Normally, I don’t talk about the art of movie making from a technical standpoint. But something that Apple did this in 2020 made me so angry that I had to say something. I am talking its vertical ad, shot by Oscar-award winning director, Damien Chazelle. It came out months ago, but I have decided to write about it now. Below is the ad, in case you didn’t see it:
This ad campaign has to be the biggest pile of garbage I’ve seen in a long time, and I had to call Apple out on it because it’s based on two fallacies: 1) It’s okay to shoot footage in vertical format. 2) Not only that, you can make “great”, Oscar award-winning cinema in this orientation using the iPhone.
Why is this garbage? Because when it comes to visual storytelling–whether we’re talking about movies, TV shows or even paintings and sculpture–horizontal is the best orientation, period, end of. The fact that it’s the best orientation is why–since time immemorial–paintings, friezes, reliefs or otherwise have always been in this format.
This rule of composition in terms of visual storytelling is so fundamental, that even the caveman painters of Lascaux practiced it:
It’s not enough to say why horizontal is best; I have to explain why. The first reason is this–contrary to common belief, artistic composition has nothing much to do with mathematical formulas, the golden mean, etc. but laying out elements in a way that takes the human eye into account–in other words, how the eye scans the environment to take in information.
Even in primitive caveman days, artists realized that the eye scans from left to right and right to left. Since it does that, they figured out that the best way to tell a story visually is to have elements laid out on the horizontal. Why? Because when you do it any other format, the eye’s natural tendency to scan from left to right and back again gets disrupted, and viewers actually feel uncomfortable enough to want to stop looking at a painting or frieze in its entirely. If they do manage to hang in there, they may wind up missing vital parts of information as their eyes skim the field.
A second reason why horizontal is best is that when it comes to telling a story, this orientation gives you the most visual information in the most efficient format possible. When you resort to the vertical, you both include too much information at the top and bottom, as well as crop out too much information on the sides. You then have to waste more effort either showing or explaining what’s missing with an additional image, a caption or title.
For example, here is a photograph in vertical format. What can you tell me about what you see here? Clearly, it’s a park full of people. But how big is the park? What environment is it in? Is it in the suburbs? A major city? What city? What’s the time of day? Morning? Late afternoon? Is the park in-land or over the water?
Now here is a horizontal version of this very same scene.
With this horizontal version, you learn so much more about the environment than you did in the vertical version. Now you see that we’re in a large riverside park in a major city just before sunset. This park also has a pier with large yachts. If you recognize this area and the buildings in the background, you’ll know something else: that this is not only New York City, but that the skyscrapers are the New Jersey skyline–Jersey City, to be exact.
This is the difference between vertical and horizontal and why horizontal is always the better if not the best format in terms of visual storytelling. You don’t get a lot of extraneous information at the top and bottom, and you get all the information you could possibly want along the sides, all in one shot.
There is one last reason why horizontal is best for storytelling, one that especially pertains to movie making. In video and movies, horizontal allows for the most flexibility in terms of composition.
What do I mean by that? Well, in the movie and video format, what you see onscreen is a stitched together composite of little bits of footage that are called “shots.” If you don’t know what a shot is, look at a movie or TV show and notice how every few seconds, the vantage point switches back and forth between people and objects. Those few seconds of footage before the movie or TV show switches is called a “shot.”
For example, if you’re watching a scene of a couple arguing, you might see the husband’s head for a few seconds (aka, “head shot.”) Then you might see the wife’s head. Then you might see another shot of the two actors in the frame. Then again, another few seconds of the husband’s face and then maybe the wife’s head, shoulders and waist. Afterwards, the camera might shift subjects altogether, switching to the Seattle skyline at night (aka, “establishment shot”), to suggest to the audience that the movie is now taking place in a new location and the story is switching gears.
To be able to compose a movie or TV show, there are certain shots that are so fundamental to storytelling that without them, you would be severely limited creatively. One of them, as I mentioned above, is the establishment shot. This is one of the most important shots in cinema or TV, because what it does is either transition the story from one setting to another or tells the audience where a particular scene is taking place without having to add in the caption, “We are in LA/Paris/NYC/NJ now.” This type of shot can only be done in the horizontal, because it’s done in what’s known as a “wide angle” shot.
If you ever decided to shoot any TV show or movie exclusively in vertical format, you would lose the ability to make vital establishment and other key shots that are necessary to telling a story. So, shooting in this format would be a very stupid thing to do–even as an intellectual exercise–and would make as much sense as deciding to write the great American novel on a keyboard that was missing both the E and S keys.
Now this leads me to Apple.
Apple Dumbs Down Art Again for No Other Reason–$$$
I absolutely loathe Apple with every fiber of my being. The reason why is that it’s one of the phoniest and most cynical companies on the planet.
