Vertical Framing: Authenticity and New Aesthetic Practice in Online Videos — Miriam Ross

Abstract: In recent years there has been much focus on the opportunities that mobile media devices (phones, tablets) offer for user-generated audio-video production. Most often this focus has concentrated on content with emphasis on new citizen journalism and YouTube home videos. Less attention has been given to the negotiations of aesthetic parameters that mark a departure from traditional filmmaking modes. In particular, the tendency for a new generation of filmmakers to shoot on mobile phones has led to a number of works produced in a vertical (portrait format). Initially dismissed as content “shot the wrong way”, vertical videos have proliferated in the exhibition platforms provided by YouTube, Facebook and other social media sites. This article examines the trend for shooting in a vertical mode, the material markers of ‘authenticity’ this mode appears to lend to its audio-visual content, and the effect of circulating this material in a context where other users can ‘police’ videos for bad practice. It will focus, in particular on how these aspects interact with the different mediations of authenticity that emerge from new screen technologies amongst the ongoing contingency of media forms.

A video version of this essay is available at this link: https://vimeo.com/99499627

The “CAUGHT ON CAMERA: Fertilizer Plant Explosion Near Waco, Texas” video on YouTube

In 2013, a video entitled “CAUGHT ON CAMERA: Fertilizer Plant Explosion Near Waco, Texas was uploaded to YouTube. It records the 17th April ammonium nitrate explosion at the West Fertilizer Company Storage and Distribution Facility from the perspective of an observer who is seated in a car beyond the perimeter of the plant. One of the aesthetic considerations that most clearly signals that it was recorded by an ‘everyday’ user is its use of vertical framing (the production of moving images in a portrait mode). Due in part to the proliferation of mobile phone cameras, which record in a vertical mode when the phone is held upright, vertical videos have begun to circulate widely on YouTube and other social media sites. Because they depart from the professional standard of horizontal composition, vertical videos are commonly perceived to be shot by amateur users rather than professional filmmakers. They tend to become known to a wider audience only when distributed as viral videos and/or they are picked up by traditional news channels as alternatives to professional news footage.[1] Similar to many newsworthy vertical videos, the vertical framing in the “Fertilizer Plant” iterates a sense of authenticity: the vertical mode’s association with amateur users suggests an everyday user providing unmediated witness to events as they occur rather than a professional filmmaker involved in staging and careful composition.[2] Although the relationship between authenticity and aesthetic configurations is always contingent upon historical, social and cultural uses of media, in cases such as this, vertical framing emphasises the potential for new media technologies to be used for capturing the ‘moment’ and emphasising the object of observation rather than traditional aesthetic concerns. At the same time that the “Fertilizer Plant” video breaks with a hundred year plus tradition of displaying moving-images in a horizontal, or landscape, format, it signals some interlinked debates around authenticity, aesthetics and new media technologies that are currently being worked through in the context of a new media backdrop where moving image screens proliferate to a greater extent than ever before and in increasingly diverse configurations (for example, Manovich 2001, 94; Friedberg 2009, 6; Verhoeff 2012; Casetti 2011). Within this context, I will discuss how vertical media generates possibilities for a new, increasingly flexible audio-visual environment in the early twenty-first century and how the use of a seemingly ‘amateur’ mode of framing raises issues around concepts of authenticity and aesthetic norms.[3]

Although YouTube has an idiosyncratic and diverse range of material on its site (that ranges from HD video and 3D enabled films to stop motion animation and pixelated phone videos) the “Fertilizer Plant” video exemplifies what has become known as the YouTube video aesthetic: an audiovisual object that expresses user-generated content through an amateur rather than professional appearance (Cubitt 2008, 45; Burgess and Green 2009a, 90; Müller 2009, 136).[4] This particular video’s affective power lies in the way that it combines its amateur appearance with an explosive event that is more akin to the pyrotechnic effects of a blockbuster action film. The spontaneity of the blast combines with the realisation that there are observers in the car who are perilously close to the fireball at the Plant. It is not unique in this regard as various YouTube videos capture spectacular ‘real life’ events but it is distinct from the many mundane domestic amateur films that circulate on YouTube.[5] At the same time, the shocking impact of the video’s events are not wholly due to its content but are also supported by aesthetic configurations that indicate to the viewer the events were not staged and the observers in the car were ‘true’ witnesses to the explosion. In no preferred order, these aesthetic configurations operate in the following ways: the slight shake from the hand held position indicates a human observer and, in this particular video, the observer is evident through the display of the filmmaker in the car’s side mirror; the view of the filmmaker makes it clear the video is filmed on a mobile phone, an amateur recording device notable for its spontaneous filming potential; the lack of staged lighting or artificial sets combines with a lack of cuts to express a type of ‘unmediated witness’ to the events that unfold; the wind buffering the microphone on the mobile camera reminds us of a recording device that is present; the lack of closure at the end of the film (as we struggle to know whether the invisible but presumably present members of the car are okay[6]) colludes with a number of open media texts that circulate somewhat anonymously online.[7]

