Content Production, Media & Marketing Communications
Telling Stories on Screens: A History of Web Cinema
Published in "Future Cinema" by MIT Press, 2003
A group of people are seated around a table -- maybe at home, maybe in a restaurant. Over the din of the conversation one of them says, “I heard a great story the other day.” Heads turn, chairs shift and suddenly everyone is attuned to the teller, leaning forward, waiting to hear the story unfold.
A large crowd enters a movie theater. People jostle for seats, spill popcorn in the aisle, talk noisily. Suddenly the lights dim and the screen comes to life. People stop shifting, stop talking and suddenly everyone leans back, waiting to watch the story unfold.
People love stories. Good or bad, long or short -- we, as a species, are hooked on them. We’ve no idea how long man has been telling stories, but we do know that we have a long history of pictorializing them. One need only look at the paintings in pre-historic caves to realize just how long we’ve been at it. However, the history of adding motion to our picture-stories is only beginning: it was just a little over one hundred years ago that Edison and the Lumière brothers gave us motion pictures; slightly more than sixty years ago that we began watching television; and only five years ago that we began watching pictures move on the web.
Almost since its inception, pundits have pondered the future of web cinema, wondering if there is one (and if so, what its business model is). But they’re missing the point. Screen-based storytelling is here to stay; web cinema is simply its most recent incarnation. One thing makes web cinema uniquely important, however: It is the visual and narrative link between stationary, centralized screen stories and dispersed, mobile screen stories.
Until now we’ve watched movies sitting in movie theaters, sitting in our homes, and sitting in front of our computers. In a few years we’ll be watching cinematic stories on our mobile units and on dispersed screens as we move around. Networked screens are already in taxis, buses and retail outlets; soon they’ll be popping up next to billboards along the highway. Traditional theatrical cinema will never work in those environments, but some form of web cinema will. Web cinema is developing the visual and narrative cinematic language that will be used to tell stories on those screens. As such, it’s important to understand more about web cinema -- what it is, how it has evolved, who the web filmmakers creating these screen stories are, and what kind of storytelling grammar they are developing.
A Working Definition of Web Cinema
What exactly is web cinema? When I first launched The Bit Screen in 1998, I struggled with the nomenclature. Maybe one percent of the films online were actually created in film. “Movie” seemed a funny term for a one inch flick that lasted about one minute. I ended up using the word „cinema” because it means "motion pictures,” and minimally, that’s what these flicks were. And web cinema is cinema created specifically for viewing on the Internet. Stories are always shaped by the medium in which they are presented, and the technology of that medium and web cinema is no different. Their form is shaped by the fact that the Internet is a digital, interactive, upstream-downstream medium. That makes Internet cinema different from theatrical cinema and television.
Web cinema differs in several key ways from theatrical cinema. First, online cinema is frequently watched by a solitary viewer, seated upright in a chair at a desk, leaning forward to watch a small screen. It’s not a situation that lends itself to three-hour epics. So the stories tend to be very short, averaging three minutes. Second, web films are often created by just one person who writes, shoots or creates, directs and edits. There is no cadre of publicists, second unit directors or studio execs waiting to reshape the story. The story told online has a clearer, individual voice (truly auteur), therefore, and is usually more personal. Third, web cinema is still mostly seen on dial-up networks that are subject to congestion and slow speeds. That means the visual aesthetics of web cinema reflect the vagaries of the network, and the resulting image size. Finally, because the Internet is digital and interactive, it doesn’t confine web filmmakers to a single narrative structure. The technology allows for a number of narrative possibilities, including interactive and random configuration. Whether the audience prefers interaction or wants its stories told to them is an open-ended question: but still the possibility exists for multiple narrative forms.
Origins of Web Cinema.
It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact moment at which web cinema was “born” -- as difficult as it is to target an exact birth date for theatrical cinema. Certainly a lot of work being done with QuickTime on CD-ROM in the early 1990s laid the groundwork, as did computer games. However, I believe that the real point at which web cinema began is 1997, the year in which the tools became available for creating and distributing web video. In January of 1997, Macromedia released Flash 1.0 (an off-the-shelf- animation package) and the following month Real Networks launched RealVideo 1.0. In July of the same year, Apple released a web version of QuickTime. The introduction of web-compatible RealVideo and QuickTime enabled video to be distributed over the dial-up Internet. No less importantly, most modem speeds had finally reached 28 kbps, a transmission rate at which it was finally possible for an audience to log on and watch motion content. Like theatrical cinema, whose existence we chart according to its public premieres, web cinema needed an audience in order to exist.
