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Shapeshifted narratives: truly new media for the new millennium

Well, not quite. Media has changed and proliferated beyond all recognition in the past ten years, but the message, the storytelling, has stayed the same. The New Millennium, New Media (NM2) project developed tools for a new kind of storytelling whose interactive, non-linear approach is to old millennium storytelling as theatre is to television.

The changes wrought by the internet, by broadband and by IPTV on media distribution are immense. User experience, too, is undergoing a sea change: high-definition, flat panel displays with surround sound are becoming the norm and the industry is struggling to adapt its business models to the new world.

Yet, peculiarly, storytelling remains quite the same. The standard, linear narratives, free of interaction or personalisation from the user remain, well, standard. Story arcs and plot points are pretty unchanged since Shakespeare’s time, or Beowulf’s in the 12th century for that matter, though the effects are prettier. Stories are mainly fixed; one size fits all.

But not, perhaps, for much longer. New Millennium, New Media (NM2) set out with the extremely grand vision to create new tools for storytelling in the new media landscape. Stories that are non-linear, interactive, multimedia, and personalised to the taste and interests of the viewer.

NM2 calls them ShapeShifted narratives, a term created by NM2 to describe media made to adapt to user choices on the fly.

It is a huge challenge, particularly on the creative side. Imagine a story that evolves to satisfy the curiosity of millions of viewers, each with their own interests. “Imagine someone with ten spare minutes plugging into the news for the first time in three weeks: they want all the relevant updates quickly,” says Doug Williams, technical director of NM2.

One pilot programme for NM2, Accidental Lovers, told the love story of a man in his 30s and a woman in her 60s. It is a challenging topic and, most challenging of all, the viewer decided how the story developed. That means writers must develop multiple plotlines.

This is a simple example, but it already presents a major task to develop useful production tools, for editing and storyboarding. Ultimately, though, the NM2 vision calls for simple tools so storytellers can create narratives that users can change on a whim. The story elements must be capable of being mixed and matched, and by a machine. And that’s where the scope of NM2’s vision shines through.

New media, new tools
NM2 has developed a toolbox; a range of tools that producers can use to create ShapeShifted media productions.

“The tools are derived from a close understanding of the workflow in developing interactive narrative. They are designed to augment current production practice so work with existing media asset management systems and non-liner editors,” Williams emphasises.

So NM2’s Script Logging tool annotates scripts and rushes – the raw film – with relevant, structured descriptions. An Authoring tool, easily used by people with little or no technical background describes the narrative structure of ShapeShifted programmes. A Description tool tags media objects, while a Preview tool can test the effects of user input, to make sure everything works.

Central to the new tools is the ability to describe narratives. NM2 developed a way to describe story elements and media objects. “We’ve developed a narrative structure language with its own syntax and rules. It enables people to describe a story in which users can shape the narrative,” explains Williams.

The tools support the concept stage, before any recordings are made, with Placeholder Narrative Objects defining and representing storyboard elements. Story creation and editing uses NM2 tools working alongside non-linear editors (NLEs) – film editing software importing metadata and media.

“Plot frameworks are created on a narrative canvas; on playback these frameworks are populated with media using narrative rules that respond to choices made by the viewer, but also on chance operations that could, for example, show any three of nine possible clips illustrating a particular point in the narrative. It ensures constructed narratives make sense and are visually appealing but also that they can remain surprising and non-declarative,” notes Williams. The workflow is rounded out with a test function that allows creators to test viewer choices and preview the emerging story.

Conceiving the unimagined with a blank map
So far, it sounds like standard software development, but the practical approach taken by NM2 belies the wealth of creativity and ingenuity of the project. Conceiving a new way of storytelling is almost like locating a position on a blank map, without gridlines, landmarks or physical features. There’s no frame of reference for conceiving the unimagined.

So NM2 created one. And then developed the tools to execute it.

It was a major effort. The project regroups 13 partners, six technical, five in media production and one apiece in consumer research and project management. At €7.5 million, it is one of the largest concerted efforts to develop a new way of storytelling.

But does it work? Well, yes, perhaps better than could be expected. Feedback indicates the tools need more refinement, particularly the user interface. In some areas, it is already very strong, like an interactive, truly multimedia encyclopaedia. In other areas, it could be very important. But, vitally, NM2 has created a suite of tools and a workflow that makes new ways of storytelling possible.

And as the history of storytelling shows, that is just the beginning – it is a tale of evolution. From the early oral tales of Homer through to the frenetic editing of The Bourne Supremacy or the layered scriptwriting of Toy Story, storytelling always evolves to push the capacities of its medium – the human voice, the written word, the moving image – to the furthest of its capabilities.

Digital storytelling faces a long evolution before its limits are fully conceived, never mind explored, but NM2 has already taken new media storytelling a giant step forward.

Christian Nielsen | alfa
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