Format Wars

How to adapt to any size screen

When we started Commoner in 2011 it was a good time to be a filmmaker. Through Vimeo and Youtube, HD streaming was just hitting its stride, brands like RED and Canon were releasing their new breed of HD cameras and viewers across the globe were starting to grasp how good video could look sitting at your desktop.

Fast forward to 2017 and video is still swinging. We've moved on from why video and are now fixated with the how.

Six years ago we were just amazed that we could get video on our phones. Now, we expect it. From the glory days of ‘click to play’ to the game changing autoplay, the consumption of video continues to evolve equal to the opportunities and restrictions of our palm sized devices.

Viewer preference remains both varied and divisive. Audiences still visit Youtube. Communities of creatives still hang out in Vimeo (where 2.35 still get’s the oohs and ahhs). And, as humans, our horizontal field of view still remains wider than the vertical.

Yet, it’s an inconvenient truth that users on mobile are less static, satisfied (mostly) with less real estate and, unfortunately, still prefer to hold their phones vertically. In a time when Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook all report substantially higher video completion rates for vertical execution, is video size format even worthy of debate?

The likely answer is ‘probably’. It's all a matter of perspective.

So what better way to open up the debate but to present some perspectives from those asked the question every day. We pulled together a Director of Photography, a Facebook Marketer, a client Video Producer and agency Creative Director and asked them to wax lyrical about what’s hot format wise, and how we should all adapt.

Jessica Avatar Cesar Avatar

Jessica Cartwright
Facebook marketer
at BigHead Digital

Cesar Salmeron
Melbourne-based Commercial 
Director of Photography 

Miles Avatar Reece Avatar

Miles Fahey

Content Marketing Lead for 
Video at Australia Post

Reece Ryan

Digital design thinker and
Creative Director at


What is driving the new format trends in video?

Jessica: Facebook video content is growing 75% annually for international Facebook users - and 94% annually in the US. More people are generating video than ever before, and to get eyeballs on that content, Facebook is the #1 platform.

Facebook video continues to be the best ad buy for our clients’ media spend. On Facebook, we are consistently getting video views for our clients at $0.01 or less - per view. That can’t be beat. This dominance means at present we are really pushing square (1:1) and portrait (2:3, 4:5 or 9:16 ) video formats. Growth is mostly in mobile, and if it’s on mobile, you’re contending with a more condensed viewing space. So size matters a lot.

Imagine a newspaper ad space where you could either buy the top or bottom half of the page, or take over the entire spread, just by submitting a different sized ad to the publisher. Like it or not, that’s the world of Facebook video.



Havas Sydney employing branded captions to make their Defence Force stories come to life with or without sound.

What video format are you producing most?

Reece: Working largely in a mobile-first social sphere, we've seen a clear shift to square video formats in recent years. The high engagement and reach of Facebook and Instagram, in particular, have forced us to think about square formats as a baseline for any campaign creative.

Miles: ‘Landscape’ is still the most logical format to base our shoots on as our videos are primarily housed on web or blog pages and our youtube channels.  Vertical is definitely something we’ve been looking into and will be experimenting with soon for social. As for square video, this is this something our social team is interested in experimenting more with (along with vertical).  It’s early days for us, but it’s most definitely on our radar.

Cesar: In the past, the DP and Camera Operator had to frame for 16:9 as well as '4:3 safe’, as not every person had access to a 16:9 television.  We’ve pretty much moved on from 4:3, but with Instagram becoming a major player in content delivery, more and more clients are now requesting to frame for 16:9 and ‘square safe’. Full circle I guess.

For the work that I do, vertical delivery is still more a format for Animators and Compositors as it’s generally more aimed for motion graphics content. Personally, the only time I shoot vertically is for VFX delivery, such as Green screen or infinite background projects where cropping of the image does not affect the depth of the shot recorded on the day.  Nevertheless, each project is different and aspect ratios are also a key storytelling tool. For shooting a commercial for a vertical product such as stockings or jeans, a less wider aspect ratio would be suggested.



Origin teaming up with TBWA/Whybin to demonstrate what you can achieve with symmetrical framing in square format.

Your personal preference?

