Widescreen! Cinemascope! Panavision!
Since the early days of cinema, movie screens have been getting steadily wider. From the squat 4:3 aspect ratio of early 20th century silent movies, through the explosion of sprawling widescreen film formats that began in the 1950s, to today’s ever-expanding domestic TV screens, the trend is clear: bigger is better … but only if you stretch things in the horizontal dimension.
But what happens if you turn this thinking on its head?
Or rather, on its side?
That’s the question posed by Vertical Cinema, a Sonic Acts art project comprising ten specially commissioned films made by experimental filmmakers and audiovisual artists. Vertical Cinema presentations have been held since 2013 at locations across Europe and in the USA, with the films frequently being projected in churches. The movies are projected using a custom-built 35mm film projector in vertical Cinemascope. No landscape images here. In Vertical Cinema, everything is portrait.
Here’s what Vertical Cinema has to say about this unusual twist on traditional cinematic conventions:
For the Vertical Cinema project, we “abandoned” traditional cinema formats, opting instead for cinematic experiments that are designed for projection in a tall, narrow space. It is not an invitation to leave cinemas – which have been radically transformed over the past decade according to the diktat of the commercial film market – but a provocation to expand the image onto a new axis. This project re-thinks the actual projection space and returns it to the filmmakers. It proposes a future for filmmaking rather than a pessimistic debate over the alleged death of film.
With its mission to challenge established conventions, Vertical Cinema wears its experimental heart firmly on its sleeve. But what’s to stop someone making a full-blown narrative feature film in this unusual vertical format?
On the face of it, the challenges seem considerable. The entire movie industry is built around the landscape image. Even if you could get such a film made at a technical level, would the vertical format clip your storytelling wings? And would audiences actually want to see it?
To answer these questions and more, Cinefex spoke with six filmmakers and visual effects experts: Douglas Trumbull (filmmaker and VFX innovator), Tim Webber (creative director and VFX supervisor, Framestore), Rajat Roy (global technical supervisor, Prime Focus World), Paul Mowbray (head of NSC Creative), Marc Weigert (president and VFX supervisor, Method Studios) and Charles Rose (CG supervisor, Tippett Studio).
What technical hurdles would you have to jump in order to make a narrative feature film in vertical format?
Tim Webber – “If anything, shooting vertically is more of a practical irritation rather than anything challenging from a technical standpoint – monitors and the user interfaces are designed to be viewed in landscape, for example. The bulk of industry cameras are bottom-heavy, with buttons on their sides, so as soon as you rotate them everything becomes trickier. But there are no truly complex problems to solve.”
Marc Weigert – “It’s not a problem mounting your cameras at a 90° angle on to your camera platform of choice. The main challenge – or limitation – would be lighting and set-building. Where do you hide your lights? Or the opposite: where do you put your netting to diffuse sunlight or bounce light? How tall will you have to build your sets?”
Rajat Roy – “In terms of technical challenges, there really isn’t anything that can’t be done in film. To achieve a vertical effect, you can shoot 6K and mask the image to use only the central portion of the frame, for example. However, there would be considerations if we were presenting stereo imagery in this medium, in that you are really accentuating the left and right borders – something we’re very conscious of when working in stereo. Objects breaking frame in shot can cause issues in stereo, and this would be exacerbated by the vertical aspect ratio. There would also need to be consideration given to the viewing angle, as the fall-off at the top of frame could cause issues, depending on the viewer’s proximity to the screen.”
Marc Weigert – “There would be problems with special effects too. Rain and snow rigs would be tough to hide. Interestingly, some of these problems are also prevalent in the 360° films now starting to appear for VR formats like the Oculus Rift, so we’ll probably have to come up with smart ways to overcome these challenges anyway in the near future.”
Charles Rose – “Technically, the challenges aren’t many, beyond the obvious. I think the biggest challenge will be finding narratives suited to the vertical format. Most of the vertical cinema films I’ve seen are very abstract, non-narrative.”
Tim Webber – “But the challenge doesn’t stop with making the film. Projecting vertically has its own issues, even down to the requirements from the room. That’s why vertical cinema is often shown in churches, where the tall architecture really complements the format.”
Marc Weigert – “Also, human eyes automatically create a horizontally-weighted aspect ratio. A vertical ratio – I would guess – would create an enormous strain on either your eyes or your neck muscles for a two-hour movie.”
Doug Trumbull – “Our company created a special venue attraction for the Luxor Pyramid Hotel, called Secrets of the Luxor Pyramid, directed by myself and Arish Fyzee. The third act was a vertical screen show called the Theater of Time. The movie was very straightforward to design and produce, with everything specifically conceived for the vertical format. There were no significant technical challenges that would not occur with any other format, and the visual opportunities were very exciting. The movie was a combination of live-action, miniatures, and computer graphics, shot in VistaVision at 48fps, digitally composited and rendered out at 6K resolution to film. It was projected on to a deeply curved vertical screen with an aspect ratio of 1.66:1 – the original “full frame” VistaVision format.”
What about the artistic challenges?
Rajat Roy – “Vertical cinema is just a device – it’s affecting the visual language of the storytelling, but it’s not creating artistic challenges in itself. It’s not as if the artist is saying, “Oh no, I want to create this piece of art but now I have this vertical constriction!” The format drives the creation.”
