Tag Archives: storytelling

I’m That Guy Who Had His Phone On At The Movies

1 Aug

Remember that annoying dude in the movie theater who seemed to be constantly tapping away at something on his phone during the movie? Yeah, that was me, but if you do remember me, then chances are you were doing the same thing while watching Late Shift at AT&T SHAPE.

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AT&T SHAPE was a 2-day event held at the Warner Bros. Studios in LA that explores the convergence of technology and entertainment. Late Shift bills itself as “a cinematic interactive movie experience,” and promises to be the decades-delayed wish fulfillment of every kid who grew up reading Choose Your Own Adventure books and wondered, “Wouldn’t it be cool if movies worked like that?” I wandered through the iconic streets of the studio’s back lot toward the stunning and luxurious Steven J. Ross Theater to find out.

Screenshot_20170714-201155.pngThe setup was surprisingly simple. Guests were asked to download the lightweight CtrlMovie app on their smartphone, connect to a specific WiFi network in the theater, launch the app, and be patient. Introducing a “bring-your-own” technology requirement into an entertainment venue is always a gamble, but the folks at CtrlMovie deserve a lot of credit for making the process irreducibly simple. Nevertheless, that didn’t keep me from feeling like a dirty philistine for brazenly having my phone on and in my lap as the lights went down.

Despite our fascination with technologically sophisticated entertainment experiences, we generally don’t want the entertainment to be upstaged by the technology, and often prefer the latter to be “invisible.” As a feature length proof of concept of the CtrlMovie technology, Late Shift was clearly designed to enhance, but not totally up-end the familiar moviegoing experience. Even with about 500 people in the audience, the sea of low-profile black screens was fairly unnoticeable. So far, so good, but I knew the real trick would be in how they would pull off the actual interactivity.

Screenshot_20170714-202332Late Shift tells the story of an innocent guy who gets caught up in a heist gone wrong. At various points during the movie, a small subtitle appears on the screen providing 2-3 choices for our hero. These same choices also appear in the mobile app, allowing viewers to vote for what they want the hero to do. After a few seconds, the subtitle is updated to indicate the option chosen by the majority of the audience while the movie continues along the chosen path. The process is completely intuitive and requires no training, and the entire decision sequence lasts 6-7 seconds.

Probably pretty much what you expected, but the magic part is that as this is happening, there is absolutely no awkward pause, technical glitch, or sloppy cut to indicate that anything out of the ordinary has just happened. After I was a few dozen choices in and had gotten the hang of it, I tried to pay closer attention to how they pulled it off, but it generally refused to give up its secrets. Through a combination of classic misdirection, clever shot planning and editing, and expert timing, I was happy to end up falling for the seamless effect each time.

For the first few choices, the audience was giddy and even giggled aloud at the novelty of our seemingly godlike powers. As the movie progressed, we directed our hero’s destiny with the second-nature reflexes of deity savants. I was surprised at how seamless it was to bounce back and forth between the two modes of experiencing the story. I’ve justly railed against terrible second-screen efforts, but this one was surprisingly effective.

As I tapped my way through the movie, I observed the interactivity starting to develop its own identity rather than just serving as a bridge between the technology and the story. I was getting involved in the story in ways that may not have been intended by the filmmakers, and was approaching each individual decision with a different motivation. These various motivations seemed to feed off each other in a bizarrely interconnected way, and developed a parallel significance with the on-screen narrative developments. I’m still on the fence about whether this meta-experience is fundamentally at odds with the filmmakers’ intentions, or an inadvertent side effect that might turn out to be a good thing. Here’s a quick stroll through the garden of forking paths.

Social
: A visit to the movies already has its own unique social dynamic, even if it’s essentially a murmuring undercurrent of common courtesy. Late Shift is unequivocally a group experience though.  When you make a choice, you’re well aware that you’re either in the majority or the minority of those around you. Whether I had a string of “wins” or “losses” or a mix of both, I found myself momentarily reflecting on the mysteries of groupthink. It was a realtime trip into the eye of the social hurricane of opinions and trends and likes that are usually just a dull and distant roar in the background.

Atlanta Falcons Fans Watch Super Bowl LI Against The New England PatriotsSport: The audience would often react to various outcomes with the types of “YEAHHs” or “AWWWs” that you would expect from a football game. Disappointment makes sense since you can easily convince yourself that a better version of this movie exists and unfortunately, you’re not watching it. Kind of like rooting for the Falcons during Super Bowl LI. It’s also ironic since being able to watch the movie your way is one of the selling points of this experience, but see Social above and welcome to the human experience.

