Instagram TV is pulling us ever closer to a future full of tall videos | Tech News
There was a time not long ago when the idea of shooting video vertically seemed totally crazy. For decades, we have collectively watched screens that are wider than they are tall, sometimes by a lot. Familiar aspect ratios run the gamut from ultra-wide—like the sweeping 2.76:1 scenes of Ben-Hur—to the nearly-square 4:3 format used by movies, and then TV, for so many decades. The advent of the smartphone with video capture, however, ushered in an era of vertical video that has slowly, and somewhat painfully gained legitimacy and familiarity.
Now, Instagram has launched its IGTV platform, which encourages content creators to reach the service’s multitude of active users with tall video content that’s best suited for watching on a phone held vertically. It’s certainly not the first platform to embrace tall video—Snapchat has been championing the format since way back in 2015 and even YouTube adapted its mobile app to accommodate full-screen vertical footage late last year.
But, this is Instagram we’re talking about, a service that just officially crossed the billion active user mark. And it’s not just short-form content—IGTV will allow for videos up to an hour long. Content creators clearly expect people to stare at upright screens longer than ever before.
This battle over screen formats has existed since the beginning of cinema, and the width of the pictures we see has a lot of determining factors, including biology and, most importantly, technology.
Starting out in 4:3
You can trace the original moving picture format back to Thomas Edison’s lab. Photographer William Dickinson shot moving images on typical 35mm film for use in a kinetoscope, which was like a projector, but viewers had to watch moving images through a small hole in the machine itself. Each individual photo was the height of four perforations that were cut into the film so sprockets in the camera could move it along as it was exposed.
The result was an image that was 0.95 wide by 0.75 inches tall. In 1909, the Motion Picture Patent company certified it as the standard in order to help keep things uniform for theaters, viewers, and companies that made cameras and projectors.
This format endured untouched until the late 1920s when films got sound. The soundtrack appeared optically on the film, which took up space on the film itself. In 1932, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences decided to mask the top and bottom of each frame with a border to make room for the soundtrack on the film, which resulted in a familiar 1.37:1 aspect ratio, known as the Academy Ratio. Not much changed from the original 1.33:1 (expressed as width:height) format. Still, it’s an early example of changing technology causing a shift in film size.
Wide formats existed during these early years, but audiences—especially those in the theater—were accustomed to the square-ish format from the start.
Then came TV
At the dawn of 1950, fewer than 9 percent of homes had TVs, but that number grew to roughly 90 percent by the end of the decade. “When the television industry said ‘look, we’re going to copy your aspect ratio and lure your films onto our screens,’ the studios decided they would sell their films for smaller screens, but they needed to do something different,” says Michael Carmine, associate chair of technology at the NYU Tisch School of the Arts and veteran of film and TV production.
TV was cutting into the audiences that typically went to the theater to watch films. Because televisions used the boxy 4:3 aspect ratio from the start, it was a perfect fit for all the standard and popular films from the previous decades.
In order to differentiate themselves from the growing wave of screens in the home, movie companies started to go wide—really wide.
In 1952, a format called Cinerama debuted in New York City. It had as aspect ratio of 2.59:1—so wide that it required three cameras to shoot and three projectors to display on a severely curved screen. The process was hard to shoot, but audiences took to it. It was theatrical, with the first scene of a rollercoaster projecting onto curtains as they opened to show the enormous display.
The wild, wide ’50s
With audiences adapting to wider formats in the theater, companies clamored to make something standardized. The arrival of the anamorphic lenses were a big technological milestone for film formats. These lenses essentially squish an image horizontally during capture, then expanded during projection to fit a wider picture on the same amount of film.
The wide format largely settled into a 2.35:1 aspect ratio of a technology that Fox called Cinemascope. The first film using the technology was 1953’s The Robe, which was a massive box office success. Cinemascope was widely adopted in the film industry, with the notable exception of Paramount, which used a format called Vistavision. Rather than compressing more image data into the same area, Vistavision pulled the film horizontally through the camera and exposed negatives that were eight perforations across. These bigger negatives led to smaller film grain on the images, which translated into higher image quality. It was, however, decidedly more expensive because of all the film it required. Some truly iconic films used Vistavision’s 1.85:1 aspect ratio, including Alfred Hitchcock’s classic Vertigo. Interestingly enough, flipping that 1.85:1 aspect ratio 90 degrees very closely mimics the vertical aspect ratio viewers get if you watch vertical video on the iPhone X.
Going even bigger
Bigger negatives meant higher image quality, which led some filmmakers to reach for larger film stocks. The 70mm film used by by Mike Todd to create the Todd AO format was much bigger than the typical 35mm film. Todd AO images used a 2.25:1 aspect ratio, which lent itself nicely to musicals like The Sound of Music and the iconic 1970 movie, Patton.
Perhaps the most iconic super-wide movie is the 1959 movie, Ben-Hur, which employed an Ultra Panavision aspect ratio of 2.76:1 on 70mm film. Many theaters couldn’t support the hugely wide format and showed it at 2.5:1.
16:9 standard (1.77:1)
With standard definition TV and old films using boxy 4:3, and movies from the theater ranging anywhere from the 1.85:1 standard to 2.35:1 widescreen images, the new HDTV format developed in the late ‘80s needed an aspect ratio that could accommodate both. The compromise was 16:9, which is the average of the two formats. That meant wide content would be letterboxed with black bars on the top and bottom, while boxier 4:3 content would get what’s called pillar boxing, which places bars along the sides of the image to fill the screen.
This is the standard that most HDTVs currently use, and it’s also common in smartphones like the iPhone 8 Plus. According to NYU’s Carmine, the industry saw this coming and it had a tangible effect on how studios shot TV shows going into the HDTV transition. “On Will and Grace, we would shoot full-frame four perf, but we knew the show would go to syndication, so nothing important went on the top of the bottom because we know at some point it would air in 16:9,” he explained.
Viewing on vertical
If you have ever tried to view a movie on your phone in vertical orientation, you know it looks kind of ridiculous—it’s a small band of an image, which makes the rise of vertical video on smartphones seem like an obvious evolution.
One crucial piece of the in-app viewing puzzle is leaving room for the app’s interface on the videos. The original Instagram videos remained square like the photos, but even the full-screen vertical video clearly leaves room for things like related videos and in-app buttons.
In 2015, Snap pushed hard on its initiative for original vertical content and a wide variety of well-known media brands adopted—or at least attempted—to use the full potential of the skinny screen.
Carmine explains that shooting vertically is extremely difficult for a typical cinematic shoot, in which filmmakers typically set up a pair of shots on a single scene. However, he does see the application, especially when it comes to marketing. “People are long,” he says. “The vertical frame fits an entire person.” He also explained that he has shot some vertical video as long as 10 years ago for fashion advertising campaigns in department stores.
For now, Instagram is just beginning to roll out its pilot program for IGTV with some high-end “influencers” and their respective vertical shows. Whether it has enough momentum to continue to influence how we watch content in general remains to be seen.