Additional to all of these factors is the use of vertical framing. Beyond merely suggesting an amateur user, the vertical video gestures powerfully to a subjective human observer behind the camera. It suggests a person who has a mobile phone, close to hand, and has initiated the camera without changing their normal bodily hold upon that technological device. Even though mobile phones such as the Nokia C6were designed to encourage users to hold them in a horizontal alignment, most camera-enabled phones, particularly the new generation of iPhone and Android-based smart phones, are configured to operate primarily in a vertical alignment. In this way, use of a vertical filming mode reinforces the filmmakers’ personal touch as well as a sense of immediacy and presence within the act of filming. These components contrast with the seemingly impersonal viewpoints created by virtual cameras in CGI compositions, in which no filmmaker could be present such as shots high above Earth or shots passing through the walls of buildings (Brooker 2009; Jones 2013; Purse 2013). At a time when visual manipulation tools make it increasingly impossible to identify which visual objects are a ‘faithful’ record of an event and which are staged, vertical framing suggests (whether truthfully or not[8]) that no such manipulation has taken place.[9]

This type of aesthetic positioning of a real life event is not without historical precedence. In his discussion of the use of camcorder footage in documentary and news broadcasts towards the end of the twentieth century, Jon Dovey notes that

the low grade video image has become the privileged form of TV ‘truth telling’, signifying authenticity and an indexical reproduction of the real world; indexical in the sense of presuming a direct and transparent correspondence between what is in front of the camera lens and its taped representation. Secondly, the camcorder text has become the form that most relentlessly insists upon a localised, subjective and embodied account of experience. Finally, the video text has become the form that represents better than any other the shifting perimeters of the public and the private. Video texts shot on lightweight camcorders uniquely patrol, re-produce and penetrate the boundaries between the individual subject and the public, material world. (2000, 55)

Mobile phone footage offers the most recent iteration of this context, demonstrating, on the one hand, historical continuity whereby technology serves rather than creates desires for seemingly authentic material that mixes the public and the private and, on the other hand, the potential for new technologies to reinforce and renew the embodied relationship between filmmaker, text and viewer (Hjorth 2006, 2). It is in this context that Max Schleser has discussed the way in which the mobile phone, operating as a hand-held recording device, presents opportunities to “construct personal narratives and representations of self” (2012, 400; see also Hjorth 2006). Similarly, Gavin Wilson notes “such films repeatedly reference the body and sensory perception, evoking the sense of what objects feel like as we look at them, as objects and as images” (2012, 68). In each case, these possibilities are contingent upon the extent to which the mobile technology continues to reiterate the presence of its user and the extent to which the technology is upgraded so that its images are no longer discernible from professional footage. In an era in which YouTube offers to stabilise uploaded videos, phones increasingly offer HD settings, and readily available editing software allows the addition of professional levels of colour grading and sound mixes, it is not always possible to view the traces of an amateur and/or embodied user within the footage. However, in its current manifestation, a vertical framing mode cannot be subsumed within professional filmmaking practice. Apart from the fact that there is not a body of professional vertical works for the new vertical piece to join, few professional screens exist for its exhibition and so YouTube and mobile screens remain its natural home.

Figure 2. YouTube offers a range of configurations to help professionalise the appearance of videos

Figure 1. YouTube offers a range of configurations to help professionalise the appearance of videos

When exhibited on the mobile screen, it is possible to see that the vertical mode articulates a conflation of audiovisual technologies: the distinction between capture and display devices (Wilson 2012). Since the earliest motion-picture cameras, which had the dual function of capturing images on film and then replaying that film in a projector mode, there has been the ability to use cameras as both recording and display devices. Nonetheless, the speed with which digital devices such as the mobile phone (and increasingly the tablet) can replay images recorded by the camera leads to a sense of immediacy which couples the camera device to its screening function. Immediate playback can lead to forms of intimate encounters between the device, text and viewer. At the same time, the current novelty of vertical framing emphasises how the coupling of mobile filming/display device with filmmaker/viewer create unique convergences that are not available in traditional media.

While this framing mode can be understood productively as a new iteration of digital vernacular practice, unease with its appropriation of moving image capture/screen technology has appeared. Vertical videos operate in a context whereby new technologies and their users do not function in isolation but are, instead, conditioned by networked, discursive, peer practice that is highly visible in contemporary, Internet-oriented, society:

The instant and permanent visibility and availability of social peers (and the permanent exposure of their content-related activities) enable the instant and permanent social control of exposed activities and connect the semipublic-mediated space with the private place of home. In addition, the convergent nature of the platform (i.e. the permanent and straightforward possibility to receive, post and repost various media) lowers barriers for the participation in content and at the same time brings the text right next to the negotiations of its value. (Macek 2013, 298-9)

