The second digital revolution in film

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The film industry is moving toward all-digital at a fast pace. Dozens of exciting digital innovations were announced in 2013, such as a 4K camera that shoots 1000 frames per second, or a new distribution platform launched by BitTorrent. There has never been an age of such rapid technological development in this industry.

But when it comes to the storytelling side of cinema, our methods have remained almost identical to classic Hollywood. The film industry still resolutely relies on the concept of making movies based on a screenplay typed out in 12pt Courier, shot with one or two cameras, and presented on a single screen in a darkened room.

Traditional screenplay

Not many people in the industry seem to realize that this way of storytelling will be marginalized in the long run, like opera and vaudeville. This change in storytelling methods is the direct result of the rise of digital technology, and I’d like to call it the second digital revolution in film. Below I’ll describe some recent developments in storytelling to give you an idea of what’s in store.

The future is multi screen

Digital in-flight entertainment

In the last decade we’ve gotten accustomed to interacting with media on a wide variety of devices. We’re perfectly comfortable live tweeting about something we’re watching on TV. We expect Netflix to know exactly where we left off in a movie when we switch between our tablet, laptop, and smartphone. And when we travel by air, we do not only expect personal in-flight entertainment, we now also demand that we’re not forced to turn off our own devices during the flight. And the American F.C.C. is starting to comply.

The same will happen in theaters. The cinema experience will gradually lose its enclosed, single screen nature. You may not like it, but people are not going to stop checking Facebook during a movie. So instead of fighting this development, the theater experience will just have to be designed differently, to make sure the guy next to you won’t bother you with his bright smartphone screen.

And you know what, as filmmakers we can actually make good use of the screens our viewers are carrying with them. There are real opportunities for entertainment concepts that employ multiple screens to tell a story. This can be accomplished by making the audience’s devices part of the cinematic experience.

App movie poster

An example is App, a Dutch feature film that uses an app to turn cinema goers’ mobile phones into second screens. Such apps can enrich the cinematic experience in many ways. Read character backstories, watch instant slow-motion replays of action scenes, see a dialogue scene from another angle, or discuss the plot in real time with film enthusiasts around the globe. A device like Google Glass seems perfect for this kind of story consumption. Traditional cinema will still have its place, but the future lies in immersive storytelling on multiple screens, even in an old-fashioned theater.

Immersive trends in emerging markets

Chatterbox app screenshot

In emerging markets we can witness some interesting developments that pave the way for immersive storytelling. In Asia for instance, new cinema chains do not carry the burden of legacy 35mm projection equipment. As a result, the conversion to 4K digital projection, 3D, and immersive audio formats such as Dolby Atmos or Barco’s Auro 11.1 goes much faster than in the western world.

This forward-looking approach also extends to Asian audiences, who are more open to consuming forms of immersive entertainment than in Europe or the U.S.. In Thailand, for a while the number one social media app for iPhone was Chatterbox, a second screen app for TV shows. As another example, a South Korean immersive cinema system called 4DX adds wind, vibrations, and smell to the cinema experience. Silly as the system may sound, it’s pretty popular in emerging markets such as Mexico and Russia.

Transmedia storytelling: digital journalism shows the way

Still from Gravity

Narrative concepts that encapsulate more than one medium or platform (transmedia storytelling) are a relatively new development. In the film world, these concepts have mostly taken the form of tie-ins: the film itself is a stand-alone piece of entertainment that is expanded through other media. A recent example is Aningaaq, a short film accompanying Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity. The short film shows a scene from “Gravity” from a different perspective, but is not essential for your understanding of the plot of Gravity itself. It’s a narrative add-on.

Yet the strength of true transmedia storytelling in film lies not in merely adding other media to the traditional cinematic experience. In a transmedia film concept, the film tells just part of the story. The story can only be experienced in its entirety by consuming other pieces of content as well, such as animations, comics, music, games, or interactive presentations.

Although there haven’t been many true transmedia experiments initiated by the film industry so far, in the world of journalism the transmedia approach is rapidly becoming the norm for in-depth, long-form reporting. Some examples: Snow Fall (New York Times), Killing Kennedy (National Geographic Channel), and De hartslag van Lehman Brothers (NRC, Dutch).

"Killing Kennedy", an example of digital transmedia journalism

The success of these developments in journalism will definitely have its effect on the entertainment industry, and will change the way we write screen stories. The traditional screenplay as the primary format for visual storytelling will gradually lose its importance. Writing transmedia fiction needs an entirely new kind of format, a format that doesn’t yet exist.

