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Why use new tools to tell tales? (Includes first-hand account)

Is technology changing the way stories are told? Or is it a glitzy distraction? Or maybe it doesn’t matter at all. These questions prompted a vigorous – though finally unresolvable – debate recently at the annual Northside Festival in Brooklyn.

“We’re reaching a tipping point with what we can do with technology,” says Tribeca Film executive Jane Rosenthal . If there’s any trend that stands out, she observes, it’s telling a story in a nonlinear way. Take the Netflix sci fi series “Sense 8” by Lana and Lilly Wachowski, which moves back and forth in time and space, as it follows eight separate story lines. It’s a trend that can arguably be traced back to the first television miniseries in the Eighties.

“VR (virtual reality) is a buzz word for all of it,” Rosenthal says. Not only is VR nonlinear; it’s a medium that subverts the idea of what a story is to begin with. But that hasn’t stopped producers and creators from experimenting with it. Rosenthal has been collaborating with an interactive company called Eko, which produced a six-minute” interactive love story” titled, appropriately, “Possibilia.” It might better be described as a ‘breakup story.’ The director is Daniels (one name) and you can watch it online and judge how successful it is for yourself. Rosenthal also points to “Secret Cinema” which offers viewers a repertoire of films from cult classics to new releases presented in the form of “360-degree participatory worlds where boundaries between performer and audience, set and reality are constantly shifting.” Secret Cinema, which started in the UK, promotes itself as a collaborative initiative drawing on the input of storytellers, inventors, explorers, cultural entrepreneurs and fans to “fill the void left by an over-saturated technological world.”

VR is a particularly promising technology for documentaries, music videos, education and medicine. Physicians can use VR to walk medical students through a complicated surgical procedure, for instance. More dramatically, studies have found that paraplegics, using VR to imagine that they can walk, can begin to regain bladder function. DARPA, the Pentagon’s principal research arm (the Internet was developed by DARPA) uses VR to accustom soldiers to unfamiliar terrains to prepare them for desert warfare or combat in Arctic regions. Similarly, athletes are using VR to participate in their opponents’ training exercises, giving them a better understanding of what they may be up against on the field. And there may be a benefit for the aging, too. “You can ask Grandma to take a trip down the Nile with you” without leaving your couch.

If anything, Nicholas Thompson , Wired magazine’s editor-in-chief, is a more fervent evangelist for VR. VR, he notes, now gives schoolchildren the chance to have a ‘conversation’ with Pincas Gutter, an 85-year-old Holocaust survivor. The film is called ‘The Last Goodbye.” Thanks to the cunning use of artificial intelligence, Gutter – or his digital proxy – can understand and answer questions about his experience in the Majdanek concentration camp where he was taken at the age of 11. The ‘conversation’ can go on for hours even though the film’s subject isn’t physically there. “What this technology allows us to do is learn in a much more immersive way so you don’t forget this,” says Stephen Smith, executive director of the Shoah Foundation, dedicated to the chronicling of the Holocaust.

But there may be limits to this technology. “Using VR for a story is more problematic,” Rosenthal says. “I do question 360 (degrees) as a full VR experience.” She’s not alone in expressing misgivings. George Lucas, creator of Star Wars, is no fan, either. He told Rosenthal that he was opposed to VR and other interactive storytelling technologies because he regarded his movies like ‘poems.’ After all, you wouldn’t ask poets to let their readers to delete their verses and replace them with their own.

In any case, if you’re accustomed to being a passive consumer, will you be eager to embrace an interactive medium, especially when it often requires special glasses, gloves and haptic vests? VR is amazing, Rosenthal agrees, “but how do you make it affordable and expose it to audiences?”

“Audiences will demand where and when they want to see something and how they want to see it,” she says. The media landscape is increasingly becoming balkanized; very few TV shows can pull in an audience of millions like the final episode of the long-running TV series M.A.S.H. Occasionally, network TV puts on a show that everyone wants to watch. Think of the testimony given to Congress by former FBI Director James Comey’s, which drew an audience of over 19 million people. Even in that case, though, Thompson points out, the hearings were mediated by Twitter and Facebook “with different messages for different people.”

Whereas TV was once dismissed as a ‘vast wasteland,’ as former FCC director Newton Minow called it, it’s now Hollywood that’s in danger of becoming a wasteland. Dumbed-down blockbusters can still fill up multiplexes and do well in overseas markets, but they offer few of the satisfactions to be found in shows on cable TV and streaming video. “There’s one major difference between TV shows ten or twenty years ago and now,” Thompson says, with the major exception of network TV, “Shows aren’t broken up by commercials.” Otherwise, he notes, binge watching wouldn’t be the phenomenon it has become. And because there’s a niche on the tube (or online) for practically every conceivable taste, there’s no need to reduce the story to its lowest common denominator. (Hollywood, with its gargantuan budgets has to be much more conscious about making sure that everyone can relate to their stories.) HBO, Netflix, Showtime and their competitors are popular with writers and directors because of the creative freedom they offer.

