Vertical Cinema Manifesto

VCMThe recent premiere of Cyrene Quiamco’s (@CyreneQ) “25 Unconventional Ways to Live Life” at the Bentonville Film Festival and subsequent posting on YouTube was a cause for reflection for me. As I thought about the landscape of vertical video in mid-2017, I was struck by a powerful parallel. As I composed the following tweet about the first four feature length vertical film directors:

I realized that the current situation in vertical video very closely mirrors what was happening with computer programming in the mid-1980s. For those of you who know something of the history of technology, you may be aware that the mid-80s was the zenith of the female graduation rate in Computer Science. (If you are unfamiliar with this, see e.g. this NPR podcast transcript.) With the advent of the personal computer, computer programming started to change from a relatively minor, large organization’s industry into the “wild west” silicon valley hacker culture that we associate with it today. Part of that change was the transition to the male-dominated industry we have now, from a situation where women, if not necessarily always in the majority, were a significant part of the picture.

The title of this post “Vertical Cinema Manifesto” (VCM) is taken from the 2013 video by Miriam Ross and Maddy Glenn of Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand. Created as a direct response to the widely watched and referenced video “Vertical Video Syndrome” on the Glove & Boots blog, VCM took a tongue-in-cheek approach to the subject that is also apropos to my thesis here. They modeled their rebuttal to the suffrage movement and the male domination of the Cinema that we are all aware of. However, as it turns out, “serious” Vertical Video production at the present is indeed dominated by woman practitioners! This is true in the larger volume of short form video as well as the small number of feature length vertical videos. Of the 50+ videos in my retrospective of the first 10 years of vertical video, many, and indeed most of the best, were directed by women.

So, well and good, you might say, women are doing well in vertical video. Hooray. Not so fast, say I. Right now, vertical video is in transition from a obscure, much-maligned, mostly amateur field to a potentially lucrative professional one. Currently the advertising industry is pilling on the vertical bandwagon. The journalism industry, in particular mobile journalism (mojo) is not far behind advertising in uptake. What does this mean? Basically, the money is starting to flow into vertical video, and with money is power, and it is here that I see the potential, indeed almost inevitability, that women will be pushed out. That is what happened in Tech, and I am afraid of seeing history repeat itself.

So here is my manifesto: Let’s not push women out of Vertical Video. They have been a driving force in the production of vertical video so far and among it’s most creative and outspoken voices. Let us guys not just barge in and grab the money, power, and glory (assuming there is any) but let us rather partner and share with the women who helped get Vertical Video beyond its early ridicule. This is not just going to magically happen, it will take effort and money but hopefully we can keep history from repeating itself here if we are vigilant and proactive.

Snapchat Stories with Memories VS. Instagram Stories

Recently, Snapchat added a “Memories” feature and Instagram added a feature called “Stories.” Consequentially, both platforms now allow a user to stitch together a “story” (a composite vertical video composed of a number of short video clips.) Here I will compare and contrast the two platforms’ versions of the “Story.”

Snapchat was clearly the first to support this feature, although until Memories it was limited to clips (they call them “snaps”) created by the camera and tools (drawing, text, filters, layers) available inside the Snapchat app. Instagram Stories supported both in app created clips as well as video clips from the user’s “camera roll” from the outset. Both platforms also allow still images to be inserted in a story.

IMG_0275Let me begin with the looks of the resulting stories, as this is where the major differences are. Snapchat has two “modes” of display. When the imagery is produced by the app camera/tools, the results are nominally full-screen 9×16 images. (These are embedded with pillor/letter boxing on devices such as the iPad that have other aspect ratios.) When an image is uploaded from the camera roll, the resulting story is placed in an additional white frame. This frame’s size seems to be device and/or OS dependent. It is 45% of the screen on my iPad 3rd generation device.
Here is how My Story looks on Snapchat on the iPad:
And here are the calculations:

iPad retina Native Screen Size: 1536×2084 = 3,021,024 = 100%
Snapchat iPad app window size (2x): 1284×1930 = 2,478,120 = 82% (screen)
Snapchat iPad app video size (2x): 880×1560 = 1,372,800 = 45% (screen) 55% (app window)

Screenshot_2016-08-09-13-56-27and 58% on my Moto-G running Android. Here is how My Story looks on Moto-G/Android:

And here are the calculations:

Moto-G screen 720×1280 = 921,600 = 100%
Snapchat window 720×1280 = 921,600 = 100%
Snapchat video window 554×988 = 537,472 = 58%