Doug Trumbull – “Working with the vertical format, I felt that storytelling was very straightforward, particularly when cutting between actors and away to their POVs. The vertical format encouraged direct cuts between actors, because over-shoulder shots were not necessary.”
Tim Webber – “The artistic and aesthetic differences are really where vertical cinema is interesting. Landscape filmmaking automatically lends itself to having more people in the frame at once. How people interact, and the relationships they have with one another, are a key narrative point to the majority of films we see today. With a portrait frame, however, it’s much more suited to having one person dominate the screen. As a result, the type of film we’d see with this technique would be different to the norm.”
Marc Weigert – “Action in most stories takes place horizontally (and no, I’m not just talking about those kind of movies!). Whether it’s a car chase, a walk-and-talk, a dinner in a restaurant, or a scene in a conference room, as soon as more than one person is present everything is naturally laid out horizontally. So you would actually have to ‘force’ a vertical framing. Even a mountain rarely lends itself to portrait framing – just leaf though any Ansel Adams book.”
Paul Mowbray – “The vertical cinema movement highlights the frame much more acutely than regular cinema. As soon as you move away from the widescreen format we’re so familiar with, many of the rules and conventions that cinema has evolved over the years need to be reinvented.”
What sort of things might we see emerging with this new, vertical visual language?
Tim Webber – “The filmmaking rules and tropes we use today were developed with a landscape frame, so how we understand composition and narrative would have to be adapted. The basic principles are the same, but the instincts trained into camera operators would have to be re-learned. For example, in vertical cinema the environment tends to have a far greater effect on the character. So, if the sky plays a big role in your film thematically or through the narrative, a vertical frame would be the perfect fit.”
Rajat Roy – “There’s obviously an emphasis of vertical scale. In the same way that you can present a huge panoramic vista in Cinemascope, a vertical image of a landscape with lots of sky can also be very dramatic, giving a sense of human scale to the view. Alternatively, the vertical frame could be used to build suspense: ‘What’s happening just out of frame?’ The constricted window denies the viewer seeing everything they may want to see.”
Marc Weigert – “I would say that vertical cinema is not suited very well for narrative cinema. On the flip-side, just as the portrait format has advantages in certain areas of still photography (think high rises and stairwells), there are some benefits to vertical cinema. But my feeling is that some vertical tilting – as seen in films currently – would be replaced with lots of horizontal panning!”
Tim Webber – “A good pointer would be the Oscar-winning film, Ida. It isn’t a vertical film, but it was shot 4:3, with the characters frequently framed right at the bottom of the frame. The beautiful and original cinematography affected how the audience felt about the emotional and psychological state of the characters.
Doug Trumbull – “With Theater of Time, we did everything possible to give the audience a feeling of flying and vertigo, using wide angle lenses, so that looking down at the ground was rich in detail, and looking up at the sky was very beautiful – all in one shot.”
So, what’s the future for vertical cinema?
Tim Webber – “Ultimately, it will always be a niche area of filmmaking. There are many good reasons why films have developed with wide screens. Not least that, because of the horizontal setting of our two eyes: we see a widescreen view of the world in our everyday lives.”
Rajat Roy – “There’s a place for vertical cinema as an interesting alternative to conventional cinematic presentation, if it’s used positively. If you tried to create a narrative film that doesn’t use the device effectively, then it would be annoying – just like any poorly used device. But, in the right hands, I could see it being very effective. It delivers the same kind of effect as a tall, thin window in architecture – it’s a pleasing aesthetic. ”
Paul Mowbray – “As the VR movement is about to explode, it seems quite bizarre to think that a movement with such a restrictive field of view would be able to gain popularity. A filmmaker’s goal is usually to immerse their audience in a story, so I believe an all-encompassing, 360° canvas is the logical evolution of cinema. Vertical cinema introduces a significant restriction to this goal of immersion. However, by doing this, it also introduces some interesting constraints which force the filmmaker to consider things in new ways. I can already think of a few interesting ideas that would lend themselves to this format. But it feels like more of a novelty than the future of cinema.”
Doug Trumbull – “Since much of our world is vertical – consider the printed page, for example – it’s actually very comfortable to frame shots in the vertical format, and very natural to watch. I believe there are still many opportunities to continue to explore the vertical format for special projects, theme parks, rides, and other projects that want to offer a unique movie experience.”
Tim Webber – “Overall, I think it’s an interesting development that opens up the process to an entirely different type of filmmaker. Personally, I’d like to make a film that uses various aspect ratios, and plays around with these conventions from scene to scene as another way to draw the viewer into the characters and story. It’s remarkable how changing aspect ratio doesn’t take you out of the movie, as seen when Christopher Nolan switches from Cinemascope to IMAX in some of his movies.”
Have you seen a Vertical Cinema presentation? What did you think? And do you like the idea of settling down to watch a two-hour feature film presented in this novel way? If so, what kind of movie might it be? Is this a credible art form, or just another tall story?
- Vertical Cinema
- Sonic Acts
- Douglas Trumbull
- Method Studios
- NSC Creative
- Prime Focus World
- Tippett Studio
Special thanks to Annette Wolfsberger, Stephanie Bruning, Liam Thompson, Melissa Knight, Tony Bradley and Mark Stetson.