Snapchat and MeerKat have (sort of) changed my opinion of vertical video.

By sethmsparks

This is not a post about MeerKat per se. And it’s not a post about Snapchat per se. But IT IS a post about how both of these apps are influencing a change in perspective on something that has been culturally defined for almost a century.

I have a tiny bit of experience in video production. Like, enough to understand a little bit about how frame composition, tracking, angles, and color impact mood and convey unspoken messages to an audience. Now, albeit I’m not an expert, but I have an immense appreciation not only for what a scene says explicitly, but also for how a shot can compliment or contradict what is being said implicitly.

But something I’ve been adamant about (along with many others) is complaining how stupid people are for shooting vertical video. Our phones don’t capture square video, so orientation matters. There are websites, countless videos, and memes all dedicated to pointing out how flawed vertical video is.

But that hasn’t stopped it’s pervasiveness.

See Snapchat and now MeerKat. Both are functionally built to be used vertically. You can of course turn your phone horizontally, but on the receiving end of one of those snaps, it’s just a bit awkward because you often end up rotating your phone back and forth, vertical>horizontal>vertical and so on.

And as much as I hate vertical video as an abomination to everything holy and professional about film and video in general… I’m trying to find a way to convince myself that it may be ok.

So I started with examining our current environment.

What’s the same?
– TVs are all basically 16×9 aspect ratio based, while some 4:3 sets exist
– Movie theater screens are built to handle 2.33:1 aspect ratio (20.97×9)
– Computer monitors are increasingly 16×9 though some still rock a 4:3 as well

And what’s different?
– Smart phones… gobs of them… on our person at all times of the day. But smartphones typically have the same (or very close to) 16×9 aspect ratio, based again off of legacy HD standards media fitting that.

However… and this is one of those BIG howevers… like, cultural shift however (which others have pointed out well before me)… our human hand is best suited to hold phones vertically. That magical thumb of ours has enough movement to operate the “buttons” of a touchscreen with ease.

“But it’s still not that freaking difficult to turn the phone if you’re taking a photo or shooting video Seth.” I agree, and just because our human physiology says it’s more comfortable, I’m not giving in that easy.

So where next? Well, based on legacy media’s drive to get everything into a 16:9 aspect ratio, I figured that might be a good starting point. Why 16:9?

Turns out there is a long and (if you’re not a weirdo like me) quite boring story of how we got to 16:9. If you want to know all the details, this video is actually a really awesome explanation. But it basically boils down to this. 16:9 was decided on when Kerns H Powers proposed it in the 1980s when HD Standards were being drawn up. You see, 16:9 was a geometic mean between the two most common aspect ratios around at the time: TV (which had an aspect ratio of 4:3) and film (which had an aspect ratio of 2.33). Video of both aspect ratios could fit within a 16×9 frame by either adding letterboxing or zooming fit the screen.

“That’s nice Seth, but regardless, it still seems like video has pretty much always had a horizontal format.” Again, you’re right. But looking back at how the original aspect ratio standard was set in 1909 when William Kennedy Dixon, a staff photographer at Thomas Edison’s lab, was working on a Kinetiscope prototype. Dixon was using Eastman Kodak film with perforations along the sides trying to decide how much of the film would be exposed. He settled on an image that was four perforations high, which led to an image with an aspect ratio of 4×3 (in this case the four perforations are actually the 3 in the ratio, so 5.32 perfs wide and 4 perfs high) or 1.33:1. And we don’t actually know why he chose this aspect ratio, but he did, and it became the standard for all video produced from that point forward.

“But how’d we get from 4:3 to 2.33 or whatever?” Ah, well that one’s simple. It’s for the same reason we keep trying to get 3D and other film gimmicks to work. Theaters and movie studios wanted to create something new and different that would get more butts in seats (I’m sure film makers and cinematographers liked the idea of having more space to play with in the frame and tell a story, but I’m guessing that came second to making more money). So basically, they developed new techniques and eventually new film to shoot movies in the 2.33 format.

“Okay, so some dude’s arbitrary decision to make a video a few perforation high set the standard for us having video that is wider than taller? And we only have extra wide screens because studios wanted to make more money?” I know right? But it sort of seems that way…

And I know that was a long way of getting there, but knowing that a landscape format was a seemingly arbitrary decision, and widescreen was just your average money grab, giving vertical video a second chance seems a little easier. Based on the fact that our hands are better suited for holding smartphones vertically, and the fact that our human heads are more elongated and thus fit a vertical screen more fully than horizontal (even for fat faced folks like me), when video is primarily isolated to hosting and viewing from mobile devices I now think that I might be in favor of it. Or at least, I’m not vehemently against it. So in the cases of Snapchat and MeerKat, go ahead with your vertical video, I promise not to complain.

However, if you’re making something for TV, theater, youtube, or similarly landscape based orientation displays, let’s try to keep it wide, mmkay?

Who knows, at some point in the future TVs may look nothing like they do now, and may be built to handle video of any aspect ratio or orientation. Or holographs. Because science. And because money.

So what do you think? Have your thoughts on vertical video changed if you were a stringent landscape advocate? Still hate it? Let me know below!