It's easy to dismiss the I-pad and I-phone as just another way to watch traditional media like movies, TV series and even webisodes. However, some serious and well-established filmmakers think that these devices will allow them to tell stories in an entirely new way. One such visionary is my friend and collaborator Neal Edelstein (producer of The Ring and Mulholland Drive) who spoke to me over breakfast about why his company Hooked Digital Media is developing content that will be delivered exclusively through free apps available at the Apple App Store. He firmly believes that I-pads and I-phones are mediums in and of themselves.
A Magic Window
First of all, he argued, people interact with the i-pad in a way that is fundamentally different than a television, a movie screen or even a computer monitor. This was the initial challenge and opportunity for Edelstein, who has already had success in both mainstream and independent movies. "There is a greater level of intimacy when people hold these devices in her hand like a book, touch the screen with their fingers, put on headphones, and watch content while sitting alone in a dark room." The experience is more immersive, more one-on-one between the viewer and character, especially when, as in Edelstein's project Haunting Melissa, the character gazes directly out of the screen and talks to viewer herself. (See: "Haunting Melissa" Both Scares and Innovates)
"People carry these devices with them everywhere they go and they [the devices] become like magic windows into and out of their lives. They're personal. They encourage people to imagine what's beyond the frame. And they create a theater of the mind."
The Storytelling App
However, the differences between I-pad and television don't really start to emerge until digital media is bundled and delivered by an app. Far more than a simple media player, each app, as Edelstein conceives it, is designed for each particular story, and so becomes a story telling tool that is as important as cinematography or sound design.
"The app controls when the viewer gets content and creates a clean viewing environment - a kind of screening room - that is specific to the story" It allows the storyteller to bundle a range of elements - photographs, prose, video, music, and other media - and break up and reassemble the story in unique ways. Individual chapters of content can be any length - sixty seconds or sixty minutes - and overall projects can be open ended. "We break up the story in a way that creates excitement and anticipation for each upcoming chapter, and present it in a way that takes advantage of the technology."
This created unique challenges as the structure of the project was developed in the screenplay. (See: Writing Haunting Melissa: An Interview with Andrew Klavan)
Dynamic Story Elements
For me, "dynamic story elements" is where our conversation gets really exciting. Edelstein is talking about "much, much more than simply cutting up a movie into pieces and stuffing it into an app." In his first project, episodes noticeably and intriguingly change upon second viewing. In future apps, story elements (image, sound, text) could change depending on what time it is, where the viewer is, what they are doing and who they are. A scene could be told from multiple points of view, switching every time the viewer re-watches it, further drawing her into the world. The app itself can evolve with audience feedback over the course of the series, allowing the entire project to constantly respond to viewer habits and behavior.
And, ultimately we are just talking about the state of the medium today. With the pace of technological change, it's clear that filmmakers' projects will become more non-linear, more interactive, more dynamic and more like an alternate reality game than traditional media. The place where these technologies and storytelling will merge is likely to be the screen that you carry with you every day, the screen on which you already spend the most time reading, watching, photographing, communicating and interacting.
The storytelling itself may remain the same, Edelstein summed up, but "the environment of an i-pad app allows storytellers a new set of tools with which to tell them."
(Download Haunting Melissa)