you the same quality or accurate aspect ratio.
. . . your video will look like this: SQUISHED.
Instead of the way it is supposed to look.
Squished and distorted aspect ratio will make an otherwise superb video look awkward, distorted and unflattering. Incorrect aspect ratio is also a common newbie mistake. Try to avoid it.
Just like some people don't notice off-key singing as much, some don't easily see when a picture is too long and narrow or too wide and fat. But there will always be those who notice (either the off-key singing and the distorted video picture).
A singer realizes that regardless of the fact that some people in their audience will never know if they hit all the right notes, that they still need to hit all the right notes. And the same holds true for videos. Sure, some people are not going to notice if the round moon is now oval, or that their favorite hottie actor or actress suddenly has gained or lost 30 pounds because their face is too long and skinny or too fat and squashed down. But the rest of the audience will notice and it'll really bug them. So it's always important to get it right.
There will be vidders out there who will suggest that a bit of image distortion is no big deal. Often (whether they are aware of it or not) these vidders are a little bit "blind" to the distortion themselves. So them saying that it is no big deal is kind of like a tone deaf singer insisting that singing in key is not that important and not something to worry about. (It doesn't really make sense, does it?)
In applications like MPEG Streamclip, DivX Encoder, Quicktime Pro, Ulead VideoStudio and others, you can manually select your video's frame dimensions (in some programs this is possible under the "custom" setting). Here are some frame numbers to remember.
FULLSCREEN 4:3 frame dimensions
WIDESCREEN 16:9 frame dimensions
768 x 576
720 x 540
640 x 480
600 x 450
540 x 405
480 x 360
360 x 270
1024 x 576
854 x 480
768 x 432
720 x 406
640 x 360
428 x 240
360 x 202
320 x 180
When 16:9 gets put into a 4:3 frame size:
Some video editing programs keep your 16:9 video's aspect ratio intact, but export the video with the 4:3 aspect ratio and add black letterbox bars at the top and bottom. Example (link opens to new window). If that happens, treat the video's aspect ratio as if it is 4:3, and consider the option of trimming off the black letterbox bars.
Home burned DVDs:
I find that some videos which use clips from home-burned DVDs may have unusual aspect ratio. They can sometimes be fullscreen with thin black letterbox bars at the top and bottom. What you should do is judge the video by its overall frame size (black letterbox bars included). Is it boxy like 4:3 (including the black bars)? Then it's 4:3. Is it widescreen (more rectangular)? Then it's 16:9.
In a nutshell, remember that most current commercial DVDs (of productions created within the last several years) are in the widescreen aspect ratio. Unless the DVD specifically says it is full screen, you're probably safe assuming it's 16:9 or widescreen.