Vincent Morisset doesn’t know what people do with his films.
Do people watch them? Do they play them? In conversation, he alternates between calling his audience “users,” “spectators,” or “viewers.”
“I struggle with those terms because they have a foot in both worlds and they induce different meaning and interpretation,” Morisset told Ampersand in a Skype interview.
But if he’s unclear on his audience, he is sure about one thing: himself.
“I define myself as a director. I don’t say ‘interactive director’ or ‘new director.’ It’s just ‘director.’”
Morisset is a Montreal-based artist who makes what he calls Interactive Films, having done music videos for indie bands Arcade Fire and City and Colour as well as various web-based projects. While watching his films in their browser, viewers can click, they can slow down or speed up, and they can wave their hand in front of their webcam. They can even dance. In his film Bla Bla, a cartoon head bursts into color and light and multiplies on screen. In the music video for “Neon Bible,” Win Butler’s floating hands over an empty black backdrop conjure up playing cards, balls for juggling, and rain. How you experience each film is entirely based on how you click and engage with what’s on screen.
In Morisset’s films, you’ll get a new interactive experience every time you play it; you can’t say that about a DVD. He puts the creative tools into your hands, so when you click on screen or move your body or your cell phone in front of your webcam, there’s a sense you’re actually in control.
Morisset’s films belong to an emerging type of filmmaking known as Post-Cinema, another term with broad, yet untapped ramifications. Morisset himself isn’t familiar with the term “Post-Cinema,” and while academics will debate a definition for cinema’s next hundred years, the Post-Cinematic refers to how digital images, really just ones and zeroes, are not really “images” at all. Including everything from Virtual Reality displays inside an Oculus Rift or interactive projections at an art museum, Morisset’s films blend the analog and the digital. They challenge what we think we know about the movies. Morisset uses coding technology and new tools to reflect how we engage with art online in the twenty-first century, but he still wants his films to look and feel like the movies we’re familiar with.
“Cinema as an art form and language has been there for more than a century,” Morisset said. “But [the interactive] spectrum is exciting. There’s not much that has been done, and you can touch feelings and emotions that you cannot with a linear, passive experience.”
Take Morisset’s most recent project, Way to Go. Not quite a film, and not quite a game, users take control of a white stick figure with a boxy head running through the forest. You can walk, run, jump or look around, but you can only move forward. In playing, you zone out in a trance and can even lose your sense of time. Yet by just clicking your mouse or buttons on your keyboard, you can change your surroundings from a black and white stream to a pastel colored jungle. Or you can actively manipulate the film’s pacing, with the percussive score of drums and chimes speeding up and slowing down as you move faster or as you jump and hit the ground.
“I wanted something where you put the person in a state of hyper-lucidity,” Morisset said. “You’re really sensitive to what’s around.”
Way to Go melds the languages of film and gaming, but by foregoing the “performance” aspect of gaming, such as the questions of where to go, what to do, or how to win to stay alive, Morisset can forge a more emotional interaction with the user.
“It reflects the contemporary way of how we relate to space,” Morisset said. “There’s something comforting about knowing where to go. But at the same time, the epilogue of the project when you can go anywhere you want… ‘Aaaahh.’ There’s something really liberating about getting lost.”
Many people playing Way to Go rush through the film and don’t stop to admire all the hidden video clips of birds, insects, and nature Morisset has peppered throughout his created world. He says it’s symptomatic of our time and how we always feel in a hurry. But Way to Go’s epilogue is something that no film projected on a screen could achieve: it theoretically continues endlessly. The film allows you to keep moving forward in a kaleidoscope of colors for as long as you decide to keep playing. Your experience is entirely defined by how far you choose to go.
“In all my projects I try to design the interaction to be rewarding for whatever you do and who you are, so a kid that is hyperactive and will click like a maniac, or my mom that will click once every 30 seconds,” Morisset said. “It’s a simple metaphor on the beauty and impact of speed and how you look at stuff.”
While Way to Go is colorful and creative, and playing it on the web, or alternatively inside an Oculus Rift, is a new medium that didn’t exist just a few years ago, interactivity itself is nothing new. Artists and storytellers have always aimed to get the spectator involved. 3D films have tried to get viewers to grab things bursting out of the screen. Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books have been a staple of children’s book shelves for decades. But Morisset’s approach to interactivity allows him a sense of authorial control that helps him approach the Post-Cinematic. He can make the user’s interactions feel meaningful, but he still retains his vision, opening up new realms of storytelling possibilities.