Trends in Web Cinema.
The web cinema of the past five years can be broken down into several distinct periods. In 1997 and 1998, the work created naturally imitated the style of television, its predecessor. In 1999 and 2000 web filmmakers began experimenting with the available technologies and creative tools in order to create new visual and narrative styles. 2001 saw the beginnings of wireless cinema and the rise of European filmmakers and collectives. This past year has seen new and refined levels of sophistication, as web filmmakers have started developing a language from the grammar they spent several years inventing.
Like theatrical cinema, web cinema is a combination of art, technology and business. In its short life, web cinema may have been even more subject to market forces than theatrical cinema ever was. Therefore, each trend in web cinema needs to be examined in the context of the technological and financial environments that surrounded it.
1997-1998: The Influence of Television
Just as early television borrowed from radio, so did early web video model itself on TV. It’s fitting, then, that the soap opera -- a content format so popular on both radio and television -- was one of the first streaming video experiments to debut online.
At the South by Southwest Festival in March of 1997, a group of filmmakers from Austin, Texas launched a web soap opera called Austin. Tara Veneruso, co-producer and writer of the series, said the idea for working online sprang from the work she and co-producer Jay Ashcraft had been doing streaming live music concerts and interviews at the University of Texas. Both trained as filmmakers, they began to wonder how narrative would work in this new technological environment. At the time, Veneruso recalls, there were a lot of HTML soap operas online. They decided to take those static soaps to the next level. Veneruso and Jay eventually produced ten episodes of Austin, and their success led them to create another online series, Chemical Generation, which launched in 1998. Veneruso admits that the visual style of Austin was very static. "We were afraid to move the camera,” she says, ”because we were afraid of losing the actors on the small screen.” The episodes in many respects resemble a series of sixty-second head shots. While shooting Chemical Generation they learned how to keep the camera still and move the actors within the frame, and also how to cut between shots instead of panning, to avoid blurry streaming images.
That style of shooting is also evident in Savion Glover Dances, a short web film created by filmmaker Spike Lee as a showcase for the launch of RealVideo 2.0 in the fall of 1997. Savion Glover, a gifted tap dancer, dances from the left of the frame to the right and back again, while Lee holds the camera completely steady. When Lee does cut away to talk directly with the dancer, it is a simple edit, and Glover is framed sitting still in front of the camera, answering Lee’s off-camera questions. The film works beautifully online because while the camera is almost locked in, the subject and the dance are so dynamic that it gives the impression of constant movement. This locked-in shooting style parallels the style used in early television. Cameras were stationary in a proscenium setting, whereas movement came from the actors themselves, and depth came from cutting between the stationary cameras.
Television continued as a major visual influence on web cinema through 1998, with films such as 1000 Moons by Craig Johnson and Dowager by Joe Chow. In 1000 Moons, Johnson has the actress start in the background and walk slowly into the frame, coming toward the audience as long as she is speaking, stopping when she has arrived at a perfectly framed medium shot. Chow, by contrast, used a series of medium shots that eventually built into tight close-ups. His Dowager is about a short discussion between a husband sitting in a chair and his wife standing behind him. Though neither moves from their position, the scenes are shot progressively tighter until the last frame, where only one face fills the screen.
The opposite tack was taken by Jason Wishnow in Persona, his 1996 made-for-the-web short. Shot using Hi-8 (a format he and several other filmmakers feel is perfect for the intimacy of the web), Persona is a simple black and white film shot as one long continuous close-up. The sole action comes half-way through: the actress pauses, removes her sunglasses and rubs her eyes. For that brief moment, the film deepens to color and then moves back to black-and-white.
