Newsletter #154 - June 16, 2007
Vista Handles Aspect Ratios Better than XP...


Two seemingly unrelated things happened earlier this week to lead me into this topic...

The first was a newsgroup poster asked why his video clips were handled differently in Vista's MM6 versus XP's MM2.1... I looked at one of his clips in XP and Vista, and tried to explain to him the differences. Everything was 'normal', just different in how Movie Maker handled them.

His viewpoint was that Vista's MM6 has a problem because it's not handling his clips the same way he's used to seeing them. My viewpoint is that Vista is smarter and better than XP, not distorting the video clips to fill the working window.... adding black borders to letterbox the video clips instead. 

The other event was my shopping for a new spare laptop... something low-priced to use in a pinch when my high-end HP isn't available for whatever reason (it recently developed an issue that might need its first visit to a repair shop). Shopping shows that, if you like Vista or not, unless you want an Apple you end up with something running Vista. I came home with a Toshiba Satellite L35 notebook with Vista's Home Basic - $399 after rebates... amazingly low price. It's running fine and I'm breaking it in by alternating nights at Barnes & Noble between it and my big HP Pavilion. I'm doing some software reviews and it helps to see how things work in both XP and Vista.

As Vista moves more and more into my computer life, differences between how Movie Maker in XP and Vista handle widescreen and standard clips will be worth understanding. It may seem like a subtle difference, but it can significantly change how you approach a movie project.

Standard aspect ratio is 4:3 in both XP and Vista... and widescreen is 16:9. The big difference is:
It you've grown accustomed to the distortion in MM2, and rely on it, you could find yourself in the same bind the poster was in.
My camcorder doesn't 'letterbox' by adding borders to the clips as they are recorded on the camcorder. But the poster's camcorder does. His library of tapes with black borders on them work well in MM2 as he has grown accustomed to the distortions. Beyond accustomed, he considers it a good feature.... and is in a dilemma with Vista as he can't use it to make the same distortions.  
Sometimes our familiarity with software is such that even improvements can upset the apple-cart.

Odd sized movies and stories that don't align with the standard 4:3 or widescreen 16:9 aspect ratios are still in need of the same customized treatment. The good news is that the custom profiles used to make them in XP still work in Vista.
Before getting into more details, here are...
... a few notes...

Vista Corner
When importing video clips into MM2.1, you have the option to turn off the 'create clips for video files' option. You don't have the option in MM6. Auto clip generation is part of the importing process. I noticed some differences...
I reached across my network and imported a full 13 GB 1 hour file that was captured in XP, and it imported into Vista in a second... without auto clip splitting. The tags and markers in the DV-AVI files must have some differences, something to explore more fully someday.
If you don't want auto split clips in the collection, select them all and use the Combine feature. Unfortunately, you'll have already spent the time to have the auto-splitting go through the file. Combining them is much faster.
Test Files...
I'm often in need of quickly grabbing a test file to see how something works in an app. Often it's easier to make a new test file than to find one I've used before. But with two working laptops and smaller more portable external hard drives, I'm consolidating my test files into one place.
One of my external USB drives is a cute little red SimpleTech 40 GB one. It's been sitting on my desk for a month waiting to be used. It's powered from the USB port of the computer, which makes it super portable. I'm rounding up my test files, and attaching the drive to whichever computer needs it most at the moment. The others can reach across the network to them. And it goes in my backpack when I leave the house.
.... back to the main topic...

