Vertical Video on the Small Screen? Not a Crime

Vertical Video on the Small Screen? Not a Crime

Credit Stuart Goldenberg Fotografia de: Stuart Goldenberg

In 2012, Vincent Bova and Damien Eckhardt-Jacobi, two puppeteers who host a YouTube series called Glove and Boots, created a public service announcement to warn viewers about what they considered a modern scourge: People keep shooting videos while holding their phones vertically.

For much of cinematic history, moving pictures have been wider than they are tall — movie screens, televisions and personal computers are all horizontal. The puppets argue that when you hold your phone vertically to shoot a video, creating an image that is taller than it is wide, you are spitting in the eye of that history. Mario, a cherry-red puppet with a ferocious fuzzy beard, regards the result — a vertically shot video on a wide screen — as garbage or worse. His pal, a brown groundhog named Fafa, is just a bit more forgiving: “It’s not crack or nothing, but it’s still really bad.”

Mario and Fafa may sound histrionic, but they are actually some of the more measured online critics of vertical videos. Holding your phone “the wrong way” to shoot a video provokes surprisingly apoplectic reactions. Professional videographers tend to regard vertical videos as the mark of an amateur, and they react to these clips with the same sense of wounded outrage that snooty writers reserve for people who confuse its and it’s, or who type two spaces after a period when everyone knows there should only be one. The Glove and Boots P.S.A. has been viewed nearly 7 million times, and it is just one of several websites and YouTube clips that aim to stem the rise of videos shot in portrait mode, the technical name for vertical cinema.

But perhaps there’s a deeper reason that Mario, Fafa and many professional videographers become so enraged: They worry they are on the wrong side of history. The future of video, it turns out, just may be vertical.

According to several app makers and media companies, many of the world’s video consumers don’t seem to think vertical videos are wrong — in fact, a lot of us prefer them. There is a simple explanation for the dawning preference. According to the venture capitalist Mary Meeker, we now collectively spend about 30 percent of our screen time with devices that are best held vertically, like smartphones and tablets. That time spent is growing quickly, and on tall screens, vertical videos simply look and work better than those shot “correctly.”

“I remember the first time I saw vertical videos on a vertical screen,” said Zena Barakat, a former New York Times video producer who spent the last year researching vertical videos as part of a John S. Knight journalism fellowship. “I was like, ‘This is so natural. It looks right, it feels right. So why are we not making vertical videos?’” Ms. Barakat, who now works at the design firm IDEO, has become a consultant to many media companies that are exploring vertical videos. Several publishers — among them Mashable and The Daily Mail — have begun experimenting with professional videos shot in portrait mode.

“We’re working to get to 100 percent of our videos vertical,” said Jon Steinberg, the chief executive of The Daily Mail’s North American operations. “We find the engagement much higher. Users are more satisfied, and there’s a higher completion rate on them.”

The shift from wide to tall videos may sound trivial; it’s possible that many viewers might not even notice it. Still, the emerging preference perfectly illustrates the way technology sometimes brings about radical aesthetic reconsideration on art and media — and causes a lot of heartache for old-timers in the process.

The shift also shows off the way that opinions of tech elites can be rendered moot by mainstream preferences. So, whether you are shooting a home video or something for work, you can safely ignore the puppets. To shoot vertically isn’t to be exposed as a tech ignoramus or a lazy philistine who cares little for the creative process. Rather it is to be on the vanguard of a novel and potentially far-reaching artistic trend.

The arguments against vertical video all seek to find something inviolable about images that play out horizontally before our eyes. “We live in a horizontal world, and most action happens from left to right,” said Mr. Bova, one of the men behind the puppet P.S.A. He added that “vertical videos feel claustrophobic,” because often they feature one or two people occupying the full frame, and not much of the landscape to show what lies beyond. Finally, Mr. Bova said, “our eyes are horizontal,” by which he meant the human field of vision is wider than it is tall, so it is only natural that our videos match that shape.

There is a simple rejoinder to his argument: Our eyes may be horizontal, but our hands are best suited to holding objects vertically, which is why phones, tablets and, in the predigital age, our books and other documents were usually oriented in portrait mode. Watching horizontal video on a phone’s vertical screen is a minor annoyance. With a horizontal video, you have to awkwardly flip your phone sideways so the entire image fills the screen, or you can keep your phone vertical and tolerate the huge black bars displayed above and below the picture.

In her research, Ms. Barakat found that many people didn’t reorient their phones to watch horizontal videos in full-screen mode. “As a person who makes videos, I was like, ‘You’re not seeing it the way we intended it!’” Ms. Barakat said. “And they were like, ‘We don’t care!’ They found it so uncomfortable to hold the phone the other way, and they didn’t want to keep switching their phones back and forth.’”

The argument that vertical videos are visually displeasing is also confounded by the stats. Vertically oriented videos are the lingua franca of at least a half-dozen social and video apps, including Snapchat, whose users watch three billion mostly vertical videos every day. In its Discover section — a spot for professional publishers — Snapchat lets media companies post both horizontal and vertical videos, but the company says vertical videos perform up to nine times better on many measurements of “engagement.”

John Whaley, left, and Daniel Proksch of Vervid, an app for tall videos, note that people are taller than they are wide, and look best in a vertical frame. Fotografia de: Drew Koszulinski

YouTube says that the rise of mobile phones has sharply increased the number of vertical videos on the site. Uploads of tall videos have grown 50 percent in 2015. That explains why, late last month, YouTube updated its Android and iOS apps to let users display vertical videos in full-screen mode. Facebook, which now claims it plays 4 billion videos views daily, also allows for full-screen playback of vertical videos.

If you peruse some of YouTube’s vertical videos on your phone — say, a video of an inflatable Minion rolling down a street in Dublin, or of a man with a spinal cord injury taking a few halting steps after being fitted with a mechanical exoskeleton — the argument that vertical videos are unsuited for showcasing most events falls apart. In these videos, the vertical cropping suits the subject. By focusing on the most important action and leaving out any extraneous detail, vertical video creates an intensity that might have been lacking if the clips were shot horizontally.

John Whaley, co-creator of Vervid, a new app that aims to become a showcase for tall videos, argues that many of life’s events are focused on one or two individuals, and because people are taller than they are wide, shots of individuals tend to look best in a vertical frame.

“Think of a baby’s first steps,” Mr. Whaley said. “The baby is vertical for the first time ever and the best way to capture that whole body is vertically.”

There are many other such examples: People climbing mountains, riding bikes or looking at a camera and explaining how to put on makeup.

“We live in the era of personal video,” Mr. Whaley said. Shouldn’t we celebrate videos that match the shape of our bodies?

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