Kodak, originally known for still photography, transformed culture forever and set a precedent that would go on to last for over a generation. In 1891, Kodak released a transparent roll film, which inventor Thomas Edison used to develop the first motion picture camera.
Technical limitations often dictate a medium. Kodak’s film was created in the 4:3 aspect ratio. The decision by Edison to use Kodak’s film locked filmmakers and audiences into the 4:3 aspect ratio for over a century. Today, Instagram, with its release of IGTV, is following in Edison’s footsteps and solidifying a place in history for vertical video.
At the dawn of cinema, filmmakers experimented with making their films as wide as possible. Audiences loved wide screens as they offered a more immersive viewing experience, and the push for width never slowed.
Early television sets were in the 4:3 ratio because that was the standard during the development of TV (the so-called Academy Standard). It wasn’t a creative choice, it was a technical one. With a small TV set, you get smaller stories – simple sets, tight framing and a contained universe. At the same time, cinema continued to experiment with wider formats and bigger, blockbuster stories.
Home video meant that wide films had to be shrunk for the small screen, and with it came aspect ratio problems. Do you remember letterboxing and pan and scan? Eventually this got reconciled with the mass adoption of widescreen TVs at home, and the mediums essentially converged (and thus emerged the golden era of modern TV!).
Now, vertical video follows in the similar historic footsteps as film and TV. It all starts with a technical limitation. People hold their mobile phones vertically (there is no point in arguing about how easy it is to rotate your phone, because no one does). When you watch a vlog on YouTube, the space on both sides go largely unused. Content creators are obligated to film the entire widescreen frame, even though the viewer focus is only on the object/person in the center. For vlogs in particular, people actually want a shot that delivers a more personal, intimate experience.
Mediums and their content tend to mirror society, and today’s generation of creators and consumers are growing up vertical. Vertical video is terrible for epic wide shots, but it’s perfect for shots of a single person. The perfect format for social media personalities is the ultra-personal vertical video.
Widescreen gave birth to classic films like Lawrence of Arabia and 2001: A Space Odyssey, which amazed audiences with their epic scale. Vertical video gave birth to social media celebrities, who immediately saw higher fan engagement in formats like Snapchat and Instagram stories.
It’s clear: we shape technology and technology shapes us. Edison didn’t invent the 4:3 aspect ratio. It was ‘given’ to him. Instagram didn’t invent vertical video. Apple and other modern phone makers did by making phones vertical (because that feels better in the hand).
Conversations about vertical screen movie theaters or blockbuster films viewed vertical miss the point. The medium is the message. We crave epic wide shots on massive, immersive screens – either at the theater or at home – but the ultra personal device needs an equally personal aspect ratio.
Audiences still go to superhero movies in droves (while it becomes clear that smaller, more personal films aren’t meant for the big screen). For now, the wide and vertical formats will coexist, just as they did before with TV and film. And just as widescreen TV technology brought them all back together, expect the same from immersive media in the coming decade. Until then, embrace the vertical and welcome IGTV.
It’s the shape of things to come.