A miscreant's guide to horizontal video

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Last week's industrial explosion in Tianjin, China was a horrific event that made news worldwide. The footage of the explosions was terrifying. It was also shot vertically.

And last week the New York Times published a column in praise of shooting video in portrait rather than the more normal landscape mode. The argument was that most people spend much of their smartphone time with the device held so that it's higher than it is wide, so why not face that reality and serve up video that fits the common orientation?

Because it's just wrong, that's why. If God had wanted us to watch video in portrait mode he would have stacked one eye on top of the other. So, reason one it's a bad idea: vertical video is against God's plan. It is unholy.

The article's author, Farhad Manjoo, points out that a number of social media apps, like Snapchat and Periscope support or even demand that videos be shot vertically, and that many smartphone users actually prefer portrait mode video content.

Well, Mr. Manjoo, there are also apps that let your phone fart like a warthog, but that doesn't make it a good idea. And, need I remind anyone that when laser printers were first affordable, folks who didn't know thing one about graphic design thought using 47 fonts in a church bulletin was a dandy notion too.

See, that's the thing about folks who shoot vertical video. They simply don't know any better. Even more pitiably, they believe they're shooting real video instead of the sad and regrettable vertical flipbooks they're actually creating.

To me they are like poor saps who say that soy "facon" tastes just like real bacon. No, no, it does not and only people who have never had real bacon ever, or for a very long time, think it does. These people are abominations in the eyes of the Lord. Eyes, I must point out, which are artfully spaced on His face along a horizontal line just above His nose, which is in portrait mode. So if you want to smell vertically, go right ahead.

The misguided miscreants who shoot vertical video aren't doing it for aesthetic reasons, they are doing it because they simply don't know how dorky they look in the act. If they did, they would stop their foolishness immediately.

What they need is for someone to shoot a horizontal video of them in the midst of their irrational behaviour and show it to them, in landscape mode. Then the scales would fall from their stacked, mutant eyes, pronto.

Horizontal frames can tell great stories. Stages are horizontal, so are movie and television screens. So are video frames on YouTube, Facebook and Vimeo. There is a deep and developed visual grammar associated with the constraints and ratios associated with horizontal frames. Still imagery has told its stories well in square, portrait or landscape formats of various ratios. But, despite dramatic shifts in technology from passion plays to True Detective, tales told in motion have stayed with the horizontal format.

Just because a lot of unnatural newbies are embarrassing themselves by holding their video cameras wrong is no reason to think actual videographers should be open to a wholesale shift in orientation.

I agree that for some scenes, portrait mode might work -- a cat going down a water slide, a cat falling off a ceiling fan, a cat chasing another cat up a tree -- for example. But for all but folks who film amusing pet antics wrong, these are outliers, not standard-bearers for a new and radical rethinking of the aspects and dimensions of linear storytelling.

We are not talking about Turner foreshadowing the Impressionists or Miles Davis exploring the new frontiers of modal jazz here. We are talking about folks who can't tell the act of texting from the act of capturing motion on a sensor. They are not pioneers, or if they are, they're the kind who would have tried to explore the West by having their horses push their covered wagon sideways through Death Valley. And who wants to follow them?

Listen to an audio version of this column, read by the author, here.

Wayne MacPhail has been a print and online journalist for 25 years, and is a long-time writer for rabble.ca on technology and the Internet.

Photo: Dave Lawler/flickr

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