Site Seeing

While cleaning out my attic in 1998 I had an idea for a short film. I found a box of notes I had passed back and forth with my high school friends. Aside from bringing back a flood of memories, I found many to be extremely intimate, present-day windows into the lives of adolescent girls, and began plans to stitch them into a film. The story would be told through the voice-over of two girls reading the letters they write to each other during class. The visuals would emphasize the everyday and the mundane of the high school experience. But after I wrote the script, I realized that the structural limitations of film prevented me from exploring some of the most interesting aspects of this particular story, primarily the juxtaposition of these two characters writing back and forth to each other. I also realized that the teen audience the project was geared toward wouldn’t see this film, as most shorts are limited to exhibition at film festivals. Then, one day, I attended a panel discussion about online storytelling and distribution, and the project, "Letters from Homeroom" took a 180 degree turn, towards the web.

I started visiting a lot of personal websites where teens were posting the goings-on of their daily routine. The similarities between these journal entries and the letters I was basing my film on were so striking that I knew then that my audience was online, and the only thing left to do was build the site. Since this was my first website, it had to be simple. Starting with a framework of seventeen one-minute videos, I collaborated with an information architect and a graphic designer to create a site that offered multiple ways to view the story for slow and fast connections via video, audio, and text versions. The site also incorporated message boards, background information, and online journals for the characters that continued where the videos left off. In an effort to reach the widest audience we could in 1999, we opted not to use any Flash and make our QuickTime video files as small as possible.

After addressing all the limitations that become apparent when exhibiting video online, we started thinking about how the site would look and work. When you shoot a film, the story exists within the frame. Online, the story exists within the frame and also outside the frame. Everything surrounding the video, including where the scenes are viewed within the layout, needed to be a part of the story. And so, designing the site was as intensive as shooting the video. After six months of web production, and with the generous support of the Creative Capital Foundation, we completed the project. The site garnered as many as five thousand unique hits a day, and after all was said and done we found that the nature of the story—two girls writing back and forth to each other—truly lent itself to the dynamic storytelling possibilities of the web.

My next and current project was inspired by a stressful flight over Texas. In a pocket of calm air, I looked out the window to see a new housing development being built. The winding road moving through the landscape looked like a snake in the grass, and each new home had its own private pool. On that same trip, I visited one of these gated communities and became fascinated with it. The residents all seemed so pleased under their heavy security umbrella, sanitized lawns, and picture-perfect, cookie-cutter homes. I remembered the short story by John Cheever, The Swimmer. Inspired, I started thinking about a story of a boy who swims across all the pools in his gated community before it is time for him to go to bed that evening. The community would be at once an escape from and a mirror of his own troubles.

Tentatively titled "Forest Grove", the project will explore the architecture of manufactured communities by aligning them with the architecture of dynamic storytelling. Like "Letters from Homeroom", the story will be told using moving images inside a specifically structured website. This time, to emphasize the spatial experience of living in this environment, the "set" for the story will be an actual architect’s scale model of the Forest Grove Gated Community: thirty-six houses, twelve swimming pools, a community center, and security guard station assembled on streets and culverts. Borrowing a page from Todd Haynes’s classic underground short, "The Karen Carpenter Story", still photographs will be taken of miniature people enacting the scenes and then given motion with Flash-based animation.

As with any narrative project, the first step was to write the story. In this case I wrote it in screenplay format, adapted to include many of the elements that will be part of the website. Next, I hired an architect to work with me on designing the houses and community layout. After months of testing with different surfaces and figurines, we settled on a combination best suited not only for lighting and scale, but also for the story’s dynamic motion. Here, the visual concept began to materialize—to draw the audience, like the residents of Forest Grove, into a false sense of security by focusing on patterns, rules, and laws designed to contribute to their "quality of life," but which, in reality, take it away. The unadorned balsa wood homes and fluffy green trees and shrubs are placed under specific community guidelines to look as "natural" as can be. Our cast of characters, made by a German figurine company specializing in railroad modeling, have an incredible range of emotions when looked at in extreme close-ups. Yet from a distance, the 12’ x 8’ platform resembles a minimum-security prison compound.

Once all scenic and cast elements are in place, then comes the photography, which I expect will take two weeks to storyboard and shoot. After editing and manipulating the images, I will work closely with a graphic designer, Flash animator, and production person. But that is looking ahead, I am still deep in the model-making process, and as the project requires multiple disciplines (model-making, photography, web/graphic design), I am approaching it one step at a time. Tackling this project in steps has allowed flexibility in dealing with the ever-changing technology but also gives me more opportunity to apply new technologies to the story itself. And since online storytelling is baby-stepping its way to the future, there’s lots to explore.

About :

Maya Churi is a writer and filmmaker. She is currently working on a web narrative about a gated community in Texas.