Television began by offering a square, 4:3 image. As home viewing grew more and more popular, HDTVs helped make the big screen’s 16:9 framing the standard for small screens, too, but now things are changing again. Content creators of all kinds — from Snapchat to NBC Entertainment to “Homecoming” director Sam Esmail — are sharing stories with vertical framings fit to your phone.
Say goodbye to widescreen and hello to… tallscreen? Thinscreen? Vertiscreen?
Whatever the kids decide to call it, taller, narrower frames are becoming more and more prevalent. As discussed on this week’s Very Good TV Podcast, take the new versions of “Saved by the Bell” — a series originally shot and broadcast in the box framing of its era that has now been recut into mini Instagram episodes. Oddly enough, even though Instagram made square images all the rage, these five-minute recaps are reformatted to utilize the full vertical frame of your phone.
Most of the images are simple zooms, focusing on Zack Morris (Mark-Paul Gosselaar) when he says something charming, or A.C. Slater (Mario Lopez) when he’s wearing pleated baggy khakis you just have to see from waist to ankle. But there’s a little more effort put to these cuts than cropping. In “Student Teacher Week,” when Zack asks Slater and Kelly Kapowski (Tiffani Thiessen) to reach a compromise about the football kids cutting class, they both shout “No!” simultaneously, and the screen divides in half horizontally so you can see Slater on top and Kelly on the bottom. It holds this look until Kelly can give her morally superior final line and storm out of the room, when it goes back to a full vertical shot to better punctuate Zack’s difficult choice.
There are also big, bright, colored subtitles and animated transitions themed to fit the ’80s aesthetic (bright neon patterns behind a whacky high-top sneaker, for example). The style is similar to ESPN’s Snapchat versions of SportsCenter. Sliding photos are accompanied by stats, while host Andrew Hawkins fills the whole frame when he’s not relegated to commentary. Highlights are cropped to focus on the most predominant images within the widescreen footage, and humorous images are often doubled up on top of each other. Stats use the top/bottom splitscreen format, too, often when comparing and contrasting various figures.
Pixar’s Instagram channel does something similar for its “Off the Page” videos. In a recent post on “Coco,” the 16:9 images are largely preserved, if slightly compressed, while a scrolling shot of the script plays underneath the final footage. The top section of the vertical frame is a blurry version of what’s underneath, leaving just enough room for notifications to pop up, and the bottom is a white reflection of the screenplay, where buttons for liking, commenting, or sharing the video fit snugly.
These, along with many other network and studio channels, pump out videos that are basically extended advertisements for the main product. ESPN wants you to tune into the televised SportsCenter to catch the full highlights (instead of sections or photos), while Pixar is hoping you’ll fall in love with “Coco” all over again when reading the script under the each scene (or you share the video so someone else can watch it). Even “Saved by the Bell,” which ended 25 years ago, is hoping you’ll watch old episodes via NBC.com or Hulu.
But one series actually built a prominent portion of its first season around vertical framing. Sam Esmail’s “Homecoming” uses the format as a narrative tool and thematic metaphor. On the one hand, the scenes framed vertically are set in the present, while the traditional widescreen scenes are set in the past. This handy visual separation makes it easy to distinguish what’s happening (and when), but it also further emphasizes the problem facing the two characters most prominently shown in a tall box: Heidi Bergman (Julia Roberts) and Thomas Carrasco (Shea Whigham) are flying blind. She can’t remember her past, and he is trying to figure out what happened to her. Both are boxed in by oppressive forces they can’t fully comprehend, and the tight framing reinforces that idea.
“Homecoming” makes further use of the framing as the first season progresses, but it’s worth noting viewers can’t actually watch these segments in portrait mode. Though Hulu and other streaming services allow videos to play when your phone is vertically aligned, Amazon does not. The black bars on the side are unavoidable because they’re an intentional artistic choice. What does that say about old shows like “Saved by the Bell” being recut to fit new viewing methods? At best, it gives the viewer the option to view stories as they please. At worst, it’s a manipulation of carefully considered choices made by directors, editors, and producers for reasons beyond higher art. So choose wisely.
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