Have you ever wondered how you can get your film to look more like... a film? Or do you want to avoid stretching the footage you shot with an anamorphic lens? Then try letterboxing!

Letterboxing is the art of adding cinematic bars to make your footage fit a commonly used aspect ratio without stretching or cropping the footage.

Simply fill out the empty spaces in the sides or in the top/bottom with cinematic bars. Otherwise, you would have to stretch or crop your footage, which could ruin the quality of the shots.

If you're planning on using cinematic bars in your project, then check out our FREE Letterbox templates. We have plenty of cinematic bars available in different resolutions and aspect ratios.

If you want to learn more about filmmaking in general, then check out our article covering the filmmaking basics.

What is a Film Letterbox?

Letterboxing, or cinematic bars, is a feature you have seen if you have ever been to a cinema. It is basically black bars added to the screen to avoid stretching or resizing the frames of a film.

It has become such a big part of cinema now that it is almost expected when watching a movie. By adding bars to a film, it oozes the cinematic feel that we all know and love.

Why should you use it?

You should utilise letterboxing because it transforms your footage from a home video to a film. You can also use letterboxing to make your video fit any platform or screen you need it to.

Furthermore, the technical reasoning is that you avoid awkward cropping or resizing of your footage.

Without letterboxing, filming in 2.39:1 would look stretched on the typical 16:9 screen. If you're not following me, don't worry. 2.39:1 and 16:9 refer to the aspect ratio.

Aspect ratio is the ratio between the width and height of an image or screen. For example, when using an anamorphic lens, you film in 2:39:1 to get a wider field of view. But it does not translate directly to the screen, hence the act of letterboxing.

vintage camera

How does a Film Letterbox work?

A film letterbox simply works by adding black bars to the edges of your film project. Back in the analogue days that was easier said than done.

In the digital age, everything is done on a computer, and letterboxing is no different. You simply download our FREE letterbox templates, and import them into your project.

All of the files in our template is .png with added transparency. Simply find the right one and for you and add it to your project. It is really as simple as that!

We have made the templates available in the following resolutions: 1280×720, 1920×1080, 3840x2160 and 4096×2160. That should cover any project you might need it for.

Below you can find the definition of all of the different aspect ratios that you can transform your video into. Each of them has its benefits and flaws. It is ultimately your own decision to find out what fits best for your project.

Aspect Ratios in film

1:1 Square (Social Media)

The aspect ratio of 1:1 is commonly known as "Square" and is used on social media platforms and overhead projectors. While the latter is not as relevant anymore, using 1:1 is necessary for social media marketing.

With more than 75% of video watchers being phone users, you should consider making the best experience for your audience.

1.33:1 or 4:3 NTSC

1.33:1 is the typical aspect ratio for old computer monitors and televisions. It is close to the Academy Ratio, but it is seldom used anymore.

vintage tv

1.37:1 Academy Ratio

The Academy Ratio is actually 1.375:1, but it is typically abbreviated to 1.37:1. It is the standard set by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1932 and used by many films back in the day.

1.43:1 IMAX

If you're shooting for an IMAX project, you will need the resolution 1:43.1. It is taller than a standard screen, and cinematographers use 65mm or 70mm film to capture the frame.

3:2 Classic 35mm

3:2 is the aspect ratio used in Classic 35 film. It is the ratio shot by DSLR and mirrorless cameras, but it isn't used in cinema.

7:4 or 1.75:1 Metroscope

7:4, also known as 1.75:1, is an early ratio used for widescreens. It was used in the 50s but generally abandoned afterwards. Companies like Disney have used this for some of their DVD releases in the early 2000s.

1.85:1 Vistavision

1:85:1 is the standard Widescreen approach to film. Also known as Vistavision, it was invented to differentiate cinema from television. It can be used for a tight focus on the frame.

2:1 Univisium

The 2:1 ratio was invented in the 1950s. It was never the go-to for filmmakers, but it was used by Vittorio Storaro for, among other projects, Apocalypse Now.

Storaro proposed a "univisium" format that uses the 2:1 aspect ratio. He called it a compromise between the 2.39:1 and 16:9 ratio.

It is lately being used by Netflix and Amazon Prime as a standard format for their platforms.

2.2:1 Todd AO

2.2:1 was used on the 65/70mm film Todd-AO, invented in the early 50s and acted as an alternative to Cinerama. Todd-AO used a single camera rather than the three-camera system in Cinerama.

It was used in movies like 1956 Around the World in 80 Days and Patton.

2.35:1 CinemaScope

This format is commonly known from the CinemaScope series, which was used in the 50s and 60s. It is known as the grandfather of the anamorphic format.

While the Cinemascope lens isn't used anymore, the format still lives on.

2.39:1 Anamorphic

This format is the modern anamorphic lens format. It is commonly used in theatrical & blu-ray releases.

Using this format allows you to shoot with a wider field of view. It makes scenic landscapes and long installations look better. If you're aiming for a cinematic release, this is the format you would typically go for.

2.55:1 Vintage Cinemascope

This format was used in vintage cinemascope films and was very popular in 1950s movies. While it is not as used anymore, the 2016 La La Land was shot on film in this format.

2.76:1 Ultra Panavision 70 & MGM Camera 65

This format was used for the Ultra Panavision 70 and MGM Camera 65. It is an extremely wide anamorphic ratio that saw some use in the 50s and 60s.

It was brought back by Quentin Tarantino in The Hateful Eight using an actual Ultra Panavision lens. The format was used, with digital cameras, in both Rogue One and Avengers: Endgame.

9:16 TikTok

This format is a reverse of the typical 16:9 widescreen format. It is used on social media platforms like TikTok, where it is the standard video format. So if you're editing TikToks on your computer, be sure to use the letterbox as a measurement.

Closing thoughts

I hope this article helped you understand the importance of letterboxing.

If you are doing filmmaking professionally, you probably need a ton of different documents. We have gathered all of our FREE film production templates here.

How do you add a letterbox to a video?

You can simply add black bars to the missing space in a project. You will have to position your original footage in the centre.

What does a letterbox mean in a film?

Letterboxing is the act of adding the cinematic black bars that appear on film. They either appear on the sides or top/bottom of a movie. They are used to fill out space to avoid resizing the original footage.

What size are cinematic bars?

Cinematic bars are as big as the missing space of the project. The main footage is always in the centre, and the cinematic bars fill out the rest with black.