It's typically best to work in the highest resolution possible without taking too much of a performance hit. You can certainly export comps for std def from HD but be mindful of things like pixel aspect ratio, aspect ratio (16:9 to 4:3?), and readability in lower res. Hope that helps!
1920x1080 is high def right? that doesn't scale exactly to 720x480 so will it be distorted? also, do I need to worry about my text getting pixelated?
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1920x1080 is an HD format. There are tons of others out there, but that's what I would go with.
It scales pretty close to 720x480 if you're using the NTSC widescreen pixel aspect ratio. However, if you want to use the normal 0.9 aspect ratio of NTSC television, you'll be happy to see that AE's guides on a 1920x1080 comp not only give you safe areas for widescreen TV, but also include an extra set of bars for if you're cropping to 4:3 so you can have a quick check on how that looks. (Press ' to get it)
No, you don't have to worry about your text getting pixelated. You do, however, have to worry about it being to small to be readable at a smaller resolution. The simple way to check this is to have your main (HD) comp in a smaller (SD Widescreen) comp. That way you can hop over into your smaller comp to check readability, etc. every once in a while.
It's a good idea to build projects for the largest frame size you will ever need them but scaling down from full 1080 HD to weenie 480 NTSC can introduce tons of artifacts especially if you are going from a progressive production format to interlaced output. Any elements that are 12 pixels high can become, what, 5.5 pixels? That's gonna buzz.Trajectories of moving objects become weirdly disorienting when converting from a 16x9 space to 4x3, even with letterboxing.
We often work in larger frame sizes than the final output but for other reasons. I usually maintain 1-to-1 pixel without any scaling but only I'm using a small portion of the larger movie in the smaller production window.
1920x1080 HD and NTSC DV Widescreen (the standard used in nearly all commercial DVDs) match perfectly in terms of overall frame aspect. NTSC DV Widecreen is 4:3 in pure pixel count, but it gets to a final 16:9 aspect anamorphically (the pixels are much wider). Fortunately, NTSC DV Widecreen can also be 23.976 progressive and still be compatible with NTSC dvd players, which is very nice if your 1080 comp is 24P.
While you could use the stretch section of the Render Settings to render the 1080 Comp to NTSC DV Widescreen, it's usually recommended that instead of doing this, you drop your 1080 Comp inside of a new NTSC DV Widescreen Comp, and use that one as output Comp.