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Blog Home Contributor The Create Fund: Stephen Small-Warner’s Attention-Grabbing Vertical Videos
The Create Fund: Stephen Small-Warner's Attention-Grabbing Vertical Videos

The Create Fund: Stephen Small-Warner’s Attention-Grabbing Vertical Videos

Stephen Small-Warner’s unique films are made for mobile devices. Here are his thoughts on vertical videos and advice for creating captivating content. 

Stephen Small-Warner wants you to turn content upside-down. His perspective? Vertical video—i.e. the way we watch TikToks, Reels, and ads on our mobile devices—is a much more human, intimate way to connect with the viewer.

Since 2007, the Howard University and NYU graduate has argued this point by creating captivating, complex film and video—all shot and delivered vertically—for companies like Vogue, American Express, Fedex, and Fendi. But, he heard no a lot before he got where he is today. 

Now that the rest of the world is finally catching on to the power of vertical video, Small-Warner is vindicated and excited to see more of the style he loves present in all aspects of our lives.

He’s launching his own vertical video picture company, Vertical Video Motion Pictures, and preparing to welcome his first child this summer.

He also recently partnered with Shutterstock’s Create Fund, which provides support for historically excluded artists with the goal of creating a more inclusive and diverse library of contributor content.

This means you can view Small-Warner’s incredible work and use it for your own projects, as well.

Below, Small-Warner shares why he’s such an evangelist for vertical video, and how he hopes his work changes the way we see the world.

Shutterstock: When did you first fall in love with video?

Stephen Small-Warner: I picked up a camera the summer of 2007, around the same time as the revolution of DSLR. I quickly realized that I loved shooting video—actual moving images.

I was a business management major at Howard University at the time, and it was driving me crazy. To cope, I snuck into a couple cinematography classes, and it was evident that I had a really good eye. I just understood the language of moving images very well.

I ended up working with the University to shoot their homecoming videos (homecoming is a very big deal at Howard), and from there I decided to go to NYU’s International Media Production program in Singapore to learn more about emerging technology and trends.

Along with ten other producers from around the world, I focused my time on figuring out how to tell a story across platforms and what would be the next big medium.

SSTK: Was this when you discovered your passion for vertical video?

SSW: Yes. I wrote a paper on the importance of size in video, and I started to really investigate what would become the mobile audience and the strength of what the mobile screen would be, orientation-wise. When I left Singapore, it was a small, tiny thread in my brain that I knew I needed to follow.

I came back to New York, and I was shooting Fashion Week. I took a couple shots that were vertical, but I had nowhere to put them.

Instagram and Instagram Stories weren’t around, Snap (then Snapchat) was here but the videos were short. I couldn’t really upload the full video, but I was able to edit and upload it, and look at it on my phone.

Just seeing the full 9 x 16 frame on my phone kicked off a seven year journey to figure out how to advance and sell vertical video.

SSTK: Selling vertical video was probably challenging in the beginning. When did you start to see success?

SSW: I was one of the first filmmakers in residence at the Tribeca Film Festival. I tried to get them to make a mobile film program for students and, at the time, they were more interested in VR. But I knew vertical orientation was the future, and even if we’re all using VR, it’s going to come through vertically.

It was a tough battle until 2018-19, when Snap called me up to work on original programming. Then, in 2020, Quibi happened, which was (temporarily) huge for vertical video. But I still got a lot of pushback.

Coming from the filmmaking world, a lot of my fellow filmmakers didn’t understand why I was so adamant about vertical video being the future.

In 2020, I channeled that frustration (and the extra time I had during the pandemic), into a 55-page book on the innovation of vertical filmmaking. At the same time, TikTok started taking off, and I began getting calls from advertising agencies asking me to make branded videos.

SSTK: What brought you to Shutterstock? And, what do you hope to achieve with the Create Fund?

SSW: I had always known that stock images would eventually need to go vertical, and that there would be a deep need for it, as there isn’t a lot of vertical content readily available.

With all iterations of content—from radio to film to TV—there are libraries of content that producers can easily access. But there were no libraries of vertical content. (I knew) we’d have to make them. So, when the Create Fund reached out, I told them I only wanted to do vertical video.

There’s still some lag in what premium vertical can look like. So, I thought a lot about what vertical content could be like in this space.

And, what could it mean to a generation who primarily uses vertical content to express themselves. That’s a different perspective from what stock imaging was originally created for.

SSTK: Do you have any quick tips for folks who are creating their own vertical video content?

SSW: I think one of the main things I always say about the medium is that it has an innate intimacy to it. When I talk about vertical, I’m talking about portrait video, right? And when I think about portrait video, I tend to use the number one rule of properly framing the subject, whether it’s a person or a product.

In my Shutterstock collection, I shot a lot of items like soup and different things, but what I did was I shot them as portraiture. So, a classic portraiture lens is 85 millimeters, but anywhere between 50 and 85 millimeters looks good on vertical. It has that intimate feel.

I also think layering is very important to the vertical frame, especially when you’re trying to convey details. Another thing about vertical is that it’s an extremely utilitarian format.

One of the biggest reasons why TikTok is so successful is because it’s utilitarian. People feel like they’re learning from it, even if it’s just a dance video.

Anything that is a process can be shot beautifully in vertical.

SSTK: What are you working on now?

SSW: Right after launching the Shutterstock collection, I launched a company called Vertical Motion Pictures. Vertical Motion Pictures only serves the mobile audience.

I’ve been partnering with and talking to creative directors about very interesting projects that would use vertical video and, for example, layer it onto VR experiences.

These are the types of things that I think push the needle and really explore the innovation of vertical video and what it could do for us.

Cover image courtesy of Stephen Small-Warner.

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