One of the first web shorts that attempted to cross the visual influence of television with the technological capabilities of the web was the series Scums. Created by Italian filmmakers-cum-television producers Marco and Antonio Manetti, Scums was a tongue-in-cheek project modeled on a 1970s-style TV detective show. The series launched in 1998, and the six episodes lasted approximately one minute each. The Manettis posted the series online, and several months later were contacted by the Canadian filmmaker Scott Ray, who wanted to make a contribution to the series but couldn’t afford to travel to Rome. Instead, he shot his own episode in Ottawa, continuing the storyline with new characters, and tying his episode back to the original, using photographs of the Italian characters. The Manettis used this same technique when they shot the next episode in Rome. The Manetti’s followed up with two more episodes; a filmmaker in New York completed the series with the last episode. Scums is the first example of what I call “pass-along narrative.”
With pass-along narrative, a filmmaker starts a story and places it online, and other filmmakers or viewers from around the world add to it. The Manettis again experimented with this concept with Planet Invasion in 2000, a web series co-produced with the Italian media company Kataweb. Another example of a successful pass-along narrative is Julie 9, created by London-based filmmaker Julie Myers in 2001. The story revolves around a woman who makes a trip to various countries in the course of one week. Every single scene was shot by a different filmmaker in a different country. Julie herself never traveled -- because there was no actor who played Julie. There was a box of props that represented Julie, including a beige raincoat, a black shirt, a red skirt, a handbag, a lighter and a pack of cigarettes. That box was shipped to each filmmaker, who shot his or her own version of Julie’s travels.
In 1997 there were few online places for viewers to watch video or films. Internetv.com, which housed Austin, was one. Pseudo was another, although it tended more toward radio-style interview shows shot on video. Kilima was another site, and it housed documentaries and other theatrical content, as did The Sync. But things changed in June of 1998 with the launch of two now well-known sites: Jason Wishnow’s The New Venue and my own The Bit Screen. Either site was focused on short films made specifically for the Internet -- and more specifically, films under five megabytes and less than seven minutes. The New Venue grew out of Wishnow’s work with Virtual Theater, an online venue which Wishnow had created with a grant from StanfordUniversity. Wishnow had ventured online after starting at Stanford in the fall of 1993, when he discovered that every dorm had a high-end computer center and Apple Quadra computers complete with video cards. He remembers being astounded that no one was using them, and started making films on the computers. His work led to his grant for Virtual Theater, which laid the groundwork for the June 1998 launch of The New Venue, a screening room for made-for-the-net films.
Unlike Wishnow, I came to web cinema not as a filmmaker but as a writer. Having worked in interactive media since the mid-1980s, I was aware of how much the style of writing and storytelling had to shift depending on the medium I was using. Late in 1997, I began wondering what it would be like to write a visual story for the Net; I had worked with video-conferencing in 1995 and knew the technology existed to put pictures on phone lines, but I also knew that movement needed to be minimal. I wrote a short film as an experiment, but had nowhere to launch it. So I decided to create a venue for experimental films made for the medium, and to invite others to screen their films on the site. (And in the four years since The Bit Screen launched, I’ve screened hundreds of films, but I’ve never written another one myself.)
Both The New Venue and The Bit Screen were important in the development of web cinema because they provided an aggregated outlet for filmmakers who were experimenting with the medium. The New Venue had a QuickTime-oriented format and focused on spoofs and comedies, whereas The Bit Screen standardized on the RealVideo platform and screened more experimental films.
1999 and 2000: Experimentation With Forms
RealVideo, Quick Time and Macromedia had all begun refining their Internet capabilities by early 1999, and Windows Media Player also joined the fray. With better tools in hand, and more sites springing up, attention began to focus on the web as a separate medium. In March of that year, the first web cinema festival -- The International Festival of Films for the Internet (FIFI) -- took place in a café in Paris.
1999: Experiments with Narrative
As more filmmakers began to create directly for the web, they shrugged off the influence of television and began experimenting with the medium itself. Most of that experimentation took place with interactive narrative structure.
So much has been made of the potential for „interactive” films and programs on the web that it sometimes seems like anything you click on is considered interactive. In its true form, however, interactivity involves the viewer in the decision-making process. It’s a reflective process more than a reactive one. The choices given to the viewers need to come out of the situation and make sense in the context of the story, and not be buttons that you push to rekindle the action, like some sort of video game. A beautiful example of this kind of interactive film is Waterdream which, made in early 1999, is divided into several sequential episodes. The viewer interacts by choosing hidden paths embedded in the film. Each path offers an aural and visual experience, but only one enables the viewer to move on to the next episode. Waterdream was created by Andrea Flamini, a former producer for the Italian public broadcasting system, who now lives and works in Seattle, Washington.
