Gender Derby: Vertical Documentary as a New Genre

To draw a portrait of Jasmin, a young trans who loves roller derby, the Gender Derby team opted for an unusual format that nevertheless makes full of sense: vertical video. A documentary that rewrites the rule book in every sense of the term.

Insidiously and quickly, vertical video has imposed itself in our collective visual imaginary in favour of the democratization of mobile phones and social networks. The “story” format henceforth proposed by Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat and other platforms forces the sharing of images and videos in this ratio. Nevertheless, resistance to the vertical format was—and remains—high!

However, many still consider that you simply can’t do that! And it’s fully understandable seeing as vertical video has a bad reputation. It’s the format that rhymes with meaningless content shared on Snapchat, with shaky videos filmed in selfie mode on the fly. Bluntly put, all of our audiovisual masterpieces are horizontal in format.

“Initially, I was not very enthusiastic about choosing a vertical format. I may have had several prejudices about this image on mobile… I asked myself if it was nothing more than the latest trend,” confesses Camille Ducellier, the producer of Gender Derby.

Fortunately, it’s an apprehension that was quickly overcome given Gender Derby raises questions regarding both form and content. Before looking into the detail of this 7x8-minute documentary, the episodes of which will be broadcast every Sunday until October 21 on France Télévisions’s IRL platform, I invite you to watch a trailer. You can watch the full episode here, but only if you are located in France. Seeing as it’s a vertical video, you have every interest to use your mobile to watch it.

Meeting Jasmin

On the basis of a previous collaboration on a virtual reality documentary project dealing with the issue of gender, Camille Ducellier and Romain Bonnin, new media producer with Flair Productions, decide to explore the idea of a documentary series in the same vein.

“I met Jasmin right before Romain suggested that I work on the genre,” recalls the producer. “And I very quickly thought of him because he was in transition and quite charismatic. And when he talked to me about roller derby, I saw a simple and obvious coherence between a feminist and inclusive sport and his personal approach. It’s a sport that accepts trans people as well as all people of all body shapes on the track: fat, skinny, frail, muscular, soft…”

In roller derby, one of the players (the “jammer”) must make her way among a group of opposing blockers. “I attended a match and quickly noted the enthusiasm and joy when the jammer managed to make her way through. It’s a great metaphor for emancipation!”

For the team, the question then becomes to find the best format to draw up this intimate portrait of Jasmin. “Vertical video quite naturally imposed itself as a formal way of representing the binary/non-binary issue,” confides Romain Bonnin. “The vertically split screen revealed itself very interesting to question gender binarism.”

The split screen is but one of the strings to the bow of the producer and her chief operator, Camille Langlois, seeing as, above all, they spent several days exploring what this new orientation of the image allowed.

Testing a new grammar

The vertical image has implicitly become the image of the intimate, the image of what we capture at arm’s length by directing our mobile toward others or ourselves. Implicitly, including when the image is highly worked and very professional, we borrow from this new esthetic.

“We describe Gender Derby as an intimate portrait of Jasmin that we hold in the palm of the hand, meaning that we are truly in this relation of proximity and intimacy that we observe among mobile users whether in public transit or in coffee shops.”

The producer and chief operator then multiply the trials and consider the upcoming filming. “We took great pleasure deconstructing and exploring this format. We conducted tests over two days. Film language tests. We were used to horizontality and had to think of things differently. I am from the world of visual arts and painting, so the vertical format reminded me more of portraits, windows and doors than film.”

Among the lessons learned is the subject’s place in the vertical image. “We appreciated the physicality of the vertical image, the ratio of which takes on the form of a body standing upright. We therefore have the impression that bodies can exit and re-enter this window.”

Consequently, what is out of camera gains in importance and in width. The vertical image portrays a thinner slice of reality and therefore forces us to focus the attention on the subject and its movements. “We also realized that we are very quickly out of frame. People exit and re-enter… We therefore need to work more out of camera and we are very pleased with the results!”

As mentioned above, the split screen also occupies a key place in Gender Derby. “We found the idea interesting in that it echoed the duality of these characters, even though we didn’t know what that would necessarily entail at the editing stage. We let ourselves be carried by the idea,” recalls Camille. “A lot of vertically split screens operate to duplicate the point of view. Classically, in film or during an interview, very different camera shots are used in alternation. Here, I wanted to instead use two values within the same camera shot.”

Another advantage is that the split screen can be used to direct the viewer’s attention, for example by associating a long shot and a tightened frame around a detail on the scene.

Conversely, certain frames are difficultly transposable from horizontal to vertical. “For example, shots that are too wide when the person is really too small. In our case, at least, it doesn’t work. Moreover, we tend to zoom certain shots a little to rectify values that seemed appropriate to us during the shooting but turned out to be inappropriate at the editing stage. We had the impression that we needed to get even a little closer.”