On Instagram, the resulting story is full-screen, independent of source, however the video may be cropped. It is not clear exactly what the expected video aspect ratio of Instagram might be. When I send it a 9×16 (0.5625 aspect ratio) 720P video (720×1280 pixels), it crops it to 720x1183n (0.60 aspect ratio) on my Moto-G/Android and to 1280×1919 (0.66 aspect ratio) on the iPad device. The cropping seem to come from the top and/or bottom. Here are the iPad image (top) IMG_0276 and the Moto-G image (bottom). Screenshot_2016-08-09-13-57-02 Note also that since Instagram Stories are full-screen, the graffiti (User name/avatar, progress bars, volume bar, view count, dismiss X, …) obscure parts of the already cropped top and bottom of the imagery.

Both platforms can create a story from multiple clips. On Snapchat a clip can be a maximum of 10 seconds. On Instagram 15 seconds is the maximum clip. On playback on both platforms, there is a perceptible visual and audible “gap” between clips. I believe this to be a artifact of the OS overhead and/or OS/codec interface, not a glitch of the programs or the streaming. For example, if I view clips using the MX video player on my Moto-G, I perceive the same type of gap between clips as on Instagram or Snapchat, even though the clips are local to the device. These gaps are annoying and detrimental to the ability to create a decent storytelling experience, especially if music is included!

With respect to the resolution of the imagery, Snapchat appears to reduce the resolution. My 720P imagery is not reproduced in HD type resolution, more likely 360P or less. Instagram does not appear to degrade the resolution, however the cropping does degrade the visual appearance.

As regards the Audio, the fidelity of the internal speakers of most mobile devices is so bad, it doesn’t much matter. I could not discern any difference between the platforms, even with high quality headphones. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t any. Someone with much better audio skill and understanding will have to chime in here.

Turning to the creation of a story, the platforms are very comparable in capabilities, especially for uploading already created video. I find the interface on Snapchat to be faster and less error prone than Instagram. Snapchat appears to queue multiple clips, while if I try to upload more than one at a time on Instagram they tend to fail. Additionally, there are more steps and screens to navigate on Instagram than Snapchat. The presentation order of clips seems to be reverse alphabetical in Instagram also.

The bottom line seems to be that the platforms are very similar! The annoying gap between clips appears to be unavoidable (except by not requiring the clipping in the first place, which is the obvious correct answer.) The trade-off in addition to your personal preference seems to be whether you prefer your uploaded video to be excessively framed (Snapchat) or cropped (Instagram.) Neither is particularly appealing. Additionally, Snapchat seems to lose some of the resolution in your video.

Advertiser: Don’t Crop that Video

Vertical Video is currently a hot topic in the marketing/advertising world. Last year at this time, it was the world of Journalism that was starting to struggle with Vertical Video use e.g. https://soundcloud.com/journalismnews/why-vertical-video-is-becoming-harder-to-ignore Due in great part to the tremendous success of the Snapchat app and mobile viewing in general, the modern use of vertically framed moving imagery has accelerated from very humble (and humiliation inducing) beginnings. As someone who has followed the trends of vertical since 2011 and the producer/director of the first animated feature length vertical: Alicewinks (2012), I will not bore you with the history of vertical video (although I could). Instead, I want to point out a trend that I believe will bite you if you follow the crowd, namely cropping horizontal footage.

Recently I received an email from Adam Sébire, co-director of the Vertical Film Festival, an event which had its second incarnation in the Blue Mountains of Australia on May 21. He said:

I trust your survey makes the important distinction between films & videos shot with vertical apparatus and those that are centre-cropped from something originally framed horizontally. The latter give vertical video a bad name I think — they’re rarely framed well, there’s an uneasy sense that we’re not getting the whole picture, and the resulting image rarely makes the most of the format’s potential. “Fauvertical” I call it, and it’s usually fairly easy to spot!

I must say that I agree with Adam. I too can usually spot a crop. Although there are many, the most egregious example that comes to mind is the recent Mr. Burberry campaign. The original footage for a three minute video, directed by Steve McQueen, was shot on real 70mm film (not digital). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jd5Yuq_qt28 This wide footage was then cropped to create a derivative 9:16 three minute video for Snapchat Discover. The vertical video was the one that I encountered first. It made no sense at all, the man and woman seemed to appear randomly, as they were both in the original piece but one or the other had to be cropped out in the vertical one.  Burberry spent a ton of money to buy a three minute spot on Snapchat, only to waste it on an incomprehensible work.

