Does Screen Size Matter?

For years the motion picture industry has pushed the limits of movie production. We have are seeing the end of film as we know it and the digital age is ushering in new more efficient ways to produce content and new methods of distribution. For years film makers and producers struggled with standards in film stock, film size, and film speeds. Original silent movies were shot and projected with hand cranked cameras, which did not establish or uphold a standard speed. The frame rate standards were ushered in with the advent of the sound film. Sound required a constant recording and play back speed.

Mechanization of the camera and technological advancements in sound recording allowed for innovations such as Synch sound, constant frame rates, innovative camera design, noise reduction, film stock advancements, and advancements in lens technologies and design.

Today, we are seeing a similar progression in motion picture technology as the digital age is making what was once an industry of big dollars and expensive productions, a world that is accessible to almost anyone. The cost of production, editing, sound design and distribution have decreased at an exponential rate. The once powerful and dominant Goliath of the Studio system has been challenged by the new digital Indie-producer system. Technological advances has moved film making from the back lot to the desk top, and has pushed distribution from the once great movie house or mega-plex movie theatre to the Uber-plex of the Internet. “In Hollywood terms, a low budget film is anything under $10 million; The Blair Witch Project cost a mere $60,000 to produce, and grossed $248,639,099.” [1]

Technology has not only helped the smaller, low budget producer, it has also allowed mainstream, big budget studios such as Lucas Arts to shoot entirely in a digital format. Digital technology allows film makers like George Lucas, and Stephen Spielberg to pre-visualize every shot of a project in a live motion format before ever actually shooting a scene. The digital medium has allowed film makers to build a scene out as a live action, digital story board creating enormous efficiencies and lowering costs an expenses incurred shooting on location. Additionally, digital formats are ushering in whole new distribution methods for major motion pictures as well as small Internet videos. Digital theatres are being set up primarily in large market cities. These theaters are capable for downloading titles with out any degradation of quality over the life of the films showing.

The next great step in distribution of media is the Internet and the On Demand systems of consumption. Today, YouTube estimates that it has over 100 million video streams per day. “In January 2008 alone, nearly 79 million users had made over 3 billion video views. [2] In 2008, the motion picture industry has seen a decline in ticket sales of levels reported in 2000, though revenues are up. The increase in revenue despite a drop in tickets sales in due to increase in the cost per ticket sold.

So, with DVD rentals, peer-to-peer file sharing, television and computer based On-Demand services, and sites such as YouTube, IMDB, etc… the small screen has become much more important than ever before. So what does this mean to the film maker and producer?

It allows for more individuals to become film makers and producers. But it also drastically changes the dynamics of film production and the techniques used for production, and the stylistic methods used to display the narrative. One of the hallmarks of digital media is its platform friendly nature. Digital media can be produced for one display medium and distributed across many others. Today, the majority of video shot for television, music videos, and motion pictures are re-purposed across viewing platforms. An epic film such as “Lawrence of Arabia,” will be viewed by most people today on either a television, or some smaller media device such as an iPod, or a laptop. This 70 mm masterpiece that is hallmarked by its wide shots, bright color, and incredible composition, is viewed at resolutions of 320 X 200, or 1024 X 768; a far stretch, or an incredible shrinkage from the 40 foot theatrical screens the film was intended to be viewed on.

Today many critics of the film industry see this emergence of the small screen market place as one of the most detrimental to the film industry and the creative norms associated with it. Wheeler Wiston Dixon lists as one of his “Twenty-Five Reasons it’s All Over,” the fact that films are now “composed” for television screens or mobile devices rather than cinematic screen presentation.

The restriction of the media device will drastically change how a film maker’s approaches the composition of a shot. A wide shot of Peter O’Toole as he stumbles over and down an enormous sand dune is great when the actor is life size, but at 320 X 200 the subject of the shot is lost. The impact of man against the elements, the sheer dimension and power of the desert is lost, or certainly diminished on a tiny screen.

Recently the Sundance Institute challenged several film makers to produce a short film for mobile phones. Maria Maggenti, director of the upcoming big-screen film Puccini for Beginners, was one of the film makers who accepted the challenge. She notes that “I held the phones up and looked through them to see what it looked like, to see what faces looked like and depth of field… from there I decided that, although both my films feature people who talk, the best way to handle this was to have no dialogue. So the elements are a simple narrative, no or little dialog, visuals that are very clear and more or less fill up the screen, and easily readable. I guess not a great deal of character development.” [5]

But not everyone agrees. Today there are thousands of amateur “film” makers who are happy to shoot with the tools they have, and plenty of people who don’t want great cinematography, they just want to laugh as some idiot jumps off a garage roof during a backyard wrestling match. Some say that mediocrity is becoming the new standard, and it may be true. We have seen a diminishing sense of value in creative endeavors and productions and the work that traditionally goes into a professional execution of these efforts.

We have seen the 35 mm SLR replaced by the digital camera, and along with that we have seen an extinction of the photograph. Today most are satisfied to save it to a hard rive, and printout a copy on low quality paper and cheap ink cartridges. Stock photography has replaced real table top, commercial photographers. Innovation in printing, and low resolution requirements for the web have brought down the bar of acceptable product. This effect is being felt across industries, as MP3 compression is good enough recording quality has dropped down on the importance scale. Blogs have ushered in new lows in journalism and writing, and YouTube has made just about any video fodder for distribution.

Ideally, the cream will rise to the top. Good film makers will not be satisfied with being on YouTube next to a back yard girl fight video. The truly talented film makers and videographers will adhere to principals of visual composition such as the rule of thirds, the Golden Section and the natural geometry that we exist in. As producers we are challenged by the restrictions of new mediums, but we are also supported, and promoted by them as well.

True innovators succeed in the environment that they find themselves existing in. They take to tools available, the confines and restrictions set upon them, and find ways to break out and express themselves in clear and evocative ways. It is truly an exciting time to be a producer…



  1. Zimmerman, C. Indie Film Investments: Independent films present an alternative investment opportunity. February 22, 2008

  1. Yen, Y.W. YouTube looks for the money clip. March 25, 2008,
  1. US Movie Market Summary 1995 to 2008

  1. The End of Cinema as we know it: American Film in the Nineties. (2001) New York University Press. Edited by John Lewis. Twenty-Five Reasons It’s All Over. Dixon, W.W., (pp. 356 – 366).
  1. Making a Film for the Really Small Screen. Morning Edition, NPR January 18, 2007.
  1. Marill, A.H., Big Pictures on the Small Screen (2007). Praeger, Westport CT.


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