The Almost Full Circle of Vertical Media

Could our grandparents have imagined a scenario in which we stand in a renovated Victorian theatre, hear an alert on our phone, look down to see a link to an amateur cat video, watch it on a screen not much longer than our thumb, pause the video to save it for later and then walk into the auditorium in order to view a two-hour Hollywood production in wide screen 3D with Dolby Atmos sound?

This is my media landscape.

Do I know what my media landscape will be like in five, ten or fifty years’ time?

No. But I can imagine it.

One of the processes of imagining it has been to look at screen technology and see what has happened to the distinct media of my childhood: the book, the painting, the film and the television programme. In the 1980s they only occasionally converged. Today, I have devices of varying sizes – the smart phone, the tablet, the e-reader, the laptop, the desktop monitor, the HD TV, the cinema at the bottom of my street – that can display them all. The biggest of these are fixed; the smallest can be rotated within my hands and, like the magician’s sleight of hand trick, can change the frame of my media so rapidly that I barely notice the frame is there at all.

So here is a premise, or perhaps a question: if the screen can be flipped, why can’t the content be flipped?

This is the question that has formed the basis for my experiments with vertical media for the last couple of years. These are experiments with colleagues and friends in New Zealand as well as the wider, thinly connected, but sometimes interested, networks of social media peers across the globe. The first experiment was a guttural, almost petulant, response to a video that said that moving-images could not be vertical:

because motion pictures have always been horizontal, television are horizontal, computer screens are horizontal, people’s eyes are horizontal …None of the latter statements are absolute truths (especially not the limited understanding of how our eyes receive and process images).

Some of the very first moving-images, Muybridge’s studies of motion, were in a portrait framing.

Some of the most recent moving-images for advertising displays have been in a vertical format.

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 http://vimeo.com/groups/tallscreen/videos/75845877

The only way to respond to such absurdities (and for many more follow #verticalvideo on Twitter) was with further absurdities: the vertical cinema manifesto

 

Like all good absurdities, there is a heavy dose of truth with in them and my article with Maddy Glen articulates this more clearly.

With these two absurd extremes now posited – a world in which we are banned from portrait framing and a world in which only portrait framing is allowed – the middle ground was less opaque and available for experimentation. This led to three more films, Heaven, Eddie’s Adventure and our entry to the 2013 New Zealand 48 Hours film competition, Vic Dreams. It also led to a workshop to see what else could happen and a glimpse into the other end of the world where other practitioners (Aram Bartholl, Gregory Gutenko, Vertical Cinema Rotterdam, David Neal) were finding their own way through vertical possibilities.

Why, then, is our latest experimentation – the 2014 entry into the 48 hours competition – seemingly a rejection of the vertical form?

Waiting for Morgan Still

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bZbZcaQxkWU

At a first glance this may seem to be the case. It is the first film I have worked on in two years that is in a horizontal format. In its most basic premise Waiting for Morgan is the tale of an aspiring cinema pioneer, James, who gives up everything to invest in the promise of a new vertical cinema that never comes to fruition. Blinded by his excitement in the new technology, James does not realise that he is the emperor waiting for new clothes that never arrive.

Hopefully at a second glance it becomes clear that this is us, back in the middle ground of experimentation and analysis, finding our way through our contemporary media landscape. Like all technological businesses, moving-image industries are in a constant race for the next big thing (HD, 3D, HFR, Ultra HD, 4K, 8K). The establishment of new technologies is often driven by the creativity, love and inventiveness of individual pioneers but it is rarely taken into the mainstream unless it can serve market-driven commercial models. 3D cinema is a good case study as its technological developments and innovations were kept alive through the boom and bust periods of the 1950s and 80s due to the perseverance and dedication of stereoscopic aficionados. However, 3D cinema only became part of a sustainable mainstream context when Hollywood devised a revenue system to make it profitable. Vertical media is currently the preserve of independent and avant-garde experimental filmmakers or amateur filmmakers on YouTube and Facebook (who may not even realise their participation in a new aesthetic). It is unlikely to become part of mainstream culture unless it becomes profitable.

In the same way that 3D cinema is no better and no worse than 2D cinema, vertical framing is not a replacement for horizontal aspect ratios. However, it may become a popular aesthetic when utilised, and made profitable, in new media scenarios. Our new screen environments – rotatable phones and tablets; vertical monitors in airports and train stations- are quite possibly the sites for a new moving-image culture. In our short film, all of this is missed by our protagonist James who is hoping to jump on the bandwagon for the next big thing rather than take stock of the possibilities available to him.

For me (and I hope it is also true of the talented crew and actors who co-created Waiting for Morgan) James’ dying dream does not represent the end of new technological possibilities: an affirmation that ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’ Instead, it highlights what happens when we become driven by individual excitement and forget to look around and take on the advice of the others around us. Had James considered the tablet in his hands or had a more honest conversation with his wife Moira, then his dream might still have been alive.

Within this context, Waiting for Morgan is a modern-day Icarus tale. The message isn’t to give up on the dream of flying, just that soaring too high, without heeding the advice of others is always a potential danger. All those who say vertical framing is wrong and should be ended now, will see many of the early pioneers fall into the sea but from my scholarly perspective I hope to also see some others take flight in interesting and unexpected ways.

