How to Choose Custom Aspect Ratios from your Footage

In this post I will explain how you can use After Effects and/or Final Cut to create different aspect ratios from your footage (which can be any size, within reason).

There are different reasons for changing the aspect ratio of your production:

  • You might need to make a 4:3 into a widescreen production
  • You might want to chop off the top and bottom for some reason
  • You might want to make your film look more cinematic

These are just a few, but the middle reason applied to me this week, as I shot a production where I had to use the whole width of the frame, but the top and bottom had extraneous detail.

Now these aren’t the professional solutions for cinema and top-end video production, but they work well for DVD and web – and that’s all I’m concerned about for the time being. If anyone has their own workflow, tips – or even information about professional methods, I’d love to hear about them in the comments.

For DVD Output (Final Cut Only method)

Now my project is destined for DVD production and I did intitially try the After Effects/For Web route, but found that the workflow and processing time were convoluted and ridiculous*.

Final Cut has a built-in letterboxing effect that creates an aspect ratio for you, with the use of black bars. This means that the aspect ratio of the frame is technically still the same 16:9, but, for the viewer, will appear much wider. This is basically the same as drawing black bars onto your tv – but for outputs like DVD, where the screen size is generally standardised, it’s quite an appropriate technique.

So I had two different angles of the same footage and I synced them up in a new sequence. Then I applied the Video Filter > Matte > Widescreen filter to both pieces of footage. There are multiple widescreen ‘types’ to choose from here, I chose 3.00 : 1, not quite the biggest but much wider than the average video.

The next thing to do is Offset. This basically means shifting the footage up or down so that the most appropriate areas is visible between the bars. I had one camera locked off, so this offsetting could be done for the whole clip quite quickly and easily. The second clip was panning and tilting and zooming as it was b-roll. So what I did there was to not adjust the offset setting until after the edit, so I could keyframe the offset setting, allowing me to choose what looked best for each couple of seconds I used.

Widescreen Options in Final Cut Pro

I left border and colour switched to 0 and off respectively.

At this point I could colour-correct and output to DVD as normal, with a nice widescreen video properly prepared for burning to disc.

* However, I do plan on using the method below, using the edited footage, to create a web version – if and when needed.

For Web (After Effects/Final Cut Method) and Media Players

Now this technique is ideal for creating those videos in Vimeo that are super-widescreen (see this example for an extreme instance), without any letterboxing and can look really smart in a browser. You also often see videos of this nature on things like HD downlaods from Apple Trailers.

The great thing about this method is that it’s a preset that will take any footage you throw at it and put it into the aspect you choose. It also allows you to make up your own aspect ratio that fits your project perfectly.

The problem with this method is you either need to keyframe a lot, so that every shot is offset like you want or pre-edit the footage with the above Final Cut technique and then do it – that is, unless you taped-off your monitor when you were shooting, like the professionals do..

Basically go to this page on Video Copilot and download the preset. There is also a great video guide, so I won’t repeat that here. If you follow the instructions to crop your composition, you can then render out some letterbox-free footage to your custom size.

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