Think Tall: The Future of Vertical Video

Posted in Video by Nathan Lee Bush on February 26, 2011

Video now enjoys the creative flexibility of photography, with virtually any aspect ratio possible. © Kahn and Selesnick

The setting for viewing films and videos has always been fixed, while photographs, because of their relatively cheap individual reproducibility and portability, have always enjoyed a wide viewing elasticity.

From books to family albums to any old wall – be it in a gallery or living room – pretty much any space can be a forum for viewing stills. The framing of the image can therefore suit the content, and become part of the creative decision-making process. Landscapes were often presented in panorama, while fashion and entertainment photos have usually been presented vertically. Even the names of the traditional 3:2 aspect ratios – portrait and landscape orientation – imply the variable potential subject matter. Darkroom printing allowed even more possibilities, and artists like Kahn and Selesnick pushed this flexibility to its limits (see photo above).

The moving image was not so lucky. Owing to the high overhead of display technologies, from televisions to theater projectors, viewing environments imposed a severe consistency on the form of the image. Though changing aspect ratios are as old as cinema itself, you’ll find much less variability than in stills. 1.85:1, roughly equivalent to that of HD videos 1.78:1 (16:9) has been the defacto US cinema standard since the 1960s.

Only in the last few years, when digital distribution ascended to a large role in peoples lives, has questioning this aspect ratio oligarchy been a possibility. Sure, most people pay to go to the theater a few times a year and watch TV at home. But increasingly, people are watching online (especially younger viewers), and clearly this trend will continue, as more and more viewers move solely to computers and mobile devices (700 billion YouTube videos were viewed in 2010).

As with much else these days, the advent of smartphones led the way, giving us the initial reprieve from the horizontal hegemony. Moms and teens with iPhones and Android-based phones, keeping the image in the most logical position to the action without thinking of ‘standards’, uploaded their party and cat videos to YouTube. When watching these, after the initial annoyance subsides, I generally find the effect not at all obtrusive, and often fitting for the subject matter.

Now filmmakers really must consider for the first time: is wide video inherently more dramatic/cinematic, or is this a conditioned response? What does it offer that vertical video doesn’t? Granted, one probably wouldn’t want to shoot an epic or western tall, but would some content benefit from the new orientation?

I’ll leave these questions for the comments section, but I’ll close with a video that Planet 5D linked to earlier this week, which I think captures a situation where this is absolutely an effective choice, given the tight verticality of the subject matter.

Vodpod videos no longer available.


Nathan Lee Bush is a photographer and filmmaker in New York City. His work is on his blogsite and Vimeo.


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  1. […] on sites like YouTube and Vimeo is allowing filmmakers to join photographers in exploring a variety of aspect ratios that best suit the subject matter; and we shared the week’s photo and video events in […]

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