 

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The 3D female body: Pompeii and Captain America: The Winter Soldier

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Pompeii (2014) Directed by Paul W. S. Anderson

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Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) Directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo

 

The recent 3D Hollywood outputs haven’t exactly had inspiring narratives or complex plots. My first thoughts on Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) were that it went something like: formulaic opening battle, bang bang explosion, complicated conspiracy plot, bang bang explosion, more bang bang, the end. It did, however, far exceed Pompeii’s (2014) rather limited combination of Spartacus (various versions) and the Horse Whisperer (1998). Both films combine some good stereoscopic depth of field with varying degrees of spectacular effects although neither uses 3D technology in a particularly innovative way. However, together, they helped me think through some recent ideas I have had concerning the presentation of bodies, particularly female bodies, in 3D cinema. These are still somewhat speculative and will most likely rely on secondary viewings of the films once they have been released on Blu-ray but I thought it was worth a first shot at articulating them.

For me, one of the defining effects of 3D cinema is the ability to present the curves and contours of objects, particularly human bodies, in greater depth. The potential this has for emphasising sexual female curves has already been drawn upon with great glee in exploitation-style 3D films such as Piranha 3D (2010) and the even more obviously titled Piranha 3DD (2012). At the same time, stereoscopy also has the potential to counteract the Photoshop induced drive towards reducing female bodies into slighter and slighter proportions. Stereoscopic depth is often most interesting and most present in its tactile invitation to audiences when depicting, full, rounded forms. There is no reason why female bodies cannot be celebrated within this context.

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Suffice to say, both 3D films reviewed here, Captain America and Pompeii eschew this possibility. This is not to say that they don’t give significant screen time and agency to their female protagonists, Black Widow and Cassia respectively. Rather, it is their visual development of these characters that lets down a thankful (although not yet fully complete) tendency in Hollywood towards rebalancing gender roles on screen.

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Emily Browning, as co-protagonist Cassia in Pompeii, offers an example of how the human form can be emphasised and/or distorted in stereoscopy. Browning’s distinctive facial features, particularly her high cheek bones, have long allowed her to have enigmatic screen appeal. However, in Pompeii, the attempt to emphasise her slim sinewy body frame while retaining sexualised curves (a seemingly Barbie inspired ideal for many Hollywood filmmakers) means that her body often has a type of elongated stereoscopic protrusion towards the cameras. When her face is shot in the same way, her cheekbones and other features take on an eerie sense of exaggeration that looks distorted in comparison to Milo’s (Kit Harrington) more proportioned composure (albeit with some extreme muscles). This is not simply a case of the filmmakers shooting a body the way it is (in this case a particularly slim body). Instead, control of the separation between the cameras as well as manipulation of the convergence angles means that the filmmakers are able to sculpt depth proportions the way they wish. In this case, it seems that an attempt to foreground the curves of Browning’s breasts and her distinctive cheekbones has led to an unnatural distortion of the rest of her body, an aspect that would not be apparent in the 2D version. While I am usually in favour of expressive uses of stereoscopy that aren’t caught up in concerns for naturalistic representation, questions have to be asked about how modifications and exaggerations of depth are played out in different ways across different gendered bodies.

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In a slightly different way, Black Widow is un-shot in Captain America in order to look particularly wispy. By this I mean that instead of distorting Scarlet Johansson’s body in stereoscopic depth, full shots of her body are avoided. In doing so, the impossible ideal of her super slim but equally voluptuous body is left as only a possibility. This is not to deny that Scarlet Johansson is naturally slim and curvy, but as the criticism directed to the poster of Black Widow prior to the film’s release made clear, certain attributes of her body have been enhanced for reasons that are beyond character development. In order to maintain the illusion of a figure that was clearly Photoshopped within the poster, Black Widow’s body is rarely presented in full on screen. She is frequently framed in head shots or at a distance, dashing between other objects, so that it is impossible to determine the full outline of her frame. When her whole body is displayed, it is either so rapidly that her tightly wrapped costume is not available for scrutiny or, in the case of her undercover trip through the mall with Captain America, the plot necessitates she wears a baggy hoodie. While some of the frequent cutaways and reluctance to display her whole body can be explained by the likelihood that a stunt double was employed for many shots, the depiction of her body is very different from that of Captain America and Sam Wilson who are often presented in tight t-shirts during lengthy shots where they face the camera. In Captain America, then, the difficulty of presenting Black Widow’s impossible body in stereoscopy is avoided while the ability to fully celebrate the muscular contours of Captain America and Sam Wilson is maintained.

Black Widow

In each film the existence of male protagonists, who have bodies displayed in different ways in stereoscopic depth, points to the extent that this is an issue of gender and not simply an accidental turn. It is true that each film has male bodies that are presented in tight clothing and/or without clothing in a way that suggests the male body is as sexually exploited as the female body. However, my tentative thought process is that the 3D cameras are willing to emphasise the men’s existent features rather than distort their bodies into impossible ideals. It is only the female form that is being contorted into a twenty-first century desire for a super slim frame with bulging sexual parts.

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