Likewise, group shots are difficult to highlight. “You can have a split screen with a close-up of one or two people on top of a wider view. But yes, indeed, the ‘family photo’ does not really work vertically.”

Among new possibilities and new complications, vertical at least has the merit of putting our preconceptions back into question. It’s exciting work that allows the Gender Derby team to take great liberty in terms of style. “The film’s first scene transitions from horizontal to vertical in order to establish this new code,” explains Camille Ducellier.

“And the film’s last scene is also unconventional. For me, it was important to end with something twisted, queer, to remind people that we are always between two, between two genres, between two worlds. And I told myself that it would be fun to turn viewers’ heads! However, no matter how they tilt their heads or phones, the images will never be perfectly straight…”

A production that is hardly different, a broadcast that needs to be rethought

Although a host of questions are raised as to the grammar of the vertical image, the specifics at the shooting and postproduction stages are rather limited all in all. For a documentary like Gender Derby, a reduced film crew (a producer, a chief operator and a sound engineer) is a classic…

With respect to hardware, a little more ingenuity was needed. “We shot in 9:16 format using a camera that we positioned vertically. The tripods raised certain ergonomic issues during our work. Seeing as it is not possible to rotate a video tripod by 90°, we had to use and adapt cages to set the camera vertically on the tripod and used a photo tripod as a support for the second camera.” Nothing particularly complicated.

At the editing stage, a monitor is tilted vertically in order to allow the result to be viewed correctly without the two large black bands on the sides. The only actual issue is that the calibration software does not work vertically, unlike video editing applications which today all offer this possibility. It’s a shortcoming that most of the developers of such tools will certainly have corrected in the coming months…

The actual question is that of distribution,” contends Romain Bonnin. “What platforms are today recommendable and capable of distributing vertical content? We know that things are evolving quite rapidly. YouTube recently launched 100% vertical advertising. And who says advertising says similar content…”

Today’s issue is no longer really about whether the public is receptive to vertical video. “The first reviews that we have had are to the effect that the ratio is considered as quite natural by mobile users. Consequently, with respect to uses, the vertical format already exists, yet it is not a common format for content of longer duration.” The main issue is therefore to know how to promote qualitative content to the audience to which it is addressed.

Of course, the communication must be suitable for mobile consumption seeing as “the PC is not really ideal,” concedes Romain. France Télévisions, which broadcasts Gender Derby, therefore decided to focus its promotional efforts on mobile by opting for “targeted advertising campaigns, namely mobile games. Therefore, pursuant to the broadcasting strategy, the vertical aspect has become fundamental.”

Jasmin himself has contributed to promoting Gender Derby. “We had not necessarily thought of soliciting it during the broadcasting,” claims the producer. “Even more so that he already gives a lot of himself in the documentary. However, I believe that he’s happy that the film is raising issues that are important to him. That’s why he further accepted to shoot a transgender video for Konbini’s site.”

Finally, it is interesting to note that the team also shot a series of ten 1'30 portraits of people living a genre issue: the Genre le Genre miniseries broadcast on France Télévisions Slash’s Instagram TV (IGTV). IGTV is the social giant’s new broadcasting platform since the beginning of the summer. There also, the content is proposed in the form of vertical video and uses some of the codes developed for Gender Derby, including the split screen. It’s a multicast that contributes to conveying the team’s message.

The desirable future for vertical video

There is a multiplication of works such as Gender Derby, designed natively to be viewed vertically and on mobile devices, and each new work strengthens a belief shared by a good number of creators: verticality is synonymous with meaning, innovation, ergonomics and—potentially—quality.

Vertical, however, has a major image problem, and each new project with a high production value therefore contributes to reducing the prestige gap with its horizontal counterpart. And there are more and more positive signals! Today, almost all creation tools and distribution platforms are compatible and vertical video is becoming a format that challenges the historical hegemony of the horizontally set image.

All that remains now is the need to multiply the possibilities in terms of distribution. Seeing as Netflix has recently begun producing vertical trailers of its shows for the users of its mobile apps, “we can consequently imagine that they will eventually be able to distribute content using this ratio,” hopes Romain Bonnin.

So let’s continue producing such objects, which remain oddities today but will probably have become mainstream at some point in the future. “I don’t have any new vertical project in the works,” confides Camille Ducellier. “However, what is certain is that we have not yet finished exploring the format. If only for the pleasure and creativity experienced when we abandon our horizontal automatisms, I feel compelled to go back and find out what this format has yet to reveal to me.”

Benjamin Hoguet
Benjamin Hoguet is a writer and a designer of interactive and transmedia works. He has contributed to many interactive documentary, fiction and comic strip projects. He has also written for Éditions Dixit four books on new forms of storytelling that make up the La Narration Réinventée collection.
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