“All of my projects, you navigate through the backbone, but I control as the author the pacing and the destination; I still give the illusion of control and appropriation. So I try to keep a balance between the two, and that allows me to tell some kind of story,” Morisset said. “For me it’s more about an experience.”
Other web based filmmakers like Jonathan Harris, Chris Milk, and Aaron Koblin, with whom he collaborated on Arcade Fire’s “Just a Reflektor” music video, see themselves as storytellers as well, but only in how people use the web to tell their own stories.
“I really consider myself a storyteller. But I don’t really tell stories in the usual way, in the sense that I don’t usually tell my own stories,” Harris said in his 2007 TED Talk. “Instead, I’m really interested in building tools that allow large numbers of other people to tell their stories, people all around the world.”
In his own TED Talk from 2011, Koblin quoted a media theorist who said that the twenty-first century will be defined by the interface. “I think data can actually make us more human,” Koblin said. “Our lives are being driven by data, and the presentation of that data is an opportunity for us to make some amazing interfaces that tell great stories.”
In Morisset’s video for Arcade Fire’s “Sprawl II”, finding the right interface was critical. By moving around or waving your hands in front of your computer’s webcam, the film animates in different directions and at different speeds. The band all wear animal masks, dancing and flailing wildly. But by stopping, you trap their motions in a brief loop, and only with the user’s interactions does the film animate.
“That song is about breaking free. The interaction is really free and physical, but sometimes it’s a bit goofy, so there’s this paradox. There’s something kind of wrong to do it, but at the same time it’s liberating and fun,” Morisset said. “I thought it made sense with the song to just laugh and not care, even if I’m in my office. There’s always a statement behind the interaction itself, and it’s important that the interactivity means something.”
When Morisset made “Neon Bible,” which calls itself the first interactive music video, he said he got pushback from people who thought he was trying to “direct” a website. “People were like, ‘Ooh, directing a website!’ But for me it was a big statement, and it was the same thing I do when I direct a short film or feature film.”
Arcade Fire wanted a music video, but if it was going to be watched on the web, he wanted something that would look good and could stand the test of time. Rather than nest the video on a separate website, he gave “Neon Bible” its own unique URL, and even though the technology was interactive, he made sure the film itself still felt cinematic. You can play around with Win Butler’s hands on screen, but the video itself can stand alone as a music video you might see on YouTube.
“All these little details changed how people talked about the project and received it while they were watching/playing with it,” Morisset said. “Since then, it’s something I’ve put a lot of importance into because it changed the perception of the audience.”
Morisset was fortunate to be paired with Arcade Fire, who he’s worked with since early in both of their careers. Whereas the film industry is slow to adapt to change, the music world was far more open to experimentation at the dawn of a new platform.
“Working with them is a really organic collaboration. They’re really open-minded, smart, compassionate, and they have the quality to never stay still.” Morisset said. “Each album has a mythology, a world attached to it and strong themes. It was just using the web as a place where all these things distill.”
While Morisset knows he’s a director, he’s hesitant to call himself a “pioneer.” It wasn’t his intention to put Way to Go into virtual reality systems, but the medium fit the technology almost too well to keep the experience on a flat screen. Way to Go was already a 360-degree experience, so inserting it into Oculus Rift was a natural next step, but a new one for the emerging Oculus system. In time, the approaches he’s using will be just another part of the cinematic language and toolbox, with directors incorporating interactivity as they choose. This is a new medium, with the rules of the technology changing rapidly and constantly. And in making his films, Morisset wants to be able to hand over the tools of creation to the world.
“For me, I selfishly do the project because it makes me excited and I’m experimental, and it’s something I genuinely like to do. But at the same time I want to share those tools, and we’re figuring it out,” Morisset said. “Some things don’t work, some things progress, and we slowly make more subtle, refined work. It’s a medium that is complex because there’s not a lot of precedent. You’re tightly linked to technology and the potential and limitation of it, and you have to navigate through that. And every two years those rules change. We need to stick together as a community and share knowledge.”
At the conclusion of Way to Go, the words “The End” appear over your stick figure character just before a question mark leaves the experience open ended. You’ve reached the end of the road, but it’s only if you keep going that you can literally soar. The movies have come a long way over a century of traditional filmmaking. Digital filmmaking is an entirely new realm where the movies can take flight, and with Morisset leading the charge, there seems to be no end in sight.