A third type of interactive narrative is what I call a ”framing narrative,” not unlike those framing stories employed to group a number of sometimes disparate fairy tales together: Boccaccio’s Decameron is one example, The Thousand and One Nights is another. The frame story sets up the background or the context for the ensuing stories, which can be read in any order. What matters is that they are all connected by the frame. The Internet lends itself beautifully to this kind of storytelling. The filmmaker's home page includes an „About The Film” section that sets up the context, and then provides a menu of short videos. Viewers can choose what they want to see, and when -- meaning they enjoy total freedom as to where and how to construct the beginning, middle and end. Because all the scenes have equal value, the beauty of this technique is that the filmmaker can continue to add on to the film over an extended period of time, without having to go back in and re-cut the whole film each time.
This completely non-linear approach obviously doesn’t work for all films because most rely on a sequential linear narrative. Even though Waterdream allows the viewers to choose their own path, the ones offered are sequential within the structure of the story. I think framing films work best when each scene is a complete film, in itself a whole, but all of the shorts are assembled around a common theme. That is the case in Cooking Chronicles by Deanne Sokolin of New York, and in Videopsychosis by Carlos Gomez de Llarena of Venezuela. Sokolin’s shorts are a series of vignettes about food preparation surrounding a holiday meal, and de Llarena’s focuses on sources of modern psychosis.
The interactive film relies on the viewers to select which version of the film they're going to see. The opposite model is when the computer decides, or randomly configures, which version of the film will be shown. An example is City Halls by Philadelphia-based filmmaker Mike O’Reilly. To create a random configuration film, O’Reilly developed databases for each media element: one for narrative, one for soundtrack, and one for the video. Every time a viewer selects the film, the computer mixes up the order of the individual media elements, much in the same way that the shuffle feature on a CD player randomly selects various songs from each disk. The different combinations of the three databases or core media result in different versions of the same film. Because O'Reilly hasn’t totally evolved the programming yet, what you actually see on the site is a set of “pre-built” random configurations. But he’s moving toward an infinite amount of possible configurations, because the more information or media (video, music and narrative) added to these databases, the more configurations are possible, meaning the core story will be retold in hundreds of different variations.
2000: Emerging Visual Styles.
The new century kicked off with the Internet film craze at its peak. For a while it seemed that everyone wanted to get in on the game. Steven Spielberg announced plans for a web film site called Pop, and Warner Brothers launched Entertaindom. The launch took place in Europe of the sites Prime Films, Nuovo, Cine-Courts, Filmgarten, Freshmilk, Icuna and Bit Film, while Atom and Ifilm in the US were joined by Shortbuzz, Eveo and a host of others. Most of these sites were simply venues for theatrical films, but some such as Pop.com talked about developing content just for the web. Yahoo! Internet Life hosted a “web film” festival in spring 2000; FIFI ran its second fest at a much larger venue, and The Bit Screen spawned Streaming Cinema, a traveling off-line festival of online films. The Sundance Film Festival was overrun with online film sites in 2000, and the issue of web cinema was examined by Berlin Beta in Germany, Net Congestion in Holland, the Seoul Net Festival in South Korea, and the Festival Du Nouveau Media et Nouveau Cinéma (FCMM) in Montreal.
While a lot of bad films were created and streamed to meet the near-hysterical demand for online content, web filmmakers continued to push the creative and technological envelopes, and did an outstanding job in defining new visual formats.
Flash played a key role in the new styles emerging online in 2000. What’s fascinating about Flash is the diversity of visual styles -- from simple line drawing to painterly screen -- that can be rendered from the same off-the-shelf package. Dave Jones, an Australian, is one of the best practitioners of the former. His Flash short, Teetering, created in late 1999, has become one of the best known films on the web and a recurrent prizewinner at web and animation festivals around the world. Brilliant in its visual and narrative simplicity, Teetering is a three-minute black-and-white line drawing of two people balanced on a teetering board on top of a mountain. There is no dialogue, only the sound effect of the teetering board moving slowly back and forth. I have never screened this film without hearing a collective gasp at the end of the piece, followed by quiet sighs. What sets Jones apart is not just his elegantly simple visual style, but also his ability to really tell a story.