Fantasy: The plot of this movie doesn’t pull any punches, and it doesn’t take long for our naive hero to get in deep doo-doo. As someone who’s calling the shots for him, it’s natural to strongly identify with him. At first, I really wanted to help him, because I was approaching each decision based on what I would do, which was generally along the lines of: these are the types of bad people that my parents warned me about, and I should get the hell away from them. Then, I remembered I was watching a movie, and went in the total opposite direction, basing my choices on what would be the most bad-ass thing this guy could be doing right now because I wanted to see it on screen and live vicariously through him.

Prince_of_Persia_1989_Traps
Sadism: It didn’t take long for the sense of fantasy to evolve into something darker. Once it sank in that me and the guy on the screen were in fact two different people, and that my vicarious enjoyment of his pleasure was tangential at best, I went in the other direction. Seeing him as a helpless pawn under my (partial) control, I wondered what kind of horrible situations I could maneuver him into. It became less like a story and more like one of those video games with irresistibly grisly scenarios that are perversely satisfying to watch play out.

Moral: After binging on competitive, delusional fantasies of grandeur and sadistic spectacle, it was time to consider the consequences, In other words, Vegas at about 4:12 AM. Our hero was in pretty deep, and what had started out to a coerced participation in a Robin Hood style heist had turned into a disaster, and it was basically our fault. The trope of an innocent person perched on a slippery slope of morally questionable decisions provides the engine for powerful narratives from Hamlet to The Godfather. For the last few thousand years, we have tried to understand how and why it is that stories like this can touch us at a deep level. Even though Late Shift drew on similar themes, I felt that some of the climactic impact may have been dissipated in our role in reaching it. I’m fascinated by these stories because I DON’T want the moral responsibility of figuring out what happens to the hero. Or rather, I want to experience an artist’s thoughtful perspective on it, and evaluate it against my own inclinations. It’s that interplay between a story and our reaction to it that allows it to speak to us even over the gulf of decades and centuries. In this instance, it felt like we had been tampering with the engine and that as a result, our mileage would vary.

ee5036d62d34ed78c8047dce5e8b666bI kept trying not to “go there” by overanalyzing  it, but I always enjoy experiencing something that makes me think about storytelling in a new way. In what I initially perceived as shortcomings, I saw opportunities and questions for further exploration. Would this be more/less fun to watch alone? How about a group of your closest friends? How about as a form of speed dating? Would it work better as a 10-minute short? Are some genres and stories more compatible? Does everything just work when you remove the moral weight from the narrative? Does this need to take place in a movie theater at all? I look forward to experiencing or helping to create some of the answers to these types of questions. In the meantime though, the phone’s going back into my pocket.

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My Year of Walking Through Darkness: Part 1

27 Oct

I was born, actualized, terrified, seeking, and died all in one year. Just not in that order.

In the past 12 months, I’ve participated in five experiences produced by Screenshot Productions, a prolific newcomer to the immersive theater scene. I’m a terrible person for not having blogged about any of their shows until now, so I’m trying something different — a retrospective ranking of their shows to date and a crack at collectively evaluating them as an evolving body of work.

i-601-waiver-devil-in-detailsFirst, some overall context. Los Angeles continues to be one of the best places to experience what can be loosely described as extreme haunted attractions. Unlike traditional haunted houses which are designed to accommodate hundreds if not thousands of guests per hour, these experiences are designed for smaller groups, and sometimes just individuals. They frequently require you to sign a personal liability waiver that allows them to break down traditional barriers by permitting them to touch you and generally subject you to more bodily intense treatment than would ever be allowed at most theme park events or family-friendly/amateur offerings. I’ve written about some of them before, and when they’re executed well, they can be uniquely thrilling and impactful experiences. I’m not going to beat around the bush, Blackout: elements was life-changing.

Last Fall, as “the season” was approaching, I was fortunate to have been given a tip to follow the Instagram page @whatwelearnedhere. This began a series of email exchanges that culminated in my favorite haunt experience of 2015, amidst a crowded and talented field (Alone, Wicked Lit, LA Haunted Hayride, to name a few outstanding options.)

