The Rise of Vertical Films from Clumsy Accidents towards High Culture

Text: Tytti Rantanen

In the 2010s, everyone is holding a smartphone. But most of us do not bother turning their hand in a horizontal position when filming a nephew playing the ukulele or a friend performing skateboard tricks. We share a video with an aspect ratio 9:16 – narrow and high. Vertical videos are part of our everyday mediascape. It would feel trivial to even write about them, had they not provoked so much objections: moving images should be horizontal, because it has always been. Meanwhile, open-minded artists are already experimenting with the high aesthetics of the narrow frame.

The best known objection is a YouTube video called Vertical Video Syndrome – A PSA (2012), posted by the puppet animation vlog Glove and Boots. In the “public service announcement”, Mario the Monster and Fafa the Groundhog go on about how ridiculous vertical mobile videos look and how everyone should avoid filming them. One should always turn one’s smartphone in a horizontal position before starting to record. The parodic video has gained millions of views during its four years’ existence on YouTube. It keeps getting posted and reposted to legitimise the rage against vertical videos. It is no wonder, as the short video contains all the main aesthetical and conventional arguments against the phenomenon.

Admittedly, the human field of vision is horizontally oriented. Our eyes are placed side by side, and their muscles prefer horizontal movement over vertical. The economical logic of the film industry encourages technical standardisation over diversity. Still, no ought from is. Conventions can change or have different, parallel forms. We can adjust our motor coordination to different circumstances. The occidental orientation is from left to right, but in the East Asian languages, as in Chinese, Korean or Japanese, the traditional writing system is vertical.

The first, long phase of history of film, where the viewers passively consume films made by filmmakers, is horizontally oriented, which is only natural. But when viewers become users, the dynamic cannot remain untouched. The logic behind vertical videos was dominated by grasp, not gaze. As smartphones are rather big, it tends to feel more secure and handy to hold them in portrait and not in landscape orientation, especially when using only one hand. Eventually, this very practical preference starts to have consequences for the overall aesthetics of moving image. The image is defined in terms of how we hold and use things instead of abstract theorizing. Vertical videos are haptic beyond or before haptic cinema, as the cinematic touchability is not an illusion created by the director in his audiovisual material but a very pragmatic tactics of intelligent, flexible use of recording devise. This comes close to Michel de Certeau’s concept of misuse in The Practice of Everyday Life (1990).

Until recently, vertical moving images have remained in two environments that have very little to do with each other: Most likely, we have seen vertical moving images in the form of commercial spots that are screened on bright billboards in public spaces. On the other hand, media artists have for decades been able to produce video installations that are distributed in galleries and museums instead of normative film theaters. Needless to say, artists’ moving image need not to be rectangular at all. A Helsinki-based media artist Anna Estarriola is particularly innovative when it comes to how many different forms video projections can take. Social media applications such as Snapchat and Periscope further advance vertical videos to establish it as something else than advertisements or experimental media art – a form of audacious independent documentary film, for instance. There is already a film festival in Australia for vertical films. Is the movement brand new, finally found, or only recently released?

The History in Horizontal

Why remain in rectangles when screens could, in theory, take any shape? The biggest historical reason is the film industry’s pressure for uniformity, from production to distribution. There are some exceptions: IMAX screens aim at filling our field in vision entirely; planetariums like La Géode in Paris take this illusion a step further. Today, VR glasses are the latest craze on our way to total immersion.

The content of the moving image is reconstructed as a spatially framed temporal continuum that relies on the spatial conceptualization of the human mind. Even if the visual grammar of cinema was horizontally organized, its most traditional material and mechanical substance is the film strip, composed of frames on top of each other and traveling vertically through the projector’s gate. But it is the projected frame that has become the frame for our perception and the center of our focus, as the cognitive film scholar Torben Grodal states.

Fafa the Groundhog piles up evidences against vertical videos: film, television, and computer screens are all horizontal. This does not however prove that the display could not be rotated 90 degrees. Still, the preference for the horizontal is cemented both in the history of cinema and painting, as the neoformalist film scholar David Bordwell sums up. 4:3 was established as the standard aspect ratio following aggressive lobbying by Thomas Edison and Eastman Kodak. The classic ratio was later challenged by even wider formats, when film industry wanted to fight the advent of home television sets by launching spectacles like CinemaScope. When broadcast, the widest films have either been shrunk into the letterbox format or “panned and scanned”. Recently, huge flat screen televisions have expanded the ratio back to the modern film standard, 16:9.

As the media archeologist Erkki Huhtamo pointed out in his lecture at the 2014 International Film Festival in Rotterdam, the horizontal is not an eternal, divine standard. The first years of film art also witnessed strong vertical tendencies in the overall visual culture. Huhtamo cites Winsor McCay’s fascinating comics such as Dream of the Rarebit Friend (1904) and Little Nemo in Slumberland (1905–1911). Their dream sequences are full of innovative visions of skyscrapers, flying, or bed posts that grow to incredible heights.

