Squaring off: Online videos are taking on a new shape

WGBH senior executive producer Bill Shribman sees kids flocking to square-shaped online videos...is the production community prepared to chase them?
August 9, 2017

If you’ve noticed that teens seem a little more interested in cooking lately, it may be because they’re spending a lot of time watching Tasty videos on Buzzfeed. Or perhaps they’re watching them on one of the many other social feeds on which these crisp, clear cooking videos appear. In fact, Tasty content has more than 100 million likes across its multilingual Facebook pages, and nearly 2,000 videos appear within its app.

As director of digital partnerships and a senior executive producer at WGBH in Boston, my team is always looking for new ways to reach kids with digital content. And the interesting element for me isn’t Tasty’s delicious-looking food, its simple design and mostly-overhead camera styleit’s that these videos are all square.

Combine this trend with the preponderance of portrait layoutsvertical videoacross that other teen favorite, Snapchat Discover, and you’ll see that there’s a growing tidal wave of video being produced that no longer fits the traditional landscape layout of cinema, television and YouTube. (Or at least YouTube before sharing vertical iPhone videos became commonplace.)

Before we tilt our heads further, let’s take a quick trip through history. The evolution of film to be a landscape medium probably has its roots in the fact that our eyes are next to each other,  not above on another. This has been compounded by the design of ever-widening movie theater screens and the stretching of television video from the boxy 4:3 to the 16:9 of most modern HD televisions. The shift to online video followed this trend, and even when videos shot vertically on iPhones started to appear, it was simply boxed in with thick bars to the left and right. In the 1980s, filmmaker and maverick musician Brian Eno had produced a number of vertical movies for display on televisions tipped on their sides. For the most part, however, movies, TV and video all remained conformingly landscapejust as the first talking pictures were in the early days of Hollywood.

But then came the cell phone, a device meant to be held upright in one hand. And so shooting video also followed this trend, conveniently available in the same, upright way.

In 2012, vertical videos that were being shared online were disparaged as amateurish in the meme that introduced us to Vertical Video Syndrome. The implication was that if we were shooting real video, it had to be landscape and not filmed upright. More seriously, people filming police arrests and political demonstrations were actively instructed to shoot their videos landscape so as to capture as much context of a scene as possible, because vertical video tends to narrow the field of view.

But then came the square photos of Instagram and the vertical videos of Snapchatand now we see a medium in flux. Vertical ads and animations now surround these popular social mediums, and we also witness the challenges of trying to repurpose existing video to the new format. Clips on Snapchat from Comedy Central or NBC show awkward split screens where they’ve tried to crop and stack even such simple pieces as two-person interviews.

Because this is driven by social platforms, we’ve not yet seen a trend to making vertical or square kids content, though some experiments can be found online (such as a vertical Alice and Wonderland animated book.) We are seeing 360-degree and 180-degree video, as well as experimental VR video but, once again, those are mostly landscape. The PBS KIDS Video and YouTube Kids apps both open only in landscape format because pretty much all content currently made for kids is, well, landscape.

But as the consumers of all this new, unfettered video become the TV producers of tomorrow, one might assume that TV could soon be turned on its head. Or at least, be pushed over a little on its side.



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