Vertical Video: Creative tool or film-making apocalypse?

Featured Photo byJacob Morch

pexels-photo-67654.jpegWith the first motion picture being recorded in 1888, and the first widescreen one being developed in 1897, what we now like to call “videos“ are part of everyone’s life whether they like it or not. Moving images have become such a huge binding in the book we call life, just like smartphones. So what happens when you strap a camera to one of the most influential pieces of handheld technology to date? You get smartphone (or vertical) video.

During Samsung’s live announcement of the Galaxy S9, they predicted that over 1 trillion images and videos will be recorded in 2018. With exceptions from Blackberry and other companies, nearly all modern smartphones have a tall and narrow design for which the camera sensor follows suit. Typical video is wide whereas smartphone video is tall. As it is more comfortable to hold a phone upright than on it’s side people tend to go for video which, when played back on smartphone is fine but when played back on a laptop or widescreen monitor has huge black bars either side.

Smartphones are getting more popular as cameras and eventually the day will come where point and shoot cameras are sent to the skip and recycled. In fact some people don’t view their media on anything else but a phone. People in Gloucestershire were asked where they view photos they have taken and although the majority upload them to their computer or the cloud, 44% of users never view their phone photos on a computer.

Why is photo not a problem but video appears to be? First off tradition, photos have always varied in shape and size throughout history and secondly pictures can be printed off. Unlike video you can stretch a canvas or cut down a print to any format you’d like and then find a decent frame for it. Video is fixed in one orientation and so are the screens.

For professional video creators it can be a challenge to accept this format as a true style of video. 4:3, 16:9 and even 1:1 are all considered normal, but what about 9:16? Gary Renals, a film maker and directing graduate, was asked whether he had ever shot a vertical video and replied “I have shot video vertically, but just for throw away video such as chats or memes.” He added that he feels vertical video holds no cinematic weight as a serious format and that he would never shoot anything professionally this way. While he agreed that different frame sizes can be used well in film, such as the Grand Budapest Hotel where the aspect ratio constantly changes throughout, he still believes that vertical video will “simply be utilised for filling up the real estate of a phone screen”.

What’s being said has some merit here. The way that composition works, and the different concepts like rule of thirds and golden ratio make vertical video just not seem quite right. Because of how long we have been used to rectangular format the first impression when looking at vertical video outside of a phone is what’s going on outside the frame, what can’t we see and what this is doing to what’s inside the frame.

Square video hasn’t taken off massively apart from motion infographics on social media which is surprising as it could be considered to have more cinematic merit than  vertical video. But then again the entire reason for its existence is to fill up screen real estate and do you have an exact 1:1 square screen anywhere?

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The real issue here is that certain video sizes are not lining up with the screen sizes which causes black bars and what looks like missing parts of the video. This is not such an issue for mobile only programs such as Snapchat and Periscope. These are two of the largest apps which are 100% focused on vertical video. The user interface and content created really lends itself towards the tall screens of today. The problem arises when videos are shared and viewed through different screen sizes such as Youtube or Google Photos, these apps are both desktop and mobile which means that whichever way video is shot, there will be bars. That being said it is easier to record video horizontally and spin the phone onto its side rather than sit through a narrow video on a widescreen. Aspect ratios in videos can be used very effectively and the way technology has changed means that we can use these formats to portray different moments in time.Before widescreen films, TV used to be a taller 4:3 ratio.

Using 4:3 in today’s time is still common, however it is used for the creative effect of nostalgia. If a video wants to look old then crop the format, make it black and white, add some blemishes and you’ve got a 1930s piece of film. Want the opposite? make the frame super wide to create an immersive, letterbox style video which is agreed by many to be the most “cinematic” format.

So is vertical video taking over? Is this the end of traditional cinematic experiences? No, of course not. Portrait recording is only rising in popularity due to the smartphone being such a big part of modern life. The trouble is that if it sticks for good, creatives need to find a way to make it work and to make it seem serious instead of throw away video and Snapchat stories.

To end, here is a satirical video on the matter.

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