Tired of nearly every video I watch on YouTube and Google video being displayed at the improper aspect ratio, I decided to do a little testing to determine just what you need to do to get your widescreen video to display correctly on these web video services.
First up, I decided to see whether either of these services respected the aspect ratio flag video encoders can set to alter the aspect ratio at playback time. This is most commonly seen on so-called "anamorphic" DVDs, where the video is encoded at 720x480, but is scaled up to 854x480 to display the picture at the proper 16:9 aspect ratio. This is the most efficient way to encode content, as you get the benefit of both a smaller resolution and proper widescreen playback. The problem, however, is that many lazily-coded applications such as freeware DVD rippers, freeware screenshot grabbers, Windows Media Player, etc ignore them completely, choosing to instead display them at the resolution at which it was encoded rather than the one at which it's supposed to be played back. This results in tall skinny people -- and one very annoyed internet curmudgeon. (That's me.)
With this in mind, I crafted a short video that's encoded at 320x240, but set to display at 426x240. (426 / 240 = ~1.78 = 16 /9)
It looks like this:
I then submitted said video to both YouTube and GooVid, resulting in this:
As you can see, this worked OK, but it's less than ideal. You have to increase the size of your file by encoding black bars, not to mention the extra effort required to add them. There's got to be a better way. Let's just try encoding the video at a resolution that matches the aspect ratio. I chose 426x240, but you can choose any resolution you want; just make sure that when you divide the width by the height you get as close to 1.78 as possible. As an easy reference, just take the desired height of your video, and multiply it by (16/9) in your calculator. (240 * (16/9) = 426) This is the proper width to which you'd scale your video. Let's take a look at the results:
As you can see, this works flawlessly on both GooVid and YouTube, and is the best method to follow when preparing your widescreen video. No black bars. No fuss. No muss. (Hint: you can also use any aspect ratio you want. If your clip's aspect ratio needs to be 1.5:1, then just encode the video such that the width is 1.5 times the height. So: 400x266.)
If you'd like to do the same test on any of the other video sites I don't have accounts on, I've provided the videos below. If you do these tests, please let me know the results so I can update this page with them.
UPDATE: Emalyse submitted the test videos to dailymotion, wherein we learned that they too ignore the aspect ratio bit, and both pre-letterboxing to 4:3 and setting the video resolution to a 16:9 aspect work perfectly. Dailymotion goes one step further, not bothering to add in letterboxing, rather it just displays the video at the proper aspect. On Dailymotion the properly aspected resolution option becomes even more attracctive than the other video services.
If, while preparing sample widescreen videos for the 'YouTube/GooVid aspect ratios Howto' you've been planning to make, you are suddenly mystified at how none of them are actually at the correct aspect ratio, I'd suggest that you make sure that your widescreen monitors are at the aspect ratio you thought they were.
It turns out that when I got my new Viewsonics to replace the off-brand LCD I had for a while before that, I assumed they were the same aspect ratio (1.78:1) as the old one. Turns out that at the resolution I'm currently using they're actually 1.6:1. I've been both literally and figuratively pulling my hair out trying to figure out just why I had to stretch my videos to 2:1 to get them to display correctly, when I handcrafted them to need to be at 1.78:1 for proper display. Turns out it was a really simple misconfiguration problem that, had I not made some assumptions leading up to it, would have been the first thing I would have checked.
This is just another example of how when you "assume," you can often make an "ass" out of "u."
Know what drives me nuts? When people buy really expensive widescreen TVs, and then have them set up for the wrong aspect ratio*. Everyone looks fat and squashed, circles look like ovals, etc.
Know what drives me even more nuts? When people on TV, who work in the TV business do this. The Stephen Colbert Report is a prime example of this, his set having at least 2 widescreen TVs on it, all of them incorrectly configured. How come none of his photoshop monkeys complain about their work being streched out?
I've handily taken some screenshots that prove my case, which you will see below.
Here is the Colbert Report's logo, as shown in the opening credits:
Here is the Colbert Report's logo on incorrectly set up TV #1:
Here, I've cropped down the picture on the TV and scaled it to 4:3, where you can clearly see (allowing for the slight downward angle that the TV is being filmed at) that the logo is nearly identical to the one in the opening credits:
It seems that the computers feeding the snazzy animated graphics to the TV are feeding it a 4:3 picture, while the TV itself is set for 16:9.
This problem could easily be solved by two different methods. First -- and easiest -- set up the computer to output 16:9 in the first place. Second, if for some reason The Colbert Report is unable to pay for a computer graphics system that can output 16:9, they could simply create the graphics at 16:9, and then squash them down to 4:3 before outputting them. This way, when it is then stretched to 16:9 by the TV, the picture will display properly.
Now this might seem extremely nitpicky, it is after all just a logo, but this same problem affects the TV he uses to display actual things during the show. Things like:
The United States of America as seen on a map I stole off the internet:
Here's the USA as seen on The Colbert Report's 4:3 TV screen. Looks normal huh?:
Here's the USA as seen on Colbert's incorrectly set up 16:9 TV:
Looks like Colbert is making "from sea to shining sea" last a bit longer here.
For comparison purposes, I've gone ahead and scaled the 4:3 USA to 16:9, and shockingly, it looks just like Colbert's "revised" United States of America:
Something else you might see displayed correctly on Colbert's #2 TV is the band Asia. Watch them here morph from the semi-normal looking body weight presented on Colbert's TV to the actual emaciated version presented on the 4:3 screen (specifically, keep your eye on the Asian on the left):
If you've managed to stay with me this whole time, I will have conclusively proved to you that the tech guys at The Colbert Report have some tweaking to do. Perhaps you should check out the state of your widescreen TV as well, so that you don't look as silly as Stephen Colbert does every night?
*: Sure, not all programming is widescreen, but that's no excuse to just stretch out the 4:3 picture so that everyone looks fat and short. Pretty much every widescreen TV on the market has several options for modes to preserve the aspect ratio while still using up the whole screen. Granted, not all of them are ideal; some zoom in, cutting off the very top and bottom of the screen, others leave the center of the screen at the proper aspect ratio, only stretching the edges. It seems to me that either of these options would be preferred to having everything be all stretched out, but maybe I'm in the minority here.