Piecing It Together

Shortly after Jean-Luc Godard released Breathless in1960, an exasperated journalist said to the young director: “Surely you think that a film should have a beginning, middle, and end.”

“Yes,” Godard replied after a moment, “but not necessarily in that order.” Those words not only launched the French New Wave but have since inspired thousands of young directors to reject traditional plot devices.

Now, for better or for worse, Godard’s enigmatic response has become even further complicated by the increasingly pervasive use of digital technology—which may be the demise of storytelling as we know it. With interactive websites and DVDs, TiVo, and elaborate computer games, the art of patiently allowing a tale to unfold is starting to seem antiquated.

According to Marcia Zellers, director of the Digital Content Lab at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles, whether or not these new technologies will fundamentally change our concept of “story” is “the toughest nut to crack. We haven’t really figured that out yet.”

The Digital Content Lab was established in the late 1990s to prepare for the so-called “digital revolution” and to insure that new technologies advanced—rather than hindered—the art of storytelling. “Our primary mission here is to be the torchbearers for great entertainment,” Zellers says. “And to make sure there is a voice for storytellers in the digital world. But in the digital world, all aspects of the business—from technology to business to creative—are all so complexly interwoven that we have a lot of dialogue around all those things.”

The transformation caused by this digital revolution will, according to Zellers, be far more complicated than any that have come before. “When films went from silent to talkie, the revolution happened in one night, it happened one time, and everyone had to figure out how to deal with it.” The digital revolution, on the other hand, has been developing for 20 years. “It’s going to be sort of a slow rollover, but I think the eventual impact on our society is probably going to be a lot more profound than when movies went from black and white to color, or when we went from radio to television.”

Major changes include the disempowerment of big TV networks and studios that monopolize the airwaves. “For many years a lot of us were operating under the assumption that because television was the dominant medium, the television monitor would be the place where we’d first see widespread interactivity,” she says. “And as years went by, it became clear that that’s not necessarily the case.”

Louis Alvarez and Andrew Kolker, founding partners of The Center for New American Media, a New York-based documentary production studio known for irreverent but socially minded TV documentaries like American Tongues (1987) and People Like Us: Social Class in America (2001), were among the first to explore the possibilities of interactive TV—and to realize its limitations: You can only have two font sizes, your project has to be compatible with multiple cable providers, and you have to assume that most people don’t have a TV with a keyboard attached to it.

“With interactive television, you have to do a version that works for the people who have interactivity, but then you also have to do a version for the people who don’t,” Alvarez notes. “And they’re all watching the same broadcast. If it goes on at 8pm on Wednesday night, and my mother has her old 15-inch set, she’s got to be able to watch the film, and it has to make sense to her. But then my brother, who’s Mr. Early Adopter, wants to get the interactive stuff going—and he’s watching the same film. If we have all this interactive stuff on the screen impeding on the regular film, no one’s going to have the experience of just watching the film.”

Most digital content producers, however, are bypassing this problem by developing content for cell phones, computers, PDAs—media that exists in a more customized, personal space. With such individualized programming, the social currency that film and television provide could be lost and viewing could become a thoroughly isolating activity. But this issue seems to be less important than the more immediate financial ramifications. “The bottom line is the bottom line,” says Tim Shey, co-founder of Proteus, an interactive media development firm based in Washington, D.C. “It’s absolutely revenue, the return on your investment. And there’s no mistaking that the mainstream networks and content producers are looking at digital media as a means to improve and sustain their business. They’re seeing the fragmentation of their audience and the big three networks aren’t the big three networks anymore. They’re still the most watched channels, but they’ve also seen an erosion of their audiences because of things like cable, the internet, and games. So they see it as almost essential to their ongoing business.”

Moreover, when users are able to interact with and even manipulate digital programming, the very distinction between creation and consumption becomes fuzzier—and may eventually be altogether moot.

Take Machinima, a growing trend among gamers in which people manipulate video games to create short films, using the game itself as raw material for characters and sets. Players around the world can collaborate on a project: One person may control the “camera angles,” another may write the script, and another may do the casting. The results can be anywhere from silly to ingenious. In one Machinima-made movie, two soldiers in full combat gear from the game Halo engage in a long, philosophical debate à la My Dinner with Andre (1981). In another, the video game version of The Matrix is used to create new sequels for the original film— humorously, of course.