What happened next was delightfully unexpected. In the subsequent year, I experienced four more productions from this tireless and ambitious group and was charmed, mystified, thrilled, and provoked by their work. Moreover, it became increasingly difficult to generically classify their shows as “haunted” or “horror” or “scary” although aesthetically, they continued to be strongly informed by those sensibilities. Instead, through a medium of intense one-on-one interactions in a milieu of dreadful uncertainty, I found myself absorbing philosophical teachings and having mild therapeutic breakthroughs. Hardly your typical haunted house.

That said, I occasionally came away feeling that they hadn’t quite hit the mark, even as their efforts have greatly expanded the scope of what is achievable with immersive theater. In every show, I feel like I see something I’ve never seen before, even if the execution is not perfect. And that’s why I keep coming back.

So, from least favorite to most favorite in my extremely personal opinion, here is what we learned in the past year.

stock-footage-leader-countdown-recorded-on-get-old-film-projection-bad-projector5. Parturition (January 2016)
This was their second show. On one hand it was the much-anticipated follow-up to their Fall 2015 experience which took everybody by surprise. After the true horror of the Christmas season, and the subsequent nationwide cultural hangover that is January — the announcement of a new show was a beacon of hope, even if it seemed to have been pulled together in a shockingly short period of time.

Parturition, a fancy word for giving birth, promised to be a show about being born. And they had introduced a new twist, after purchasing the ticket, you had the option of electing whether you wanted to do the experience in the nude, as in “naked as the day you were born.” Guests would participate one at a time, and there was also a small questionnaire with somewhat personal questions that set an expectation that each experience might be personalized.

Although I have ranked this fifth, I don’t necessarily think it was a bad show, but it nevertheless fell short for me. It felt like a series of beats that were loosely strung together, and none of them felt fully realized. It did not seem that any of the information that I had provided had actually been used to personalize the experience, which felt like both a missed opportunity and a failed expectation. In the climactic scene, you meet “your mother” in what is a tender counterpoint to the chaos and sensory overload of the preceding scenes. This was an atypically soothing and intimate exchange with a performer, not some cheap, disingenuous bait-and-switch to a horrific last laugh. As special as this scene was though, I still felt that it didn’t achieve its full potential. The experience ended, in what would evolve as a signature closing beat to many of their shows, with a precious moment of silent reflection before re-entering the normal world where I was no longer a newborn.

I left the experience with mixed feelings. I felt like they had rushed to pull this together and it showed. However, it was the first time I’d seen the tropes of horror and extreme experiences applied to a non-horror narrative. For me, it blew open a door that we’ve been sitting outside for the last few years. And through it, I could see a vast space to explore.

hqdefault4. Bardo Thodol (September 2016)
This was their fourth show, and the pragmatist in me couldn’t help noticing how close it was to what should really be their signature show of the year in October. I was concerned that like Parturition, it might have been rushed.

Bardo Thodol is the Tibetan Book of the Dead, a Buddhist text. From the typically cursory information provided beforehand,  I understood that this show would concern my recent passage into the afterlife after dying. Whether intentional or not, it could be seen as a bookend of sorts to Parturition. Like Parturition, I received a questionnaire beforehand, but this one was much more incisive and personal, and the responses demanded thought and reflection. I was also directed to download some  audio files and have them ready for playback for the experience itself, without listening to them beforehand — a delicious exercise in self-restraint. I’m a huge fan of engaging the experience before it actually begins, so all was good so far.

The experience itself began on a crowded city street, outside a nondescript building where the email instructions directed me to close my eyes and begin listening to the provided audio files. Once I was directed inside, the show proper began, and the first 2/3 of it featured some of the most intense moments I’d experienced in any production to date. Loud, disorienting, intimate, chaotic. I was dead after all and in transition. For the final 1/3, the mood shifted and I had a very personal interview with a bodiless voice about the information I had provided in my questionnaire. The dialogue was conducted in a reflective context — a look back at key points in my life. Even though I had recently provided the information, the preceding scenes allowed me to re-engage it in an unexpected and powerful context.

That said, I have ranked it fourth for a reason. Generally speaking, production design is not the strongest feature of any of these shows. In some cases, they are able to successfully use a minimalist asethetic as a cleverly-integrated design constraint. In this show though, it was a bit too ragged and ultimately felt distracting and unfinished. Also, much of the script appeared to be pulled from Bardo Thodol itself or similarly-themed philosophical texts and thus lacked in story and felt a bit forced and ultimately difficult to engage. What should have been a powerfully resonant experience felt somewhat cluttered and diluted with filler. The highs were high and the lows were low, and overall there was more that worked here than at Parturition.