Canadian Steve Whitehouse has also built his reputation on an uncluttered style. Whitehouse created DaVinci, one of the first Flash shorts for Animation Express (a site devoted to animation forms which launched in late 1998). However, he is best known for the award-winning Mr. Man, a series of silent films about an Everyman. Whitehouse’s style is deliberately blocky, and his series has an almost comic-book feel to it. Recently, however, he has moved toward a more painterly style, as evident in his work on Kunst Bar together with the collective Petrie Lounge. Kunst Bar is an homage to great nineteenth- and twentieth-century artists and their art, re-envisioned by clever artists in the twenty-first century.
Golden Boy, by Los Angeles artist Bill Cahalan, also has painterly roots. Although it was created in Flash, it could easily pass for 3-D animation. Golden Boy started as a short story for a children’s book and morphed to an online film, where it has gained widespread recognition, both through Streaming Cinema and through the Sundance Festival. It is a silent film, and though Cahalan did write a storyline, it is amazing how many different interpretations viewers have come up with.
Flash was not the only format being experimented with in 2000: RealVideo was used to create an unusual project. Part film noir, part online jazz opera, Life At Night is a gorgeous multimedia story. It was created by John O’Brien, a musician from Minneapolis, and the images emerge and fade to a subdued soundtrack that eventually becomes its own character in the story. Life At Night is unique precisely because of the way it employs the soundtrack -- O’Brien himself refers to it as an online ”music book.”
The year 2000 also saw early experiments with combined Flash-video formats that beat Macromedia to the starting line by a full two years. Two stand-out projects from 2000 are Jolt by Parisian Pierre Wayser, and Mike by Paris-based American Mel Bernstein. In creating Jolt, a syncopated tour of the City of Lights, Wayser first shot the film on video. He then output to QuickTime and exported frame- by-frame into Flash. The result is a kinetic black-and-white short that evokes some of the early Lumière films. Mike took a slightly different track. Originally shot as a short 16mm film, filmmaker Bernstein wanted to make the films more accessible on the web. Having already worked with Shockwave, he began experimenting with the different kinds of movement he could get from Flash.
These early films clearly laid the groundwork for Flash MX (a software program that imports video into Flash), which was launched earlier in 2002. Six months after its release, MX is mostly being employed for marketing on corporate web sites and in Hollywood studio web-site trailers. We have yet to see how filmmakers can take their visuals to the next level using MX. I believe that once web filmmakers have had time to learn the program (probably within the next twelve months), we’ll see the evolution of a new visual style based on a Flash-video hybrid. And perhaps, with the incorporation of video, Flash will lose its reputation as simply a programming tool and become recognized as a serious artistic format.
2001: European Voices
From late 2000 onward, the air began to leak out of the Internet content bubble in late: Pop dot com never got off the ground; Entertaindom shut down. Yahoo! Internet Life canceled its second fest; Ifilm repositioned itself as a movie database and Atom Films spent months searching for a suitor before being picked up by Macromedia. The only web-cinema showcases in the US were Streaming Cinema, and a new section devoted to Net films at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival.
In Europe, ironically enough, web filmmaking as an art form was reaching an all-time high just as its commercial prospects were falling apart in the US. For the first few years of web cinema, American and Canadian voices dominated the scene -- perhaps because telephone and Internet access were cheaper in North America, making it easier for artists to be online. But starting in mid-2000, with the advent of flat-rate Internet access in Europe, European filmmakers began flocking to the web. By early 2001, the strongest and most experimental voices online were European. In addition to the lower telecom costs, European filmmakers were receiving a lot of encouragement: Web Cinema was the subject at the Rotterdam Film Fest’s "Exploding Cinema"; in Paris, the Pompidou kicked off a year-long series "Cinèma du Demain," an examination of web cinema and new media; FIFI held its third, and largest festival; and the French Web Film Critics Association awarded a prize for the best web film at the Cannes Festival.
