Monday, May 26, 2008

Collaborative video storytelling

Storytelling is not only one of the oldest art forms in the world (it's probably a photo-finish with cave/body painting and dance), it has also proven instrumental in the adoption of almost all forms of modern mass media. Books, Newspapers, Radio, Cinema, Television; all were swift to embrace the narrative arc as their dominant format. Whilst the internet is still a comparatively young medium, its usage has thus far been dominated by more task-oriented behaviours such as e-mail, search, banking, shopping, research and, of course, the unholy vanguard of so much consumer-facing technology adoption; gambling and pornography.

That's not to say that the web's early years have been devoid of storytelling, rather that technological limitations have kept it from being a primary driver of usage. The dial-up years introduced a latency which was unconducive to narrative flow and a metered mentality which discouraged extraneous usage. The experience of reading large amounts of text on screen also hampered the internet's challenge to the primacy of dead-tree media in the written-word storytelling domain (although Amazon is looking to change that with the Kindle).

Whilst the widespread adoption of broadband and upgrades to the internet's underlying infrastructure have removed many of the technical barriers to online storytelling (in all its forms), it's taking a while for the creative community to fully respond to the challenge/opportunity. The dominant forms of online video, for example, remain 'You've Been Framed' style YouTube clips and ripped music videos and TV shows. However, this is starting to change and new approaches to online storytelling are starting to emerge.

In his keynote at the Microsoft Advance '08 conference, Michael Eisner (ex-CEO of Disney), argued that "YouTube is to the internet what a nickelodeon is to the movies. It's the preliminary installment of what is to come" which he believes is "great, creative storytelling"; and I've heard Adam Curtis (acclaimed documentary maker) wax lyrical on the subject of how the internet might enable greater narrative complexity (listen to this audio clip from his recent interview with The Register for a flavour).

Whilst I'm inclined to agree with them both, the first fruits of this labour can be painful to watch. Prom Queen (produced by Eisner's own online-focused studio, Vuguru), may have attracted over 20 million views and innovated with format in so-far as each of its episodes was only 90 seconds long; however, it played like a seriously truncated episode of Dawson's Creek. As Eisner himself says; "What's missing is creative storytelling that capitalizes on a unique aspect of the internet, such as interactivity or community".

One way in which storytellers are attempting to harness the unique attributes of the internet (with admittedly mixed results) is via video collaboration. A couple of projects which have recently caught my eye in this space are Rootclip and Microsoft-sponsored Ultimate Video Relay. Both operate from a similar premise: a clip of the first act/chapter of an open-ended story is uploaded by the producers of the site, with users encouraged to determine where the narrative goes next. In the case of Rootclip this means actually going out and filming 60 seconds of video (using elements of costume for continuity), whereas Ultimate Video Relay is initially only looking for script submissions. In both instances, the community votes on which narrative direction they want to see adopted.

Whilst the narrative merits of the finished output might be questionable (Chapter 2 of Rootclip is essentially one protracted chase sequence), it's interesting to see experimentation in this space. I've embedded the opening chapter of Rootclip below (but not Act 1 of the Ultimate Video Relay, as the embedded video autostarts - numpties). Also worth checking out is the GooTube Conspiracy, an example of more organic, spontaneous collaborative video storytelling (more info at New York Review). It's going to be interesting to see whether this space explodes or fizzles out.

Rootclip: Chapter 1

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Good article. I am becoming increasingly interested in the idea of collaborative video editing and storytelling.

If you come across any other sites, post them on the blog or drop me a line at