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People in Film: Frank Rose (Part 2)

Sep 19, 2012

In the final installment of our interview with Frank Rose, writer and speaker on the impact of technology on entertainment, he talks about James Cameron as an inspiration, discusses how aspiring Arab filmmakers should make the most of digital and predicts what the industry might look like in 10 years.

Read Part One of our interview with Frank Rose here.

DFI: Director James Cameron (Avatar, Titanic) is one of your book’s main sources. You said he was an inspiration. What’s his main message?
Rose: One of the key scenes in The Art of Immersion is when he tells me that the best way to tell a science fiction story is to make it almost a fractal experience. The casual viewer could just see the movie and that would be it. But for the committed fan, you could dive in almost in powers of ten and the pattern would still hold. That makes for a truly immersive experience, and that’s what Cameron wanted the game he was developing with Ubisoft to be (for “Avatar”). But for a variety of reasons, some of them having to do with Fox’s lack of understanding or support for the project, they weren’t able to pull it off. Avatar: The Game ended up like most Hollywood movie-videogame tie-ins – just kind of a lame experience. So in fact he failed in one of his grandest ambitions, which was to create a videogame that would genuinely extend the experience of the movie into another realm. But watch this space. I’m pretty sure he’s not finished yet.

DFI: Is your book available in the Middle East?
Rose: You can order it online from this book store or newspaper.

DFI: You say that this wave of ‘deep’ media we’re witnessing encourages participation. Ultimately for film, doesn’t that mean anyone can jump on board? And does this dilute the art?
Rose: I think that’s a misconception – a pretty common one, which shows just how experimental all this still is. The parameters of participation and the mechanics that make it happen are still being developed. But participation doesn’t mean a free-for-all. If you look at the movies or TV shows that have a huge social-media following, they’re inevitably the ones with a powerful narrative vision. Most people don’t really want to wander aimlessly through a virtual world—not after the novelty wears off, anyway. They want a story. They want human characters they can identify with, and they want to see those characters triumph over adversity or avenge a wrong or find true love. This is just very basic to human nature. But people also want to be able to immerse themselves in those stories, to live them out in some fashion, and digital technology makes it possible to do that in entirely new ways. That’s the kind of participation audiences want. They don’t really want to choose their own ending – they want to be totally involved in a story that has an ending they find satisfying.

DFI: You’ve been hailed as a future-predictor. What will the industry look like in 10 years?
Rose: Well, I don’t know about future-predicting…but here’s what I think is going to matter: Digital has already remade the craft of movie-making itself – editing, shooting and animating. It’s made filmmaking cheaper and simpler, obviously, but it’s also made it infinitely more expensive and complicated if you choose to go that route, as (James) Cameron did. So what it’s really done is exploded the range of possibilities. It facilitates micro-budget indie films, and it facilitates CGI blockbusters. And like any technology, it’s agnostic – it can be used to make bad films, it can be used to make great films. But the really interesting possibility from my point of view is how it can take you beyond cinema into new forms of storytelling. I think this has to do with just the sheer proliferation of devices. People talk about convergence, but from a device point of view there is no convergence. The future is not a Swiss army knife – it’s a lot of specialised devices that vary according to time and space…Where convergence is happening is in content. Sooner or later, each of these devices will be able to access the same content, or at least different aspects of the same content. We’re not there yet by any means, because media businesses were set up to be device-specific…At the same time, this proliferation of devices and the nature of the net is what’s behind the trend toward deep media experiences or transmedia or cross-platform or whatever you want to call it. We’re getting used to the idea that we can follow a story from one device to another, that we can interact with the story and with one another, that we can experience a story in different ways, that we can immerse ourselves in that experience.

What happens over the next 10 years is defining what that experience should be. It’s about blurring the boundaries between author and audience, between story and game, and to a certain extent at least between fiction and reality. And it’s not necessarily about sitting in a movie theatre or in front of a TV set – it could just as well take place on a location-aware smartphone.

DFI: If you had a piece of advice for filmmakers (actual or aspiring) in the Arab region, what would it be?
Rose: Don’t forget the story. It’s easy to get swept away by the possibilities of new technology and new forms of engagement, but unless you have a powerful story to tell, none of that really matters. Technique is important, and digital raises all sorts of possibilities for technique – but a good story trumps technique every time. And there’s certainly no end of powerful and important stories to tell in the Arab world.

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