Motion Pictures: Horizontal or Vertical? / by Glenn Dixon

I have observed a significant increase in the films published to video sharing web services that are captured in a portrait orientation rather than the traditional landscape or 16:9 aspect ratio. Judging by the image quality and camera instability, many of these clips have originated from cameras onboard mobile phones. Initially I dismissed the videos as substandard. Evidently the camera operator had no idea what they were doing as they couldn’t even hold a camera properly. Then I started to question, what is properly? How can landscape orientation (16:9) be “right” and portrait (9:16) be “wrong”? Why do we have wide-screen and not long-screen or slim-screen instead?

Above:

Still photographs from my Grandfathers darkroom and set of my 2007 documentary film.

I live in a time and culture where motion picture films are exclusively portrayed in a horizontal space. At film school I studied the masters, my aesthetic and vision came to life and subsequently entered a horizontal thought process. If I had to take a guess I assume the horizontal frame became standard after early film pioneers agreed the movement of objects through space and time is best suited to a frame where horizontal sweep dominates vertical rise. Perhaps this is partly due to the effects of gravity, binding all bodies with mass to the ground and our perceptions of everything moving along this horizontal plane. From it’s initial inception, mainstream cinematic evolution it seems has favoured horizontal framing and neglected all things vertical.

Imagine a person walking across a vast expanse of seemingly endless salt flats. If a motion picture camera captured the scene from a side on perspective with a horizontal framing, the audience can acquire vital narrative information in the remaining space in front of and behind the subject. Questions such as “Where are they going?” or “How did they get there?” may be answered. If we reshot the scene again with identical blocking and camera position but with a vertical frame the emotive essence would be drastically different. The composition would now include more of the sky and ground perpendicular to the direction of action, leaving audiences unable to see as much detail in the direction of travel. One is not right and the other wrong, they simply convey different stories. It seems that movement and action perform well in a horizontal theatre. But what narrative possibilities are there in moving them into a vertical world?

Perhaps the increasing number of people capturing, sharing and consuming footage on mobile phones and tablets calls for a drastic re-think? These lightweight devices are held and viewed at many angles. They seem to not only foster but encourage film-making and content consumption that is aspect ratio independent. I think you can see where I am going with this. Vertical or aspect ratio independent features? Yes please!