The Perfect Public Show is on 16:9
|by Dave Watterson
At some point most of us will be asked to put on a show of films for a
wider audience than our families or the video club. It may be a public event
or a large competition/festival screening. The present mix of video formats
and picture sizes can cause chaos. One non-commercial film festival in 2009
had 40% of the entries in "widescreen". That proportion will grow rapidly
as we move to HD video which is all 16:9. But it's not quite that simple
What shape is that?
We are used to videos made and shown in the 4:3 aspect ratio. Videos made
in the 16:9 aspect ratio are starting to arrive. Unless you can change your
projector's output shape and change your screen masking you
will have to choose one shape or the other:
For the Ideal Show
Use a video projector designed for 16:9
Use a 16:9 screen
Digitally copy all films onto tape in 16:9 video ("pillarboxing" 4:3 movies
and "letterboxing" 2.35:1 movies)
16:9 makes more demand on the light output, so choose one optimized for that
[Only ever use the 16:9 or 4:3 projector menu options. Ignore all other
sizes. Those options distort an image to fill the screen. Don't do that to
someone's precious movie. Never trust an "automatic" setting.]
Use one as wide as you can, bearing in mind the light-output of the projector.
If the audience is not on raked seating, put the screen as high as possible
so everyone can see. Set the equipment up so that the 16:9 projected image
fills the screen. When a 4:3 image appears it will be the same height but
there will be black bands at the sides (known as pillarboxing.)
In analog days copying reduced image quality. Digital copying is near-perfect.
Whenever possible get the films in advance, copy them all onto one or more
projection-master-tape/s. That allows you to resolve any problems in private
and simplifies the public show.
Start a widescreen project in your video editor. Load all the films into
it, carefully maintaining their original format. That may mean selecting
each one on the timeline and using a menu option. Some editing systems try
to resize images to fit the frame - stop them! You may have to adjust image
sizes manually. Load tapes in the usual way via firewire through a tape-deck
For films on DVD - copy the large files marked nnn.VOB onto your editor's
hard drive. A few edit systems can handle VOB files directly in the timeline.
Others require you to change the file name to nnn.MPG and then import them
and render them before use. If all else fails record from a separate DVD
player using S-Video and stereo sound cables.
Some film makers use commercial movie shapes like 2.35:1. Ideally they will
have supplied them in a 16:9 form with thin black bars top and bottom. If
such works have been copied previously by people who did not recognise the
format, you may have to do some manual resizing of that film in your editor.
(That was the case for the film illustrated above, Dentophobia,
when it reached the British BIAFF Festival.)
Take the opportunity of assembling the programme on the timeline, removing
any menus, countdowns and other unwanted sections. Between each film leave
3 seconds of black, three black frames with a white dot near the top right
and three more seconds of black. During projection that allows plenty of
time for the operator to pause between films if necessary. You may also choose
to add titles announcing the award the next film has received.
Less than ideal conditions
Tapes and DVDs are cheap and easy to make, so in most situations you
can ask for movies in advance. If you really must cope with
films handed to you at the show:
Try to set up two projectors - one for 4:3 and the other for 16:9. Projectors
are cheaper and more common now so this is not impossible to organize. Each
will need a dedicated tape player and DVD player.
Ask the maker how they think it should be projected. If they say "widescreen"
or "16:9" ask if they have letterboxed it. Assume everything will be 4:3
aspect ratio unless it is "unletterboxed 16:9"
often called "anamorphic"
or "full widescreen".
While a film is running try to preview the next one to check its aspect ratio.
Avoid on-screen menus if possible. Study your projector's manual to see how
to switch between 4:3 and 16:9 projection - some let you save "pre-sets"
which you can change with one button push. Use the remote control - point
it at the screen and the signal bounces back to the projector. Do NOT
trust any "automatic" setting.
If your screen is 16:9, a 16:9 film that someone has "helpfully" letterboxed
onto 4:3 video, should be projected 4:3. The picture will appear as an oblong
with black bars on all four sides. You can use the projector's zoom lens
to expand the picture so that it fills the screen - but that makes the image
dimmer and may require re-focusing.
before the zoom
after the zoom
- Dave Watterson, May 2009.