The negotiation of the value of vertical videos has been particularly prevalent on YouTube, one of the main exhibition platforms for vertical media. The most visible debate on this topic has been conducted through and in relation to a video that appeared in June 2012, “Vertical Video Syndrome—A PSA.  The video uses a highly comic parody of United States style Public Service Announcements (PSA) to explain to audiences why shooting in a vertical mode is incorrect. It makes statements ranging from the technical, “vertical videos happen when you hold your camera the wrong way,” to the technological, “while you can turn a picture, you can’t really turn a video … Motion pictures have always been horizontal. Televisions are horizontal. Computer screens are horizontal” and the biological “People’s eyes are horizontal.” It has gathered a significant number of views (4.3 million at the time of writing) and pages of comments on YouTube as well as repeated ‘shares’ throughout social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook.

“Vertical Video Syndrome—A PSA”

Other, similar videos have been produced such as “Turn Your Phone! (Vertical Video PSA)in July 2013 and “Turn Your Phone! (‘No Scrubs’ parody with Andrew Huang, DailyGrace, Hannah Hart, Soundlyawake) in June 2013. Both are set to music: the former portrays a young man, showing various people filming on their mobile phones, how to turn their camera “the correct way” and the latter shows a female singer explaining why videos should be shot in a landscape mode. The videos are entertaining and light-hearted but perpetuate a number of aesthetic ideas surrounding the way in which new camera technologies, particularly the camera phone, should be regulated.

Figure 4. “Turn Your Phone! (‘No Scrubs’ parody with Andrew Huang, DailyGrace, Hannah Hart, Soundlyawake)”

Figure 2. “Turn Your Phone! (‘No Scrubs’ parody with Andrew Huang, DailyGrace, Hannah Hart, Soundlyawake)”

Foremost in their claims is a normalisation of the landscape format as somehow biologically informed and historically pervasive. With regards to the biological argument, originally initiated in the “Vertical Video Syndrome” video, the claim that “people’s eyes are horizontal [sic]” has had a particular resonance with viewers providing comments on YouTube and has been repeated regularly in other Internet discussion sites such as Twitter. In the first instance, this statement ignores a lengthy history of recorded images with roots in the camera obscura whereby “the camera obscura, with its monocular aperture, became a more prefect terminus for a cone of vision, a more perfect incarnation of a single point than the awkward binocular body of the human subject” (Crary 1992, 53; see also Friedberg). Efforts in the nineteenth century to overcome this problem resulted in obsessive attempts by stereoscopic photographers such as David Brewster and John F. Mascher to create two-camera apparatuses that would exactly mimic the eyes’ relations and retinas (Silverman 1993; Pietrobruno 2011). Similarly, a number of twentieth century stereoscopic filmmakers have been equally determined to provide orthoscopic views that exactly replicate the human field of perception (Lipton 1982, 134). The failure for their experiments to take hold as the dominant way of producing photographic images points to the extent to which biological determinism and photographic reproduction have only limited interest for audiences. Even IMAX screens that are designed to exceed the boundaries of human peripheral vision operate within a rectangular frame that is distinct from the seemingly unbounded scope of human vision, particularly with the eye’s ability to focus on and narrow in on a range of different fields. Moreover, there is the problematic assumption embedded in the statement about horizontal eyes that a person must have full vision in both eyes in order to appreciate moving images.

The extent to which horizontal moving-images are historically pervasive is also often emphasised in discussions of vertical framing to the detriment of a more nuanced historical approach that takes in to account the lengthy history of diverse visual culture. Although visual culture has produced art in a variety of forms (square, circular, oval, portrait rectangle, landscape rectangle) and across different media, moving-image production has been mainly confined to a landscape rectangular format that is most commonly found in either a 4:3 or 16:9 aspect ratio. Yet, as John Belton notes, even when W. K. L Dickson and the Lumière Brothers popularised the 4:3 35mm film format during cinema’s development, there was no obvious technological precedent for this standard. Photography in the nineteenth century had a range of aspect ratios and shapes (square, circular, rectangular) and was not standardised into a similar 4:3 aspect ratio until the twentieth century, after the development of cinema. Similarly, nineteenth century hand-painted lanternslides came in a variety of shapes and sizes. Thus,

there is nothing “natural” about these formats. They do not seem to have grown ‘organically’ out of some prior medium of representation. Nor do they initially appear to be automatic consequences of the invention process. At the same time, they were not quite arrived at arbitrarily. (Belton 1992, 18)