Cesar: Personally a wider aspect is what I would prefer to work with. 16:9 (or 2.35 if I can get it) suits a more cinematic purpose and dramatic tone, something that’s become synonymous with the branded documentary format. 

As a visual storyteller, it is integral to get your audience to relate to what they see, consciously as well as subconsciously. A wider field of view helps to emulate what the human eye perceives on a day-by-day basis, even if it doesn’t look that big in a Facebook feed. Wide also allows me to use anamorphic lenses, which adds a beautiful characteristic and filmic tone to the image.

Reece: Each format allows for extremely bespoke creative solutions that will appeal to different mediums, but landscape will always allow the best use of real estate for immersive filmic experiences in my opinion.  

Miles: Landscape. But I’m open to testing new video formats for relevant content. 

Tips for working in square or vertical?

Jessica: If you are on a limited budget, focus on reaching your audience on their mobile. That's where Facebook gets 85% of their ad revenue. For mobile video ads, I'd recommend a square format. Our tests show that the portrait format is the most engaging format on a mobile, however, value for money is on the square format as it can be used for desktop, mobile, and Instagram ads.

We're optimising all of our videos for a snackable content society - that means 15 seconds or less is the ideal length and the first 3 seconds need a great hook. We want people to stop scrolling and also click to turn on the sound, as 85% of all videos on Facebook are still viewed without sound. So that means you need a great preview image and an awesome three second intro to captivate.

Miles: At the moment, we’re more focused on finding ways to maximise the existing content in its current format, including 6 second bumper ads for Youtube, smarter use of social cut downs and ‘episodic’ campaign end-frames/tagging. But vertical is on our agenda.

For us, at least to start with, creating vertical videos will be low-cost and experimental. It will be a case of repurposing relevant content that lends itself to the vertical format. But going forward, it may be something we’ll look at laying out in the briefing/storyboarding phase for some videos to ensure we’re ‘thinking’ vertical for key shots (before we shoot the video). Essentially, We’d want to make sure we’re able to tell a coherent and engaging story in vertical before we shoot it.

Cesar: With screens getting smaller and less ‘landscape’ orientated, it's more challenging to maintain a filmic feel and often results in having to use more close-up photography. When shooting vertical or square, I lose the ability to place characters beside each other such as when using a wider composition. Now my ‘canvas’ is more of a 3 dimensional space where I need to move in and out/ forwards and/ or backwards. 

For square, I look at the frame the same way I look at a layered file in Photoshop. I need to tell the story visually by moving backwards or forwards to reveal or hide characters or objects within the frame.

Reece: Whilst thinking inside the square might appear to be quite restrictive from the outset, it has actually forced us to be a whole lot more creative with our concepts and our framing. We try to think about square framing as our 'title safe' these days whilst allowing for upscaling to either portrait or landscape as an inevitability of any successful campaign.

Mobile-first, on-the-go content consumption has also forced us to think about solutions that are non-sound reliant.



A clever use of the vertical by Commbank, overcoming duration restrictions by combining split screen treatment with motion graphics.

Short term fad or new reality?

Reece: Mobile devices and, consequently, multiple video formats are not going anywhere anytime soon. In much the same way that print campaigns are rolled out, video now needs to be considered across all 3 formats from the outset rather than retrofitted at the end.

Miles: Video is a huge focus for us. And while new formats such as vertical may vary in popularity over time, or change/be revamped quickly, the demand for online video content is only going to grow. And we (and our key video production suppliers) will need to be on top of the trends, and willing to experiment as online video grows. 

Jessica: Facebook video ads should be a widget in every marketer's toolkit - they're cost effective, ideal for driving engagement and have incredible potential for remarketing opportunities. The exciting thing is that mobile video advertising is really just getting started, so watch this space for more exciting trends and growth. 

Cesar: This industry is being shaped by a generation that hold their phones vertical when shooting video, need to be hooked within the first 3 seconds and unless the video is no longer than 30 sec, it gets skipped. 

In a world where a story was told in three acts, we now have to show an entire story arc within a number of frames and the challenge is to tell it in close-up most of the time.  In the words of a very clever French Revolutionist:

“Le monde est baisé”



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