TikTok videos are everywhere. And for that matter, so are videos on Instagram and Facebook. These social media platforms are awash with clips that cover just about any topic imaginable, from the ridiculous to the sublime, and based on the metrics, our eyeballs are glued to them like never before. And of course, where there are eyeballs, there are advertisers.
As mobile video has surged, so has the push to create and distribute brand content in a dizzying array of new presentation formats designed to take advantage of these emerging channels. In the process, traditional TV commercial aspect ratios are being literally turned sideways. So are time-honored approaches to lighting, editing, color, production design -- you name it.
How has this revolution impacted the way ad content is edited or color graded? Is the vertical video explosion influencing the way ads on linear TV look and feel? We reached out to a number of post production artists for some input on this trend.
Our panel of experts includes Colorist Quinn Alvarez of Apache in Santa Monica; Cory Berendzen, colorist at the Austin post boutique TBD Post; Izzy Ehrlich, Sr. Editor and Partner at School in Toronto and her assistant editor, Zhenya Dolzikov; and Kyle Kramb, Creative Editor at Nine Mile Circle in Atlanta. Here’s what they had to say.
So are you a TikTok fan? Have you found yourself getting hooked on videos on IG or Facebook?
Izzy Ehrlich, School: Tik Tok is addictive and a way for my brain to wind down at the end of the day. I try to stay off Tik Tok until the evening, because I find it too distracting.
Zhenya Dolzikov, School: I’m already pretty hooked on IG content, so I tend to stay off of TikTok in hopes of avoiding too much clutter on my brain feed. Honestly, I’m also a bit terrified of how good I hear the TikTok algorithm is. That being said, I do find there’s quite a bit of TikTok videos overlapping into IG these days anyways.
Kyle Kramb, Nine Mile Circle: I’m a fan of anything that involves moving pictures, allows for sharing ideas and is accessible to anyone. My early days as a video creator were pre-digital. I carried around a second-hand VHS-C camcorder and made short videos about everyday life. Right now, TikTok feels like a natural progression of that, and allows for mass communication across a diverse range of people with different backgrounds all over the globe. As for me, I have a healthy relationship with my phone and can only handle so much social media in a single sitting, except for dashcam crash videos. Those suck me in every time.
Quinn Alvarez, Apache: I’m not on TikTok. I try to stay away from videos on IG or any other social format, as I normally browse with my wife or daughter sleeping next to me.
Cory Berendzen, TBD Post: Not a fan of Tiktok. I haven’t even downloaded it, but I do use IG, and rarely use FB. I'm also 43 and got my first cell phone when I was 21. So out of the three, I like IG for photos, but don't like to watch much on my phone. With that said, yes, my friends send me videos from all of them
As a post production artist, what’s your take on how these videos look and feel, on their pacing and framing and the way they tell stories visually?
Kyle Kramb: This is interesting, because sometimes social videos work best with fast-paced jump cuts, and sometimes the most effective approach is a single take. This probably sounds obvious, but what’s different is the combination of shots that might work best on a thirty-second horizontal commercial is likely not the same combination of images that will work best in a vertically told story. I feel that as different as the end result may look and feel, it’s the same challenge we’ve always had: to make an engaging piece of content that connects with the intended audience.
Quinn Alvarez: It's really hard to take in and process. If I watch it without stopping, then I'm not really absorbing what's actually going on. It reminds me of experimental subliminal films, where folks are playing around with montage. I know, I’m sounding super old when I say this.
Zhenya Dolzikov: I think it makes the content more creative. Because the medium is so limiting, visually and with its duration, it forces the creators to really think outside the box. Being able to convey an emotion in such a short amount of time, and within a smaller frame, requires some interesting strategies.
Cory Berendzen: In general, most of these videos are not produced in a facility, but with phones and at home. The typical pacing of super-fast cuts, shaky camera and adding words on screen to read, in case it’s too fast to hear, are all attention grabbing, but not memorable. The framing loses so much environment it lacks context.
