How a Square Changed Everything

October 3rd, 2017 in Design & Branding 4 minute read

Now the title of this post is fairly over-dramatic, but as a practising filmmaker, it is quite hard to convey how weird and wonderful the job role can be. For instance, just last week we were dropping strawberries into different shaped bowls to monitor their “bounce credentials”…

However, one of the current challenges we face within the industry is the constant need to adapt to new methods of using video online.

Over the past two years, the production and consumption of square videos have completely dominated the mobile advertising platform, and luckily we had a front-row seat.

An Aspect Ratio determines the height and width of a moving image. The technical term for a “square” video is known as a 1:1 aspect ratio, which means its width is the same size as its height.

However, in order to understand why square videos have become the adopted norm, we have to look at a fierce rivalry that lasted the majority of the early 20th century between Hollywood Cinema and the Television Industry. Let’s dive in.

The first “thing” to show a moving picture was developed by an inventor named Louis Le Prince, known as the Father of Cinematography. His defining work in our city of Leeds in 1888 led to the first moving pictures we have on record.

It’s nice to know that even 129 years ago they were as obsessed with GIF’s as we are now!

His pioneering work was developed further by Thomas Edison and his employee’s, which lead to the Kinteograph. This weird contraption paved the way for the projection of moving pictures, and the birth of the cinema.

Throughout this process, the main aspect ratio they used was 4:3, due to using 35mm film and 4 perforations (the bits on the side of film) per image, which became the standard for cameras of the era. Primitive cinema technology was a world away from what we are used to today, with a live orchestra pit to play sound alongside silent film’s as they hadn’t quite worked out how to record the two together.

At the time going to the cinema was a luxury only affordable to the high-flying members of society, but this all changed with the introduction of the Television.

Scottish inventor John Logie Baird developed the early stages of the modern television in the early 1920’s. Early television sets were created at 4:3 ratio, so they could broadcast feature films without having to change them.  After the Second World War and with the help of mass production techniques, the television found its way into the homes of most American and British people.

This was not good news for the top executives at Hollywood, who felt a massive blow to their profits and, struggled to bring people out of their homes and back into the cinema.

Their novel solution was to make the cinema experience more dramatic by giving the viewers more to look at. Literally.

Widescreen, as the name suggests, used cameras that could use wider film stock, and was used to make inherently larger films. Dawning the age of the “Cinematic” look, ratios began to increase in size astronomically.

This marked the start of a historic battle between Hollywood and Television, driven by creativity and technology to further push the boundaries of moving image until a technical engineer named Dr Kerns H Powers offered a peace offering.

Dr Powers understood the difficulties of a divided industry and set to bring peace by suggesting a new format that would provide the best of both worlds.

By taking an average of the screen dimensions used in television and cinema, in 1980 he proposed the use of a 16:9 ratio, which was quickly adopted by television manufactures and cinema houses alike to bring an end to the war…sort of.

The 16:9 ratio has since become the most widely adopted ratio of all and made manufacturers much more efficient when developing technologies that would later disrupt an entire industry yet again, and one that you a probably using right now – the touchscreen.

Preceding the arrival of mobile phones with screens, ergonomic research was done into the best way to use and interact with a rectangle that would live in your pocket.

The decision was made to turn the “new” television ratio on its side, to best suit the phone for using with one hand. What had once been an agreed standard within the industry had yet again been turned on its head (or 90 degrees for that matter).

With the introduction of social media, and with apps like Instagram at the helm, the square (1:1) ratio was used in an attempt to show the video as big as possible, without removing the user interface of the phone/app.

As of 2017, 65% of online video views come from mobile devices, which throws us a completely new set of challenges for filmmakers wanting to document the next Salt Bae.

To make things slightly more difficult, 80% of online video is now watched without sound, ushering in an era of digital silent film.

At a time where video creation has never been this accessible, who would have thought Le Prince’s moving vision of the future would come full circle, on a journey back to the square.

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