The technological conditions that demanded effective ease of reproduction during cinema’s global development means it is hardly surprising that a rectangular, landscape format was arrived at but it is, paradoxically, the non-arbitrary nature of technological development that gave rise to alternatives to the landscape mode. One such alternative arose during the development of stereoscopic (3D) cameras. An early problem was that the desire to produce separate left and right eve views for stereoscopic footage resulted in the need for two cameras and two projectors in order to film and display footage. The added expense and difficulty in synchronising footage meant that it was desirable to develop cameras that could simultaneously record the left and right eye image on one filmstrip. The result was cameras such as the16mm Bolex camera which split the horizontal frame in two and recorded left and right eye images on each half of the frame. When played back, the projector was focused using a projection lens with polarising filters in order to overlay the two halves of the frame into a singular, vertical, stereoscopic image on a vertical screen. Unsurprisingly, the need for a vertical screen at a time when standard screens were horizontal meant that this technology reached an end point in amateur users while professional 3D filmmakers developed systems that would work in a traditional landscape mode (Hayes 1989; Zone 2007). Nonetheless, important stereoscopic documentation of the twentieth century did take place in a vertical mode, such as the Co-operative Wholesale Society’s documentary on 1950s Britain in Co-op 3-D Film (1952).[10]

More recently advertising displays in transport facilities such as underground stations and airports have begun displaying moving-image content on vertical screens. In the London Underground, for example, the numerous escalators carrying passengers from platforms to exits, and vice versa, have vertical screens placed on their walls. Similarly, in Glasgow airport there are a number of vertical screens next to the arrivals and departures screens that show moving-image advertisements in a vertical frame. The architecture of these spaces means that horizontal screens would be inappropriate and so advertisers have developed vertical moving-image content (often in the form of short animations or brief live action scenes, for example “Clarins Vertical LED TV.”  In each of the aforementioned examples of vertical filmmaking and display, there is nothing arbitrary about the decision to place or view moving-images in a portrait format. Instead, they remain tentative examples of what new screen cultures might be able to offer in terms of aesthetic experimentation. While fixed screens will always require that content is created in order to match its intended display, the greatest change in twenty-first century screen culture is the portability and malleability of screens on offer. At this time tablets, mobile phones and other portable screens are limited to rectangular frames but the ability to turn this frame into either portrait or landscape mode means that moving image content can be configured depending on which framing possibility best suits the subject being filmed.[11]

Figure 5. Departure and advertisement screens at Glasgow Airport

Figure 3. Departure and advertisement screens at Glasgow Airport

Attention to how vertical framing suits the ergonomic conditions of the filming device and the subject matter means that vertical videos can be understood more as a form of vernacular creativity than an aesthetic error in filmmaking modes. Examples of vertical videos that have been posted on YouTube and Facebook often suggest a hasty reach for the camera and opportunistic filming decision (adding to the sense that they reproduce unmediated, ‘authentic’ moments in the filmmakers life). This accounts, in part, for how the embodied hold on a mobile device translates into the framing mode. However, this practice does not mean that the filmmaker is inconsiderate of the visual field that the vertical mode will capture. Instead, certain subjects encourage a vertical mode. For example when a single human is the focus of the video, they are often framed to take up the central sections of the screen as is the case of the Irish dancer performing on top of a train’s table in “Incredible Set Dancing & Trad Session on Dublin Train to Galway  or the man jumping on a trampoline in “Epic trampoline flip FAIL dog attack.”  A type of portrait framing for subjects directly addressing the camera is also seen. This is evident in the New Zealand Red Cross’ addressthestress.com website where, amongst others, Olympic rower Mahé Drysdale speaks about how to deal with stressful situations in a vertical video aimed at New Zealand youths.  When the architecture of space means that a vertical corridor of action predominates, portrait framing is also used. For example, the interiors of trains, subway cars and other carriages or building corridors and stairways are frequently framed in a portrait format. This can be seen in the interior of a light rail car during “Light Rail Bushido Blade! It’s all fun and games until someone pulls out a sword  and during a shot of dogs descending down a staircase in “Puppy teaching Puppy to go down stairs! SO cute!—ORIGINAL VIDEO!.”  Unprofessional videos such as the series of students performing trapeze moves on the Aerial Edge Facebook page unashamedly use a portrait format in order to provide as much detail of the moving bodies as possible in videos that are both celebratory of the students’ skills and informative for those trying to see how the moves are undertaken.

Finally, a number of smart phone applications, such as Talking Tom Cat, present characters in a portrait format that users can animate and share on sites such as YouTube, resulting in numerous vertical videos such as “Talking Ben and Talking Tom” that has had over 9 million views.  In each case, the vertical mode frames events in ways that suit the subject matter.