Izzy Ehrlich: I like that the format isn’t perfect. The supers can be all over the place, and it feels authentic. I appreciate when they make it feel user generated; it humanizes a brand. That being said, it’s still not a perfect format for commercials.
Have you worked on any recent projects that called for deliverables in vertical video formats? Were these projects also delivered in more traditional formats as well?
Quinn Alvarez: I've done all the formats. Most of the filmmakers are trying to shoot for the lowest common denominator, though, so even though they shoot 16:9, they only get to use what's available in 9:16. Unfortunately, budgets for digital filmmaking do not reflect all the different deliverables for digital. It would be great if they could shoot in such a way to take advantage of the framing.
Cory Berendzen: I believe many of my projects get reframed and delivered for social postings, but I do not see these generally. Most are delivered in 16:9, and then the vertical sizings are done later.
Izzy Ehrlich: EVERY. SINGLE. PROJECT… has social sizes. Thank God I have an assistant, but seriously, it challenges me to adapt my editorial approach to create engaging content that compliments the project and still translates for all audiences.
Zhenya Dolzikov: Like Izzy said, the vast majority of projects end up requiring three different aspect ratios at minimum, in addition to traditional 16:9. Occasionally we’d get asked for even more than that. It’s an interesting puzzle trying to keep track of all of them.
Kyle Kramb: Most projects I work on have vertical and/or square deliverables and the traditional horizontal. For the majority of these, 16:9 is the primary deliverable. However, I’m getting more and more projects where the creatives are treating the vertical formats with the same attention. This means getting a different set of takes for each framing, instead of trying to create them from 16:9, which often doesn’t work.
When you need to work in multiple screen sizes and formats, what’s the best solution for coming up with a way to bridge the two?
Cory Berendzen: Since I don't usually see the reframed versions, I focus on the 16:9 master and let the color grade carry through.
Quinn Alvarez: Luckily, DaVinci Resolve is pretty flexible when it comes to the screen sizes and formats. We can easily see the deliverable on our critical monitor, no matter what the size or ratio is.
Kyle Kramb: The best approach is to get in front of it from the start. Production companies and agencies are getting wise to this, but it’s still good to get with the agency producer and ensure they think about this before shooting. This may mean twice as many shots, so they must plan for that extra time. I also ask them to shoot open gate when possible, giving you that additional real estate if needed. Taking additional time while editing is also vital. What works, pacing and story-wise, in a 16:9 frame might not feel right in a square. I approach each version as a new edit, even if the script is the same.
Zhenya Dolzikov: Honestly, just starting out with the very basic repositioning for various formats tends to naturally lead to ideas on how to make the merge more seamless, and through experience you build an arsenal of creative solutions that resurface all the time. Although it might sound restricting, there’s a sense of creative freedom you get when you have a 16:9 video that needs to fit in a smaller format. Instead of showing the full frame, you can shift the frame to selectively choose what to reveal. One shot can sometimes become several.
Izzy Ehrlich: I prefer to avoid the pan and scan approach and always try to repo shots. When we’re more thoughtful with what we want to focus on, the creative doesn’t feel as compromised. I get a ton of footage that’s shot open gate. We’re able to blow that footage up and it’s very helpful for the vertical aspect ratios.
Emojis, animated gifs, glittery effects, jagged hip hop soundtracks -- you see this a lot on TikTok and IG. To what extent do you feel this look or vibe is bleeding over into advertising?
Zhenya Dolzikov: It’s clear that the playful, sometimes chaotic visuals that come with TikTok and IG content have become the standard for catching eyeballs. Why would someone want to stop and listen to anything less? There’s a fine balance that’s needed, though. I think the key is to first create something that works at the root level, with none of the extra visual gimmicks, and then add to that if needed. Easier said than done.
Kyle Kramb: You use the word vibe in the question, which is an excellent way to think about this. Is the vibe right for the cut? Does it engage? Does it feel authentic? Viewers know when they’re being advertised to. I think advertising that nods to what is happening in other media, such as TikTok, but doesn’t try to emulate it, works best.