In search of a new format: world building

In transmedia storytelling, the initial design of the world in which the story takes place is crucial. Within a transmedia project, narrative content is produced for several media over a longer period. A wide variety of writers, composers, and visual artists contribute to these different parts of the narrative. So the more information your initial design of the story universe entails, the easier it will be for all those creators to produce content that is aligned across all types of media.

Alien versus Prometheus

The Alien franchise is an obvious example of the dangers that lie ahead when your story universe isn’t properly designed at the outset. When the original Alien film was written, the story universe was designed to carry only this one screen story. As it turned out, the foundation of this universe was too flimsy to support the wealth of sequels, movie spin-offs and video games that followed. The cracks started to show quite rapidly and expanded with every entry to the franchise.

And it’s not easy to correct these faults at a later stage: when Ridley Scott used the Alien prequel Prometheus as an opportunity to fill a few of the cracks in the foundation, and give all the disparate story elements one grand background myth, it didn’t go over well. Audiences refused to accept the reverse engineered stopgaps and pointed out that Prometheus actually had introduced more narrative conflicts than it had solved.

The importance of writing extensive backstories for the main characters also becomes much greater. Traditionally, a writer only develops a character’s backstory in so far as it relates to the screen story. Character details that have no impact on the development of the plot are usually left out. But when writing for a transmedia story concept, you can’t really know in advance what character traits or past events might have to be visualized or vocalized, as the story world will be shown from multiple points of view. So you need to cover your bases.

The end of the screenplay as we know it

Rashomon movie poster

But not only universe design and character backstories need a more rigorous development approach. The structure of the narrative also has to be constructed differently. In a traditional, linear film, you normally don’t incorporate several points of views of the same event. If this does occur, it’s usually a structural choice integral to the plot, such as in Rashomon or Elephant. But in transmedia storytelling, incorporating several points of view into the story is common practice. Although there probably always will be the need for a primary storyline that is told in a fairly linear way, the audience will want to experience some events from alternative viewpoints in other media.

The traditional screenplay format is not well suited for this new type of narrative. The old format relies strongly on the concept that the writer describes only those events the audience can see or hear. In more immersive forms of storytelling, this no longer makes sense. A screenplay notation such as off-screen loses its meaning when the writer can’t know which points of view an audience member might choose.

It makes more sense to approach the construction of a transmedia story in a visual way. Different storylines and multiple viewpoints could be visualized in a 3D diagram, that can be viewed from every possible angle. It would look a bit like the way documentary maker Errol Morris visualized the events that took place in Abu Ghraib in his documentary “Standard Operating Procedure“: several storylines laid out in a 3D space, relative to each other.

This visual representation of all storylines, let’s call it the master story, would then be the starting point to determine which chunks of story will be told through which media. For all of these different pieces of media, a wide range of screenplays, storyboards, outlines, and diagrams will be produced, but they must all comply to the master story and the underlying design of the story universe.

New rules, new tools

Transmedia and immersive storytelling concepts call for an entirely new set of tools. As a writer for film and TV, your primary tool will probably no longer be Final Draft. You will utilize a diverse set of tools that are a better match for this new, open-ended, and multi platform approach to storytelling. These tools will be mostly web-based, support group collaboration, and have a strong visual component. Your set will include tools such as Creately to outline story structures, writing tools like Scrivener to organize all the different elements of your universe, and web apps like Tiki-Toki to lay out timelines in a visual way. You’re no longer a writer, you’re a producer of narrative elements (timelines, characters, events, locations, objects), to be transformed and combined into content by you and other creators. The process will have a lot in common with video game development.

Tiki-Toki screenshot

On the production side of movie making, the tool set will also change. Although there probably will always be a place for traditional single camera narratives, advancements in motion capture and CGI will open up doors to mind-blowing new storytelling concepts.

A couple of glimpses in the future: it is now possible to record video in the form of vectors instead of pixels. As a result, in the future it will be possible to produce vector based live action material that can be seamlessly incorporated into a similarly vector based CGI workflow, which enables a level of 3D imagery that we can now only dream of. Secondly, a Swiss team has been able to use the built-in accelerometers in tablets and phones to create 360° “spatial storytelling” (watch the video below to see how it works). The combination of these two developments could create a film experience where a viewer watches a live action scene in 3D as if he is standing in the middle of the action.

The near future

What does that mean for filmmakers right now? How can we start using these new concepts right away and cater to a new kind of audience? The old institutions and large production companies will not easily change their course; that will take years, if not decades. It is up to the small, independently minded production houses to make use of these new developments in creative ways, and to freely share new ideas with the filmmaking community. It’s up to young filmmakers to start collaborating with game designers, developers, and 3D artists to find new ways of telling stories. And it’s up to audiences to give us feedback, to tell us what works for them and what doesn’t.