Figure 6. From left to right: “Incredible Set Dancing & Trad Session on Dublin Train to Galway,” “Epic trampoline flip FAIL dog attack,” “Puppy teaching Puppy to go down stairs! SO cute!—ORIGINAL VIDEO!” and “Talking Ben and Talking Tom”

Figure 4. From left to right: “Incredible Set Dancing & Trad Session on Dublin Train to Galway,” “Epic trampoline flip FAIL dog attack,” “Puppy teaching Puppy to go down stairs! SO cute!—ORIGINAL VIDEO!” and “Talking Ben and Talking Tom”

The extent to which this mode, and its revelation of a new type of digital vernacular, will be accepted is dependent upon the mechanisms of highly scrutinised exhibition environments. Although many mobile phone videos are made to be viewed only by the filmmaker or distributed only to personal contacts, the new ‘sharing’ features on most smart phones means that filmmakers are encouraged to distribute videos immediately via Internet platforms. By returning to Jakub Macek’s point that the visibility and connectivity of peers mediates the production of content in online spaces, it is possible to recognise the ways in which a negotiation of vertical media’s newfound place is occurring through and beyond that of the Vertical Video PSA videos. Not only are the PSAs highly visible on YouTube, they also reflect and contribute to comments that spread across a range of Internet forums, websites and social media sites. In the first instance, commentators often repeat the main claims in the “Vertical Video Syndrome” video: vertical videos happen when you hold your camera the wrong way/while you can turn a picture, you can’t really turn a video/motion pictures have always been horizontal/ televisions are horizontal/ computer screens are horizontal/people’s eyes are horizontal. In the second instance, they frequently provide links to the “Vertical Video Syndrome” video (that has outpaced the other PSA videos in terms of popularity) which further increases the visibility of the claims in the original video. Examples of this taking place can be seen in websites such as Provideocontent where a post reiterates that “the screens we watch video on are horizontal” followed by the Vertical Video Syndrome video in an embedded link.  Similarly, a search of Twitter on 30 October 2013 found more than a dozen tweets, within a 24-hour time period, in different languages, posting links to the Vertical Video Syndrome video with comments such as “protect yourself! Keep yourself from shooting vertical,” “shooting vertical video on a smartphone? You’re doing it wrong” and “a very serious problem: Vertical Video Syndrome.” When one user, Mike Griffith, started a thread on Twitter saying “there should be a global campaign to get people shooting video on a smartphone to hold it in landscape” the reply was “why don’t the cool phone maker peeps just do a pop-up alert telling you ‘Turn it round, turn it round’.” Subsequent tweets noted that YouTube and Google’s capture applications have functions that already do so. Further addressing this issue, an app for the Apple Store called Horizon was developed that would similarly discourage users from filming in a vertical mode (Liszewski 2014).

This type of technological reminder can be considered in light of Michel de Certeau’s (1988) description of strategies and tactics, whereby institutions and figures of authority put in place strategies for the correct use of consumer products while users often perform tactics that negotiate and change this intended use. The introduction of software that conditions how users may film content on mobile cameras suggests a reiteration of strategy in the face of vertical video tactics. However, there is not merely a simple division between those who control products and everyday users. Instead, there is a complex interplay at work between technology manufacturers, everyday users, and their peer networks. Following Pierre Bourdieu, Jakub Macek notes that

through participation, we establish our common interest in shared content and so we ensure that our cultural capital (and thus our values, preferences, tastes and opinions) and that of those included in our social circles are compatible, that we are surrounded by ‘proper people’ with ‘proper interests’ and that our textual interests and pleasures are consistent with the rest of our habitus. (2013, 298)

In the vertical video context, filmmakers are often operating within peer networks that are attuned to performing correct consumer operation of filming equipment that has been embedded in and reinforced by traditional media. Yet a tension emerges between the cultural habitus in which users are expected to conform to standard horizontal norms and a parallel, embodied technological habitus which encourages users to hold their phone in the vertical position that non-video applications and other content encourages.[12] Although these different habitus represent the meeting of contradictory strategies (media institutions indicating the horizontal framing is correct, hardware manufacturing that encourages a vertical display), their incongruence is overlooked in discussions of vertical video. Instead of recognising the way users are tactically engaging with media technology in new ways, the assumption in the Vertical Video PSAs and related comments on social network sites is that filmmakers shooting in a vertical mode do so because they are amateur users who do not know better and/or do not have the skills and training to conform to professional norms. Paradoxically, by distancing vertical videos as amateur, commentators reiterate the likely authenticity of vertical videos as unmediated documentation. In contexts where authenticity is favoured, such as news sites and certain realms of social media, vertical videos are thus given additional value.

The vertical videos discussed thus far include many or all of the traits discussed in relation to the “Fertilizer Plant video and in this way demonstrate amateur practice. At the same time, their successful circulation (23.3 million views for the “Fertilizer Plant video at the time of writing) means that they are often able to gain more exposure and recognition than the wide variety of professional filmmaking practitioners who put portions of their work on YouTube. It is not surprising, then, that tensions arise when these two groups operate within a shared exhibition platform. Significant to this context is the extent to which blogs, posts, tweets and videos calling for an end to vertical video are often from non-professional filmmakers or otherwise liminal media practitioners. With regards to this type of behaviour amongst filmmakers on YouTube, Eggo Müller notes that similar processes take place when amateur and professional filmmakers interact through videos and forums dedicated to ‘upskilling’ the average YouTube user. He notes that a quality discourse prevails whereby relatively conservative adherence to traditional filmmaking norms is upheld but he also states that it is impossible to delineate a clear boundary between amateurs and professionals within this process. Instead,

users with different backgrounds and interests in YouTube contribute to and maintain this quality discourse. Full, semi-, pre- and post-professionals use YouTube to share and promote their knowledge, and dabblers, novices and amateurs contribute to the same discourse through their questions and comments. As opposed to the era of mass media—with producers on the one side and consumers on the other – there is a diverse field of positions in the space of participation YouTube creates. (2009, 136)

