Aishwarya Ramesh
Points of View

Vertical vs Horizontal format – how does it affect ad filmmaking?

Engaging a consumer with vertical ads has more to do with the quality of the creative than the consumer’s attention span - four ad-filmmakers tell us.

A consumer is likely to be using their phone for extended periods when he/she is consuming long format/OTT content. This could be in the form of a YouTube video or they could be catching up with an episode of their favourite show while commuting to work. During this time, if the user encounters an ad, they’re likely to be viewing it in the format that the ad filmmaker intended for it to be seen in, i.e. horizontally.

Other times, when a user is holding his/her phone vertically, it’s likely that they’re browsing social media – where most ads have been adapted to vertical positions for viewing convenience. Given the number of people who use social media, it makes sense for brands to make their presence felt where consumers spend most of their time. Social media giant Facebook and its photo sharing social networking app Instagram are the key drivers in the push for ads in the vertical format. Recently, Facebook India teamed up with Wunderman Thompson, Ogilvy, Leo Burnett, McCann and Mullen Lintas - to equip them with the skills to think mobile-first for vertical advertising with an initiative called ‘Thumbstoppers.’

We spoke to four ad-film directors to understand the format better. The consensus was that the shift from horizontal to making ads in a vertical format does not change storytelling itself, but there are other aspects to take into account.

Ayyappa KM, Partner/Director – Early Man Film

How do you compete with an ‘epic fail compilation’ or a Bobby Deol meme? The rules of traditional ad-filmmaking don’t apply when shooting for mobile. Television ads have a captive audience, but with digital, you don’t have that liberty. The television audience is more likely to sit through a 30-second ad. That same patience is not there on mobile, so it better be great. People like advertising that’s packaged as entertainment, not someone shouting at you to buy toothpaste.

Vertical vs Horizontal format – how does it affect ad filmmaking?
Ayyappa KM

Currently, the briefs still predominantly favour television. Most briefs are for films for TV in most mainline Indian advertising. When brands ask for videos in the 1:1 square format, usually, you end up adapting the same commercial shot in the horizontal format for mobile. But they’re two completely different formats. So, you wind up cropping the image and making it seem like it was shot by a small child.

Once briefs align themselves towards mobile, then you’ll end up shooting accordingly. The format is relatively new. I’m personally very excited as it’s a new way to explore storytelling. Instead of fearing it, one should embrace it. It does strip down a lot of complicated layers that come with big-budget TV commercials. This takes a lot of pressure off of the agency and client, the end-result being work that is new and refreshing.

Vasan Bala – freelance writer, director

Whether it is a vertical screen or horizontal - aspect ratios don’t make anything cinematic or un-cinematic – the story remains the same. Initially, ad films were made in the 4:3 screen ratio because television screens, in those days, had a 4:3 ratio. That changed when the TV format became 16:9 - that’s when everything became wide.

Vertical vs Horizontal format – how does it affect ad filmmaking?
Vasan Bala

With the vertical format, there’s no need to panic – the only problem is you need to shoot the same thing separately for all formats. When someone says - make an ad film and also make an ad film for the vertical format - then, aesthetically, you’re shooting for 16:9 horizontal, but the output desired is also 16:9 vertical. Your aesthetic choices are then very different – that becomes a problem when you have to fulfil both the criterion through the same ad. This format is similar to ad films shot in Hindi, Tamil, Telugu and so on. Shooting in two different formats means shooting for more days, making different aesthetic choices and the client pays for it accordingly.

In advertising today, we’re jostling for space and attention. Your creative needs to be strong enough and you need to be very sure of whom you’re catering to. Clarity in vision goes a long way in solving the problem – either be a part of the noise or break the clutter; whatever helps the brand’s objectives better. It’s a peripheral larger image across mediums and clarity will help the brand.

Ram Subramanian (Voice of Ram) – Director, Executive Producer at Handloom Picture Company

When shooting for a vertical screen, the framing changes. You’ll be using the same camera to shoot, but you will have to change the aspect ratio to match that of a mobile phone. The horizontal format is commonly seen on television, but you can’t frame a vertical ad in the same way. On a horizontal screen you can have up to three people in the frame at the same time, while in the vertical format, you can have, at the most, just one person. You’ll have to think and shoot accordingly.

If you’re shooting something for the vertical format, you will not be able to use it across formats – for example, it can’t be viewed on television or on a large screen unless the story is designed in such a way that it looks the same across vertical and horizontal screens. You can tell a story in any format – as long as you know which format you’re using and which canvas it’s going to be on, it’s never a problem.

Vertical vs Horizontal format – how does it affect ad filmmaking?
Ram Subramanian

Audiences have the right attention span, given the right story. The same audience binge-watches content from Hotstar or Netflix for hours. If you’re telling an interesting story, people will watch it, irrespective of whether it is one minute or one hour.

A good starting point will be if there is a brief from the client’s end saying they want to utilise a particular medium specifically. Then you won’t use any other medium because what works in the vertical format will not work on others. It’s like running a radio spot on television and expecting it to work.

This medium is clearly defined because you’re shooting it in a certain format for a certain duration. It’s definite that this content is for handheld mobile devices – not even for tablets. The client has to have that kind of clarity, for starters and then the scriptwriter has to accordingly write for this medium before an ad-filmmaker shoots the piece accordingly.

Suresh Eriyat – director, Studio Eeksaurus

In terms of craft, the filmmaking process changes completely with the vertical format. The horizontal format had come to existence because of people watching a film from a distance. Long shots, mid shots, shots taken with drones... All these things need to be redefined while shooting in the vertical format. The basics of filmmaking remain the same but in terms of establishment and giving people the cinema experience through vertical format is going to be challenge.

Vertical vs Horizontal format – how does it affect ad filmmaking?
Suresh Eriyat

It will be limiting in the beginning but people would be coming up with their own new techniques within this format. Ad filmmakers are in the business of storytelling to make a story come alive, the techniques remain the same. It doesn’t make a difference to the ad filmmaker if the consumption is in vertical format or not.

We need to ask if this is something that’s going to last? Cinematic horizontal format has lasted for the last 100 years – does vertical have that kind of longevity in terms of existence? In the past, we’ve seen digital betacam tapes (these tapes could record 40 minutes of video), CD ROMs, DVD, Blu Ray DVDs... There were many industries that were set up for the horizontal format and in the end, all of them have vanished. Now everyone streams their movies and we don’t even know if this is the final format.