The first skyscrapers built in Chicago and New York City before the turn of the century are an inseparable part of early urban film imagery. The danger and allure of the sky of the skyscrapers is at play both in Fritz Lang’s dystopic Metropolis (1927) and the tragic climax of King Kong (1933), as well as in the adventures of Harold Lloyd (Safety Last, 1923) or Laurel and Hardy (Liberty, 1929). The contemporary trend in design, art nouveau, and its sleek successor, art deco, used vertical lines as eye-catchers, as in Alfons Mucha’s or Aubrey Beardsley’s illustrations and graphics.

Eadweard Muybridge examined human movement in his protofilms in the 1880s. Most of the films are in the portrait orientation, which is only logical: this way a human body going through a simple routine can be portrayed from top to toe. But when the Lumière brothers Louis and Auguste turned on their cinematograph and filmed the workers leaving the factory gates, the seventh art lay down on its side and did not rise in over one hundred years. Emblematically, Fafa the Groundhog also starts his historical argumentation from this same factory gate.

Eisenstein and the Dynamic Square

When cinema had reached its early middle age in the beginning of the 1930s, the Soviet visionary Sergei Eisenstein gave a lecture on the “dynamic square” in Hollywood. He praises the evolutionary might of the vertical form with tongue in cheek:

“It is my desire to intone the hymn of the male, the strong, the virile, active, vertical composition! I am not anxious to enter into the dark phallic and sexual ancestry of the vertical shape as a symbol of growth, strength or power. It would be too easy and possibly too offensive for many a sensitive listener! But I do want to point out that the movement towards a vertical perception launched our hirsute ancestor on their way to a higher level. This vertical tendency can be traced in their biological, cultural, intellectual and industrial efforts and manifestations. We started as worms creeping on our stomach. Then we ran horizontally for hundreds of years on our four legs. But we only became something like mankind from the moment when we hoisted ourselves on to our hind legs and assumed the vertical position.”

Eisenstein makes more serious remarks on the fact that during its first decades, the film industry has been able to use only half of its compositional potential. His proper suggestion, the square, would offer a balanced space in both the horizontal and vertical dimension. Some square films have indeed been made. Xavier Dolan’s Mommy (2014) is in 1:1 ratio except for one scene, where the anxious teenager protagonist is in desperate need of space and pushes the frames further off.

Glass House by Zoe BeloffSkyscrapers and Eisenstein’s vertical visions meet in Zoe Beloff’s vertical video Glass House (2014). The video reconstructs a film by the same title as Eisenstein was developing in Hollywood at the turn of the 1920s and the 1930s but never realized. His project was to be the director’s polemic response to Lang’s Metropolis and the modernist glass and steel architecture by Bruno Taut and Mies van der Rohe. (1) In Eisenstein’s dystopic glass house, people cannot see anything but they themselves are being observed all the time. Beloff – or Eisenstein – seems to find something essential about the current, chaotic culture of self-performance that conflates technology with humanity. In Eisenstein’s script, the glass house is experienced and examined by an architect, a poet, and a robot, whereas Beloff adds a Mickey Mouse and a box-headed Eisenstein to the ensemble.

Users or Viewers?

It is easy to judge everyday vertical videos. Vertical Video Syndrome – A PSA and other comic but normative videos claim that vertical videos are shot by clumsy louts who do not know which way the image really should be composed. (2) But what if these users are merely experimenting with new ways to document their surroundings? Besides, a perfectly horizontally oriented video can be as blurry and amateurish.

Miriam Ross, a media scholar from New Zealand, states that the low quality increases the sense of immediacy and documentarity: it makes the person who is operating the hand-held camera a part of the video itself. (3) The expressive power of the here and now is not to be underestimated. In the end, it can overcome even the most orthodox of conventions. Vertical videos are characteristic of an era where the roles of user and viewer intermingle with each other. The same device is used for creating and consuming moving images – and for sharing it immediately afterwards.

At the same time, the surroundings and the scale of the cinematic experience are changing. The collective experience is still there, but now it goes viral, from mobile to mobile. Traditional formats, ratios, and rituals are still there. When I was living in the U.S., my landlady was amazed by my preference for the local film archive (AFI) over Netflix. “I want my movies big”, I replied. I realized that I must sound like some weary Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), who defended silent films in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950) by stating: “We had faces”. Some films are larger than life, and watching them from a hand-held device may not be the optimal choice. It is an option, nevertheless.

