iMovie – letterboxing clips long after import



My daughter was recently in a school play, and I’ve been stuck with a huge amount of video on my laptop, taking up valuable room, and a play director anxiously awaiting the DVD I promised last year…

For months, I’ve been struggling to figure out a solution to this problem. I had imported a large amount of footage from my DV camera into iMovie 6. During the auto-letterboxing stage, my MacBook had froze or the screensaver kicked in or something. I had to force quit iMovie to move on, but once I did, the remaining new clips that I had to use were still not letterboxed, and I didn’t want my movie to look all ghetto and squished in parts, like the ending of Officer and a Gentleman when my mom used to watch it on TV!

Finally, I discovered a solution in the form of a little program called Streamclip for OS X. But while I was on the ride to work, I did not have a wifi connection to solve a few critical questions I had about the software before I used it. They say that necessity is the motherhood of invention – it’s true! I just discovered how to do this extra letterboxing ALL WITHIN iMOVIE. Let me share:

First, select one of the clips that did not get letterboxed automatically. (this would be so much easier if Apple included a “letterbox” menu command, but for some reason, there isn’t one.) Then go to your file menu and select EXPORT.
Select QuickTime at the top of the requestor, and then change the dropdown menu to “Expert Settings”. Next click “Share”

Select on your hard drive where you want your temporary clip to be exported. At the bottom of this screen, change the Export format to “Movie to DV Stream” and then hit the Options button immediately to the right of that dropdown. You’ll see the following screen:

Make sure DV is selected for the DV Format, and then click the checkbox reading “Preserve aspect ratio using:” Change the dropdown to Letterbox. (this is the most important thing!)

I also chose LOCKED for the Audio Format, and set that to CD-Quality sound (44.1khz) though I’m not sure how much difference it made.

Hit “OK” to lock it in, and then hit Save when you get back to the dialog box. Now you’ll need a little patience, because you may be in for a wait if you clip is pretty long. Once it’s finished, if you notice, when you view your clips, the appearance of your non-letterboxed clip looks the same:

That’s because you still need to import the letterboxed clip you just output. To do this, go to your File menu again, and select “Import.”

Find the newly exported clip, and bring it back in by hitting “Open”. Here it comes!

After importing the new letterboxed clip, you can now see a difference looking at the library of clips you have available. It looks like this:


There it is! (“hunchesB” in my example above). Now there are only a couple of drawbacks to this method:

For some reason, the imported letterbox clips are a tiny bit more narrow that the ones auto-letterboxed by iMovie. See how the new clip has tiny black bars on each side? This didn’t bother me too much, because it is pretty much just a home movie. I imagine if it bugged you that much, you could just re-import your video from tape again- this wasn’t an option for me at the time. And if you’re doing anything really professional, odds are you aren’t using iMovie but rather something much more expensive.

The other thing I noticed is that when I rendered titles, fades, or other effects over the new letterboxed clips, I got a horrible “noise” noise. Since I needed the titles in there, I just lowered the volume of the movie before, during, and immediately after the clips (you do that when they’re placed in the timeline below the viewscreen, by moving the long, horizontal colored line up and down as needed). This might have something to do with setting the audio at 44 back when I exported, but I’m not sure. If anyone has any input about that, I’d love to hear it.

I hope this helps alleviate any headaches iMovie may be giving you if you’re stuck with unletterboxed clips and have taped over your original footage like I had. Feel free to pass this tutorial around to anyone you might think needs it. Happy movie-making!

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2 Replies to “iMovie – letterboxing clips long after import”

  1. Becky, most likely the computer is locked. This is what happened to me. I had to force quit, but then my clip was unletterboxed, as yours will be. That’s what got me needing this workaround.

    Restart your computer and give it a try. And if possible, if you’re on a laptop, make sure it’s plugged in and not just running on battery power, in case the computer goes to sleep. I have a suspicion that that’s what started my woes…

  2. question for you….. we have a 60 minute clip that has been letterboxing in imovie HD for 6 days. Do you think this is normal?? The only message it says is “building movie for clip 07” plus this blue horizontal barber pole line that keeps moving.
    Any thoughts???
    Thanks Becky

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