– By Joe Campbell –
Two years ago, I wrote an article entitled iPhone Filmmaking: Fad, or the Future?. At the time, some filmmakers were experimenting with shooting feature films completely on smartphones and I wondered if this inexpensive and accessible form of filmmaking would open doors for low budget directors. While it now seems that smartphone filmmaking was indeed a passing fad, researching that article got me to thinking: In a world where more and more people are consuming media on their mobile devices, how long will it be until we see entertainment not just made with phones, but made to be watched on phones? As a filmmaker, how would you frame your shots knowing they’d be seen exclusively on the tiny screen? How would you edit and colorize them differently? How would you release them?
Last week, a newly launched streaming service called Quibi not only answered these questions, it took the idea of mobile-only entertainment to the next level.
Quibi is the brainchild of former Disney Chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg and former eBay CEO Meg Whitman. Everything about the service, from the way the content is produced, to the type of entertainment being created, to the user interface, are all structured around the mobile experience. It’s a nifty concept set to capitalize on an untapped market. Many film fans will tell you that the only way to experience a movie is on the biggest screen possible, yet almost every streaming service gives you an option to watch movies and TV shows on your phone. Combining Hollywood level content with the short form bingeability of YouTube videos not only seems natural, but it could be a possible progression into a new era of digital entertainment.
So, a week after downloading the Quibi app, what do I think? Does this have the potential to catch on as a unique contender in the world of digital distribution, or is Quibi an ill-conceived idea fated to crash and burn on arrival? How about the content itself? How have the filmmakers involved adapted to Quibi’s unorthodox format and release strategy?
First off, you won’t find Quibi on your Roku and you won’t be able to watch it in your web browser. In fact, at the moment there isn’t even a casting option within the app so there’s no way to watch it on anything but your smartphone at all. In an interview with Vulture last summer, Katzenberg explained, “Nobody has made [premium] content that was native to, and only for, the phone. We want to do one thing which no one else is doing and see if we can do it really great.” (Since then, Meg Whitman has announced that plans to stream Quibi to your TV have been accelerated, possibly due to viewer demand or possibly due to the fact that so many people are now stuck at home because of COVID-19).
One of the reasons for this is that Quibi’s whole user interface is uniquely built around the mobile experience. Since most people won’t sit for hours holding their phone up to watch an entire movie, much less binge watch several episodes of a show, everything on Quibi is ten minutes or less. The front page of the app showcases the newest episodes of shows you “Follow” (Quibi’s version of a watchlist) or shows it thinks you’ll like based on your tastes. New episodes are dropped every weekday, so even though episodes range from 4-9 minutes, you don’t have to wait a whole week to find out what happens next. This makes Quibi ideal for those on the go who don’t have time to fit in 40 minute episodes in their day. Got ten minutes on the bus? Have a 30 minute lunch break? Pop in your ear buds and catch the newest episode of your favorite show.
Even the video player is designed with the way viewers typically watch content on their phones in mind. You can change the aspect ratio to fit your specific phone’s shape, or you can watch it in the “original” aspect ratio (oh boy, I’ll get to that in a sec). As with most mobile platforms, there’s the usual “go back” function that jumps back a few seconds if you missed an important piece of dialogue, and Quibi adds a simple shortcut for you to quickly mute the audio while simultaneously turning on captions (a father of three kids under the age of six, I found this handy if I was watching something with salty language and one of my kids suddenly burst into the room).
But Quibi’s main attraction is a new bit of technology they’re calling Turnstyle. If you’re watching any show in landscape (normal horizontal) mode, turning your phone upright will automatically refit the media you’re watching to fit the new vertical orientation of the screen. This is no simple cropping of the image, each video has been shot with both orientations in mind, and edited twice to make sure you don’t miss anything. For instance, if you’re watching a conversation between two characters on screen at the same time, you can turn your phone vertically and it might start cutting between the two characters, or give you a completely new angle altogether to compensate for the new orientation.
In many ways, Quibi is essentially what many filmgoers would consider to be anti-cinema. Bite sized episodes? On your phone only? And you can reshape the aspect ratio? Even watch it vertically? Blasphemy!
Usually I’d be inclined to agree, but I’m not going to be watching Lawrence of Arabia on here, or even episodes of Westworld. Everything being released on Quibi is designed from the ground up to fit this format. Filmmakers are framing their shots knowing they’ll be watching vertically, sometimes making new shots to fit it better. In many cases they’re shooting feature film length material, but structured to flow nicely in broken up chunks. Everything on the platform is made by artists who want to play in a brand new, untested sandbox, and see what they can make of it.
