Burning Question: How Do I Quickly Give My Project a Letterbox Look?
This article first came out in 2015 and has been fully updated (as of August 2020) with new tools and new tutorials, as well as a few great videos on aspect ratio and getting your letterbox right. New tutorials have been added for Premiere Pro, DaVinci Resolve, and Vegas. We’ve also added a section on Aspect Ratio Conversion (ARC) from InSync FrameFormer.
What is Letterboxing, Pillarboxing, and Windowboxing?
Letterboxing is a very simple way to help your footage look more cinematic, and it seems like a simple concept, but you can’t just go slapping black bars in any way you like. You have to do it right! First, we’ll take a look at a few quick examples of the types of black bars you can add to footage, then a bit about aspect ratio. Finally, we’ll end with some plug-ins and scripts to make adding a letterbox fast and easy, no matter your NLE.
First, let’s get some terminology out of the way and explain what letterboxing and the others are all about.
Types of Letterboxes
The Standard Letterbox
Preserving a film’s original widescreen aspect ratio when a film is transferred to standard definition video with black bars on the top and bottom of the video.
Standard-width videos and bars on the left and right, often used stylistically in a widescreen presentation to give the idea that the media being shown is older, for example, old 8mm film or old television broadcasts.
Another variation, windowboxing, is when black bars are seen on each side of the video.
Let’s talk about Aspect Ratio
By placing letterbox or window box bars on your film, you’re really modifying the aspect ratio of the viewable image.
SFX Secrets: The Power of Aspect Ratios
Fandor posted this is a really interesting video with the reasons behind choosing certain aspect ratios with lots of examples.
How to PROPERLY letterbox your films: The Cinematic 21:9 Aspect Ratio
You’re doing “Cinematic” aspect ratios ALL WRONG!
Adam Taylor at EposVox has a pet peeve about the wrong aspect ratios for those black bars.
And here’s his followup video…
What is Aspect Ratio Conversion? (ARC) New
From the InSync FrameFormer FAQ:
In many standards conversion applications, we need to modify the aspect ratio of the picture. The problem of converting SD 4:3 material to HD 16:9 remains for stored assets, and complex aspect ratio conversions continue to be required when repurposing movie material for TV and mobile distribution.
Movies intended for cinematic distribution may be shot at 1.85:1 or 2.35:1 thus requiring aspect ratio conversion for distribution to viewers typically using 16:9 display screens. Preservation of the entire width of the production may require a “letterbox” presentation using black bands above and below the image. Display avoiding the black bands implies cropping the content horizontally, then scaling the picture to occupy the full display height and width.
Some audiences may find letterboxing distracting, especially on small screens as found on aircraft seatbacks or mobile phones, so center-cutting followed by zoom may seem quite appealing. However, the director’s artistic intent may be lost, especially if important action takes place away from the center of the screen. Manual or automated pan and scan can be beneficial as the editor can choose the most important scene areas, but nevertheless, some of the content will inevitably be lost.
Simple and clean integration of mixed frame rate content in your project
FrameFormer is a plug-in for Adobe Premiere Pro (Mac and Windows) and Final Cut Pro X plugin which enables users to carry out motion compensated frame rate and format conversion of video material.
Typical applications include conversion of TV program material for example from 1080i 50 to 720p 59.94, SD to HD conversion with ARC, and integration of mixed frame rate content e.g. 23.976Hz and 29.97Hz into the same project.
Aspect ratio conversion:
Standard Version: Letterbox, pillarbox, anamorphic.
Pro Version: Automatic, preset, and manual ARC Modes.
Plugins and Scripts for Letterboxing to your Footage
If you’ve been using your software for more than a few days, it’s very likely that you already know how to mask the video or add solids on each side. That said, there are lots of ways to achieve the effect. So, if you know how to do it the old school way but you’ve been finding that you’re drawing letterboxes all of the time, there are faster methods!
VFX software for the filmmaking revolution.
HitFilm Pro is the top choice for artists worldwide. No need to jump from editor to VFX software and back again. HitFilm gives you editing, compositing, titling, and 3D tools in a single product. You have everything you need in one place.
FXHome HitFilm Pro is a standalone app that comes with a letterbox plug-in. Pick from a variety of common aspect ratios or define your own. The letterboxing automatically updates based on the shape of your source layer. It lets you alter the color of the letterbox bars too. A very similar Letterbox plugin also exists in FXhome Ignite Pro.
Hitfilm Express: How to Add Cinematic Black Bars to Video (Letterbox Effect)
This is a super short tutorial is from Video Editing in a Minute. It’s on how to use the add a letterbox in HitFilm Express, but the effect works the same in HitFilm Pro.
TotalFX features over 1,500 presets in 177 effects. This is our most comprehensive suite of titling tools, transitions, filters, and video editing plugins.. This includes Letterbox, a filter to frame your video appropriately with preset borders.
NewBlueFX Essentials Ultimate also contains the Letterbox plug-in.
XEffects Toolkit is a pack of 53 utility plugins and tools that make the hard tasks in editing easier.
We set out to create the most advanced, most featured and most helpful set of tools on the market for Final Cut Pro X. Designed by professional broadcast editors, this set of tools is perfect for work such as documentary, news or sport and it’s also great for adding polish to corporate and event productions.
The plugins range from essential tools such as Subtitles, Caption Safe Area, and Pillarbox Shoulders to fine-tuning plugins like Alpha Adjust, RGB Channel Adjust, or Channel Swap.
Free Letterbox Templates in 1080P, 4K, and 8K
Film Crux has some beautiful templates for you to download for free. Sign up for their email list to download for free.
Letterbox Effect 2 Second
Get the cinematic look with ease with this easy2-second build in letterbox effect. The build-in and build-out are optional so do it your way.
Free Final Cut Pro plugin: Alex4D Letterbox effect – This one is pretty old but it’s still available online.
Film Dog Pro’s HD Letterbox Template Pack 70 – This download includes a whole bunch of PNG files with popular aspect ratio presets (11.33:1, 1.85:1, 2.35:1, and 2.40:1) and should work in any program. The files are either 720p or 1080p. Download via Vashi Visuals.
There are loads of letterbox tutorials on YouTube. Just do a quick search for your host application and you’ll see what I mean!
How To Create An Animated Letterbox – Premiere Pro Tutorial New
Ignace Aleya shows you how to animate a letterbox, a very cool, cinematic look.
Premiere Pro: Fake Letterbox & Video Filled Border Effects (Tutorial / How to) New
This tutorial from Justin Oshido is a little different. He shows you how to fill your letterbox with video. It’s a stylistic choice. This one came out earlier this month so it’s fresh!
How to Letterbox in DaVinci Resolve – Widescreen Aspect Ratio Tips New
Casey Faris explains letterboxing in DaVinci Resolve. How to make your video widescreen… or not widescreen.
Easy Letter Box in DaVinci Resolve New
JINN DHR gives you the scoop on DaVinci Resolve.
How to Add Black Bars (Widescreen) In Vegas Pro 15 – 2018 New
RobertDoesTutorials explains how to do this in Vegas.
Posted by Michele Yamazaki