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Browseable Video Story-Worlds: The Future of Film?

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Gail Freedman: Larry and I are very pleased to be blogging here on HuffPost, to share our experience making "The Onyx Project" and thinking about what it all may mean for the future of media. For those of you who have no idea what "Onyx" is, it's a truly interactive, "hyperlinked" movie - a fully browseable motion picture that utilizes a new technology called NAV™ (for Non-Linear Arrayed Video). We just launched at the beginning of October - it's a DVD release that plays on any late-model Windows XP computer (Mac version to come) with Quicktime installed. "Onyx" stars David Strathairn - the Oscar-nominated star of George Clooney's "Good Night, and Good Luck" - in a story about war, politics and human connection - a story that has become more haunting and more resonant than we could even have imagined when we began. There are literally millions of pathways through the five-plus hours of material: you get to explore this video world - for as long or short a time as you like -- according to your own interests and impulses, just like one browses the Web (see more on this from Larry below). Even for us, 'playing' with "Onyx" -- watching scenes unfold, linking strands of narrative differently each time -- has a kind of incantatory quality. Our odyssey with this experimental new approach to storytelling began over five years ago, when we made an early proof-of-concept NAV, called "Rumor Has It," which we shot on the Bard College campus, near our Hudson Valley homes, during the summer of 2001. At the time, along with a couple of colleagues, I was running the region's film commission; and as a filmmaker myself (primarily documentary), I was totally intrigued when Larry showed up in my office and talked about his new venture. He asked me to join this journey as producer, which I happily did. It was - and is - really exciting to think about how one might take the NAV concept and apply it not 'just' to entertainment, but also to education, news, etc. When you think about it, it's a pretty intuitive concept and a natural evolution for the history of film in a digital era. We made "Onyx" for a fraction of the cost of a conventional movie, by the way. We shot with small digital cameras on homegrown "sets"; we used local law enforcement officers as military extras (they couldn't have been better!); we had what might have been the smallest movie crew ever; and we wore multiple hats. It was grand. We'd love to hear your thoughts, responses, reflections - and to know what other folks are doing.

Larry Atlas: I also want to thank HuffPo for inviting Gail and me to join the roster of bloggers here, giving us the chance to talk about "The Onyx Project" and, more broadly, its place and possible impact in the world of new media. On one level, it's odd to be creating a blog myself when blogs, their impact on our politics and culture, figure so prominently in "The Onyx Project" story itself. There's a certain (possibly twisted) way in which filmmaking creates a distance between filmmaker and film subject, and in the two years directly required for the making of "Onyx," I went from an avid reader to a sort of weary plodder-through of blogland. On the other hand, blogs are inescapably tied to the project, and not just as a plot point, a moving force in the life of the lead character, played by David Strathairn. More importantly, as some of you may already have experienced yourselves, "Onyx" is a browseable movie - and not just by virtue of containing links, but browseable in the sense that it is in fact an array or web of hundreds of video scenes, a video world that can be explored exactly as one explores the internet - creating one's own pathway/narrative according to one's own interests, impulses... backtracking, pausing, taking off in new directions... so that each viewer's experience of "Onyx" is unlike anyone else's, just as each person has a different experience of the Web every time he or she goes online. (A mathematician friend once calculated there were trillions of different routes through "Onyx" - I've never counted.) If this sounds grandiose, well, no one is more aware than I that "Onyx" is simply an early effort, in many respects a crude one, in what will eventually, almost surely, be the complete re-inventing of movies over the next 20 years or so. After all, movies are what they are because of a technology invented in the late-19th Century - hard to believe, but everything we think of when we think about movies - including, crucially, their very linearity - is the result of the invention of flexible roll film. If history is any guide, there is every reason to believe that the old idea of linear motion pictures will not long outlive the invention of the non-linear world of the internet and web-browser (the movie box office is already outstripped by game sales). Six years ago, when Doug Smith and I first started developing the concept and software behind "Onyx," our thought was to try to imagine what movies would look like if you invented them from the ground up. Broadly speaking, our answer was that they would be explorable, like the Web, and that they would be interactive not in the sense that they required input from the viewer, but rather selection among authored, content-specific links, again like the Web. (In this regard, "Onyx" is no more a "create-your-own-story" than browsing HuffPo is "create-your-own-website"!) The software to author and play such projects has been through three distinct developmental phases. "The Onyx Project" is the first commercially available NAV™ and, we trust, not the last. Our immediate plans include moving from DVD delivery, a convenience at this stage, to projects that live totally online. As a writer and director, my goal is browseable video story-worlds encompassing hundreds of hours of material of all kinds. Other people will no doubt be pursuing other visions of next-generation New Media in the months and years ahead - possibly this blog will unearth and publicize some of them - we're glad to be part of the process.

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