25 May, 2007

Narrative Structure and Storytelling

David Bordwell’s research draws several examples of how DVD has enabled viewers to break the linear storytelling mode imposed by classic Hollywood films, but such function is rarely used by them for this purpose. Similarly non-chronological (or any other) narrative structure remains marginal presence in the mainstream film industry although some producers tended to add complexity after their films become rewatchalbe on DVDs. Bordwell argues that ‘We can’t easily draw conclusions about how films are constructed on the basis of how they’re presented and consumed. Changes in viewing practices don’t automatically entail changes in storytelling.’ (Bordwell, 2007)

The implication of Bordwell’s argument in the context of convergence culture is whether technological advancement can foster new media genres - i.e. whether the development of machinima is merely in the scope of new production methods or has it become a distinctive genre of its own; While today’s technologies has empowered consumers to watch, archive, reply and reproduce media content in unprecedented ways, this may or may not be transformed in their prosumer practice.

Jason Mittell analyses Bordwell’s argument in the television industry where commercial incentives to rerun TV programs has led to the creation of self-contained episodic series. He observes the unusual storytelling mode in these series being base on ‘a consistent setting, continuing characters, recurring themes and types of events’ such that consumers do not need to watch the entire series sequentially to make meaning of the text. He reasons that since 'reruns were not typically scheduled sequentially or on a sufficiently regular schedule to guarantee that viewers would be able to rewatch a series in chronological (or any logical) order[,] [t]his meant that producers needed to make episodes that could be shuffled, watched in any sequence with minimal disruptions to narrative logic.'( Mittell, 2007)

Mittell further observes that the trend of avoiding serialization is reverted when VCR first introduced the ability to record and replay programs. The new mode ‘encouraged obsessive viewers to use VCRs to decode and piece together the complex narrative, trying to present a storyworld that not only needed to be watched in sequence, but invited rewatching for comprehension… However, the VCR timeshift has always been a marginal practice for hardcore fans, not the norm for a mass audience, and thus remained lodged within the terrain of cult programming.’ ( Mittell, 2007) In short, Mittell’s research showed that both narrative structure and consumers viewing behavior (except for ‘hardcore fans’) are reluctant to change simply due to technological empowerment, it is possible to change however if the producers decide there are sufficient commercial incentives.

Both Bordwell and Mittell have focused their research on commercialized media production (Hollywood films and TV series); In the scope of grassroots production, since the producers are free from profit pressure or institutional constrains often faced by corporate producers, theoretically they enjoy the freedom to be as much creative about how their story (or anything else) is to be told. This notion opens up possibilities for new forms of media content to spawn from the non-corporate community, which seems to support the hypothesis that machinima has or will become a genre of its own.

Berkeley opposes the above notion that ‘[w]hile machinima communities assert the ‘newness’ of the form, completed machinima work usually presents as a traditional linear narrative. The elements of the form that make use of new developments in media technology occur at an earlier stage – during the production process – a stage that is not apparent to the viewer.’(Berkeley 2006)

However the linear narrative structure in machinima appears to be its only adoption from traditional media genre. The typical length of a machinima film is between 5 to 10 minutes - much shorter than a traditional TV episode. Machinima producers often have to keep their films short and formatted in low resolution due to limited bandwidth of host website and download speed of viewers, which forces them to either pack more information into one episode or break them into many. This length of films has become the norm of online video cast over the last few years (such as those casted on Youtube) and online viewers tend to be less patient about watching a longer video.

Machinima series also appear to be a hybrid of self-contained episodic program and serialized program. For instance in Red vs Blue, although the storyline is constantly developed episode after episode (as opposed to constant settings in self-contained episodic series), each episode draws little relations to the main storyline developed previously. In fact only one character Sarge in the entire RvB series has been consistently attentive to the Red versus Blue civil war while other characters are mainly focused on only the plot developed within one episode. Viewers are thus free to either watch only one episode and be able to understand the text reasonably well or watch the entire series to build a more comprehensive understanding.

The narrative style of machinima has hence been developed quite distinctively due to both technological empowerment (internet video streaming, website archivability and rewatchability) and restrictions (limited bandwidth and download speed). We will continue our discussion of some of its implications more fully in the conclusion.

A random episode of Red vs. Blue, viewers are able to understand the text without the knowledge of previous episodes.


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