Vertical cinema is on the up

Oscar-winning director, Damien Chazelle, recently released his short film Vertical Cinema. It is an advert for the iPhone 11 Pro and was shot entirely on the smartphone.

It isn’t the first time this has been done, of course; many film-makers have made shorts using iPhones. Some have even made full-length features using them, most conspicuously the always-experimenting Steven Soderberg, who made Unsane in 2018, on an iPhone 7 Plus in 4K using the FiLMiC Pro app.

What is different about Chazelle’s film is that he didn’t turn the phone on its side and shoot it in the usual horizontal format of … well, every film ever.

Chazelle and his (also Oscar-winning) Director of Photography, Linus Sandgren, make excellent use of vertical shapes like tall buildings and doorways, as well as cunning use of image depth, with long straight roads and long corridors, all to make the best use of their format.

The smartphone has brought about many innovations. Video footage of any breaking news story will, almost certainly, be first seen through the work of ‘citizen journalists’ shooting the footage with their phones. But, here’s the thing, no-one ever thinks to turn their phone on its side. Therefore, the imagery is always tall and thin – the shape of a smartphone screen. When this footage gets shown in the TV news, it only occupies the middle part of the screen, leaving a big area unused.

Why is this? Well, without wishing to blind you with science – it’s ’cos phone screens are tall and thin, while TV screens are short and fat. Let me explain:

Laying out 100 years of horizontal cinema

For the better part of a century, our movie screens have been changing shape. This has never had anything to do with storytelling and everything to do with evolving technology.

Back when films were shot on strips of film – at 24 frames a second (or thereabouts) – the shape of the frame dictated the shape of the screen the film was shown on.

Originally, this was a ratio of 1.35 to 1 (that’s 1 unit down, 1.35 units across). The TV set you grew up with (or your parents grew up with) was that shape, too.

Then, as film technology developed and lens technology improved, they found – by the 1950s – that they could cram more information onto that same strip of film. This led to various so-called ‘widescreen’ formats, most commonly 1.85 to 1. 

Finally, in the 1980s, TV technology began to catch up. They started to make widescreen TVs. Because of the limitations of the technology, the widest practical ratio was 1:78 to 1. Old CRT (cathode ray tube) TVs needed a raygun at the back, beaming the image onto the screen. The bigger the screen, the further back the raygun needed to be and, therefore, the further from the wall the TV screen needed to be.

Those TVs were big, heavy beasts! Anyone who nearly put their back out trying to heave a 32-inch CRT TV upstairs must have been rehearsing for Britain’s Strongest Man. Well, that’s what I tell myself.

Then, along came flat-panel TVs, using Plasma, LCD and OLED technologies. No rayguns! For the first time, a screen could be hung on the wall at home, very much as it always had been at the cinema.

This also freed up the ratios. You could have a digital TV any ratio you want. But, there has to be some standardisation for production. Therefore, most TV programmes and video games are formatted for 1.78 to 1 and the TV screens and computer monitors we watch them on are, likewise.

But, the one thing that all of these shapes have in common is that the orientation is always the same – Horizontal. Also known as ‘landscape’. The images don’t get any taller, but they’re constantly getting wider.

Except on phones.

Standing up for the future of vertical cinema

When you see shaky hand-held phone footage on the news, a vertical image in the middle of a horizontal screen,  it can be limited in what it communicates. This is because the people taking the footage aren’t thinking about composition, focus and exposure, they’re thinking about whatever news-worthy thing it is they’re capturing.

In happier times, when you take videos at gigs or parties (remember them?) you will watch it back on your phone, and that’s fine. The framing fits the screen. But, let’s be honest, it’s not the kind of work you’re going to be putting in your portfolio.

So, when he was asked to make Vertical Cinema, Damien Chazelle and his team’s job was to show that, with thought and careful composition, he could make footage shot on an iPhone every bit as professional and pleasing to the eye as the most expensive of horizontal movies.

They have very deliberately created a story that echoes the entire history of horizontal cinema – from the days of silent slapstick, through the so-called ‘golden age’, to the high-octane action movies of today. This is a way of legitimising vertical cinema, by reclaiming many of the great moments of horizontal cinema and showing that, with thought and talent behind the camera, they can look every bit as good, whichever format you view them in.

They demonstrate, brilliantly, that technology no-longer needs to limit your creative choices. Just think it through, before you shoot.  As Chazelle says in the making-of video, “Just try to make choices that feel deliberate”.

That’s great advice for anyone making films now. There really are no technological and creative barriers either to production or to distribution, these days. It’s a message Hollywood will be paying careful attention to. As the Covid-19 crisis continues to impact massively on movie-going, film-makers will be re-thinking how they make their films, to accommodate a future that might not include major cinema releases.

New technology offers new opportunities and new audiences. So, if Vertical Cinema is anything to go by, the only way is up.

And, here’s how they did it:

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