Cinematic Black Bars: Best and Worst Ways to Add Black Bars to Your Video

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The filmmaking industry created cinematic black bars to preserve the original aspect ratio of a recorded film. Most motion pictures featured the standard 2.35:1 theatrical aspect when on film. Until the mid-1990s, televisions were square-shaped with an aspect ratio of 4:3. To combat the loss of large portions of a film, editors invented cinematic black bars in 1984.

The process of adding cinematic black bars was originally called “letterboxing.” The name came from front door mail slots, which are wider than they are long. When editors added black bars to the film, it condensed the width of the image so that television viewers could watch the full film in smaller aspect ratios.

Now, however, we have larger television screens and digital cameras. Even so, adding black bars to films is reminiscent of classic movies and can make your movies look more professional.

What Are Cinematic Black Bars

The origin of black bars along the edges of films is primarily due to the differences in viewing a film at home or the theater.

History of Cinematic Black Bars

Hollywood invented Cinemascope in 1953 to combat the growing popularity of home television. Until the advent of the Cinemascope process, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences used a standard 35mm film aspect of 1.37:1. The television aspect ratio of 4:1 almost matched this perfectly at 1.33:1.

Movie theatres used a much wider 2.35:1 ratio to wow audience goers. However, this also guaranteed that any movie aired on television would have to cut out many important pieces of each scene, as they did not have the space to show the entire image. Movie lovers would have to go to the theatre to experience the entirety of the film.

To combat this, RCA invented cinematic black bars to allow movies to become more accessible for home viewers.

Why Are There Cinematic Black Bars?

Home video viewing exploded in the early 1980s. Before VHS won the war, other home viewing options were available. Beta was more expensive but had a superior quality to VHS tapes. 8mm film was cumbersome, limited in length, and no longer popular.

Laserdisc movies were surprisingly invented in 1981 but were very expensive. A cheaper version was the RCA creation, the Capacitance Electronic Disc (CED).

The CED is a footnote in the home video experience but was the first format to use cinematic black bars for viewing. Since TVs were square-shaped, filmmakers placed black bars above and below the 2.35:1 format. RCA hope presenting movies in their original aspect ratio would increase CED sales. Sales did not increase, and the industry discontinued CEDs in 1986.

Although the CED did not catch on, letterboxing did. Directors loved cinematic black bars, of course. They could present films to a home audience the same way as in movie theaters. Fans dying to see a movie in its original aspect ratio whenever they wanted were also pleased with this change and purchased letterbox versions of movies well into the 21st century.

Why Add Cinematic Black Bars to Your Video?

Adding cinematic black bars immediately gives viewers the impression that they are watching a classically filmed piece.

Current screens for both television and smart devices use a 16:9 aspect ratio. That is shy of the original CinemaScope and letterbox filming ratio. The original cinematic bars ratio compared to the 16:9 format is an aspect ratio of 21:9. Therefore, it is five units wider than the standard HD format.

Presenting a film or video with cinematic bars lets the audience understand that the piece is in the original ultra-widescreen format of the golden days of Hollywood filmmaking. When used properly, the use of cinematic black bars can change the way viewers experience a video. It encourages nostalgia and gives an air of refinement to a film.

Cinematic Aspect Ratios

To decide whether black bars are the ideal choice for your film, you must understand what aspect ratios are. An aspect ratio is simply the width of an image compared to its height. The number of units is separated by a colon, with the width coming first.

The most common aspect ratios are:

  • AMPAS Industry Standard (1932-1950): 1.375:1
  • Home Television Screens: 4:3
  • CinemaScope: 2.35:1
  • Widescreen Aspect Ratio: 16.9:1
  • HD, UHD, and HDTV: 1.77.:1

How Do I Add Cinematic Black Bars To My Videos?

There are a few ways to add cinematic bars to a project. Some are good, and others are bad. Online tools and apps are available to create the “effect” of letterboxing but not all replicate the true ultra-widescreen format. As in all things in life, there are good and bad ways to letterbox a video. Here are a few examples of each.

The Best Way To Add Cinematic Black Bars

Of course, the best way to add cinematic black bars to a video is to shoot it with the correct aspect ratio from the start. This ensures the proper 21:9 format. Most professional equipment shoots video in this aspect ratio. Many phones allow for an adjustment from widescreen filming to ultra-widescreen in the settings.

Another best practice is to reframe the footage during editing. Most editing software today has an option that widens a video to the 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Popular editing software like Adobe uses a simple dropdown video resizer that does all the work. Even YouTube has an option under its video inspector tab.

Using an online video resizer also works. A quick online search will show you a long list of online video resizing tools. Many are free to use. Others require downloading and purchasing the necessary software.

A quality course in film or editing will teach you how to add black bars to your films if necessary. Finding a class with a professional teacher allows you to discover new techniques and receive advice about your projects.

Worst Ways To Add Cinematic Black Bars

It is probably best to stay away from using a graphics template. Motion graphic templates in Adobe are known as .morgt files. But various graphics templates are available almost anywhere online.

Graphics templates are after-effects that place black bars above and below after the fact. This does not guarantee that the video will be presented in a proper 21:9 aspect ratio, just that black bars will appear.

Quite possibly the most dangerous way is by adding black bars manually. Sometimes content creators without a knowledge of the history and importance of the 21:9 aspect ratio will toss a black bar above and below a video. There are so many ways this can go wrong. It is always best to simply use the proper software to get it right.

When in doubt, let the viewer’s player add the black bars. This will ensure that no formatting errors occur in the aspect ratio process. With most modern devices already filming in 16:9, many players will not misrepresent the cinematic black bars experience. At least not as bad as getting it wrong in editing.

Cinematic Black Bars Best Practices

The best way to ensure the proper formatting of cinematic black bars is to use software that provides aspect ratio adjusting on its own.

Filming in the classic 2.35:1 ultra-widescreen aspect ratio will provide the best quality when letterboxing a video. However, converting to a 21:9 ratio after editing also works. Just make sure to avoid copy-and-paste software that drops black bars into an already-formatted video, as this will not reformat the video properly.

Lisa Parmley
Lisa Parmley

Lisa Parmley is the founder of After gaining a Master's degree, she worked in research for about seven years. She started a training company in 2001, offering a course helping people pass a professional exam. That course has earned multiple 7 figures. She created SEO and authority site building training around 2007 which went on to earn well into the 6-figure mark.

She has 22+ years of experience in the trenches creating and selling online courses. Get help starting and growing your online course business here.

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