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.

clarins

 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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And now for something completely different: Vertical Cinema

Most of my research involves analysis of 3D cinema and other high budget digital films but a side project that I have been working on with colleague Maddy Glen looks at the very low end of filmmaking on mobile media devices. I am particularly interested in the opportunities mobile media present for turning traditional filmmaking modes on their head. In our recent project, we have been looking at this literally by seeing what happens when you change the conventional horizontal alignment to a vertical presentation.

 

The technology to do so exists as mobile devices such as smart phones and tablets can both film in a vertical format and can exhibit the content in a vertical manner as well (you may need to lock the setting on the tablet or phone so that it doesn’t flip the content back to horizontal). Nonetheless, there is still a lot of stigma attached to filming in this way as it has mainly occurred in amateur videos with the suggestion that the vertical alignment was used by mistake. With this in mind we created a hybrid film that mixes both horizontal and vertical formats to produce a new Vertical Cinema Manifesto.

 

 

The Vertical Cinema Manifesto was created as a direct response to Glove and Boot’s Vertical Video Syndrome – A PSA.

 

 

While Vertical Video Syndrome – A PSA is fantastically made and incredibly funny, it does maintain the notion that vertical filming is an erroneous and unprofessional way of creating content. The comments on YouTube and the response videos reflect this. We are hoping to widen the debate a little and will shortly be making a piece that will be shot and exhibited entirely in vertical

If you are interested in this project you can read more on my other blog Vertical Cinema.

Completion

The Vertical Cinema Manifesto is here! With our video completed it has now been uploaded to YouTube.

As a response to the popular YouTube video ‘Vertical Video Syndrome – A PSA’, challenging their claims against the vertical video format, we expect to get a few comments thoroughly opposing our call to make vertical cinema accepted. Although our video does not aim to take itself too seriously, we are going to integrate these comments, the good and the bad, into our article about vertical cinema and our filmmaking process.

 

Thank You

Thank you to everyone who helped us make the film.

Firstly, a thank you to James and Michele for being the actors in our video.

michele copy

james copy

Also thanks to Abi Beatson for the use of your amazing voice for our V.O.

More thanks to:

Bernard Blackburn

Cathy McCullagh

Gregor Cameron

Jesse Gonzales

Kendra Marston

La’Chelle Pretorius

Morna Lorden

Paul Wolframm

Yvette Butcher

References

Maddy here

Throughout the film we used collected film footage and still images. The film clips we chose were from Charlie’s Angels (2000), The 40 Year Old Virgin (2005), and Transformers (2007); all of which work to highlight how the female body if often shot in the horizontal format.

bodypan

The quotes used for the ‘feminist film scholar’ interview were take from Laura Mulvey’s ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ essay. The three we used were:

“Going far beyond highlighting a woman’s to-be-looked-at-ness, cinema builds the way she is to be looked at into spectacle itself.”

“Unchallenged, mainstream film coded the erotic into the language of the dominant patriarchal order.”

“The alternative is the thrill that comes from leaving the past behind without rejecting it, transcending outworn or oppressive forms, or daring to break with normal pleasurable expectations in order to conceive a new language of desire.”

The still images of the famous female figures photographed vertically included; female directors Tracey Moffatt, Kathryn Bigelow, Maya Deren, and Chantal Akerman, and the female musicians used were Patti Smith, Grace Jones, and Nina Simone.

nina-simone

Miriam here

We also wanted to pay homage to some of the great radical filmmaking of the 1960s and 1970s so the background imageswe used for the title cards (often just textured film grain) all came from La hora de los hornos: Notas y testimonios sobre el neocolonialismo, la violencia y la liberación (1968). It’s one of my favourite films from the New Latin American Cinema movement and has incredibly powerful audio visual juxtaposition

Creative Commons Music

Maddy here

To find the music to accompany our images we visited the website http://soundcloud.com to access music under a creative commons license, allowing us to download and use the music for free and without copyright issues.

Firstly, we wanted to find a track that suited the tone of our manifesto; music that matched our direct call to action. Punk music with female vocals seemed a good fit. After plenty of listening we decided on this track from SoundCloud – http://soundcloud.com/search?q[fulltext]=pessima+amiga

Next, we wanted to find a track that worked with the sleazy tone of our ‘Italian Director’ interview. For this we used the appropriately overworked ‘Summertime’. Finding a cover here – http://soundcloud.com/jazz-odyssey/sets/jazz-odyssey/

Cuba St. Filming

Maddy here

For our film we wanted to gather footage of women, shot in the vertical format of Miriam’s mobile phone, waving at the screen in a public location. With our trusty tripod/mobile phone contraption in tow, we went down to Cuba St in the center of Wellington city to find our subjects. We filmed women from a range of ages and ethnicities, capturing around twenty different people. The set up time was drastically different from that of a professional film rig, allowing us to quickly and easily capture our footage on the go. miriamwave copy

With this footage we wanted to highlight the mobile phone’s portrait composition and the way in which this alters our perception of the female figure on screen. To accompany these images a voice over will read “We demand the right for change! We demand the right for women to stand tall! We demand vertical!”

Interviews

Maddy here.

Our next step has been to collect the interview footage. Thankfully we have a theatre department at Victoria so we were able to round up some actors to play the part of ‘Feminist Film Scholar’ and ‘Italian Director’ – two opposing voices in the video.

We filmed James the ‘Feminist Film Scholar’ with our mobile phone rig, capturing his stunning performance in the vertical format.

Image

Next we filmed Michele as ‘Italian Director’, his hand gestures made the perfect accompaniment to his pro horizontal argument.

These interviews, along with other vertical format clips, are going to dissect the more ‘traditional’ examples of horizontal filmmaking (see below for example).

 

Charlie’s Angels

Charlie's Angels

Lucy Liu Hair Toss

Miriam here

We’ve had a look through contemporary Hollywood films that sexualise their female characters in a very 1990s style of pseudo-power to the female. A few clips from these films will be interwoven into our video.

Camera Rig

Maddy here.

Our next step towards completing the Vertical Cinema video has been to set up a way to film on Miriam’s phone without the unwatchable wobbles of our hands. Ingeniously, we came up with this contraption:

Image

With my incredible taping skills, and the help of some bamboo skewers, her camera was thoroughly fastened onto the professional camera tripod. The only issue with the setup is having to tape, untape, and retape every time we go to film…