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The polarizing, promising future of vertical movies

Damien Chazelle’s new Apple short attempts to change minds and spark innovation

Graphic grid featuring seven screen shots of scenes shot in the vertical (portrait) format Graphic: James Bareham/Polygon

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Every seismic shift in culture initially faces resistance. Remember that Singin’ in the Rain scene where a group of partygoers scoffs at the idea of talking pictures, as the viewers knowingly laugh? The motion picture had to make its case as an art form, and the talking picture faced similar barriers as a reasonable follow-up to silent films. (In City Lights, Charlie Chaplin mocked the advent of sound, using squawking noises as the soundtrack to a political speech — “What’s the difference?” he was asking.)

Even the seemingly simple question of how filmgoers should see movies has been a contentious debate topic over the past decade, including Sean Parker’s Screening Room, which planned to offer home rentals at $50 apiece for movies still in theaters; Netflix sparking problems at the Cannes Film Festival and among major theater chains because of its theatrical window choices; and Regal warning NBCUniversal about being too quick to take titles out of theaters and make them available on-demand. When popular entertainment finds a new medium, there’s inevitably pushback. How many people mocked TikTok before ironically creating an account, learning the dances, and falling hard for it?

A man’s face in extreme close-up, in black and white, in Damien Chazelle’s “Vertical Cinema” Photo: Apple

Falling hard is where “The Stunt Double” begins. Whiplash and La La Land director Damien Chazelle’s new short film was shot on an iPhone 11 Pro (with some extra equipment, funding, etc.) for Apple’s ongoing “Shot on iPhone” campaign, under the banner of “Vertical Cinema.” A stuntman runs up a flight of stairs, across a roof, and off the edge of the building, falling without the hope of a parachute. (Yes, it’s reminiscent of The Matrix.) Then the scene changes to a Buster Keaton-style silent comedy, then a treasure-hunt adventure in the mode of Raiders of the Lost Ark (or one of the many early adventure films it was based on). The montage continues through a shot taken from The Searchers and a subsequent cliché Western shootout, a dance with outfits from Singin’ in the Rain’s “Gotta Dance” number, an Alain Delon take-off that turns into a North by Northwest homage, and so on. Chazelle pays tribute to the classics with “a journey through cinema history,” as Apple describes the video. And all of it is shot in the narrow vertical aspect ratio you expect to see from your poor grandparent or uncle who doesn’t know they’re supposed to turn their phone sideways when they’re capturing video.

Even back when most films were shot in the “Academy Ratio,” sometimes described as a square frame, the picture was still wider than it was tall, with an approximate 4:3 ratio. Most movies have been shot in landscape mode (as a photographer would say — a layman might say “sideways”) since the medium began. The boundaries of moviemaking will be tested with higher frame rates, experimental runtimes, and whatever else innovators will rethink, but they’re pretty much always viewed side-to-side, not to top-to-bottom. This isn’t the first foray a tech company has made into a movie in a vertical aspect ratio, but the failings of streaming service Quibi aside, vertical orientation has tended to be a rare exception for filmmakers, not the main idea. It’s a natural choice for a medium that evolved out of horizontally oriented theater: A lot of early silent films look like they were produced on stage.

Chazelle is a brilliant choice to helm a major, nine-minute statement about a new medium for film, based in the narrative language that the old familiar medium produced. The director didn’t take home Best Picture at the Academy Awards, but he garnered significant praise for the musical La La Land, a nostalgic musical built on references to The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Rebel Without a Cause, Casablanca, and the filmography of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. In La La Land, Chazelle distinctly showed off his love for the golden age of the silver screen. There’s a reason remakes, reboots, sequels, and prequels keep getting made, no matter how many people complain about the death of originality — familiarity fills seats.