Many Europeans created collectives to showcase their work, combining resources to split the costs and aggregating their work to create a larger presence. Among the best-known are Bechamel (Paris), Moccu (Berlin), Submarine (Rotterdam), Analogiks-Indians (Lille), Holott (Paris), and 8081 (Turin).
The Bechamel collective was started by Sophie Estival and Guillaume Joire as a venue for their own work in 1999. Joire had been very successful with his animation L’Ascenseur in 2000, and Estival was making a name for herself with the Flash short after which the site is named. They started bringing in additional collaborators and expanding the kinds of work screened. Overall, the work on the site tends toward tart, funny and cynical Flash shorts. But Joire, whose training is in painting and illustration, continues to expand his artistry in Flash with a richer, more de-luxe style.
Moccu is well-known in the world of web cinema for its interactive site-based games and stories. Led by graphic artists Jens Schmidt and Bjorn Zaske, Moccu has created game-based environments that lead viewers through interactive narratives. It is not the images (which tend towards the simplistic) that pull viewers into the Moccu site; the attraction is the game aspect of the narrative. Moccu’s interactive stories constantly reward the viewers for the choices made.
With its creation "The Island," another collective specializing in online environments is the Turin-based 8081, an extremely talented group of artists, scientists, musicians and theatrical designers (Seba Vitale, Anontio Rollo and Luca Barbeni). The group has been online since 1991 with multiple environments (Wood, Valley, Palm Grove, Desert) since 1991, and sees "The Island" as a matrix for developing a larger project in which the interface will be reduced to a degree allowing viewers to feel truly immersed. In many ways, they have already achieved this objective: After spending some time on "The Island," it’s easy to forget how you got there or why you should leave.
Submarine was started by Bruno Felix and the Dutch filmmaker Femke Wolting, who also curated "Exploding Cinema," a web-cinema showcase at the 2001 Rotterdam Festival. Their site is also a channel programmed with experimental, interactive web shows by artists from around the world. Dedicated to the mission of inventing new kinds of programs merging television and the Internet, Submarine has already created a number of cross-platform programs.
Analogiks-Indians, a Lille-based group of web designers and filmmakers, is headed by Erwan Defachelles and Fred Fauquette. Working in digital video and Flash, as well as in interactive and linear formats, the Indians have created a haunting style. Their work exemplifies what I have come to think of as the French style of web cinema. Many French filmmakers I’ve met have backgrounds in drawing and illustration, which is evident in the way they use the screen like a canvas, creating depth and wringing every pixel out of the screen. There is a lot of black-and-white work, and the look is sharp and edgy but not overly produced.
Paris-based Holott is run by Pierre Wayser and Catherine Ginape, whose work is distinctive for the unusually broad range it encompasses: web video, broadband films, Flash, photography and paintings. Ginape works mostly in Flash, while Wayser is apparently -- and to stunning effect -- creating his own hybrid video-Flash language. Holott is comprised of older artists with experience in different media, something that is reflected in the style and the subjects of the visual stories they create.
Finally, a collective of collectives emerged in the form of Vector Lounge, an online and offline multimedia jam. Vector Lounge launched as part of the Pompidou’s "Cinèma du Demain" series in April 2001, and traveled to the Animation Festival in Annency and then to the Ars Electronica in September 2001. Vector Lounge takes place over twenty-four hours and brings together a group of web designers and animators to create a collective website. Participants have included Sophie Estival, Guillaume Joire, Jens Schmidt and the French Team Chman.
2002: New Directions
The number of filmmakers creating for the web has leveled off in the past year, yet the work being created continues to mature. It’s as if filmmakers are now beginning to refine the language, having previously spent several years on developing a new visual and narrative grammar for the web. Carlos Gomez de Llarena has a long history of creating interactive programs that range from simple point-and-click pieces such as Social Speech to the more complex framing arrative Videopsychosis. The Venezuelan filmmaker has recently become focused on developing applications for interactive television and interactive wireless streaming. Jeannette Lambert from Montreal has been mixing formats since first going online in 1997 with her HTML piece Salome Goes to SoHo. In 2000, she directed Givre, a 16mm web film she slowed down during editing to produce the look and feel of a Nickelodeon. Last year she created an interactive meditation on family titled D’où Viens Tu? and using digital video, HTML and RealMedia. This year (prior to the roll-out of MX) she created a series of web shorts that were shot in DV and edited in Flash. Kristoffer Gansing and his team from Sweden, already experts in interactive narrative, have developed a new project that focuses on the spatial aspects of narration.
