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.


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

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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  1. Gunfight at the V.V. Corral: the shootout over vertical video | Online Journalism Blog

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