Letterboxes and Ratios

One of the most frequent questions I’ve been asked about WORkSHIP videos is how they fit the screens in a particular church. There are two standards in use at the moment. Let me explain. Bear with me if you already know most of this.

For decades, televisions were made in a 4:3 (1.33:1 or 12:9)) format: that means the screen was 4 units wide and 3 units tall. This is a compromise between the simplest square/circular options of early cathode ray tubes and the more rectangular proportions of the Golden Ratio (roughly 1.6:1 or 5:3) much beloved as aesthetically ideal by philosphers and artists and the even wider (1.85:1) adopted by cinema which more accurately reflects our human field of view.

Improvements in technology in the 1990s meant that affordable screens of wider proportions became possible and Broadcasters began to make programmes in a wider proportion: 16:9 (5.33:3). You have to try very hard to buy an old-format tv nowadays, though computer screens have been slower to move to wide screen: it’s a moot point that while a widescreen is great for watching multimedia, it isn’t so good for working on portrait-format text documents!

Churches and other users of video projectors have another issue that domestic tvs and computer users don’t face: they usually need the largest possible image tobe visible to the maximum number of people. In many halls and particularly churches, the decision was made a few years back when there was a choice, and 4:3 won. Often the architecture is a limiting factor – in my own church, we couldn’t make the screen any wider, so to go ‘widescreen’ actually to go ‘narrow height’, a phrase coined my manager when I worked in the studios at Channel 4 in the early 1990s! (I think he was slightly cynical about widescreen as simply a marketing device to sell new tv sets!)

However, all that said, WORkSHIP videos are all currently produced in 16:9 widescreen. It’s the only ratio available when equipping in 2010 as we were. If you church, like mine, still has 4:3 projection, there are a number of options:

  1. Get with it! OK, I say that slightly tongue-in-cheek, but the reality is, the church is in some senses competing for the attention of an unsaved world that is impressed when a worship service uses media well and isn’t impressed when it uses out-of-date technology (OHP anyone?) And we don’t want a passé technology distracting the lost from our important message of salvation.
  2. Without a lot of detailed setup in buried menus, some computer/projector systems will stretch the image vertically to fill the screen. This may or may not upset your aesthetic delicacies! For many of our video backgrounds, it isn’t overly objectionable. Just don’t concentrate on wheels. There, I’ve said it now, you’ll be staring at every wheel on every screen everywhere, checking for geometric distortion.
    If you stretch widescreen images of you congregation or pastor onto a 4:3 screen, they can appear to lose many pounds!!

    Then there are the compromises that Broadcasters have worked with for twenty years now:

  3. If there is sufficient demand we may produce 4:3 editions. This is done by cutting off some of the image from the left or right of the widescreen picture, sometimes upsetting the framing of the image considerably.
  4. Set your software to display the whole image, leaving black space above and below – movies were often broadcast like this.
  5. If your software or vision mixer will allow it, put the background at top or bottom of your 4:3 screen and place words in the black area.

    For nearly twenty years I’ve received call sheets from TV production companies that have said “Production (title): Format: 16:9, shoot 14:9 Protected” This means that non-widescreen viewers would still get black bars above and below the image, but they wouldn’t be as big, but the extremes of the image would be removed, and so cameramen would have to frame their images ensuring that no key part of the image (an interviewee’s eyes, for example) were in the extremes). It really messed with some of their heads as their precious images were aesthetically compromised when viewed in the sexy, beautiful new widescreen format. Do I sound unsympathetic? That’s probably because, as Sound recordist, this ‘narrow height’ tv meant I coudl get my microphone closer to the interviewee, hearing less of the whirring of the camera, the loud whispers of the director or the rumble of the lighting guy’s stomach (in the days when we still got a lighting guy on factual or corporate filming)

  6.  …so that’s your last option: set your software (if it’s capable of it) to compromise on a 14:9 image

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