As a short film, “The Stunt Double” isn’t bad, though it isn’t particularly exceptional storytelling, either. The journey is clearly meant to be a mythologized, easy-to-grasp trip through cinematic nostalgia. Understanding the story shouldn’t get in the way of getting used to a new form. Chazelle’s shots are distinctly designed for a vertical medium, and some moments really benefit from that hyper-focus on space. Generally, there’s something striking about film shots where everything is stationary and a single element moves in contrast to the surrounding stillness. Alfred Hitchcock shot a scene like this in The Birds, where Jessica Tandy’s character drives to a house and discovers a man’s mutilated body, a harbinger of the danger to come. The shocking moment is bookended by shots of a still, serene landscape, where a truck drives from left to right in one shot, and back again in the next. (A similar Hitchcock shot in Strangers on a Train shows the efficacy of the opposite form of contrast — everything aside from a single element is in motion.) In “The Stunt Double,” Chazelle stages similar shots of visual contrast, often replacing side-to-side motion with movement along a vertical axis.

Two gunslingers face off in Damien Chazelle’s “Vertical Cinema” Photo: Apple

He also innovates in gunfight framings, modifying the classic through-the-legs perspective and holster-side shots so they’re particularly fitting to the frame. Some shots have a lot of space at the top, but feel packed at the bottom. “One of the things that’s really fun about playing with vertical aspect ratio,” Chazelle says in the behind-the-scenes footage, “is how you can play with what the eye sees when, and the way that you can get an audience used to looking up and down rather than left and right, which is what they’re kinda used to.”

The fact that “The Stunt Double” was shot on a phone is one of the least surprising parts of it. The behind-the-scenes footage does look a bit weird, as Chazelle intensely tracks in on a shot while holding his phone with two hands. But Steven Soderbergh has already released two feature films that were shot entirely on iPhones, and other filmmakers, like Tangerine’s Sean Baker, paved the way for him. Apple keeps building devices with better cameras, so with the magic of editing, professional lighting, and high-quality practical and digital effects, it’s not hard to see movies shot on iPhone looking good, even if living up to professionally shot demonstration footage is a herculean task. One of the more interesting things about Apple’s September 2019 keynote introducing the iPhone 11 Pro was the presentation of FiLMiC Pro, an app that lets filmmakers shoot with all four of the iPhone’s lenses simultaneously — front-facing lens included. During that keynote, Baker talked about shooting Tangerine on iPhone and about the possibilities for the future: “I’m always excited when I see evolution in filmmaking style and craft.”

But evolution happens slowly. The Jazz Singer wasn’t the first-ever talking picture in the U.S. (no matter how often it’s credited as such), but as an early talkie, it features many silent scenes. “The Stunt Double” similarly feels like a toe dipped in the water, testing out the idea of a new filmmaking mode. It’s about a lonely stuntman pining after his inaccessible co-star. (Tarsem’s The Fall did it better.) It uses the same actors for different stories told across the ages. (The Wachowskis’ Cloud Atlas did it better.) Like Ang Lee’s Gemini Man, it’ll likely stand as more of an exhibition for the cinematic possibilities than for its own unique merits. Chazelle copied, clipped, and modified shots from other movies so that even when his compositions are interesting, there’s almost nothing new going on here, even as the crew works within a specific mindset. ”Most of the time, we’re coming from elevation or going to elevation,” says Jesse La Flair, credited as a parkour expert in Apple’s behind-the-scenes video. “So we’re jumping off of something, flipping down from something, twisting down from something. So to have this vertical frame really gives the perspective of what we’re doing.”

It’s easy to predict backlash against the vertical aspect ratio — especially if Apple extends its experiment to the making of a TV show or a feature film. People on the internet routinely express frustration at seeing witnesses to real-world events record them in portrait orientation. Now consider how that resistance will be magnified if it’s applied against the way movies have always been made.

