Another perspective on storytelling came from game designer Paul Bennun and sound designer and composer Nick Ryan, who collaborated most recently on the intriguing iPhone game, Papa Sangre. They set out to discuss the “special relationship between sound and storytelling”.
Papa Sangre, if you haven’t seen is set in a pitch black underworld and you have to rely on navigating by sound – apparently about one in ten people just can’t get their head around it, but those who love it.
For the technical-minded, Nick’s passion is for binaural recording, creating soundtracks which when listened to in headphones mimic how sound works in the real world (which is different to stereo – see Wikipedia for an explanation).
There were some really interesting discussions during the session, including ideas about creative an “navigational language of sound” for storytelling, which I’d like to hear more about.
One point which really struck me was when Nick reminded us just how hi-tech recorded sound was, how new it was – just a hundred years ago, as he put it, if you heard a sound you could be sure it was something happening nearby. Recorded sound allows us to separate time and location from the listening experience and
Nick also described a project for Macmillan publishers where he created an “audio enhanced” edition of a Ken Follett novel called Fall of Giants, which looks (sounds) really interesting – in the demo you hear sounds of the battlefield as the text is being read – I’d like to try that out.
Continuing with notes on the The Story 2011 talks, I’m going to try and restrain myself to Cory Doctorow-cited five sentences. More or less, and these two don’t count…Popular champion of the talks was Mary Hamilton‘s talk about her Zombie LARP (Live Action Role Playing Game) and how the constraints and simplicity (compared with more complex, traditional LARPs) made the whole game a kind of story factory.Particularly pleasing was her use of Nerf guns on the audience (“As soon as you pick up a (Nerf) gun you become a protagonist”) throughout the talk and her charming stick-man slides (see below for the whole slide deck).The nub of her approach to story was this: “we create edge conditions so people can make their own stories.” She also described how they had formalised or made space for story telling after games (“frothing” as LARP participants call it).
We’re not progressing through the day in chronological order, but now we have discussed the talk that was practically of use to me as a writer, let’s move on to the one which was both exciting but also so intellectually challenging I felt exhausted afterwards.
Adam Curtis is someone I previously knew mostly from The Power of Nightmares, a documentary that probed how fear and specifically terrorist threats are useful to those in power. After hearing him talk at The Story, I just want to hear more.
The caveat for these notes is that I may have at times missed the point, or got the wrong end of the stick, but here’s what I heard:
Can you use the web to tell stories?
Adam began by saying that many at the BBC were beginning to doubt that the web was something you could use to tell stories effectively.
He seemed to feel that we hadn’t reached a point where we understood the web well enough to talk about it, to tell stories about it and with it.
The web manifests the emotional realism that defines our culture. Emotional realism is about thinking that what you feel about things is the most real, most important thing.
The web is associative – you go where you like, where your fancy takes you. Narrative needs constraints, for you to be able to hold the attention of the person hearing the story.
So far story-telling on the web has not lived up to initial hopes for its potential, it has been whimsical at best…
It comes down to a fact that we have not come to terms with the power structures of our time and how they are manifest in the web (see below) – stories about these things give rise to great art, e.g. Tolstoy writing about the relationship between individuals and historical forces.
The web is useful for sharing long-form content, by-passing media formats we no longer trust
Adam showed a video clip from a news piece of an Afghani BBC journalist interviewing a member of the Taliban, a soundbite about the arrival of British troops.
He then gave us context – there were five Taliban who were all local farmers previously. The journalist was a metropolitan poet, who was new to the job, and both scared of the Taliban and feeling socially and intellectually superior to them. They’d not been interviewed before, he’d not interviewed many people in this situation before – the Taliban marched past the camera in a circle, changing the positions of their weapons each time, presumably to give the impression that there were many more of them.
the longer, raw version of the video was played and it felt altogether more bathetic, scary, odd, almost funny at times. It reminded me of Four Lions, especially the marching Taliban and the awkward responses from the interviewee that wouldn’t have made the final news report.
Emotional realism meant we valued this longer clip with all the disjointed human detail more than the news report. We, the journalists, everyone knew that the narrative from the politicians and the news organisations didn’t make sense. Why were we fighting there? It didn’t really add up. We all accept that its false and begin to look elsewhere for meaning.
“The fact that it doesn’t make sense any more makes it feel more real.”
What history feels like as it happens
Adam talked about a project he worked on with a theatre group called Punch Drunk. He made a film of spliced together TV, film and news clips trying to capture a sense of what it was like to live through some momentous events in the 1960s in the United States.
