TV formats and aspect ratio explained: 16 x 9, 4:3, letterbox, high definition, what? Help!

As we begin to plan a video production, the first question we ask our (add)ventures client partners to consider is this: What are all of the distribution formats you may ultimately want to use to show the videos we are creating together? Do you need to distribute via web, television, trade show, DVD, another format or a combination of all of these?

How are things changing?
Television standards have evolved through the decades from black and white to color, and they continue to change as we move from analog to digital and from on air to online. Just a few years ago, the term “YouTube video” referred to a poor-quality video posted on the Web. Now, YouTube and many other online distribution channels deliver high-definition, 1080 pixel video, so quality is more important than ever when producing video content.

High Definition 16 x 9 LCD screens capable of multiple HDMI inputs are increasingly popular, and many of us actually have them at home or at work and don’t even know it. The terms sound cool, but what do 16 x 9, high definition, standard definition and letterbox actually mean, and how do they impact the way a video needs to be shot? We get these questions from our client partners all the time as everyone is swamped with new terms for video (and, of course, we use the term “swamped” because we just can’t get enough of Swamp Loggers on the Discovery Channel).

So, what do these terms mean?
As you can see in the image above, standard definition is square, which is known as 4:3 aspect ratio or 720 x 480 pixels. High Definition (HD) is rectangular, or 16 x 9, and can be either 1280 x 720 or 1920 x 1080 pixels. If you produce a television commercial in standard definition (4:3) and project it on an HD screen (16 x 9), it will be pillar-boxed, which means it will have black bars on both sides of the 16 x 9 screen, reflecting the proportion of a square fitting into a rectangular image. Conversely if you film in HD or 16 x 9 and display it on a 4:3 screen, the image will need to be “center cut” square, or letterbox (black bars at the top and bottom), to maintain the proportions of the image.

What is on the horizon?
Even as you read this, there are higher-resolution formats being developed. In fact, the team at (add)ventures recently filmed a series of television ads in 4K, which is 2304 x 4096. This same format was used to film David Fincher’s recent movie, The Social Network.

How can we stay ahead?
The technology to display this size in a mass market other than theater isn’t a reality yet, so why did we film the ads at this resolution? Keeping shelf-life and the ability to resize and reframe the imagery in mind, we aim to give ourselves and our client partners the most flexibility in the post post-production process.

Our team believes it is a best practice to capture or acquire footage at the highest resolution possible within the available budget. We continue to push the boundaries of acquisition so that our client partners have the most latitude in the future as technology continues to advance. Swamp Loggers in 3D? Now we’re talking!

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