But it’s worth keeping an open mind about innovation, and I take a staunch stance against denouncing new media just because it’s different. In trips to the tech-friendly Tribeca Film Festival in the past, I’ve found extreme joy from discovering new ways of enjoying movies in virtual and augmented reality. One night, I watched a competition between short films made using only Snapchat’s app tools and the camera in its glasses. The standout shorts from the night weren’t far off from what you might be able to find on TikTok — an impression-laden “Owen Wilson Dates Himself” and a face-swapped retelling of The Notebook, “The Notebook Snapstory.” The shorts were jarringly projected in the center of a standard movie screen, but the crowd was still enthusiastic. With the prestige of Tribeca behind it, the shorts program felt like a legitimizing of the format, with potential for further exploration. Fun film concepts can still be fun in a vertical aspect ratio.

A woman in a bright green dress stands on a bright red staircase in “Vertical Cinema” Photo: Apple

That said, the format does feel limited. A vertical frame doesn’t give much room for interaction between characters. It’s better for poses, moments, ideas, and evocations. (Filmmakers like Zach Snyder might thrive in such a composition-driven format.) “The Stunt Double” gets a little boring, and part of that has to do with the mental associations the format carries with it. TikToks cap out at a minute long, and when they start getting dull, the platform encourages users to swipe to the next one. Snapchat’s vertical shows are all equipped with skip functions, which make it easier to jump ahead, chunk by chunk.

And that mental association that pairs vertical frames with online videos and skippability is just one of the barriers Vertical Cinema is facing. Vertical films like Chazelle’s just aren’t made for existing film screens. In a hypothetical world where theaters installed vertical movie screens to accommodate the format, viewers might have to tilt their head or eyes up and down, unable to see the full frame. (Have you ever sat in the front row in an IMAX theater?) In the current world of cinema chains negotiating diminishing theatrical windows and fighting to keep movie theaters safe (a loaded term right now), a popularized vertical frame would be yet another reason to favor streaming.

Bosley Crowther’s 1952 review of This Is Cinerama, a demonstration of the capabilities of super-wide film in response to the popularity of television, noted that it was mostly a combination of images: “the question arose immediately as to what might, indeed, be done with this new panoramic system in the way of developing a dramatic story on the screen.” It’s not hard to imagine a similar quote after demonstrations of Thomas Edison’s early film technology, with shorts like “Kiss” or “Record of a Sneeze.” It’s impossible to know what will be innovated and what mode will stick. (Remember the rise and fall of Smell-O-Vision?)

But Chazelle at least thinks Vertical Cinema is worth the experiment. “There’s no reason that we can’t be a little more free-thinking about it,” he says, “the same way painters long ago decided that, you know, ‘Well, if I want to paint an image like this, I’ll paint it vertically, this will be horizontal, this’ll be a box, this will be on a wall, this will be on a ceiling, this I want people to look up to, this is what I want people to look down to.’ I was trying to think of any kind of moving image as a little more of a blank page.” The urge to resist innovation and change is almost always the wrong urge. As film fans, we can appreciate the thought and craft that went into experiments like “The Stunt Double,” and we can wait before complaining that our childhoods, the cinema, or something else are under attack.

And we don’t have to wait for more Apple projects to see innovations in a vertical format for storytelling. TikTok has been an incredible platform for inviting users to create new kinds of stories, then riff and build on each other’s creations. Notice how out-of-place TikTok accounts like Will Smith’s or The Washington Post’s look, compared to the genuine earnestness many users offer. When Apple’s Vertical Cinema ads show up in the app’s For You scroll, there are a lot more interesting things going on further down. A phone’s front-facing camera offers intimacy and the opportunity to express vulnerability.

These moments can feel disposable and be soon forgotten, but the fleeting nature of TikTok as content means creators don’t have to take themselves too seriously. They can test the boundaries of the medium, then twist those boundaries further. They can create the cinema of the unsettling within just one minute. Still, the platform also features videos ripped from YouTube, turned sideways, or otherwise created for some other medium. There’s evidence of creators struggling against the boundaries of time limits and phone production. Restlessness breeds creativity. Creativity finds new mediums. We’ll see where this goes.