How to go ‘widescreen’ with 4:3 gear

With the increasing popularity of widescreen TVs and DVDs, it’s hard to find an LCD or DLP projector now that doesn’t have a ‘widescreen’ or 16:9 aspect ratio mode.

Coupled with this is the increasing number of cameras and camcorders that are either true 16:9 (HDV) or have a widescreen mode, and the idea of ‘going wide’ can seem quite attractive.
So how can you get best use of these features for a VLOBLIVE gig?

Read on to find out…

There is definitely an appeal of 16:9 aspect ratio or ‘widescreen’ for live events.

Apart from the increasing amout of content that is available in widescreen (DVDs, HDTV recordings, HDV camcorder footage etc.) somehow it just looks very ‘professional’ and more compelling in some ways. There is also a very real benefit in projecting song words in 16:9, as it lets you fit more words on the line and it scans much better.

There are also cases where the decreased height of a 16:9 screen can make all the difference to fitting in where it needs to go.

So, do you have to throw out all your 4:3 gear to go 16:9?

Fortunately not, but there are some compromises and caveats that you need to be aware of.

Projectors

The best possible option is to use native 16:9 projectors, but I’ll accept that it may not be practical or possible to get hold of some of those. 

In my experience, 4:3 projectors with a 16:9 mode just compress the vertical height of the image (whether VGA or video) to fit into a 16:9 aspect ratio and display black bars at the top and the bottom of the normal projection area.

So the horisontal resolution remains the same (usually 1024 pixels for an XGA projector) but the vertical resolution drops from 768 to 576 pixels. So you lose some vertical resolution.. Depending on what you are projecting this may or may not be noticable. For standard definition video you won’t notice. For highly detailed graphics you might.

Now the trick for a 4:3 projector is sending it the right signal:

Video Sources

If you are sending video from a video camera in ‘widescreen’ mode, then as long as the camera is outputting ‘anamorphic’ video (i.e. it stretches the 16:9 frame to fill the 4:3 video format) it will work fine. If the video camera does ‘letterbox’, then it will just add black bars top and bottom, and this will get double-squished by the projector and look wrong.

If you are sending video from a DVD player, you need to set the DVD player to think it’s driving a widescreen or 16:9 TV, and all will work fine.

PC Graphics

If you are sending video from a scan converter, and the PC driving the scan converter is outputting to what it thinks is a widescreen display (see below) then it should be OK, but even if your PC can only produce 4:3 then if you are only using it to display text you are fine. There will be a slight ‘squishing’ of the text, but it’s not that noticable.

Any graphic elements would have to be vertically ‘stretched’ so that when they are subsequently ‘squished’ by the projector, they turn out as intended.

Video Mixers

If you have a 4:3 video mixer then as long as all your video sources are sending anamorphic 16:9 (i.e. widescreen video stretched to fill the whole 4:3 frame) then they will pass through the mixer unchanged and will look fine. You don’t need a ‘special’ 16:9 mixer. The only exception to this would be if the mixer is doing any character generation or titling effects.

VGA

If you are sending VGA directly to the projector, then you need to ensure that the PC that is driving it thinks it is driving a 16:9 aspect ratio display. Most decent modern graphics cards will let you drive this aspect ratio – you just go into display settings and select a different resolution which is a widescreen ratio, e.g. 1280 x 768
pixels, and this will work fine.
Watch out for Laptops though – many laptops with Integrated graphics chips will NOT drive widescreen aspect ratios, which is very annoying.
Most Macs I have used will work fine.

Software

If you are using a specialist song display software, like SongShow Plus or Mediashout, most of them will automatically notice that the output display is widescreen and adapt accordingly. You should check this with the vendor. I know for sure that the two mentioned here work fine.
If you are using Powerpoint, you need to set the page size (FILE…PAGE SETUP) to be a widescreen format e.g. 16″ by 9″ – select slide size of ‘CUSTOM’ then put in 16″ by 9″
If you are using Keynote on a Mac, again you just tell it what size of page (in pixels) to use, in the inspector.

Screens

You should bear in mind that big 16:9 aspect ratio ‘fastfold’ screens, of the type normally used at live events, are NOT as easy to get hold of and are more expensive to hire. This should change over time, but you should check with your normal supplier before you commit to this route.

Of course you CAN just use a 4:3 screen and drape the bottom (or top) with a black drape and ‘c’-clamps to get the right aspect ratio, but this won’t always look very good.

OK, that’s it.

It’s NOT as good as a true native 16:9 setup, but in some situations, either where the screen size forces it or where you are just trying to do something different, or where, for example movie playback is a key element of the event, it might be worth trying.

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