Izzy Ehrlich: If we’re working on a spot that is creatively trying to feel like a Tik Tok video, then those over the top visuals are useful. If we’re creating a traditional commercial that will be repurposed for Tik Tok, we’ll use those techniques if they marry well with the creative.
Cory Berendzen: These effects do get used, but not overly used by traditional agencies… yet. I fully don't know conversion rates, but I would not expect the emoji heavy ads to do as well as ones without.
Quinn Alvarez: I do see the TikTok aesthetic bleeding into advertising, but it is mostly coming from people who are not of that world trying to cater to that audience. As such, you get folks like myself or older making choices with the intent being "the kids will be into this...", and the kids want nothing to do with it. If you want that look or feel, then we should hire the people that are pushing the medium. Advertising needs an injection of youth.
The color grading on a lot of social video has a saturated, somewhat exaggerated look to it. Are you seeing more of this in the work that’s coming into your studio?
Cory Berendzen: The basic high saturation and contrast is built into video on most phones, and shows that videos are edited as is, color-wise. It hasn’t influenced me, as I always approach projects looking for a cinematic look and feel, something more like high end fashion or film.
Quinn Alvarez: The saturated nature of social media is more of a function of the editing than anything else. Because the cuts are so quick, you have only so much time to get your point across in order for the audience to read the image. As such, a lot of colorists are cranking the saturation knob in order to contribute to the montage. You're no longer grading the image as a singular being, but how it contributes to the whole. A bunch of color, cut after cut, definitely has more contrast than a bunch of faded gray that’s recently become the ‘cinematic’ aesthetic.
Kyle Kramb: Color sessions now incorporate small screens much more than just a few years ago. We usually work remotely with colorists using Clearview Flex or Louper.io, and have the feed playing back on both our large broadcast monitor and an iPhone. If a client comes into a color session, we usually send them a Simian link so they can review it again on their phones and computers. We now expect additional comments based on how the footage looks on a smaller device.
Zhenya Dolzikov & Izzy Ehrlich: We color grade for the best look creatively overall. We don’t do a separate color session for social deliverables.
Music videos changed the way TV commercials were edited and how they looked. Do you think social media videos will have the same effect on how commercials are presented, particularly those aimed at younger consumers?
Izzy Ehrlich: Even though all the trends are happening, we’re still editing big productions shot in 16:9. On streaming services like Netflix and YouTube, 16:9 is the dominant format. That being said, socials are affecting the way agencies approach creative, and this trend will continue. I think it will be an ongoing challenge for our clients to strike a balance between traditional formats and new social formats. The smaller social canvas limits what we can create visually, and it would be a shame to see a trend that removes the filmic aesthetic from our craft. Now, more than ever I need to be flexible and open minded, to be sure our clients walk away with work we’re all proud of.
Quinn Alvarez: With streaming platforms and social media advertising having more and more prominence, the traditional :30 spot will continue to shrink and shrink. We're already seeing the spots cut down to :06 and shorter. As such, you have a small amount of time to get across a message while using a moving image. Advertisers would be wise to adopt the aesthetic, and hire those who are most effective at it.
Cory Berendzen: I don’t think the TikTok attention tools will impact ad content in mass, but I'm sure it will have random data sets released.
Kyle Kramb: The biggest thing is the hook. Is enough going on in the first few seconds to make the viewer want to keep watching? You no longer have the luxury of a captive audience. Making that hook feel like an organic part of the story you’re trying to tell is essential, and if it feels forced, that’s a turn-off.
Zhenya Dolzikov: It’s an interesting time where it feels that a TikTok video can often get a larger reach than a TV ad these days. Social media is only going to get bigger, and it seems that people are placing more and more value on bite-sized, relatable content that doesn’t feel so ‘Hollywood’ and polished. You can see it happening with the increase in the use of gifs, emojis, text animations, stacked framing, and the use of social media influencers to advertise products.
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