Pillarboxing, and why content creators need to avoid it like the plague

Let me get this out of the way up front.  I judge you harshly due to your... orientation.

I'm talking about video production here, and to be blunt, cellphones are quite possibly the worst thing to ever happen to video.  That's not to say that putting the ability for anyone and everyone to shoot broadcast-quality video in their pocket is a bad thing.  It's just implemented very poorly by cellphone manufacturers.

So what's my main gripe?  Orientation.  As long as there's been camcorders, there's only been one way to hold them.  If you can look at a screen (or "viewfinder" for the Saget-era America's Funniest Home Video vintage among us), you know which way to hold the camera upright.  But now we live in a digital, flat-screen, widescreen age.  TVs are widescreen.  Computer screens are wide.  It all makes sense.

So why have cellphone manufacturers not gotten the hint and written this into their camera apps?  For those not accustomed to shooting video, it feels more natural to hold a cellphone like... a cellphone, in the vertical orientation.  So when they record video, it records in that portrait-style frame.  Yet when they upload the video to Facebook or YouTube -- whose players follow the worldwide widescreen orientation that's as old as the moving image -- their videos are "pillarboxed."

What is "pillarboxing?"  It's the opposite of "letterboxing," which is a term people are probably more familiar with from the days of VHS players and big, boxy tube-style TVs.  Letterboxing is sandwiching the image between top and bottom black bars, to ensure the entire width of the image is preserved on a narrower screen.  Pillarboxing does the same for vertically-oriented frames, squeezing them to the center of the screen with left and right black bars.

What's the difference, and why care about this phenomenon at all?  When something is letterboxed, you don't generally notice the empty space in the frame because the difference between a 1.33:1 aspect ratio old-school TV and a 1.85:1 movie frame isn't that pronounced.  When turn a 16:9 ratio HD video on its side, and display it in a 16:9 frame in its normal horizontal orientation, the wasted space is extremely noticeable.  In a manner of speaking, it's like standing a foot away from a picket fence and trying to watch a baseball game through the open space.  Look at the example above from the Minnesota DNR's Facebook page.  I've been to Gooseberry Falls, and the power and majesty of that gorgeous place is lost in that video.  Think of the wonder and awe that would have been conveyed if the taker -- well-meaning though they were -- had just turned the camera the right way?  Pillarboxing reduces the impact of your video 60-70% in screen real estate alone!

It doesn't seem like smartphone makers can fix this orientation issue in the software, as most imaging sensors aren't "square."  Heck, I'd even be happy if they used the orientation sensors and popped up a warning on the screen that said "are you sure you want to shoot video holding the phone that way?"  But since it doesn't look like Apple and company are ever going to install those camera sensors in a perpendicular fashion, do us all a favor and turn your phone sideways when shooting a video.  Nobody wants to consume your marketing message like a peeping tom.

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