ABOUT THE FESTIVAL
Vertical films and videos are flourishing as new types of cameras and screens easily allow people to shoot and view in non-traditional formats. Variously called “portrait orientation”, "tall-screen", or simply “hey, you’re filming it wrong!”, they're typically 9:16 aspect ratio.
On 21 May 2016 the 2nd edition of the Vertical Film Festival was held in Australia's Blue Mountains. It comprised an out-of-competition section called TALL SHORTS (featuring a curated collection of extraordinary vertical cinema from around the world) plus a vertical video competition for works three minutes and under, ⇧ THIS WAY UP ⇧.
As the world’s first international competition for vertical video (established 2014) the Festival encourages filmmakers to create and submit works that explore aesthetic possibilities of the vertical format, on any subject matter. Films can be created on any apparatus that delivers HD quality, from smartphone to cinemascope!
Entries for the 2nd edition closed 30 April 2016. Prizes were awarded courtesy of the prize sponsor
and you can see some of the films we screened, including winners, here.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF ASPECT RATIO
(PROGRAM NOTE FROM THE FIRST
VERTICAL FILM FESTIVAL, 2014):
We’re delighted to to welcome you to the 1st Vertical Film Festival here in St Hilda’s Church tonight. Not only because it’s a beautiful space, but because vertical screens trace their lineage from the stained glass windows that in church architecture so eloquently suggest transcendence.
Till the advent of cinema most visual art didn't conform to any one orientation or aspect ratio. Though vertical framing was predominant in Asian screens and scrolls and in Europe prior to the late 1400s interest in depicting landscapes, paintings essentially came in all shapes and sizes. Some paintings escaped the frame altogether in the form of frescoes, while the camera obscura had been delivering circular moving images for millennia. So why should the so-called 'seventh art’ insist on such standardisation?
The battles fought over screen geometry as cinema developed in the early 1900s are little-known but left behind a plethora of curious historical formats. Indeed the intrusion of a new optical soundtrack onto the filmstrip pushed cinema's width-to-height ratio close to square at one point (Fritz Lang’s 1931 film M was 1.19:1 for example). Faced with multitudinous formats, Hollywood engineers of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences met in 1930, determined to set a new standard.
There, only Russian filmmaker-theorist Sergei Eisenstein argued against standardising the landscape format — he saw the horizontal rectangle as a throwback to the theatrical proscenium. Addressing the Academy he argued passionately for the possibilities of "the dynamic square”, calling for cinema to remain flexible to a variety of geometries. Despite cheekily advocating the “virility” and evolutionary superiority of vertical screen forms, he lost the argument to the studios’ commercial imperatives. Academy Ratio (1.375:1) was established in 1932 and endured until cinema’s battles with television pushed film formats wider again in the pursuit of crowd-pleasing, field-of-view-filling immersiveness.
Many filmmaker-artists equated that immersiveness with audience passivity and in the 1960s the Expanded Cinema movement rebelled against the movie ‘industry'. Some attempted critiques of the hidden power structures of cinema, whilst others searched for cinematic environments that might inspire ‘oceanic consciousness’ — it was the 60s after all! Both camps sought to free audiences from the ’tyranny’ of fixed spectators passively receiving a singular, horizontally rectangular perspective on the world via installations or projections onto domes, sculptural objects, and multiple screens of varying geometries. Such ‘expanded' cinema was to be experienced kinaesthetically, with the whole body, not just one’s eyes and ears.
In today’s digital era, camera standards remain yet there are fewer limitations on what can be delivered. Chasing ever-higher definition, the televisual medium has settled on 16:9, devised as an average of pre-existing screen ratios. Yet a digital video can be anything from 1 pixel high by 1 pixel wide (form an orderly queue now for the 1st Pixel Film Festival!) Even the rectangularity of screens is set to become passé.
As screen devices become more and more ubiquitous in our lives they also become more portable, even flippable. Device ergonomics and human physiology encourage us to hold mobile screens in a predominantly vertical orientation. Many such devices have tiny gyroscopes to flag which way up their user is creating and viewing content. Vimeo, Facebook, YouTube et al. look at these flags to allow vertical videos to be embedded the right way up; only their display (without annoying black bars or ‘pillar-boxing') remains a sticking point. The era of Eisenstein’s flexible screens is well and truly upon us; it just hasn’t been converted into a business model … yet. So vertical filmmaking is likely here for the long run — until holography perhaps eliminates the frame altogether!
Tonight's Festival, in setting few limits other than duration and orientation has thrown open the door to see what comes in. As the world’s first competition for short vertical videos, it’s been fascinating to see tall-screen climbing videos mixing cheek-by-jowl with experimental cinema, animations, documentaries, and even iPhone videos. Several works shown tonight, such as Oscar-nominated The Numberlys sit at the nexus between apps and videos. In common, all our filmmakers are quite clearly revelling in being able to view the world from another perspective.
To closed-minded naysayers on the ‘net — and there are plenty — 9:16 vertical videos are clearly the result of a mistake, something to be ridiculed. “Try shooting it properly next time,” they sniff. True vertical creators shun such dogma by composing their shots with the vertical frame in mind. To do so they have to overcome the problems of apparatus designed for capturing, editing and screening horizontal images. (Even the manual for the Festival’s HD projector includes a surly warning from the manufacturer never to turn it on its side!) But in surmounting these challenges they’ve become cinema’s latest pioneers. Ultimately the filmmaker's choice of whether to make a horizontal, vertical, circular or square film should purely be determined by the subject matter and what we’re trying to say. Cinema is arguably at its most powerful not when attempting widescreen immersivity but when it's offering alternative visions of our world — and vertical video can, sometimes, do just that.
So, thank you too for taking the leap and making a little bit of cinema history with us here in Katoomba. We’re honoured that that so many filmmakers have allowed us to show you their work here tonight.
With a bit of luck the projector might even make it to the end without incident.
Blue Mountains, Australia, 17 October 2014
(revised June 2017)