With the amount of time we spend online it's no surprise that traditional narratives are morphing into a more web-friendly format. Documentary filmmakers have made excellent use of the possibilities the web provides to engage audiences in a different and, often less passive, way. Documentaries now often encourage viewers to find out more about a topic using interactive features, while interactive fiction projects focus on deconstructing narrative and storytelling, forging new models that allow for viewers to become part of the story. Bear in mind, this is no easy task—there is no standard formula, each story needs a unique narrative design and has to be able to adapt to the unpredictability of human behavior.
But before we dive into the ins and outs of interactive filmmaking, let’s take a moment to examine what the term might mean.
What’s The Deal With Interactive Filmmaking?
Kinoautomat in 1967 is the first example of a film where the audience could choose different story lines. Today, point-and-click adventures are still made for the web and for DVD but with a limited number of choice possibilities, the interactivity feels sometimes more like a gimmick than a mechanism that’s designed to contribute to the telling of the story itself. Some recent examples that seem to be trying to challenge that are the projects Self Control Freak and Being Henry.
Another way to immerse an audience is by using transmedia storytelling, which tells a single story across multiple platforms and formats using digital technologies. A single story may start as a web series, continue on to a Facebook experience, or maybe a GPS-enabled mobile component. This method has proven to be most successful for a series or long-running project where there is already an established fanbase who is committed to following the different characters and plot lines. Of course, there are also some interesting stand-alone projects. Transmedia storytelling trailblazer Lance Weiler has had a number of successful projects in this realm, among them the award-winning film Pandemic, which combined live events, a short film, and an alternate reality game to construct a rich, multi-layered experience.
Another exciting model that’s been bolstered by the internet is collaborative storytelling where the process, rather than the result, is interactive. Crowdsourcing is a way for filmmakers to redefine authorship. The director creates a framework for users to fit their contributions and then compiles and vets material submitted by the crowds, cutting them together into a patchwork masterpiece composed of many different voices and artistic styles. In the past couple of years, several crowdsourced projects have gained acclaim—for example, the fan-made Star Wars Uncut film (which won an Emmy and counts George Lucas among its fans) and Cadavre Exquis, a crowdsourced script written on Twitter that was initiated by Tim Burton.
How Do You Make An Interactive Film?
Today, the most innovative projects are still to be found in animation and cross-over projects. Graphic novels are suitable for an interactive version, a beautiful example is The Art of Pho or the interactive series Hotel.
One such project is BLA BLA, winner of an Interactive Award for Best Art Project at SXSW 2012. Quebec filmmaker and interactivity pioneer Vincent Morisset created this online project and expanded it into a live experience, which recently made its debut at the Gaîté Lyrique in Paris, France. He also released a making-of video about how he translated the film into an installation. Morisset is an expert in designing interactive narratives and was happy to share some of his insights.
It all starts with the story
“After all those years developing interactive stuff, I still have a sense of walking in the fog most of the time,” admits Morisset. But he says the first step is always developing the narrative aspect and a sense of the general experience. The interactive experience is by nature unique to each user, but it's not necessarily the goal to create a totally different experience for everybody. Morisset rather wants to create a sense of spontaneity and freedom in his films where the users forget about the computer and can relate to the piece with their emotions.
Choosing the right technology
The technology and the grammar of the medium are always closely connected to the creative process. A lot of editorial decisions are influenced by limitations. To get to know these limitations at an early stage, Morisset prototypes everything to validate his ideas, so he doesn't spend too much time on something that doesn't work.
Planning for the unexpected
"It's like embracing part of the unknown when you try to tell a story through interactive mechanisms. You take into account human nature and how people deal with situations in general as a starting point, and then create a spectrum of possibilities to adapt to multiple users. Depending on temper, personality or cultural background, the person will interact differently and thus trigger different bits and pieces of material we’ve created and developed. It’s an aspect that I really like when I write an interactive project," says Morisset. The unexpectedness is an important difference between a linear story and an interactive one. There are infinite possibilities, so Morisset plans interactions with the viewer in mind to anticipate and respond to this randomness and unexpected behavior.
Different experiences for different platforms
“This installation will open up new possibilities and create relationships among many users. In my opinion, extending BLA BLA’s physical space will inspire more people to develop a new way of thinking about this new medium and let them experience storytelling and filmmaking in an entirely different way,” says Morisset.
For Morisset, the connection with a piece is different depending on the context and the platform it's presented on. The online experience is something really intimate—there’s a close relation with the piece that is a crucial part of the nature of the web-based work. But when Morisset and team decided to adapt BLA BLA for a physical space, they knew they had to change some aspects of the project.
Instead of an intimate experience, there would be many people looking at the piece simultaneously. Morisset didn't change the basics of the work, but he designed a scenography treatment where the user is highlighted with dynamic lights. To include the other spectators as well, there are enveloping visuals and sounds, people feel physical feedback, too, such as wind blowing on their faces. This way, everyone in the room has a feel for the cause and effect being reflected on the screens.
BLA BLA was again adapted for the Gaîté Lyrique where it currently occupies the entire fourth floor. The website is mapped in the physical space and the interactivity goes beyond the mouse clicks of the original online version and installation. The audience is invited to walk through the installation, going from chapter to chapter and physically interacting with the work on different surfaces: the walls, the floor or the screens. It's going to be exciting with motion detection, video analysis, architectural projections and secret passages.