When we are living through events, they don’t make sense, they are confusing and disconnected – he said the films were emotional realism, representing the emotional experience of the 60s. I can’t find the exact piece of film he showed, but this is part of the same piece of work.
Follow the power
Adam railed against cyber-utopians – who doesn’t? – presenting the web as a free space, separate from the hierarchies and constraints of the “real world”.
The web is in fact “plugged in – literally – to the power hierarchy of the real world”.
If you understand how modern power flows through the web and shapes your experience of it, your emotions, then you are seeing it as it really is…
There’s no innocence or freedom online, the web is a cultural expression of our age of emotional realism.
Adam talked about Soviet Realist art, which looked nice to people at the time, but now we understand and see as representing the brutality of that power hierarchy in Soviet Russia. Some day, perhaps people will look at our online world and see it in a similar way, as “a cultural expression of the dominant power structures of our time” (perhaps about the tyranny of individualism, self-obsession, greed prevalent in our culture).
Image: Little did they know they would be seen as artistic expressions of the regime’s brutality…
Adam was making lots of different points, related to one another, but it was hard to follow a central argument through his talk (not that it was any less thrilling for that). But he seemed to draw some of the strands of thought together in his conclusion, which went roughly like this:
The strength of the idea that we can’t make sense of the world is one that suits those in power.
There is a power framework around the web which shapes it.
If we can develop a framework, articulate it and talk about it – a big theory – then we can move on from the light, whimsical storytelling that we’ve seen so far on the web.
Stories are complicated – we shouldn’t shy away from trying to tell this one…
The Story 2011 was exactly like the inaugural event a year ago. It was like the day just continued from where it left off – and for anyone who had been before, that was exactly what they wanted.
The Story is the brainchild of art, TV and tech Renaissance man, Matt Locke. He curates it unashamedly as “the conference I want to attend”, and it brings together a collection of storytellers from every medium and persuasion, from scientists to sculptors, live action role players to documentary makers.
The cards are laid out on the floor and he begins to string set pieces into episodes, about ten per episode (presumably they get thinned out).
Once he has the stack of set pieces per episode he has ” a good place to start”
Graham Linehan on collaborative writing online
Graham was clear that crowdsourcing and writing didn’t mix well, or at least they didn’t sit easily with him. He mentioned issues around taking advantage of people, reward, keeping conversation on topic and the risk that people feeling that their ideas had been “stolen”.
Incidentally, his prize bit of advice for writers starting out was not to be so worried about people taking their ideas – it is them themselves that will be what is valued by producers etc. That’s great advice for all sorts of creators – ideas are cheap, it is who carries them through and how they do it that makes all the difference.
There’s no tool that makes this easy, says Graham, having spent a fair bit of his “systematised goofing off” trying anything suitable out. So he uses Basecamp. He’s also thinking about experimenting with Beluga, which allows Twitter-like conversations in smaller groups.
He and about eight writers collaborated on the last season of The IT Crowd, using all sorts of things to spark off ideas, such as posting photos from awkwardfamilypetphotos.com and asking: How would Roy and Moss find themselves in this situation?
Cory Doctorow on blogging and writing
Whether he meant it this way or not, Cory’s approach to blogging was lovely, and I know I will be referring others to it as a useful approach to the format/platform in future:
Blog about why something is interesting in five sentences.
By doing that you are creating a searchable database.
If it is interesting, people will annotate it with comments.
After a while, there are enough posts and emerging themes that the case for a long-form piece of writing becomes clear.
: : Graham talked about the episode of The IT Crowd with the courtroom drama. In that there is a joke about malapropisms – one character talks about “a damp squid” while another talks about putting women on a pedal-stool. Maybe he was being slyly self-referential referential then when he was talking about “hyper-bowl“? Regardless, it tickled me. “We all have our blind spots, Jen…” (BTW – this how to pronounce “hyperbole” video is hilarious in itself (and yes, I appreciate I am writing an invitation to pedants to pick over my pronunciation, grammar etc, but that’s life on the web…).
: : Aside: Mostly these days I will take notes into an Outliner app on phone or Mac, or straight into Curio, but something about The Story made me want to take analogue, ink-based notes, so I grabbed notebook on my way out. When I opened it I realised it was the same one I used to take notes at The Story 2010. If I get the time (unlikely) I may even go back and put soem of those onto my blog as well.