“Who creates these stories?” Shey asks. “Is it the game designers, just by creating that universe and those capabilities? Or is it the players/auteurs who are finding new ways of using that technology? [Players] have this almost unprecedented opportunity. They’ve got this virtual world they can go into, they’ve got actors, they’ve got camera angles. One of them can jump up onto the top of a jeep and you can have a shot looking down. It’s almost hard to explain unless you can actually see it, and that’s happening to a lot of the virtual worlds that are out there now.”

But who is the author in this digital age, and will those who were previously revered for their ability to weave a brilliant yarn be replaced by anyone with broadband and a cell phone?

“I think the reverence for auteurship is always going to be with us,” Zellers says. “It goes back to the desire to be told a great story. If we could all do it, there’d be no desire to revere those folks. It’s a unique and special talent just like any unique and special talent.”

She adds that digital media simply opens the playing field to other players and, therefore, to new kinds of stories. “[Auteur-driven content] is just going to be supplemented by other things,” she says. “So probably the person who has the greatest talent for weaving a well-crafted story will always remain at the top of the heap in terms of people’s reverence, but other people who figure out how to do really interesting things with these new media, and who figure out ways to create new experiences and new buzz words and new things that enter the lexicon, will be revered for different reasons.”

One analogy might be Turntablism: the art of scratching records to create radically new sounds and rhythms from other people’s music. Scratching has plenty of detractors, and surely trends like Machinima will too as they become more widespread. But what major artistic development hasn’t known its share of dissent?

“People have been proclaiming the death of the novel and the death of film practically since they were invented,” Shey reminds us. “But I think there will always be a place for the novel or film as we know them.” He quickly adds that so-called “new media” do not necessarily avail revolutionary new ways of telling a story. “It’s nothing new for media to be intertextual or interactive,” he says. “A lot of the best novels require a great deal of user-participation, or user-interpretation. And a lot of people will say that novels exist somewhere between what’s on the page and the imagination of the person reading it. The same can be said for a good movie or television show.”

The big difference, he adds, is that “[digital storytelling] can be much more immersing, and it can involve the viewer or the reader so much more. And there are a lot more possibilities once you add that element of network, community, connectivity.”

This may be true. After all, digital media allow niche markets across the globe to meet in virtual environments in real time, which could increase democratic content and mitigate isolation (albeit through chat rooms and instant-message discussions, not over a cup of coffee near your local cinema).

Of course, whether they work in digital or more traditional media, not all storytellers are commercially driven. Digital technology also facilitates new forms of art-making, allowing artists to explore narrative strategies in unprecedented ways. Mariam Ghani, a Brooklyn-based new media artist whose projects often incorporate video, websites, museum installations, reading libraries, and even chat-room discussions with the artist, examines the very concepts of “narration” and “reception” at a fundamental level.

“I tend to think of the raw material of my stories as a database, and the different ways that I present it as a set of interfaces that offer different entry points into the material for different audiences,” Ghani says. She invests her audiences with considerable authorial control, thereby diminishing her own role as “director.”

“When I first began working with video, I came to it from the tradition of experimental documentary, which seems very much inflected by the ‘I’ of the filmmaker,” says Ghani, who received her MFA in photography, video and related media from the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan. “But as I moved into the art world, and shifted into a practice that’s grounded more and more in new media, I became less interested in making work that reflects my life or my stories, and more interested in making projects where I give voice to the stories of others—creating systems for people to speak, or translating their speech into mediums or sites where they are usually voiceless.”

She adds, however, that even this is not entirely in her control. “It’s actually up to the viewers how much narrative agency they want to appropriate for themselves,” she says.

It really becomes an individual choice,” explains Ghani, summing up one of the pivotal points in the digital storytelling discussion. “Will you engage, or will you be just an observer?”

About :

David Alm writes about film, art, and the media for magazines in New York and California. He lives in Chicago, where he also teaches collage courses on film and the humanities.