New Cinema: How Do You Make An Interactive Narrative?
The theme of the New Cinema hackathon was to look at new technology and media and their ability to convey meaning, and in particular to look at how they extend the traditions of cinematic expression. Here are a few thoughts about designing an interactive narrative for our little hackathon experiment, We Make The Weather.
Medium as a Message
How do we use technical exploration as a starting point for creating a ‘new cinema’ experience?
We started our project with the subject of Hurricane Sandy and the technique of seam carving. We pretty quickly had a list of associated images and ideas: expanding water, floods and flood myths, diving bells and breathing, global warming and the slow, imperceptible failure of large systems that readjust themselves by sudden and dramatic crashes, etc. We also had access to Framestore’s archive of water footage: clips of water in all shapes and sizes, close and far, drops and oceans.
A sample of the images and ideas the team started their project with.
So how do we wrap this in some narrative that is told by seam carving? And prototyped in two days?
Seam carving is a ‘content aware’ way of resizing an image. It looks for ‘features’ in an image and treats the areas between them as seams or ‘fill.’ Stretching an image keeps the features undistorted and increases the fill, ‘fattening’ the seams. One way to use it would be to create an endlessly expandable water. The idea of ‘seams’ in particular served as a way to use the water footage archive: to open up the seams in one piece of footage to reveal another clip, which in turn would open up to reveal yet another, and so on. As the water is expanding, it is becoming all the waters, every water.
The virtual water underneath the bridge is augmented by the addition of seam carved water footage.
Breathing, with its own expansion and contraction, and its inevitability, became the method for interaction. The way all these elements get related, the logic that holds them all together, is the interesting question of this artistic process, but also an opportunity to trivialize any idea into a simple one-to-one interaction effect. One way to try to avoid this is complicating the logic without complicating the mechanics of the interaction.
Using Narrative Templates
Narrative is a way to give all our elements some common background, like a container to hold them all. Our installation uses a very simplified ‘masterplot’: crossing the bridge. It’s an action that is virtually built into our dictionary as a synonym for accomplishing change. It is a story that doesn’t need to be told; the first frame simply references a template we all have in our heads—the intention, the goal, the obstacle, all built into it. A bridge itself is literally the line of the dramatic arch of overcoming the obstacle. By using this template as a whole, by not having to tell the story, we can focus instead on playing with the structure of such narrative conventions.
How do we design a kind of experience for which Martin Amis coined the term ‘complicated pleasure’: an experience that is appealing but that engages on more than one level, that makes the viewer analyze and consider it?
Interactivity lets us leverage ‘play,’ this special mode of processing of our experiences, in combination with the ‘game logic.’ Interaction provides the draw for a curious and playful human nature engaging inevitably in the exchange, in the process of learning and inferring. It’s a way to implicate the viewer in the piece. In our installation, the mechanics of the interaction are very simple, but it is hooked up to the unfolding story in a way that pulls the viewer in and pushes him away at the same time. It doesn’t advance the story but prohibits the narrative to ever be completed.
The ‘conflict’ in the narrative template remains the same, but another conflict becomes apparent: between the viewer’s involuntary action and his identification with the character in the narrative template, between his role of the viewer and his involvement in the piece. This contradiction is experienced through a very direct and felt interaction, attempting to hold or control one’s breath. It is also the apparent logic behind the installation, and becomes the analogy for how we understand experiences of floods, or our impact on the environment.
Watch the video on We Make The Weather below:
Karolina Sobecka is an artist based in Brooklyn, NY who works with animation, design, interactivity, computer games and other media and formats. Her work often engages public space and explores the way we interact with the world we create.