Read the rest of the countdown in Part 2.

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Isaac Asimov: Great Uncle of Themed Entertainment? Part 2

21 Aug

In Part 1 of this post, I made a provocative assertion about Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy being related to Themed Entertainment and then did absolutely nothing to back that up. I guess I’ve got some catching up to do.

SPOILER ALERT

This post will continue to categorically ruin any initial joy and surprise that you may derive from reading Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy for the first time. If you didn’t heed my warning last time, then be aware that I’m really giving up the goods this time.

THE MULE’S SECRET

Another Mule that has been known to affect emotional state

Another Mule that has been known to affect emotional state

Presumably, you have exhausted some wild orgy of violent fantasies about what terrific power would allow an individual to single-handedly, and against all odds, execute a conquest of unfathomable scope. As it turns out, The Mule’s extraordinary success hinges on his capability to adjust the emotional balance of human beings. As one of his recent converts quips, “It sounds like a little trick, but it’s quite unbeatable.” The Mule himself elaborates further, “Men’s minds are dials, with pointers that indicate the prevailing emotions. … I learned that I could reach into those minds and turn the pointer to the point I wished.” As the story progresses, we witness the dramatic military effects of what happens when The Mule can cause unwavering loyalty in his generals, or more interestingly, overwhelming despair in a targeted population. You may be thinking that this power which I have hyped is a hyperbolic literary hack, a shadowy deus ex machina which seems to have exerted its fearsome will on the voters of the Hugo Awards. However, Asimov imbues this absolute power with some caveats wherein which lie some clever and telling nuances.

It's good to be The Mule

It’s good to be The Mule

First, when the aforementioned convert is accused of having lost all power of objective thought, he replies, “Only my emotions are fixed. My reason is at it always was. It may be influenced in a certain direction by my conditioned emotions, but it is not forced. And there are some things I can see more clearly now that I am freed of my earlier emotional trend.” The admission of this duality of emotion and reason is an irresistible concept for me, because it suggests that The Mule’s power does not require total subjugation of an individual’s mental function. It is only necessary to affect or redirect the underlying emotions, and allow the individual to reason and function in an otherwise normal fashion. Put another way, our personal emotional truths are an inextricable part of the set of assumptions that we apply to everyday reasoning and function. While certain environments, such as school or the workplace, might suggest that we ought to conduct ourselves in a precise and logical fashion, The Mule understands that ultimately our actions are influenced, and in some cases dictated by our feelings.

The second nuance of The Mule’s power is the idea that the experience of a hunch, insight, or intuition, which we tend to experience as a flash of greater power, can be treated as an emotion, and thus be induced or controlled by The Mule. The implication is that those breakthrough moments where everything seems to come together and make sense don’t necessarily need to percolate from some deep, inner place, but can actually be triggered from outside oneself. I think the rest of the book concerns itself with some minor plot point concerning the evolving likelihood of millennia of dark ages, but by this time, I had set the book down, lost in my own reverie of insight.

It occurred to me that The Mule’s power is both what we strive for as storytellers, and what we seek every time we open a book, enter a theatre, or otherwise immerse ourselves in someone else’s creation. When we open ourselves to a story, it’s because we crave that tweak or that twinge, that insight and indignation, a shock or just a hush of reflection. And we’re voracious about it, because it makes us feel, and feeling is what reminds us that we haven’t quite had the life choked out of us by the doldrums of the everyday, quite yet. We are changed on the other end of it, and we might be changed in different ways each time it’s told to us. And we take that change with us back to our lives and the people in them.

Pink Floyd Busts Out The Visi-Sonor . . . Again!

