9:16 has not been getting a lot of love lately on many cinematography forums. I’ll admit that when I was first asked to shoot in this format, my initial reaction wasn’t entirely positive. We’ve spent our entire careers as DOP’s and camera ops - thinking very much in the horizontal. It’s how we compose the ‘language’ of the moving image.
But after shooting just a few 9:16 projects, I found something unexpected happening. I found myself enjoying it! It was a fresh challenge that forced me to think creatively and in the end, has yielded some great results! So I thought I’d go over some of the stuff I’ve learned so far in the pursuit of better vertical.
I’m going to use a recent project I shot for Three Mobile. Directed by Tom Brown.
WHY ARE WE SHOOTING CONTENT THIS WAY???
I hope it goes without saying that the above video will look best viewed on a phone. Not something I often say about my work! But that gets me to my first point. This format is obviously designed for the phone user. Why don’t phone users just turn their phones horizontal?! No idea, but they don’t. I presume most of the people reading this are filmmakers. We are probably among the minority who bother to watch stuff full screen horizontal. The vast majority of people hold a phone vertically and consume all content this way. So the first question to ask yourself is this: Do you want people watching your content on a phone in a tiny little 16:9 box, or filling the screen?
Notice I use the word ‘content’. Nobody is asking you to make films this way… yet. Remember that this is content designed for phone delivery ONLY. Instagram Stories and Facebook want this format - so my advice is to take it seriously or miss out!
TO CROP OR NOT TO CROP?
Every time I share a 9:16 project online. One of the first questions is always ‘Did you just shoot 16:9 and crop in?’, to which my answer is NO!!! Why would I do that? C’mon, we are filmmakers! We should understand why this is a bad idea. Do you do this with photographs, or do you shoot landscape AND portrait by turning the camera in your hand? It’s not about resolution ‘you can just shoot 4k and crop the middle’ (why throw all that resolution away?) It’s about focal length of your lenses. Here’s the opening shot from the Three Mobile project:
This shot was designed like this by the director. The steps and the window are supposed to be in the frame. What happens when I go 16:9 on this? I lose the stairs and the window right? So what do I do? I back up quite a bit (nope, there’s a wall), or I go on a wider lens. Well, I was on a 25mm, so how wide to get back to this when horizontal? I’m guessing about 14mm. Would I normally go fish eye on something like this? No. Think about the continuation of this shot up the stairs, when it flies past the girl. Think about how different that would look on an ultra wide lens (we’re not making skateboard videos). That’s why I turn the camera on it’s side. Because it makes lensing infinitely easier. There’s also the fact I get to monitor the full image, without cropping my screen to a daft little box.
Final thought: Would you shoot 9:16 to crop in for 16:9? Hmmmmm?
HOW DO I TURN THE CAMERA ON IT’S SIDE?
The first project I did 9:16. I did this…
Obviously I needed a better setup. For the Three project we did stuff on sticks, slider, Ronin 2 and then 3 days of handheld for the doc style content (this can all be viewed on @ThreeUK Instagram Stories - Andrew, T-Boy and Chessie)
It definitely took some effort to work all this out. First was getting a workable L Plate. These can be bought (expensive) or hired, but my mate Anthony Brown loaned me a few Small Rig cheese plates stuck together. Then all I had to do was find tripod screws with a 1cm smooth gap (the toughest bit). Here’s a link to the parts I cobbled together if you want to do the same. Plates, 3/8 Screw, 1/4 Screw.
So that gets me on sticks etc. For the Ronin 2 (operated by Matt Harris) I needed something I could affix to the top part of the Ronin 2 cage. My solution was a simple Small Rig Nato handle, which then doubled up as a mounting point for an Easy Rig. The Easy Rig ended up being ESSENTIAL for doing 9:16 handheld for 3 days straight. Simply wouldn’t have been possible without it.
So here’s all that set up:
I wanted to share some of the director Tom’s story-boards. The moment I saw these, I knew he was really making the most of the format. And this is how I suggest you go about shooting 9:16. Embrace it and think about how you can get the best result within the ‘confines’ of the frame. It definitely requires some jiggery-pokery with your rig and a bit of creative thinking with your shots - but that’s what we do innit? :)
Oh… and your soundie is going to love you! 😂