Stories as Data

This was a good year at the South-by-Southwest conference to augment knowledge about the current state of 3D science and emerging camera technologies, amongst other topics.  I was particularly impressed by the $16,000 Sony PMW-F3 1080p camcorder, which is yet another digital product that comes closer to promising professional production quality to the People. 

The good news is the future will allow filmmakers to be extraordinarily innovative.  The bad news is, innovation will likely distract from the already fragile art of storytelling.

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I’ve worked on the technical end of film Post Production for 16 years now.  During that time, I’ve often been conflicted because I am not sure that technology always enhances the art of storytelling, which is near and dear to me.  So it was with a bit of a grain of salt that I soaked in the predominate theme at this year’s South-by-Southwest conference this week:  Stories are data.

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On the surface, you’d think I would be thrilled by the industry coming around to this view:  At SIXTEEN19, I am involved daily in the evolution of next-generation Post Production platforms that focus on collaboration through pipeline and metadata management.  These are inevitable and essential aspects of making great-looking films cheaper and with greater collaboration.  What we are creating is a great facilitator for forward-thinking filmmakers and promises the unrivaled ability to access, share and collaborate between departments. 

But will this alone lead to better story telling? 

There is a new term out there that is becoming ubiquitous and it is “Transmedia Storytelling.”  Don’t get me wrong, I love it when artists get innovative.  When filmmakers made “Blair Witch” and it used the weaknesses of a cheap camera as a strength, I was duly impressed!  So was the audience.

…But this didn’t mean that every film shot with camcorders and jerky camera moves worked – and we were inundated by these for years.

I sat in on a panel this week for a play about a long-distance relationship that takes place between Austin and London:  “You Wouldn’t Know Him, He Lives in Austin/You Wouldn’t Know Her, She Lives in London”

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That play has a live audience in London with the lead actress, a live audience in Austin with the lead actor in Austin – and an audience on Skype. 

In the above examples, story is enhanced by the technical choices – just as some (but certainly not all!) movies are enhanced by 3D.  In the play, the Skype audience participates by chatting along and asking the leads questions.  Great idea, the audience is engage and part of the story!  Why do I suspect this trend will see some brilliant uses in the upcoming years – but far, far more rampant abuse?  Will CSI-Nova Scotia be an interactive Skype experience on DIRECTV?

Meanwhile, in a panel led by Intel Futurist Brain David Johnson, whose job it is to help design chips that are ideal for uses five years from now, it became clear that content will increasingly be integrated with social networking interaction and multiple screens.  I cannot help but wonder if all of the changes are good for the audience?  I imagine throngs of people on islands of niche content Tweeting away on their keyboards as they watch an ever-decaying plethora of glitzy, window-baked-in gloss that make MTV videos look like Bergman films.  This isn’t a middle-aged man’s attempt to bark at the evolution of “kids these days” – it’s more of a recognition that evolution is not as perfect and linear as Darwin made it seem.  With the rapidity in the technology development and its permanent affect on our relationship with the world, natural selection leads to lighting quick adaption – as if we all decided to go surfing one morning and came back with flippers. 

As someone who has specialized in non-linear editing solutions for most of his career, it is a dark secret embedded in my psyche that almost all of my favorite movies were made before they existed, when story was the thing.


Believe me, the ability to create and share digital production elements is going supernova.  Soon, you will be able to not only edit your film from a centralized metadata-minded database, you will be able to funnel your content through a platform that can integrate with high-functioning Web-sites and demographic-specific distribution platforms.  The market for cheap, highly geared content will open up, which is great for home-baked storytellers  But can the integrity of story withstand the distracted, low attention-span nature of the coming mediums?  I think the answer will be “sometimes.”

I wonder if in a decade we don’t see a rebellion back to film and Moviolas and the craftsmanship of patient storytelling. 

Time will tell. 

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~ by postfilm on March 18, 2011.

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