Pink Floyd jamming on the Visi-Sonor

The craft of storytelling implies a sense of neutrality wherein no medium can be considered superior to any other in an absolute sense, although the choice of medium and related artistic decisions should always support the spirit of the story. Personally, I have a strong interest in themed entertainment, and I feel that immersive experiences provide a number of new tools and modes for creative narrative expression. While The Mule could exercise his emotional control more or less at will without any external implements, he sometimes chose to focus his efforts through the use an instrument called a Visi-Sonor, which emits musical tones, but also stimulates the optic center of the brain directly, causing vivid hallucinations. I think it’s significant that Asimov chose to augment The Mule’s inherent gift of incredible power by suggesting that it could actually be enhanced when employed in conjunction with an immersive aesthetic sensibility. A strong story told with honesty and passion affects our emotions which affects our actions which affects our lives. That is power. And Asimov, a storyteller in his own right, wanted us to understand that. Buried in a plot-point in the second half of the second book of a trilogy, he tells us that one person CAN change the world, or the galaxy, or whatever term we choose to apply to those regions occupied by thinking, feeling beings. The beautiful truth though is that each of us can claim that power, and I consider it a great privilege to exercise it thoughtfully.

Isaac Asimov: Great Uncle of Themed Entertainment? Part 1

19 Aug
They gave best all-time series to WHO?

They gave Best All-Time series to WHO?!

I have been making my way through Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy. Admittedly, as of this post, I have only read two out of the three books, but that’s not going to stop me from drawing some crazy connection between immersive storytelling and his vision of the future.

SPOILER ALERT

NOTE: this article assumes that you haven’t read these books, or that you’re due for a quick backgrounder if you have. If you are one of the former, and you don’t want to ruin your experience of reading the winner of the one-time Hugo Award for “Best All-Time Series,” then you should turn back now.

A LITTLE BACKGROUND

No disputing Asimov's chops . . . as a writer

No disputing Asimov’s chops . . . as a writer

Isaac Asimov thinks big. Real big. The Foundation Trilogy takes place in the distant future. There are 25 million inhabited planets, and the galactic population is in the quadrillions. I’m not even sure how many zeroes that is, but it’s a lot. In other words, there really isn’t a useful point of reference or comparison for the scope that he envisions. The basic gist of the Trilogy is that amazingly this entire universe is governed under the structure of a single Empire. A new discipline called “psychohistory” has been developed that applies mathematical principles to project the likelihood of future events, largely based on the way large groups of people behave. So psychohistory isn’t going to tell you what your great-great-granddaughter will eat for breakfast 80 years from now, but it will probably do a good job of outlining the macroeconomic trends and political context of the world she lives in. In theory, psychohistory can be used to develop projections that span tens of thousands of years. Remember, Asimov thinks big.

Controversially, Hari Seldon, the most famed psychohistorian, proclaims that the aforementioned Empire will actually collapse sometime in the next 100 years, and will be followed by 30,000 years of  barbarism, until it will ultimately be replaced by a Second Empire. However, he posits that certain actions can be taken now that will reduce the expected duration of the Dark Ages to as short as 1,000 years. The people in power get upset, and they essentially exile him and his team to the outer bounds of the universe, where they create an entity known as The Foundation. From this protected point, he enacts what is to be known as “The Seldon Plan.” The balance of Foundation, the first book in the trilogy, consists of vignettes that illustrate how his plan has anticipated certain “crises” that occur long after his death, and how he has set things in motion such that the likelihood of withstanding these crises is actually quite high. In fact, a pre-recorded hologram of Seldon plays at pre-determined times where he basically congratulates the people of the future for surviving the most recent crisis and advises them to buckle up for the next one. No, I’m not leading up to some elaborate tie-in to Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln.

Are you talking to me?

Are you talking to me?

Reading stories about how Hari Seldon is always right is only entertaining up to a point. In Foundation and Empire, the second book, things start to get interesting. The Seldon Plan is virtually guaranteed to succeed, provided that there are no massively disruptive developments in technology or politics. And as mentioned, due to its extremely large scale, it is virtually impossible for a single person to influence the Plan’s outcome. However, something DOES occur that the Plan did not contemplate, and it is in the form of a single person, known only as The Mule, who happens to be a genetic mutant. Mutations, being inherently specifically unpredictable, cannot be accounted for by the Plan. However, it remains a possibility, however remote, that a mutation could result in something of cosmic significance, even if embodied by an individual. And that’s what happens. The Empire is effectively in shambles, and the Dark Ages have begun, but The Mule begins to aggregate power at an alarming rate. He is effectively unstoppable, even bringing the Foundation itself to its knees with relatively little effort. What terrible, irresistible power can a single individual possess that can operate unchecked on a virtually unlimited scale? It’s a great thought experiment to leave you with, because the answer to that question is where things get interesting.

To be continued.

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