Perhaps the key attribute of vertical videos is authenticity. Miriam Ross makes this point in her 2014 video essay https://vimeo.com/99499627 and Refractory article http://refractory.unimelb.edu.au/2014/08/06/ross/. The producer Aziz Musa, makes the authenticity point, in the same breath as he describes how he created a staged event (“construction worker” song/dance in a train station) as reported by Kyle Campbell https://kyledavecampbell.wordpress.com/2015/05/06/5-digital-developments-that-deserve-your-attention/ It was also discussed by the Journalism community last year as they too struggled with how to use vertical framing. For advertisers, the lack of authenticity will be devastating. If your ad is considered a fake, it will reflect on the product and your reputation.  If you are going to use vertical framing, make true vertical videos, don’t crop horizontal footage.

David Neal is president of Walrus & Carpenter Productions LLC creators of Alicewinks, the first feature length animated vertical video. http://alicewinks.com With Miriam Ross, he produces an annual roundup of the trends in vertical framing. http://www.exit109.com/~dnn/#papers He recently posted this guest post on the Onlinejournalism blog. He tweets as @walruswinks

Sales History of a Story App, Enhanced eBook, Digital Thing-a-magig

Introduction

Alicewinks is a multimedia version of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. It was conceived as an animated, portrait oriented video targeted to tablet computers (iPad, Android tablets). However, due to the vagaries of the market (Amazon and Apple do not accept vertical videos for sale), it was released on Amazon in November 2012 as 12 Android apps, one per chapter of the story. At the time Chapter 4 could be downloaded for free and the other 11 chapters were priced at $0.99. They were named AlicewinksLite Chapter X to highlight the fact that they were not the complete multimedia version of the story. Alicewinks was also made available through iBooks (Apple would not accept it as an app), including text and original illustrations, in May of 2013, and on Google Play (video only) in February 2013. The text and graphics (no video) is available on Amazon as an eBook (Amazon eBooks do not support video except on iPad and besides the file would be too large for them to support). The pure video mp4 has also available since August 2012 through a little-known video outlet called distrify.com.

Marketing

Alicewinks in iBook format was submitted to Kirkus Reviews resulting in a starred review in May 2013. It was listed by Kirkus as a “Best eBook of 2013” in late December 2013, in two categories.
In July & August 2013, Walrus & Carpenter Productions LLC (W&C), the producer of Alicewinks (AW), sponsored a blog outreach through TapInfluence, a blog consolidator. In this campaign, 40 mostly female bloggers identified as appealing to Parents (“mom bloggers”) were commissioned to write a blog post and to amplify the posts on other social media (twitter/facebook/etc.) The primary focus was on the iBook version, but several of the bloggers were Android users and promoted the android apps. Starting in October 2013, W&C staff promoted AW on various social media (Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter) and reached out to a number of journalists (resulting in two articles, one syndicated and one in Huffington Post.) The iBook was also submitted to Digital Book World for a 2014 Digital Book Award and was selected as a finalist.

Marketing Hickup

In February 2014, after an upgrade of iOS 7, we discovered that a bug had been introduced to iBooks such that the hyperlinks no longer worked. In fact, they caused iBooks to crash. We reported this to Apple. It made little sense to us to do any serious marketing while the flagship version was not working, so active marketing was suspended. The iOS 8 release finally eliminated the bug in mid September 2014.

Marketing Holidays 2014

For the holiday season 2014, we decided to market by advertising in the Books section of the online version of the New York Times. This included banner ads in both mobile and desktop, an iPad specific banner ad, and a video ad that would display only in flash enabled devices (the only video they support.) This campaign ran from November 1, 2014 until Christmas. Approximately 500K impressions were made, resulting in about 1,000 clicks. In addition to this program, we ran a banner ad on Carisa Kluver’s “Digital Media Diet” blog from October through year-end, resulting in an additional 16K impressions.

Pricing

The Alicewinks iBook was initially priced at $9.99. The AlicewinksLite Android chapter apps on Amazon were priced at $0.99 each (with Chapter 4 as a free app.) The Google play version was priced at $9.95 as was the mp4 on distrify.com. AlicewinksLite eBook on Amazon is $2.99 and AlicewinksLite on Audible.com (audiobook) is $6.95. During the 2014 holiday campaign, the price of the iBook was gradually dropped each week, from $9.99 to $4.99 to $2.99, and finally for the “Thanksgiving to Cyber Monday” weekend to $0.99. After Cyber Monday, the iBook price was left at $0.99 and the Google Play version was dropped to $0.99 and all Amazon Chapter apps except chapter 1 were dropped to free. (We have very little flexibility with the pricing of the Amazon eBook or the Audible.com audiobook.)