For many decades, film has not necessarily been bound to film theatres. This does not prevent Fafa the Groundhog from foretelling how the film audience will get a sore neck for vertical screens. Miriam Ross and her colleague Maddy Glenn see more opportunities in the situation where the moving image has fled from film theatres to more varied venues. (4) A Dutch-German collaboration called Vertical Cinema takes an innovative but distinguished approach: the project arranges screenings in old churches. The reversed ratio need not to be a death sentence for celluloid: what the audience gets are 35mm film prints screened with special projectors on vertical screens in front of the altarpieces. (5)

Bring Me The Head Of Henri Chretien! by Billy Roisz & Dieter Kova?i? © Sascha Osaka

The Aesthetic Potential of Vertical Films

In his lecture, Erkki Huhtamo contemplated on the technological conditions of aspect ratios: in traditional film-making, crane shots are expensive and demanding, but digitalization and CGI brings even our wildest dreams to our visual reach. (6) Animations (such as the heavily Metropolis-inspired The Numberlys, 2013) and abstract video art are of course separate cases. Experimental film is the terrain of curiosity already by default. David Bordwell praises Italian media artist Paolo Gioli, who has been a pioneer of vertical moving image since the late 1960s. (7) Gioli expands the image by merging the upper and lower borders of successive frames together. The result is a kind of hazy, “leaking” image.

Mobile videos are only one part – albeit notable in volume – of the overall trend of the 9:16 ratio. Media artists are already used to producing vertical installations despite the fact that there are not that many occasions in the world to see vertical films (for instance). The rest of vertical moving images are as finished as any professional films. Apart from the European Vertical Cinema project, one can see vertical films at their own festival in Katoomba, Australia. The Adelaide Film Festival also programmed a showcase of vertical films in October 2015. So far, the festival programs consist of short films, but Argentine directors Rodrigo Melendez and Gonzalo Moiguer are working on a feature-length art film called Todas las estrellas están muertas.

The unconventional aspect ratio influences the visual film language. The narrow frame does not leave space for panoramas, which are replaced by more active camera movements. Even more than usual, there is nothing in the frame that has not been chosen to be shown. In some cases, it creates a sense of voyeurism, creating an allusion to the peephole attractions of the early years of moving image. The art of framing becomes essential, the focus is even more on the movement inside the frame. Of course, the classic film directors used vertical composition in their horizontal films. The master of deep focus, Orson Welles, frames the young Charles Foster Kane in his own snowy, vertical composition through the window in one of the first scenes of Citizen Kane (1941), where the adults make decisions over his fate.

Similarly to Muybridge’s early studies, contemporary vertical moving images tends to take human movement as their subject matter. The media artist Bill Viola examines relationships, experiences, and emotions in his series Buried Secrets (1995), inspired by renaissance paintings. The pure aestheticism of compositions is foregrounded in excerpts of Melendez’s and Moiguer’s work in progress, screened as a part of the 9:16 showcase in Adelaide. If the early cinema bore resemblance to the theater, vertical films seem to look for allies in the history of painting. Fittingly, the 9:16 orientation (and other tall and narrow ratios) is called “portrait orientation” as opposed to “landscape orientation”.

Leni Riefenstahl’s diving montage from the Berlin Summer Olympic Games 1936 has a clear vertical quality that the French Jean-Charles Granjon aspires to in his short vertical diving film Impact (2015). The film was awarded with the first prize at the second Vertical Cinema Festival in Katoomba, Australia. The choice of the subject matter is aesthetically motivated, although Granjon frames it as a mental process of a sportsman. While the 3D trend has tempted film-makers to add bursting objects to their films, the similar commonplaces of vertical films seem to be images of plunges, staircases, railways, a landscape mirrored on a still water; the weight of the sky or the picturesque (or: Muchaesque) cascades of long hair.

Alfonso Coronel’s I’ve Fallen in Love (2015) and Mathias Askeland’s Boks (2015), both screened in Adelaide, approach the more realistic imagery of vertical videos. They focus on human relationships and their tensions: the former pretends to be a film diary, while the latter shows us a young couple who squeeze into a photo booth for some spontaneous everyday romanticism. Both films deal with questions that are not unfamiliar to real people producing their own Periscope channel: How is my private or public performance gazed? How do I place my life in this performance? How do I want to portray my world and what can I include inside the frame?

Tytti Rantanen M.A. is a PhD candidate in the university of Tampere. She focuses on French experimental literature and film. In addition, she is a film critic and the editor in chief for niin & näin, a Finnish philosophical magazine. She also works as a programme coordinator at AV-arkki, a distribution centre for Finnish media art.

(1) An earlier version of this text has been published in Finnish in niin & näin 1/16
(2) Bordwell 2009, cf. also Wilson 2014.
(3) Cf. also Eisenstein 1930 and Bordwell 2009.
(4) Cf. Grodal 1997, 45.
(5) Bordwell 2009.
(6) Grodal 1997, 210.
(7) Bordwell 2009, Ross & Glenn 2014.


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