Widescreen versus Standard
Let's look at the usual 4:3 and 16:9 aspect ratios first, and then those that depart from them. Given any standards, there will be those who want to deviate from them... for fun like me or for artistic effect.
Usual Aspect Ratios...
The two options in Movie Maker's settings pretty much define the usual ratios. The standard 4:3 and widescreen 16:9 aspect ratio video clips are usually shot in those proportions on a camcorder, and the ratios carried along in movies. Photo Story includes profiles for standard 4:3 aspect ratios only, but by using custom profiles, you can make widescreen stories.
Mini-DV and other camcorders usually record video clips with pixel dimensions of 720x480 (NTSC). When brought into the square pixel environment of computers, a tag in the clip tells the software that it was shot as standard or widescreen. The software will squeeze it in a bit to make it standard 4:3 or stretch it a bit sideways if it's 16:9 widescreen.
Computer software use some combination of pixel dimensions and the standard/widescreen tags to determine how to show it. The programmers changed how Movie Maker in Vista makes its decision versus how it displays the same clips in XP.
Clips shot in standard or widescreen and saved by MM2.1 in XP as either standard or widescreen fill the working screen... with distorted images as needed.
MM2 Distorting as needed
MM6 in Vista maintains the aspect ratios of the source clips, and adds black borders to the top and bottom as needed to fill the window.
In both XP and Vista, standard clips in a standard project, and widescreen clips in a widescreen project fill the working window just right and don't need black borders.
In Vista's MM6, a widescreen clip saved to standard gets black borders at the top and bottom. A standard clip saved to widescreen gets black borders at the sides. Vista Adding Borders
Distortion may be acceptable for some scenes but not others... in these snapshots, distortion might even be considered an 'enhancement'.
In XP I've been trained to make either standard or widescreen movies, not mixing different clips. In Vista I can relax, feed a project any mix of standard and widescreen clips, and let Movie Maker automatically do the letterboxing.

Unusual Aspect Ratios...
I have a couple embedded videos on my website's Save Movies > Custom WMV Profiles page. One tall and thin, and the other short and fat. The short one is made of 6 Picture-in-Picture thumbnail videos over a short extremely wide background video of 850x60 pixels.
Movie Maker in XP and Vista treat the video the same, distorting it to fill the window. Viewing results vary with the viewing software. Here it is looking as designed by opening it in TMPGEnc. It was hard to find something that would open and display it at its pixel dimensions.  
Opening in TMPGEnc
Vista snapshotFrame snapshots of this video taken in the collection bin by Movie Maker differed a bit in the two systems...
The one by MM6 in Vista is shown at the right (384x288 pixels), while the one by MM2.1 is below (80x60). Both of them show the same distortion, making the clip fill the window at a standard 4:3 aspect ratio... of 16:9 widescreen if I toggle to that setting.
Snapshot by MM2
I'm not the only one who uses odd-sized movies and stories. There's an occasional request from someone who needs help making a profile that aligns the pixel dimensions with their preference.
If you're using such custom profiles, copy the whole Profiles folder from the Movie Maker/Shared/location of XP to the same location in Vista... make the folder if you don't already have it. Restart Movie Maker in Vista and the profiles will be in your pick list when saving. They should function.

the Aspect Ratio of Still Pictures and Animated GIFs
Movie Maker in XP and Vista handle still pictures the same... centering the usual snapshot type images within the window, and resizing them as needed to fit within the window and yet maintain the aspect ratio.
Globe in XP
Vista's enhanced handling of video clips extends to the hybrid animated GIF files.
VistaAt the right the animated globe GIF file (a series of square pictures at 96x96 pixels) is handled in XP with the usual video distortion to fill the window.
At the left is how it appears in Vista.... and although not a standard 4:3 or 16:9 aspect ration, the squareness of the globe pictures is right for the roundness of the globe. It's letterboxing the clip by adding black borders on the sides.

Conclusion and Closing... and What's Next?
The poster who asked for help wasn't really satisfied by my conclusion that there wasn't an issue in Vista... beyond that I was calling it an enhancement.
His camcorder shoots in quasi-widescreen mode, adding black borders to the video as it captures footage. My DV camcorder doesn't do it that way, but I have an older Hi8 model that offers the option. It adds a complexity to the situation that he'll have to deal with after understanding what's happening. 
There's a new tip #10 on my website's Vista > Movie Maker > Introduction page, about how MM6 handles aspect ratios differently than MM2.1. I didn't check MM2.6 in Vista but expect it to work as MM2.1 does in XP. I downplay MM2.6 by not mentioning it or including it in my studies. 
Have a great week and enjoy your video work...