A Vertical Visual Language
To be honest – I like VistaVision, one of the myriad of gimmicky monikers given to widescreen formats in the 1950s. I would go to the cinema and see Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest right now if I could, the vibrant colours and precise composition hold up to the test of time impeccably. There is a reason that since the advent of cinema, for the most part it has been a steady march towards wider and wider formats, as it reflects the way we see the world with peripheral vision.
William Dickson’s original 4:3 created in Thomas Edison’s lab led to the Academy Ratio of 1932, which led to the widescreen era of the 1950s fuelled by Cinerama, and beyond to the 70mm film stock, and IMAX of the 1970s. Widening the aspect ratio to create a sense of scale was how the movie industry responded in 1953 to the rise of television and predictions of the death of cinema.
Kerns H. Powers’ compromise between 4:3 and 2.35 led to the advent of the 16 X 9 screen, which would dominate the world’s video products in the years that followed and influence the aesthetic of advertising accordingly. As a reaction, brands trying to tell a story that resonates still often make the choice to use more cinematic aspect ratios because of the gravitas it brings, and there remains a compelling argument to do so. Audience expectations change, consciously or otherwise, based on the format of the film.
As commercial filmmakers we help brands tell stories to their audiences, and as more and more of those brands’ audiences are watching those stories on their phones, a new reality beckons for many of us – vertical filmmaking.
Facebook’s Instagram Stories is already claiming 400 million users, double the originators of the format Snapchat, who still have a more than respectable 191 million users according to their Q1 earnings report. That Instagram Stories audience still represents less than half of the total users of Instagram, a number virtually sure to continue to rise in the short-term.
It’s in this context that Facebook launched IGTV which, crucially, allows creators to publish content up to an hour in length. Brands have already started to engage with the nascent platform, and traditional ad units are sure to follow soon. It remains to be seen whether audiences will embrace longer form storytelling in this format. So far audiences have showed an appetite for short form content, advertising included, in vertical formats, if the performance data from those platforms is to be believed.
With brands still looking to create longer-form content that audiences actively seek out, and the tendencies of those coveted demographics to consume content through these platforms, the confluence of the two trends should lead to opportunities to create new work that looks to take advantage of the format’s strengths to tell compelling stories.
The format, like any other, will ultimately require a different type of visual language specific to it. Scorsese’s widely referenced epithet 'cinema is a matter of what’s in the frame and what’s out' is more typically used when discussing framing and camera placement, but the very shape of the frame is obviously crucial. Far more imaginative cinematic minds than mine will have much to say about this new language moving forward, and given that is for now essentially an exclusively mobile space, data will surely drive some creative decisions, but there are already visual trends beginning to define the space.
Portraiture is a natural fit in vertical formats, just as it has been since European oil paintings in the 15th century, and the hyper-focus on the subject can add an immediacy to the film. The challenge of placing characters in context often forces filmmakers to use a series of shots rather than letting the context live in the frame around the character as it might in a horizontal shot. It has of course become the visual language of social media, including the viewer-captured footage that can dominate our news cycles. That sense of urgency can be exploited by filmmakers as a tool like any other.
Vertical filmmaking is still waiting for its Cinerama moment. While there are certainly lovely films composed for vertical aspect ratios, featuring cliff divers and skyscrapers and other visual subjects that lend themselves to that shape, there remains a tremendous opportunity for filmmakers to create new and exciting work that pushes the format forward, and to begin to define a look and feel. Success will come to filmmakers that embrace this new reality and see the aspect ratio for what it is, another frame in which to show off their craft, and to create emotional connections with audiences the same way filmmakers have been doing for hundreds of years.
The challenge moving forward is a familiar one, convincing clients and brands to be ambitious in this space, to challenge their production partners to hold the work to the same standards as anywhere else, to not fall into the trap of cheap and dirty. Brands that trust the right filmmakers, and give them the freedom to find a language that connects with viewers, will reap the rewards - content that will cut through the uploads of 600 million daily users and have an impact.
Ezra Xenos is executive producer at HALAL