Some filmmakers turned their attention to the WorldTradeCenter and the aftermath of Nine-Eleven: Chris Ferrantello’s TwinTowers, a finalist in the 2002 Sundance Online Film Festival, is an eerie, moody memorial. In an ironic twist, much of the early footage American television showed of the Afghan invasion in fall 2001 was actually web video -- shot with webcams and streamed over the Net to satellite uplinks. This use of web video highlights a filmic form that has yet to exploit the advantages of the medium, namely documentary. Given that the web started as an information-based medium, it’s hard to understand why more documentary makers have not created for a seemingly tailor-made medium enabling them to hyperlink out from video to text and databases. However, two groups have created unique web documentaries: the New York-based Picture Projects, whose 360 Degrees is an interactive portrait of the US criminal justice system, and the London-based Artificial Environments, who have made several Flash-based documentaries for Greenpeace. One of the earliest doc-style programs online was Dutch Schulz, a Shockwave short made by Mel Bernstine in 1999 that deals with an American gangster in the 1920s.
Impact of Web Cinema
In a few short years, web cinema has already made an impact on the visual and narrative language of mainstream cinema. Films such as Run Lola Run, Time Code, and Memento all use non-linear narrative techniques. Even in American television, one is beginning to see use of non-traditional narratives: in summer 2001, a series shown on the American cable network Showtime randomly moved the story back and forth from the present to the future and the past, constantly mixing and shuffling the sequence of events. 24, a series on the Fox television network, is about twenty-four hours in the life of one man. Each sixty-minute episode covers the corresponding time in the life of the protagonist, and moves sequentially through his twenty-four hour day. This strict adherence both to the storyline clock and the viewer’s own amounts to a significant break from traditional television narrative.
Visual styles on the web have likewise clearly influenced mainstream entertainment. Web graphics were the first to make the leap, and imitation web pages are now in use on multiple news and weather channels such as CNN, MSNBC and Fox News, as well as on video-on-demand and satellite-TV guides. The second crossover is the slightly digitized, almost JPEG-quality images used by American networks during the 2002 Winter Olympics. When a skier, for example, came flying off the mogul, the picture would freeze, pixelate slightly, and then continue. The third influence is, of course, Flash. Already in use in television commercials and title sequences, Flash is about to make the jump to the big screen in an upcoming feature-film release by Miramax. In film, the widespread acceptance of a hybrid animated format can be seen in films such as Waking Life, which was shot on digital video by director Richard Linklater, and then animated frame-by-frame by Bob Sabiston and his team at Black Rock Films in Austin, Texas. Sabiston has developed a technique that renders a rotoscoped-like image making it hard to distinguish video from animation. (An apt technique for a film about a man unable to tell the difference between his waking and sleeping life.)
It’s interesting to speculate what these trends in our visual and narrative language say about our current storytelling culture. Is the brevity of web films saying something about increasingly short attention spans in this age of multitasking? Do fragmented narratives portray our increasingly fragmented society? And if traditional cinema reflects a heightened sense of reality, do the pixelating images and hybrid video-animation formats reflect a distorted lens through which to view a harsher reality? Or do the trends simply reflect the technologies?
Film is not a format that works well in a digitally networked medium. Whereas video and animation do work well, and hybrid video-animation formats even better. Three-hour epics are impractical on mobile screens, but three-minute flicks work perfectly. Web filmmakers construct their stories using those realities -- and frequently challenge the technology to mirror the reality they want to portray. Their efforts push engineers and developers to expand technological capabilities, and those refinements in turn inspire new art. The same dialogue took place more than a century ago between the developers of motion-picture cameras and the makers of the films. That ongoing conversation between art and technology is the true language of cinema.
Web cinema has pioneered a new kind of screen-based storytelling. It will eventually move us on to a new form, then vanish for the same reason as magic-lantern projections and Nickelodeon films disappeared: The technology evolved. But even as the technology of storytelling continues to change, the art of the story will always remain.