April 30, 2020

A Masterclass in Vertical Filmmaking

With Tribeca winner Girls Room, alumnus Ruben Contreras offers lessons in shooting for mobile

Girls Room is one of the more innovative IGTV series from the social impact content publisher ATTN: (Attention) which is known for partnering with brands to create content that motivates young people towards progressive social activism. Created and written by multi-hyphenate filmmaker Lena Waithe, the five-part series launched at the end of February and follows five high school best friends (Melba, Minnie, Thelma, Gloria and Carlotta) as they grapple with issues like bullying, self-esteem, sleep deprivation, dieting and self-love, in vignettes that feature dialogue that sounds real and situations that don’t feel contrived. The series is a collab between Waithe, ATTN: and the Dove Self Esteem Project, which tackles low body confidence, especially among young women.

The series was beautifully shot by School of Cinematic Arts alumnus Cinematographer Ruben Contreras ’14, with each girl bathed in her own color palate. Contreras also bucked conventional wisdom and shot the made-for-mobile project vertically.

On April 29, Girls Room won Best Series at the Tribeca X Awards, which recognizes brand-supported work.

We asked Contreras to talk about the creative choices he made with the project.

Explain a little about the idea behind Girls Room?

Each episode highlights barriers to self-esteem including topics like the link between social media and body image, the pressure of bullying and how to deal with low body confidence. The intention was to distribute “Girls Room” on a social media platform so shooting vertically to fit a phone’s screen was implemented from the very beginning.  

What was special about the way you shot?

The vertical frame came with its own unique challenges both logistically and creatively.  The folks at Keslow Camera were very helpful in finding solutions in rotating the camera 90 degrees and still have the build be functional. 1st AC, Mary Brown (USC class of 2014), used a 90 degree plate and completely reworked a normal build for vertical shooting that was still efficient. 

The framing conventions that filmmakers and audiences are familiar with aren’t as established with vertical videos. I felt like I had the freedom to try a lot of things without distracting the audience as long as it was motivated by the story.  Instead of the vertical frame being a hindrance, it provided opportunities to support the story in unique ways. 

The director (Tiffany Johnson) and I wanted the cinematography to mirror the emotional journeys that our characters were going through. Social pressure, whether in real life or digitally, is a running theme throughout the series and the vertical frame was a perfect fit to express it.

The vertical frame fits a single person really well, however, when you start introducing more people it gets crowded very quickly. The director and I used that to our advantage when shooting scenes that included social pressure or bullying. Surrounding our main character with other kids made the frame feel claustrophobic which supported the story well. Another emotion we wanted to evoke was the sense of isolation or loneliness throughout the series. Giving lots of headroom is not a unique idea, but its use in a vertical frame exaggerates its effect especially when I framed a character from the collarbone up. The characters become really small in frame and makes them feel vulnerable to the pressures of other kids in school. 

My process as a cinematographer didn’t change with the new aspect ratio.  All of my decisions were still based on the story and the characters’ emotional arcs.  The only difference was that I had a new tool to use to tell the story.  

Why is Vertical Framing controversial?

Vertical videos have a bad rap. They are closely tied to amateurism and are often seen as afterthoughts to the “real” content.  The popularity of the vertical frame is closely tied to the popularity of cameras on everyone’s phone. The majority of vertical frames are usually the result of everyday people sharing their lives spontaneously.  They have the opposite visual qualities that you would expect from a movie or TV show. 

Higher quality vertical videos are usually cut outs of existing horizontal videos but oftentimes lack intention and storytelling because of the compromise when framing for both vertical and horizontal frames. Shooting the same content twice, one for each framing, is out of the question because of the damage it would do to the budget.  

It is not a surprise when there is aversion to vertical videos from audiences and filmmakers alike. However, vertical framing is not terrible by definition.  Like all aspects of filmmaking, everything is a tool and how you use it to tell your story. What makes something cinematic isn't the aspect ratio; it's the effectiveness of the intention behind your decisions.  I was fortunate enough to work with a production company that didn’t require multiple framings of the content so that we were able to fully support the story through our framing without compromise of another aspect ratio. 

This project was designed for social media, specifically Instagram. Do you see social media as a viable distribution platform for complex stories?

Social Media is definitely a viable distribution platform for complex stories.  Since the dawn of digital cameras, filmmaking has become increasingly democratic.  Social media has made the distribution more democractic as well. People are increasingly watching more content through social media but they are always looking for engaging stories. As long as you have a perspective and the ability to tell a good story, people will want to watch. 

Any other projects you have worked on or are currently working on that you’re proud of?

Right now I am working on a couple of documentaries where I have the opportunity to meet very interesting people across the country and help capture their stories.  They will be in production over the course of a couple years which is a challenge in itself. My goal as a cinematographer is to tell stories of marginalized communities and throughout the year I work on commercials, music video and narrative pieces that I feel fulfill that mission.  “Girl Callin”, a short I shot for Refinery 29’s Shatterbox Program is doing its festival run right now. It was also directed by Tiffany Johnson and stars Courtney Sauls and Griffin Matthews.