New Luddism

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Speaking while unnervingly observed by a distressed unicorn. Picture © Nieuwe Filmers

Wednesday last I spoke at an event organised by Nieuwe Filmers about Exit, Pursued By A Bear and mutually beneficial lessons that interactive media and film can teach one another. The long and short of my point boiled down to the gradual shift in user expectations, where increasing interactive empowerment leads users to expect a certain amount of control that film cannot (and, usually, should not) give them. However, their is an increasingly large area of overlap for interactive video and cinema to exploit, as evidenced by companies such as Submarine (present that night in spirit, showing their interactive documentary Last Hijack). This area of filmmaking is virgin territory, barely explored in any meaningful sense, and should provide an exciting opportunity for any ambitious filmmaker with a hankering for expanding the medium.

However, this did not seem to come across as such. There was in the audience, comprised of various filmmakers or people otherwise involved in the industry, a certain palpable reticence on the subject. Some objection was raised, mostly some variation of ‘But I’m a filmmaker, what does this have to do with me?’

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There were some substantial arguments, although none of them unadressed in my speech. Chiefmost of fears seems to be the lack of directorial vision in interactive works. The objection is understandable – film is a despotic medium in which the director funnels every impression and morsel of information in a highly specific sequence down the viewer’s throat, dictating an experience wholly, or at least largely, unaffected by the viewer’s presence or actions. This is not in itself bad – it allows visionary creators to project a highly specific and finely crafted whole directly unto the viewer, in its most optimal state.

There is no lack of directorial vision in interactive works. Ot at least, there needn’t be. I posit that the direction, however should be aimed at the environment the user moves through and interacts with, rather than directing the actual interaction. To direct a player/user is despotic in a purportedly interactive environment. A user must experience a degree of freedom, actual or feigned, and should have a sense of propriety over his/her actions. However, it is preferable that directorial vision is not wholly sacrificed. We can achieve this by directing the totality of experiences, regardless of what way, what amount and in what order they are experienced. Environmental storytelling is part of this, Portal 2 tackles it very well. But it amounts to more than that. Holistic, perhaps. Solve and direct the entirety of the experience and the sequence and quantity shouldn’t have to matter. More on this, later.

New Luddism, in retrospect, seems a bit harsh. Still, filmmakers would do well to invest themselves in the interactive sphere, because someone will, and it might as well be them.

A Breathtaking Journey. © Cas Ketel
A Breathtaking Journey. © Cas Ketel

On a related note, another speaker, Cas Ketel, demoed his virtual reality installation A Breathtaking Journey. The installation places you in the role of a Syrian refugee stuffed in a box aboard a truck outbound from Syria. There is a tiny slit you can peek through. A sensor-modified paint mask measures your inhalation/exhalation, which enables it to check whether you’re making noise once guards show up. On top of that, you’re in an actual box, which does much to solve the experiential disconnect most of us have when donning the Rift or one of its compatriots. Recommended.

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