In this context, the efforts to police a portrait framing practice become a means for some users to distinguish themselves as knowledgeable and attuned to the importance of visual aesthetics at a time when sites such as YouTube offer a type of anarchic free-for-all. Thus, conformity to a perceived set of professional norms is “exposed, articulated and reproduced in a performative interaction” (Macek 2013, 299).

However, for every desire to be valued by and incorporated into a social milieu there are often antithetical desires to be visibly unique (Macek 2013, 299). This means that, aside from advertising professionals who have been contracted to produce vertical moving-images for billboard display, there are a small, but growing number of media practitioners advocating a portrait mode in order to produce distinct aesthetic effects. As will be discussed, their work is supported by digital viewing platforms, but there are antecedents for their work in experimental filmmaking practice such as Paolo Gioli’s vertical Film Stenopeico (1973/81/89), Commutazione con mutazione (1969) and L’operatore perforato (1979) (Bordwell 2009) andBill Viola’s “The Messenger” and “The Crossing” (Young 1997).[13] Building on the challenges these experimental films pose to an understanding of traditional compositional strategies, some groups of digitally oriented filmmakers are using the exhibition platform Vimeo to showcase experiments in vertical framing.[14] Started in 2010, the main focal point for this activity is the Tallscreen group that provides a space to upload short vertical films. Although not directly stated, it is implied that there is a concern with distinguishing these works from the amateur efforts being produced elsewhere and to this end there are calls to use High Definition SLR cameras or equivalents in order to “avoid the non aesthetic Jello Effect.”

Elsewhere on Vimeo, artist Gregory Gutenko has uploaded versions of his work such as “Rail Poem” (2012) and “Orientation Video” (2012) that have been exhibited in a portrait aspect ratio in gallery space.  The former focuses on motion through landscapes, often with an emphasis on movement that follow the narrow borders of railway tracks. Careful editing and manipulation of images means that various parts of what the camera has captured are morphed together and laid over one another within individual shots. The latter uses an upside down camera to produced “upside down” images that then frame media devices such as a television displaying their own images “upside down” which in turn appear the correct way up to viewers. In each case, portrait formatting concentrates attention on movement and objects in the screen space that would no longer be central in the same way were the frame to be widened. In a similar manner, Christoph A. Geiseler’s documentary Curry Power (2012) (http://www.verticalvideos.com/index.html) experiments with vertical framing. Like the Vimeo Tallscreen group, Geiseler narrates his reasons for using the portrait format. “Musicians on a stage, runway models, train-tracks disappearing into the distance, close-up portraits, skyscrapers and trees beg for a vertical video to capture their inherent beauty: the essence of their form, flow and function is vertical.” Like the filmmakers mentioned before, the attention given to his practice sets his work apart from the vertical videos that are deemed and contextualised as amateur content. In this way, discourses of authenticity are less apparent but bridging the artistic and unmediated documentation contexts for vertical filming is a film by musician Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips group. In 2013 he produced A Year In The Life Of Wayne’s Phone, a film that premiered at the SXSW festival in March of that year. Filmed on his iPhone, A Year in the Life of Wayne, took vertical moving-images shot by Coyne and displayed them three at a time, side by side on an horizontal screen. Noted as a somewhat jumbled assemblage of footage from Coyne’s personal and professional life, the film captured the unruly nature of unplanned and hastily thrown together YouTube videos while simultaneously elevating them to a status worthy of a film festival audience (even though reviews of the festival screening were not always complimentary [Miller 2013; Saldana 2013]).

Heaven (2013)

In my own experiments with colleagues at Victoria University of Wellington, I have been able to contribute to short films that take into consideration these vertical concerns as well as how our films can be exhibited. In our first short film “Heaven(2013),  we wanted to make use of new DIY media technologies and so we shot the film on an HTC mobile phone and in a portrait format. This process posited its own creative possibilities that enriched our sense of aesthetic experience.