Case in point–after its “Think Different” campaign, Apple shifted gears with a new marketing gimmick passing itself off as the great democratizer/equalizer when it comes to making art. According to this new gimmick, its products are helping talented amateurs create the type of art that would normally be out of reach to them because of cost. In other words, “No worries if you can’t afford a $3000 video camera to produce your own high-quality HD TV show. Just purchase the much cheaper iPhone instead!”
As endearing as this all is, it’s bullshit. The reason why I say that is that Apple doesn’t really democratize art for creatives; it devalues art by pandering to the lowest common denominator. One way it does this is by flattering millions of its untalented customer base into thinking that their poorly shot, poorly made crap is just as good as what the pros are making. In other words, it tells them, “It’s okay if your composition is crap, you have no eye for detail and your photos look like a blind bat took them. You shot it on an iPhone, so it’s automatically art!”
Now, why has Apple gone this route? It could’ve used so many different types of gimmicks, so why that one?
It all comes down to poaching customers from the pro videography market. I know this is the case, based on how it used the same strategy to undercut the pro digital camera market.
To explain further, once upon a time, everyone understood that if you wanted to be a professional photographer, you had to get a professional camera–namely, an ILC (camera with an interchangeable lens system, like a DSLR or micro four-thirds aka “m 4/3” camera). The reason why is that DSLRs and micro four-third cameras have features that allow people to grow as photographers in ways that they can’t with a basic camera. Of course, that’s not to say that you can’t shoot good photos with a basic camera. The problem is that there’s only so much you can do with one. For example, you can’t do cool stuff like light trails, composites or mixed light photography with a basic camera. You can’t also do macro shots or bokeh. You have to move up to a DSLR or m 4/3 if you want to really excel.
Apple, seeing everything in life as a zero sum game, decided that every time Debbie Soccer Mom caught the photography bug and decided to upgrade to a DSLR or m 4/3 camera, this was a bad thing. The reason why is that Canon, Fuji or Nikon’s gain was Apple’s loss. So, to keep losing Debbie Soccer Mom to the professional camera market, Apple started on this obnoxious campaign of convincing Debbie Soccer Mom and Instagram Sally that they didn’t have to graduate to a DSLR or m 4/3 to shoot better; a smartphone camera–with all of its limitations–could do just as well. Worse yet, they didn’t have to actually learn better photography techniques; just by virtue of shooting on an iPhone equaled becoming a better photographer.
As part of this campaign, Apple started hiring actual professional photographers to shoot overly filtered, heavily processed iPhone images to convince iPhone users that their crappy filtered photographs of coffee cups were on par with Ansel Adams or Henri-Cartier Bresson. Consequently, what happened is that tons of amateurs who otherwise would’ve grown as photographers had they jumped to DSLRs and m 4/3s were taught to accept the limitations of the iPhone and see their output as “professional.”
Because of Apple’s ad gimmick, photography as an art form began plunging down a vortex of mediocrity as more and more people were taught by the company that cheesy cross-processing filters on a rinky dinky iPhone equaled “good photography.” Makes sense. After all, why study legendary photographers like Margaret Burke-White or Richard Avedon when you can snap a picture of your latest avocado-on-toast and top it off with a retro-tinted filter?
With this new vertical camera ad crap, Apple has brought pandering to a whole new obnoxious level. The precise reason why people shoot on the vertical is that they’re so illiterate in terms of composition that they have no idea that it’s not the best way to orient your camera. Now Apple–to pander to these inartistic boobs–is trying to flatter them with this idea that compositional illiteracy is not only acceptable but valid way of shooting movies and TV shows. Not only that, it is saying that anything shot on the vertical with an iPhone is equal to professional and award-winning videography and film making. As a consequence, we now run the risk of a new generation of filmmakers and videographers being emboldened into feeling that violating one of the most fundamental laws of composition is not only valid but can even be “Oscar-worthy”.
Having seen the devastating impact that Apple has had on still photography over the years, you can see why I was so incensed over its latest marketing gimmick, which is designed to now poach the professional videography and film market but under the guise of “democratization”. Movies were bad enough as it is with the overuse of CGI, shaky cam and MTV-style editing. We don’t need a new generation of vapid, inartistic iDrones enamored with this cApple ad throwing “vertical cinema” into the mix as they come of age and enter the film and TV industry.
Bottom line, Apple needs to stay in its own lane and continue marketing its overpriced, slave monkey-produced junk to vapid Instagram bimbos, e-begging social media influencers and trashy rappers instead of encroaching on a market it has no right to. It should, in other words, allow burgeoning film makers with genuine talent the space to graduate to the type of professional equipment that will help them realize their creative potential instead of encouraging them to handicap themselves with a dumbphone camera.
One more thing– Damien Chazelle should return his Oscar or have it revoked. An Oscar isn’t just a trophy; it’s also supposed to represent a golden standard in film making so that aspiring filmmakers know what to aim for when it comes time to shoot their own movies. An Oscar winner who later participates in an ad campaign that suggests that breaking one of the most fundamental principles of film composition is perfectly acceptable film making–and Oscar-worthy, no less–has no respect for the craft and what the Academy Award stands for.