Results

The Audible.com audiobook has had 5 lifetime sales, one of which occurred in the 2014 holiday season. The Google Play app has had no sales since September 2014, 12 sales lifetime with 3 cancellations. The Amazon eBook has had 3 sales, one on Christmas eve and the rest earlier in 2014. The iBook has had a total of 341 downloads, of which 239 were free. Most occurred in 2013 (226 free, 71 paid at full price) with 55 in 2014. Of the 55 downloads in 2014 (shortened sales year due to Apple’s bugs), 11 were free and of the 44 paid, 7 were at the $0.99 price, the rest full price. The mp4 on distrify.com has had 11 lifetime sales. The Amazon Android app “sales” through January 4, 2015 (mostly free downloads) are summarized in the following table.
AWLiteSales

Analysis

It is extremely hard to get anyone to pay for a multimedia product independent of price or platform.

Why I am Getting out of the Digital Picturebook Business

The first mass produced color picturebook was published around 1900. I do not know what it was, but that is when it was possible. And by “mass produced” I mean a few thousand copies. The technology required two separate press runs (one B&W, one color– actually the color required three separate passes) and hand “tipping in” (gluing the color plates into the book.) It was reasonably expensive, per copy.

Given that copyright protection extends in the US to any book produced in 1923 or after, a significant proportion (75% or more?) of all picturebooks ever produced are copyright protected.

Now, over that time, most picturebooks went through a single (or perhaps a few) print runs of a few thousand copies. So, in any particular year there were a few books from the previous few years on bookseller’s shelves, and a new picuturebook had a modicum of a chance to sell it’s few thousand.

Fast forward to today. Children’s book publishers, who for the most part own the digital rights to that huge backlog of picturebooks, have figured out how to churn them into “digital” picturebooks. Now, once digitized, the marginal cost of producing a copy is zero. So today, someone wanting to create and publish a “digital” picturebook, unlike in the past where they were only competing against the few remainder books from the previous years, are potentially competing against ALMOST EVERY PICTUREBOOK EVER MADE.

This is a tremendous difference, and that is why I shouted it out in caps.

So, in economic terms, the supply of digital picturebooks is effectively infinite. That is to say that there are literally tens of thousands of “titles” each one with a marginal cost of zero. (This is as close to infinite supply as there has ever been in a commodity market I suspect.)

Now, let’s look at demand. Although population has increased worldwide, with ebbs and flows, we have roughly the same number of children of picturebook consuming age. Certainly not any order of magnitude more than at any recent time. So, demand can be said to be constant within a factor of less than 10.

So, we have more or less infinite supply and more or less constant demand. I suspect that drives the price to zero. And that is what we are seeing. I have tried to buck the trend, but I now believe that it is futile.

[Addendum (Oct. 25) It is worse than I thought, because we are not yet competing against every picturebook. I just checked the Caldecott Medal winners from 1978-2014 (37 years). Only 14 are available as iBooks. (Interestingly, 13 of the rest are available as audiobooks. A picturebook as audiobook seems silly!) So, even though less than half of the best picturebooks of the past 37 years are currently available digitally, we are still awash in competition.]

Why do Digital Storybooks Mostly Suck?

Recently at a convocation of publishers of children’s books, Nicolette Jones, children’s book editor for the Times of London, made this provocative statement: “I’ve never seen a picture book-app that does something that a book doesn’t do better.” This comment echoed through cyberspace at warp speed and has been discussed in numerous forums. Then, on October 12, 2014 on the front page of the New York Times came this article by Douglas Quenqua: “Is E-Reading to Your Toddler Story Time, or Simply Screen Time?”  with a lead of “Clifford the Big Red Dog looks fabulous on an iPad. He sounds good, too — tap the screen and hear him pant as a blue truck roars into the frame. ‘Go, truck, go!’ cheers the narrator.” Followed by the challenge “But does this count as story time? Or is it just screen time for babies?” These commentators are decrying the current state of “digital storybooks” the iPad/tablet incarnation of the picture book. The siren call of digital interactive picture stories has been around for a long time. In the 1990s many were created for computer screens that were to be distributed via CD-ROM technology. This “flash in the pan” disappeared so quickly that hardly anyone even noticed it. With the advent of the iPad, a new wave of digitizing has appeared and shows no sign of stopping. There are literally thousands of digital storybooks. Sadly, most of them are not very good.

Look for the rest of this story to come out soon in a different forum.