But with such an abundance of content available on demand and with so many platforms to access it on, content makers and distributors have to fight for attention. Snapchat especially excites Thompson for that very reason. Ironically, more users read stories or watch short videos on Snapchat because there are no external links to divert them. And because the content is meant to disappear after a limited time, users can’t save it for later. So in this case, the design constraints allow users to focus more attention on the material than they would on other sites.

What is a writer or director to do with all that freedom, though, if the story is told in such a way that their audiences have the choice to follow different storylines or characters? The traditional narrative arc – famously delineated by Joseph Campbell in his books on mythology – called for the hero to set out on a journey, face seemingly insurmountable challenges, and emerge triumphant with a more profound understanding of who he is. (Campbell was a major influence on George Lucas.) “You’ll still have a hero and villain,” Rosenthal says, “but viewers will follow characters along different threads.” But each of these threads had better deliver the same tension and character development along the way as a traditional story and offer a satisfying resolution or else no one will be interested in following them. “It’s a hard balance to get right,” Thompson admits.

Some media outlets are already experimenting with interactivity. Netflix recently released a new interactive episode of the animated show “The Adventures of Puss in Boots,” giving its young viewers the choice of which plot twist they’d like to follow at various points in the show. Should Puss confront nice bears or angry bears? Children need only press their finger on a touchscreen (or click the remote on a TV) to vote. “They are used to pressing play on the remote, setting it down and then just leaning back on the couch and letting Netflix roll,” Carla Engelbrecht Fisher, the director of product innovation at Netflix, said. “In this case, we actually need them to hold on to the remote. We don’t want it lost in the couch cushions. We need you to lean forward a little bit to engage with the choices.”
Hulu, a rival streaming service, is also getting into the act with a series called ‘Door No. 1,’ described as “a choose-your-own-adventure show” which is premised on a 10-year high school class reunion. (The series hasn’t been picked up.) PBS, meanwhile, is planning digital interactive games to supplement children’s programs that is scheduled to be available later this year.
“A lot of this is unexplored territory,” said Melissa Henson, program director for the Parents Television Council. “The potential pitfall is video streaming services aren’t subject to the educational video requirements put on traditional broadcasters.”
Expense may be more of an obstacle to wider use of interactive television especially when it comes to drama. Top dramatic shows like ‘Game of Thrones’ or ‘The Leftovers’ can cost $7 million to $10 million an episode to produce. Whether TV and streaming companies want to incur the additional costs of filming additional storylines – that only a fraction of their viewers may want to use – is still unclear.

Technology like VR and platforms like Snapchat offer storytellers “a whole bunch of choices about changing the world,” Thompson says, but the storytellers aren’t the only ones who will be using – or exploiting – its potential. If something proves effective at stimulating and engrossing audiences, corporations will be quick to take advantage of it to sell us stuff and governments will adapt it to serve their own, not always benign, objectives. “Ten years from now we’ll look back and wonder whether we made the right choices.”

Some media don’t readily lend themselves to interactivity. “Not many people choose to contribute to open source journalism,” Rosenthal observes. Patch, for instance, an AOL sponsored news site that relied on local contributors, failed to catch on. (Wikipedia, which allows users to write or revise entries, is a notable exception.) No movie is crowd-sourced, either.

And then there’s the human factor. You may not want to be bothered interacting with a show with multiple storylines when you get home from work. “Sometimes you just want to sit back and listen to someone else’s brilliant words,” Rosenthal says.

Rosenthal also notes that as new media tools become cheaper and easier to use, they can delude aspiring filmmakers into thinking that their product is better than it really is. At NYU Film School, which she attended, students had to study basic film techniques like editing and cinematography. As one of the founders (with Robert De Niro) of the Tribeca Film Festival in New York, she sees a lot of films made by ambitious young directors which leave a lot to be desired. “Filmmakers don’t know how to edit. A new app can’t do it.” Nor can everyone be a competent cinematographer even if the technology can make their films passable. She urges filmmakers to find mentors – producers or directors who are scouring YouTube and Snapchat for new talent and who are willing to take them under their wings.

“At the end of the day,” Rosenthal says, “it’s all about the story. Unless you find a way to make technology tell a story well, why do it?”

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