Figure 7: Poster for Christoph A. Geiseler’s Curry Power (2012)

Figure 5: Poster for Christoph A. Geiseler’s Curry Power (2012)

We often found ourselves visualising sequences in a horizontal format as we were accustomed to working within that framing but then had to recalibrate our mental images as we composed individual shots. However, we found that the focus on human subjects within our script (essentially a story of two idiosyncratic male characters portrayed over a week’s timeframe in Wellington, New Zealand) was supported by vertical framing and we were able to utilise space in ways that we hadn’t previously conceived of. For example, the opening shot is of a plane flying overhead on its way to land at Wellington airport. The vertical framing allows the underbelly of the plane to take up the majority of screen space, intonating the visceral and dizzying feeling that occurs when one watches a plane fly overhead. At various points in the film a two-shot is constructed between the male characters. They do not speak to one another and so it was useful to frame their bodies vertically in a way that emphasised the subtle interactions between them that take place through whole body positioning. While the film could have been shot with horizontal framing and the essence of the story would have remained, the details of our composition and the way in which this framed the relationship between the characters would have been altered. Knowing that the eventual distribution for the film would take place on YouTube and the film would ideally be viewed on portable vertical screens such as smart phones and tablets, we also took into consideration Andreas Treske’s questions concerning developing visual work for small screens: “how does the development of smaller screens and online video influence how we compose and create images? How is the reproduction of images influenced by its assumed viewing environment? How is it related to the viewing situations of its audience if these are not the cinema theatre or the television set with its attached couch?” (2008, 215). For this reason we attempted to compose bold dynamic shots that suited vertical framing for small screen viewing.

Figure 8: “Heaven” (2013)

Figure 6: “Heaven” (2013)

While the aforementioned vertical works have mainly used live action footage, there have also been experiments with other media. The Alicewinks (alicewinks.com) project created by David Neal originated in a desire to animate the various illustrations of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) that appeared in different publications of the text around the beginning of the twentieth century. Because these illustrations were mainly in a portrait format, the animation was conceived of in this way and Alicewinks follows a variety of different visual versions of Alice as she moves through the narrative of the original book, all within a vertical framing. The story of the work’s journey from production to exhibition is illustrative of the changing landscape of screen technologies and the way in which traditional formats retain a hold on the way new media works can be conceived and distributed. Due to its feature film length, Neal initially approached Apple’s iTunes in order to distribute it through their Movie store but because of its vertical format Apple responded that it could not be distributed as a movie but might be better distributed through their App Store. The App Store stated that the piece was not sufficiently interactive and suggested returning to the Movie Store. Unable to resolve the issue between either of these stores, Neal eventually found a place for Alicewink’s distribution in Apple’s iBookstore. For many viewers, its placement here means that it will initially be perceived as a book yet its ability to provide vertical moving images in tablets and e-book means that its audiences will be exposed to portrait format moving images.

In 2008, Lev Manovich asked: “given that the significant percentage of user-generated content either follows the templates and conventions set up by professional entertainment industry, or directly re-uses professionally produced content … does this mean that people’s identities and imagination are now even more firmly colonized by commercial media than in the twentieth century?” (36; see also van Dijck 2009) On the one hand, the continued policing of vertical videos and the desires to prove that there are correct, inflexible ways of framing content confirms the extent to which media traditions retain a stronghold on aesthetic practice. On the other hand, the proliferation of user-filmed vertical videos on YouTube and social networking sites suggests vertical framing may find its place as part of a new digital vernacular. Furthermore, the small but steady uptake of digital vertical content in animation, advertising billboards, gallery works and short films on Vimeo, suggests that new screen environments are creating new aesthetic practice. Manovich goes on to draw upon Michel de Certeau to suggest

a city’s layout, signage, driving and parking rules and maps are strategies created by governmental and corporate interests. The ways an individual is moving through the city, taking shortcuts, wandering aimlessly, navigating through favourite routes and adopting others are tactics. In other words, an individual can’t physically reorganize the city but she can adopt itself to her needs by choosing how she moves through it. (2008, 37)

I would suggest that, within this analogy, vertical framing is more akin to squatting: it is the occupation of a space and a way of undertaking habitation that is related to the normal use of this space but in new, unauthorised ways.

As this article has sought to prove, there is no inherent technological determinant that means moving-images must be displayed in a horizontal format yet there are technological concerns that make portrait and landscape modes more or less advantageous depending, firstly, on the screen environment in which they are to be exhibited, and secondly, on the type of content that filmmakers wish to portray. To return to the “Fertilizer Plant video, its vertical framing acts as a signifier of authenticity which is useful in its claim to represent a real-time, non-manipulated event. Other videos are able to use the same framing in order to tactically present their own version of events. This mode is, of course, open to be co-opted by commercial media in order to simulate a visual signifier of legitimate amateur content (in much the same way the shaky camera and camcorder-style white-balance were co-opted by The Blair Witch Project [Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez, 1999] and Cloverfield [Matt Reeves, 2008]). To exemplify this potential, comedian Ricky Gervais produces popular comedy shows (mainly for television) in traditional horizontal framing. At the same time, he maintains a Facebook page which frequently hosts vertical videos filmed in his home space such as video of him in his bath  or a video of his cat. The vertical framing suggests these are unmediated moments in his domestic life but their playful nature also suggests that Gervais is using them to blur the boundary between his real-life and on-screen persona in a way that is typical of his comedy work. In this case, there is a highly media-literate public personality drawing upon an amateur framing technique in order to add value to the videos that he produces.

