11 July 2023

Aspect Ratios and Attention Spans: The Rise of Vertical Video Formats 

by Andrew Stevenson

The aspect ratio of a video is an official way of describing its frame shape. It defines the proportions of the frame’s sides expressed as Width to Height. They tacitly inform and affect our viewing experience. When motion pictures first took off, the shape of the frame evolved for all sorts of reasons over time, ranging from practical (the available space on a roll of celluloid) to aesthetic (certain dimensions were more visually pleasing than others).  

35mm film became the standard and it provided a uniform and reliable format for the production, distribution, and exhibition of movies, facilitating the rapid spread of films. The invention of TV then brought things further, putting audio-visual entertainment in the home. Cinema responded to this competition by widening their aspect ratio as a form of differentiation, to create a more ‘epic’ experience.          

In today’s digital world, the most common aspect ratio for video is 16:9. Engineers settled on this because it was the geometric mean between the original TV standard (4:3) and the average of cinemascope ratios (2.35:1). It’s the shape we see every day in the form of modern TVs, computer monitors, and phones turned sideways.   

When TV was our primary device for entertainment, it made sense to produce content in a 16:9 landscape format because that was how most people were consuming media. Today, however, the primary device we engage with is our smartphone, with portrait being the dominant frame. 

Since social media introduced condensed content formats, the 9:16 aspect ratio makes it easier and more convenient to focus on the action by removing the unnecessary peripheral details. In short, the videos feel personal. They resonate and connect with audiences which is why younger “digital natives” are obsessed with user-generated content (UGC). The accessibility, engagement, and storytelling all combine to offer a hugely immersive experience.  

It’s not just TikTok, Snapchat, and Meta focusing on the vertical video trend; YouTube (the global hub for 16:9 landscape videos!) launched its own version of a vertical video platform in the form of ‘Shorts’. With heavy platform investment, and algorithms and user interfaces designed to serve more of it to users – it’s a crucial paradigm shift in the video industry, offering marketers new opportunities to communicate and connect with their audiences.  

As more people consume content on their mobile devices and platforms continue to evolve, we can expect to see more innovation and experimentation in this space. Brands too can leverage the vertical video format for the same reason UGC is successful: it’s a budget-friendly way to create content and needs few resources, while appealing to Gen Z’s insatiable video consumption habits. They want to see content that’s thematically appropriate to the medium; something native to the space. The new challenge for brands is to create effective vertical video content that is specifically shot for that purpose. This requires forethought and planning about how the narrative is suited to the new aspect ratio, and then producing accordingly. Consider shooting both formats side by side simultaneously – one traditional camera on a tripod, one vertical phone on a tripod, maximising your coverage. 

The ‘DIY’ nature of vertical videos means production values aren’t expected to be stellar. If the video content is pitched right, production values can be overlooked. It just has to be authentic. The format can be used to deliver quick messages or tell complex stories over a series of episodes. It works great for interviews as well as product reviews which can show off products in action. It’s simply a matter of getting creative with this new way of viewing the world. 

As smartphones become more advanced, they will capture higher-quality video with better stabilisation, lighting, and other features. This could make it easier for brands to produce even more compelling vertical video content. We may see new formats and styles emerge as well, with the aspect ratio becoming more integrated with other technologies, such as augmented reality and virtual reality. This could lead to ever more immersive and interactive vertical video experiences. We’re only in the infancy of this new wave of video. The opportunity for brands now is to consider the potential and incorporate this new aspect ratio into their strategies creatively and tactically. 

At the end of the day, good videos are all about the story, and the frame is the window through which we experience it. The frame has taken on many shapes and sizes over the years and just as ‘complex’ does not mean complicated, ‘simple’ does not mean simplistic. We want audiences to be looking through the frame, into the story being told.