Chances are, if you have ever talked with a video professional about shooting video with your cell phone, you have heard a passionate rant against shooting in portrait mode. This is understandable, as in the professional realm it is very difficult to incorporate vertical video into standard widescreen projects. There is even a popular video on YouTube with over 7 million views preaching against the evils of VVS – Vertical Video Syndrome. Incorporating vertically shot video into a widescreen project generally involves adding black bars or graphics to the sides of the video to fill out the widescreen frame, or zooming in on the video, making it soft and cropping out much of the picture. For obvious reasons, either option works against the technical and aesthetic sensibilities of those who make their living in the video field. I am also guilty of uttering the above phrase, and shaking my head when asked to use video a client has shot on their personal phone into a project.
With more and more people consuming video content on their personal devices – cell phones, tablets, etc. – content providers are now beginning to target their advertising to the vertically inclined. Perhaps at no time in history was this more evident than during Jeep’s recent Super Bowl commercial. Jeep stunned the advertising and video industries by airing a vertical video in one of the most expensive time slots in history. The emotionally charged spot featured a series of striking black and white portraits of historically significant figures – soldiers, celebrities, dignitaries, and royalty – while a voiceover explains the symbiotic relationship between Jeep and the people who use them.
When using a computer to view the video on YouTube, it is presented in the same pillar-boxed version that was aired during the big game. However, when viewed on a personal device being held in portrait mode, the black bars disappear and the content fills the entire screen. The end result is an extremely effective message delivered to the target audience.
Despite this very recent event, vertically-oriented video is not a new trend. The video game industry understood from the beginning that some games – shoot ‘em ups, maze games, racing games – would benefit from a vertically oriented monitor. More recently, retail stores and trade shows have used vertically oriented 16×9 monitors to present specialized content such as full body shots of actors promoting a product or equipment manufacturers showcasing large pieces of machinery. Popular communications apps like Facetime and Skype are also portrait-friendly. Now that smartphones are ubiquitous amongst the populations of first world countries, it only makes sense that content providers have begun targeting viewers with vertical video content, and some would question why it took so long.
On the other hand, content creators must also understand that not all vertical content will translate well to the traditionally horizontal screens in our living rooms. The Jeep ad works because the subjects ARE portraits, which traditionally are vertically oriented and by nature are all about figure and less about ground. Indeed, the Jeep ad employs a few tricks to keep our collective eyes on those figures: continuous near-imperceptible zooms toward the subjects and small, infrequent animations within an otherwise still photograph (a reflection in an astronaut’s helmet, a streaming tear). A less polished piece could have a negative effect on the audience. As an example, I still remember the first time I saw a letterboxed VHS video. It was the Dennis Quaid/Meg Ryan vehicle “Innerspace,” and I remember feeling cheated and disappointed that so much of my 19” television was filled with blank space, with only a little over a third of the screen containing the action and comedy I wanted to see. Most VHS tapes of the time “center cut” the video, removing action on the sides in favor of filling the whole television screen. While I learned to appreciate the idea behind letterboxing – allowing the filmmaker’s creative vision to remain intact – I still to this day dislike it. My intuition tells me I’m not the only one, as most television networks broadcast films that have been center cut from the original theatrical release to fill a 16×9 television screen.
How then should we content creators react to this changing video… landscape? I would offer that vertical video should still be treated as the exception rather than the rule, that vertical content be targeted specifically at mobile audiences, and that any campaign that requires this type of delivery should also be prepared to create a separate horizontally oriented version of the content. However, for casual home movie creators looking to capture a child belting out the latest song by Adele, cats scared by cucumbers, or even a double rainbow, maybe you were doing it right.