"I want to put my film on the web so everybody can see it."
- a film student, teacher, independent artist, video enthusiast - Anytown, USA.
The celluloid narrative disintegrates on the world wide web, falling prey to scrolling peep show windows, download delays, and most essentially lack of visual rhythm - the core of all narrative filmmaking (watch any of these scenes for an example). However, the web narrative - digital video constructed specifically for internet consumption - evolves and dies at the same time, searching for new uses of technological wizardry which in most cases simply finds new angles to twist the balloon. It's still a balloon.
Oooh it's a dog, no it's a fox, no it's a cheetah...no it's a balloon.
So, like the early film days of the mutoscope, motion pictures on the web are truly a magic show. Animated GIFs, JPEG stills, MPEG movies, Real Audio, VideoNet, Quicktime, QTVR; all tools to build the virtual house. But recreating linear narrative on the web is like putting chocolate on pizza and calling it dessert. Yeah, well I guess it is. Many times it's merely an amalgation in a search to prove that the internet will some day provide enough gusto to be the ultimate cable channel. But right now, it's a pain...
The frustration arrives in making things non-linear, linear. Recreating the visual narrative without consant variables like 24 frames per second, or a 1:85 aspect ratio, or even a dark-filled theater, puts the recreation of the narrative in the hands of the pro-active surfer, like giving the film dailies (the raw footage) to a filmgoer and asking them to watch the film. Windows within windows, email doorbells ringing, and terminal waits create an environment more akin to an arcade than a cinema. Hence, sorting through this multimedia soup proves a non-linear process. The experience of viewing is completely fragmented.
The result may be frustrating to many modem downloaders, but for those inclined to break away from formal narration, the world of variable frames-per-second reduces content down to simple looping animations, namely the circular narrative. It's a game, you see, for the developer. Balancing image resolution and size with playback speed of hard drives, CD-ROMs, Zip Drives, and tiny bandwidths forces new art, straying away from traditional visual narrative. Case in point, Digitas Volume I - the compilation CD-ROM from the New York Digital Review of Arts and Literature, featuring some of the best balance of art with file size available. One of its entries, Ron Kolm's "The Vision," manages narration with simplicity in a sort of "Monet meets Jimmy Buffet" scenario. The piece consists of still drawings combined with a voiceover narration and occasional bouncing margaritas, and succeeds precisely because of its techological constraints. The inability to rely upon consistent motion forces the artist to seek alternative narrative avenues.
Paul Beatty's Digitas entry, "Sitting on other People's Cars," takes this concept one step further by creating motion solely through text so that the process of reading takes us on a journey up and down the screen. Phrases pile on top of sentences, blur into the distance, then stream poetically across the screen creating their own alphabet ballet. Beatty's use of minimalist white text on a black background eliminates most concerns of stuttering playback speed and jittery flow of the words across the screen, since the file sizes of each graphic are so small. That's the key, create motion through still images and allow the audio (much smaller in file size) to carry most narrative content. Hence, the success of the poetic readings on the Digitas disc.
Without the technological challenges of the digital dawn, these experimental forms would never exist. Interpretation though, for the viewer, is another matter. The same piece playing on a CD-ROM drive has entirely different rhythms in its imagery when playing back on a zip drive or an internal hard drive. Motion, the foundation of narrative film, is erratic at best within these consumable forms of digital video, and makes linear narration extinct as a digital form, especially on the web.
By contrast, the avant garde performance on CD-ROM is so erratic many times, that this erratic playback speed actually helps interpretation. In many cases, the discovery of hidden clicks (rollin' and clickin' my mouse over anything that looks remotely clickable) and unpredictability of visual rhythm is like stopping in a small town off the interstate (not internet), driving on the side streets until you're tired, then getting back on your way to L.A. But these aren't narrative journeys, they're drug trips (See Throwing Apples at the Sun), more curiosity than content.
On the internet, the result of this digital video infancy is that those inclined to tell a story on the web have done it by reverting back to the origins of cinema (Fred Ott's Sneeze, the earliest whole film on record - 1891). Remember the success of using still images to create motion. The concept of looping slightly varying individual frames works in small doses on the web. Take three seconds of images (maybe 30 frames), roll it over and over like cookie dough, and loop it endlessly. Why?.....because that's what internet technology can successfully handle in 1997. Unlike the poetic work of Ron Kolm and Paul Beatty, web motion pictures (a more appropriate term than web video) lack the interactive flexability and full screen capability of the CD-ROM, forcing even further artistic compromises and inventions.
For some it's a gimmick, for most it's an advertisement, but fortunately for still others it's an art form. Franklin Miller's rubic's cube-like homepage reminds us that even in its minimalist form, web motion pictures can be more than a stuttering trailer for a film. Handiwork is brilliantly simplistic, like a well designed child's toy, an understanding of parameters and a refreshing use of technology. While You Were Out plays like a video "stickie" that should be on everyone's desktop. Gravity examines the vertical and circular motions of the playground much like the Lumiere Brothers' oncoming traingave motion pictures three-dimensional space in 1895. Indeed Miller's version of the web spins us backwards 100 years to the days of the mutoscope, the photography of Eadwaerd Muybridge, and the simple fascination with motion.
Unfortunately, innovative work like Franklin Miller's, Ron Kolm's, and Paul Beatty's, shall pass. In a few years, video delivery over the net will be superior, CD-ROMs will join 8-track tapes in technology wasteland, and the web mutoscopes of the 1990's will be on display in a small corner of a New York museum alongside a video pong game...ancestors with ideas, simplicity, and the circular narrative.