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Which Way is Up? On Aspect Ratio Diversity and Quibi’s Turnstyle Technology

Of all the gimmicks announced during the interminable two-year runup to the launch of Jeffrey Katzenberg’s billion-dollar video startup Quibi—from a short-form reboot of Punk’d to a Spielberg-helmed horror series that can only be watched after sundown—perhaps the most striking is Turnstyle, the platform’s unique new approach to aspect ratio.

Turnstyle will allow users to rotate their phones while viewing Quibi content, triggering a real-time shift between horizontal and vertical framing. The idea was met with awe by tech evangelists and revulsion by cinephiles when it was announced in January, but more than anything it reveals Quibi’s intentions as markedly similar to those of the media behemoths it seeks to dethrone.

From cinema’s earliest days, the industry has sought to dictate the shape of the screen, for reasons both artistic and commercial. While pioneers like Sergei Eisenstein argued for a diversity of aspect ratios—as he put it, an embrace of “the multitude of expressive rectangles in the world”—studios settled on a series of standardized landscape frames, which he derided as thoughtlessly replicating the aesthetic preferences of Western painting.

If widescreen cinema was born of an impulse to mimic another art form, it soon became a way to keep one at bay. In the 1950s, as television swept America, theater owners dangled the lure of panoramic spectacle to keep audiences from defecting en masse to TV. By the end of the decade, blockbusters like Ben-Hur were nearly three times as wide as they were tall.

It would be another half-century before the dominance of horizontal framing would be seriously challenged, when practically overnight, a billion people began walking around with vertical video screens in their pockets. Inevitably, art was soon produced—first by amateurs, then professionals—to adorn these new canvases.

This development undoubtedly shook a once-solid consensus on what constitutes a “cinematic” image, but any aesthetic authority wrested from the film studios was handed not to artists, but tech companies.

Take Quibi. A generous spectator might see in Turnstyle’s shifting aspect ratio the realization of Eisenstein’s “multitude of expressive rectangles,” but in prescribing fixed compositional parameters only opens a narrow creative window to filmmakers.

To demonstrate Turnstyle’s potential, Quibi commissioned Nest, a short film from directors Nelson de Castro and Zach Wechter in which a home invasion narrative plays out across synchronized landscape and portrait videos—the former shot conventionally, the latter showing the view from the protagonist’s smartphone. The viewer shifts between these two perspectives by rotating their device back and forth.

It’s a neat trick, but its limitations are obvious: The film’s suspense relies entirely on the effective cross-cutting of the two channels. Asking viewers to generate this suspense for themselves is like asking visitors to a haunted house to provide their own scares. (A similar “change angle” function on early DVD releases notably failed to find an audience.)

A more basic implementation of Turnstyle has the rotation of a device merely reframe the video already playing on screen. Filmmakers must therefore compose each shot for two strikingly different aspect ratios simultaneously. Perhaps this will usher in a bold new era of dynamic dual composition. Or perhaps Hollywood’s hottest startup has reinvented pan-and-scan.

In either case, Turnstyle strikes me as a solution in search of a problem, and not—as Quibi would likely have it—a bold acknowledgment of the multiplicity of contemporary viewing modes. The latter might require embracing a spectrum of frame shapes and sizes, rather than simply replacing one convention with another.

Last year, I released Lasting Marks, a documentary consisting entirely of photocopied documents, which told the story of a landmark British sex trial. It seemed only right for the film’s frame to conform to these pages, leaving me with an unorthodox aspect ratio of 0.69:1. Unsurprisingly, traditional exhibition channels proved inhospitable to the film, which was repeatedly shown stretched, distorted or keystoned at festivals.

More dispiritingly, the film proved equally difficult to present online, in the supposed natural habitat of vertical filmmaking. Multiple platforms still pillarbox portrait films; others automatically downscale them. And even when I did get the film onto phone screens, the towering height of most contemporary devices made my visuals look squat.

It occurred to me then that Quibi’s inflexibility might be the point. After all, every new platform and product has a vested interest in providing a home only to material conceived for, owned by and trapped within its domain.

Turnstyle may represent a new frontier in aspect ratio, but it also allows Quibi to produce content for which no other playback mechanism is ever likely to exist. And in that sense, it’s less a break with cinematic tradition than a natural successor to the Cinerama Dome, the Kinetoscope or any other artistic innovation whose first port of call was the patent office.

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