That’s why Quibi has content coming in from some of the biggest names. Antoine Fuqua, Guillermo Del Toro, Steven Soderbergh, even Spielberg have projects lined up to debut on Quibi, and you’ll find Hollywood actors like Liam Hemsworth, Christoph Waltz, Sophie Turner, and Karen Allen. One of my favorite filmmakers, Sam Raimi, just released the first three episodes of the anthology horror show this 50 States of Fright this week, and he’s signed on as executive producer for the rest of the show.
So what’s bringing all these names to this unorthodox streaming service? According to an interview with the LA Times, the chance to be a part of something different, and a chance to play with a new format.
“I love challenges.” said Veena Sud, director of the Quibi horror series The Stranger, “Here’s a new paint set. Here’s a new instrument to play the music on. Why not try it?”
It seems that actually buckling down to the task, some filmmakers have taken to the challenge easier than others.
Sud excitedly relates to the Times how she, “…used every tool in the toolbox,” from stacking the actors, moving the camera, and playing with depth. ”We tried to really keep the visual experience engaging and not frustrating.”
But Mark Pellington, director of the Quibi suspense film Survive, found the experience much more limiting.
He explains, “A very claustrophobic thriller with hallways and doorways would probably work great vertically. But [in Survive] we’re out in the middle of the Italian Alps. Those big, wide aerial shots are the only time I really feel the bite. But it’s just a different thing ….”
So, does all this creativity pay off? Well, mostly. At this point you kind of have to take it project by project.
Watching Survive, I can tell that Pellington is frustrated by the limitations of this new format. When watched traditionally (horizontally) the show looks great. But when flipped vertically, it feels cropped and claustrophobic, and since the show is an emotional powerhouse, a lot of facial close-ups are cut in a lot closer than is comfortable. Similarly, a movie review talk show called Fresh Daily has to contend with the traditional layout of modern day movies when playing clips from Hollywood films, which obviously aren’t formatted for Quibi.
However, I have also come across several shows that play with the format in interesting ways. The comedy Flipped will often stack frames on top of each other to humorous effect, and at one point when the characters are filming themselves with a smartphone, if you rotate your phone to the vertical orientation the shot changes to show you what their phone’s camera sees. Watching the first few episodes of The Stranger, I can tell Sud is taking both orientations into account when framing her shots, as watching it either way feels like I’m not losing any information.
At this point I think this form of filmmaking is still in the experimental stage. Our eyes naturally see the world horizontally, and thus over a century of filmmaking has been perfected with horizontal framing. Even when the vertical orientation works, I keep finding myself coming back to the more open, less claustrophobic horizontal orientation. For now the new format works best when the filmmakers get creative and play around with it, but it’s still a gimmick. It works great for framing dark doorways, big establishing shots, or any sort of wide shot, but for close conversations it still feels constricting and unnatural. If there is a magic key to unlocking this new technique, I don’t think it’s been found yet.
But for everyday passive use, the way Quibi was intended to be watched, it’s quite handy. In a recent Tweet, the official Quibi account asked viewers what they do while watching Quibi. This whole platform is clearly built around catching quick bites of high quality entertainment while on the go. As a stay-at-home dad, I found myself watching an episode while throwing together breakfast or while cleaning during the kids’ naps. It’s entertainment made knowing that you probably won’t be actively engaged in it. It isn’t a replacement for traditional cinema, it’s a higher quality alternative to flipping through dozens of YouTube videos.
And for my money, it fills that niche nicely. I often can’t remember a seven minute YouTube video I watched five minutes ago, yet every day I find I look forward to the next episode of Quibi’s The Most Dangerous Game, or 50 States of Fright. There’s such a wide variety of content on the service that there’s bound to be something for everyone. I think as filmmakers experiment and grow with the platform, they’re only going to get more creative with the possibilities it presents. The show Spielberg’s After Dark is an upcoming horror show that will only become available on your phone after sunset wherever you happen to be, and Sud has referenced the possibility of making your phone buzz suddenly when a character’s phone buzzes for an effective jump scare.
Quibi is set to corner a very specific market, and corner it well. There are lots of wrinkles to iron out, but trial and error are part of any growth process. We’ve only hit the tip of the iceberg in terms of what filmmakers can do with this format, and I hope it sticks around long enough for us to see its full potential realized.
About the Author
Joe Campbell graduated from JPCatholic in 2012. He now works as a production manager for filmilliterates.com, in addition to being a stay-at-home dad to two kids. He was born, raised, and currently lives just outside Seattle, Washington. Some of his favorite filmmakers include Andrei Tarkovsky, Sam Raimi, and Joe Dante. Besides film, his other interests include hiking, the board game Dominion, and coffee.
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