The launch of mobile-first streaming app Quibi, with nearly $2 billion in investment according to The New York Times, shows the mobile viewing trend is only picking up steam.
Quibi stands for “quick bites,” with each episode lasting eight to ten minutes. The app lets viewers switch between a standard 16:9 aspect ratio and the vertical 9:16 ratio depending on how they hold the device. By the year’s end, the service aims to host 175 shows shot specifically for the platform, according to Vulture. Though it’s new to the game, Quibi joins the ranks of other mobile-hungry platforms like Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat, and whatever else the kids are into these days.
So, what should editors know about delivering content to spec for these mobile content platforms? And what are the creative and editorial challenges that come with this mobile-first territory? We’ll examine the specs for vertical media, a working example from Quibi show Dummy, and strategies for editors to best deliver media on the small screen.
Common aspect ratios for mobile video content
Delivering Vertical Content for Mobile
As a general rule, platforms like Instagram, TikTok, and Snapchat all support 9:16 vertical video aspect ratios—most commonly at 1080 x 1920 px at 30 fps in an H.264 mp4 or mov. Bringing content to these mobile-first apps boils down to two methods:
- Shoot for a mobile-first aspect ratio, prioritizing the vertical frame.
- Reformat 16:9 traditional media into a 9:16 aspect ratio by resizing and reframing the media.
A production could simply shoot in a vertical 9:16 aspect ratio and continue the normal editorial process unhindered, but this tactic would limit the range of potential distribution platforms. For instance, it wouldn’t work for a multi-aspect ratio service like Quibi, which requires both 16:9 and 9:16 deliverables.
For productions planning to distribute to traditional and mobile platforms, most editors likely have to take the second path: reformatting horizontal media to fit a vertical frame for mobile delivery.
A Quibi Case Study—Shoot Once, Deliver Twice
In a recent case study, Hollywood post house Light Iron and Director of Photography Catherine Goldschmidt shared the technical details of their innovative workflow for the scripted Quibi show Dummy.
“The brief was to frame in 16:9 and in 9:16 for two separate deliverables,” Goldschmidt explained. “The initial recommendation from Quibi was to shoot in 16:9 and then crop-in for the 9:16—resulting, of course, in a much tighter shot.” Rather than follow that initial suggestion, the team decided to shoot using a 6K Sony Venice camera cropped to a 4K square frame, containing both 16:9 and 9:16 aspect ratios.
A full-resolution template of how a 6K sensor could capture a 4K-UHD square frame, and how an editor might extract both 16:9 and 9:16 aspect ratios within it
The resulting crucifix position helps maintain a shared composition between the two frames, preventing some of the inherent challenges that come with reframing 16:9 media to fit the taller frame in post. The final editorial timelines for Dummy were “designed around the same 1×1 square input but were extracted and scaled from the original 6K Venice media to automatically create the two aspects from the editorial cuts.”
This tactic helps editors avoid any quality loss that could stem from scaling 16:9 media to fit into the 9:16 aspect ratio. It also makes it possible to tweak the framing in both deliverables for the best aesthetic result online.
Reframing in Post for Mobile: Creative Compromises
While the Dummy shooting method could break the mold of future post workflows, most editors are currently faced with the more common path: acquiring the media in a 16:9 aspect ratio and reformatting it to fit the taller vertical aspect ratio. Without access to the original source media in a greater vertical resolution than the mobile platform requires, usually 1920 px, the image may require resizing and reframing to fill the frame.
This issue introduces some immediate formatting considerations, and the editor’s changes are tied to the freedom they’re given to reinterpret the original creative intent. Either way, editors will have to make compromises for mobile delivery. These five suggestions could ensure a smoother process when faced with some of the most common challenges.
- Zooming into the image to fill the new height. This results in a tighter original frame and undesirable close-ups, and could potentially lead to a loss of image quality. If zooming is necessary on lower-res media, try adding a touch of sharpening to the image—it may reduce the appearance of any softness. Or, rather than zooming in to fill the frame, add graphics or mattes to the top and bottom of the screen. This leaves space for captions and branding and results in a smaller final video image.
- Returning to “pan and scan” techniques to move the vertical image across the horizontal frame as required. This technique can make a shot more dynamic. However, it also requires additional keyframing, and it will change the rhythm of the existing edit.
- Editing a wide shot into two “singles” to ensure everything fits on screen. For example, if a horizontal wide shot of two people talking doesn’t fit into the frame, it may work in some scenes to edit the shot into two vertically placed “singles,” one above the other. This compromise is tricky, though: it breaks the original creative intent, so the director will also have to be on board.
- Providing visual space for subtitles or closed captions. Viewers often play mobile-first social content with the sound off, so many productions release a subtitled or closed captioned version as well. Factor these captions into the reframing process to ensure there’s room for the additional text.
- Repositioning or resizing on-screen graphics in the 9:16 frame. You’ll need the original assets to make these changes. You may have to simplify the look of the graphics so they’re legible on a smaller mobile screen.
Creating deliverables for mobile-first viewing isn’t a drastically new challenge for editors, but it’s likely to become more prevalent in workflows going forward. With forethought and creativity—and the right discussions with directors beforehand—editors can make the most of the mobile format and its dynamic visual language.