In the contexts discussed in this article, the diversity in filming possibilities has not really changed, as it has always been possible for a filmmaker to turn a camera on its side for dramatic effect and the vertical mode is already appearing amongst traditional media when, for example, television news programs insert vertical footage of an event in a way that suggests everyday persons were present to witness it. What have changed are exhibition possibilities. In the first instance, readily available digital projectors and large digital monitors make it possible for the art gallery film and advertising content to exhibit vertical images. In the second instance, the hand held screening devices make the possibility for filming vertically ubiquitous. Detractors of a vertical format are right to note that vertical footage will normally default to a small image within a larger screen when displayed on horizontal televisions and computer monitors but these thoughts fail to foresee the present and the future of new screen technologies in which “a variety of screens—long and wide and square, large and small, flat and fat, composed of grains composed of pixels, lit by projected light, cathode-ray tube, plasma, LCD—all compete for our attention without any convincing arguments about hegemony” (Friedberg 2009, 7).[15] In this environment there will likely be the continuation of amateurs producing vertical works as a type of vernacular practice while there are also open possibilities for media professionals to engage with this framing mode in new and dynamic ways.

 

References

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Notes

[1]For a related discussion of the way news sites are using user-filmed videos as a type of ‘media witnessing based on an aesthetics of authenticity’ see Andén-Papadopoulos (2013).

[2] For a discussion of the way the unprofessional was associated with authenticity in factual documentary video footage see Dovey (2000) and in photojournalism see Pantti and Bakker (2009).

[3] This article takes on and moves forward initial discussion of this concept outlined in Ross, Miriam and Maddy Glen. “ Vertical Cinema: New Digital Possibilities” Rhizomes (forthcoming).

[4] There is a paradoxical public imagining of YouTube’s operation whereby YouTube seems to simultaneously act as a transparent exhibition platform for professionally produced content (music videos, trailers, old movies, high quality promotional videos) and a creative machine for engendering home-video style user videos and their proliferation (Burgess and Green 2009b).

[5] For a discussion of the way YouTube content creators use ordinariness as a trope for suggesting authenticity in vlogs see Tolson (2010).

[6] Although the YouTube page that hosts the video now has a description of who the filmmaker was and a note that says he and the child that was in the car are okay, initially no such description was added and the video was just one of the many videos uploaded to user zidyboby’s prolific channel.

[7]For a discussion of the way previous media texts, particularly 1960s Direct Cinema documentaries, have used similar techniques to suggest unmediated and authentic representation see Arthur (1993).

[8]For example, the vertically framed YouTube video “Seeing her for the first time again,” purportedly showing a man awakening from an operation and not recognizing his wife, was widely believed to be faked (http://www.slate.com/blogs/future_tense/2013/09/10/the_man_with_amnesia_viral_video_may_be_a_hoax.html)

[9] Sites such as Tom Phillip’s http://istwitterwrong.tumblr.com/ features images and videos that have been circulated by traditional news sites and social media sites as purportedly authentic representations of a particular moment or event even as their veracity has been questioned.

[10] Artist Zoe Beloff has used this technology in recent years to make the critically acclaimed Shadow Land or Light from the Other Side (2000) and Charming Augustine (2005), both of which are screened on a portable, vertical screen maintained by Beloff.

[11] It is worth noting that new media applications such as Vine and Instagram produce moving image content in a square format.

[12] The tablet offer an interesting case study in this regard as computer-similar tablets such as the iPad are often seen used in a landscape mode whereas book-similar tablets such as the Kindle Fire are often seen used in a portrait format. In both case, the tablet will be rotated depending on both the functions they are performing (electronic books encourage portrait display, audio-visual content encourages landscape display) and user preferences and habits.

[13] A more recent example would be the vertical films screened at the International Film Festival Rotterdam films that, while made with digital technologies, were printed on 35mm film (Maheshwari 2014).

[14] I would suggest that Vimeo and YouTube have complex complementary and competitive relationships whereby Vimeo has emerged as a space for ‘artistic’ filmmakers who place emphasis on cinematic style whereas YouTube simultaneously appeals to popular, mass audiences and extremely niche interest groups that often have little concern with aesthetic tendencies.

[15]A playful installation, DVD Dead Drop vol.6: “Vertical Video”, by Aram Bartholl was commissioned by MOMA New York to provide audiences with a DVD of amateur videos captured in a portrait format along with instructions for adjusting a home theatre or other viewing environment to properly experience the works (http://datenform.de/blog/vertical-video-dvd/)

 

Bio: Dr Miriam Ross is Lecturer in the Film Programme at Victoria University of Wellington. She is the author of South American Cinematic Culture: Policy, Production, Distribution and Exhibition (2010), as well as publications on film industries, stereoscopic media, film festivals and new digital technologies.