Writ in Water


Author: Jeremy Bubb
Format: Triptych Film 
Duration: 14 minutes, 30 seconds

Viewing Conditions:
As large as you can as this is a three-screen film and in a cinema context.

Research Statement

The starting point for ‘Writ in Water’ began with a desire to explore the potential of digital technology in reference to film language. It began with the experience of making ‘Angels with Folded Arms’ a film that told a simple story that drew upon the imagery of ‘The Wilton Diptych’, a 14century religious painting. It also used methods of writing influenced by American 20th century writer and poet, Raymond Carver. This earlier film used various configurations of screens within a single screen and led to the consideration of the writing of Lev Manovich and specifically the challenge he provided in the following statement: ‘Many new media objects do not tell stories; they don’t have beginning or end; in fact, they don’t have any development, thematically, formally or otherwise which would organize their elements into a sequence. Instead, they are collections of individual items, where every item has the same significance as any other’ (Manovich 2001:218).

Research Questions
What does a new media screen drama presented on three-screens for viewing in a cinema context look like and can it deliver a cohesive understandable narrative using Aristotelian conventions of cause and effect, developed characters, and narrative arc that has a beginning middle and end?

How will audiences respond to a film that is presented over three separate panels, side by side to make up a singular screen, where action takes place simultaneously and uses text messaging as an integral part of its story? Are audience understandings of narrative reliant on age and experience of digital technology? Are digital natives more likely to comprehend a three-screen narrative than digital immigrants?

Do notions of ‘continual partial attention’ apply to audiences’ reading of a multi-screen drama?

How does one build approaches to scriptwriting that uses a three-screen narrative, is the process of narrative development different to writing a conventional film and what sort of script formatting should be used for actors, crew and production team?

Starting points
The digital landscape is in a constant state of change and development which has led to a continual redefining of the notion of ‘Film’ in regard to the way its shot, distributed, and consumed by audiences. I felt therefore it necessary to design a research project that re-established a film practice that embraced and contributed to a language that utilized digital technology. It was my aim to re-explore the language of film making within the new digital landscape and scrutinize its relevance to screen stories. The capability of digital technology provides new methods of production, and viewing screen works, therefore it became necessary to explore this in relation to film language.

The aim of the project was to address a range of points in reference to ‘Continuous Partial Attention’: the way in which we interact with digital devices and are continually distracted by the demand they put upon us to keep checking for communications being sent via phones, laptops, email and so on. I wanted to see if this applied to narrative and the capacity of audiences to continue to follow a narrative thread regardless of distraction by a range of triggers such as text messages, simultaneous narrative events, images, and so on. I was hoping that an Aristotelian approach to storytelling would provide motivation and a familiarity of structure for audiences, to encourage them to watch a story through to the end, enabling viewers to adapt to the way in which the narrative unfolds through the use of three-screens. To this end, the film starts using a single screen and then moves into split screen, and eventually uses three separate screens.

The field as a whole:
At the time of making and conceiving this project in 2008, there was little in the way of multi-image films using Aristotelian methods of storytelling made for consumption within a cinematic space. There have been pieces made for a single screen or multiple screens that use narrative as a part of an environment or an interactive experience where audience move through a space to view the work, such as John Adam’s ‘Hindsight’(2004). There are also screen narratives that depend on interactivity which invite audiences to affect narrative outcomes, such as the work of Marsha Kinder. ‘Writ in Water’ on the other hand is intended for cinema audience where the relation between viewer and screen is much the same as any other cinema experience, but the scope of the screen uses narrative development, and time and space, in a different way.

In cinema there has been a use of split screen for some years and many of these predate digital technology. During the 1960s the Expanded Cinema filmmakers made an array of experimental films that set out to defy the conventional boundaries of the cinema screen. Many artists and digital filmmakers have also explored multi-imaging and interactivity within the traditions of Experimental, Digital and Structuralist filmmaking.   In commercial films there are many examples of split screen and or multi-screen films. Mike Figgis’s ‘Timecode’(2000) uses four screens to tell his story. Darren Aronofsky’s ‘Requiem for a Dream’(2000) uses split screen, and before this, Abel Gance made experiments into three-screen projection and production with ‘Napoleon’ (1927).

My interest in advancing this area of work is to build strategies for creating cohesive screen narratives through the use of more than one screen within the context of cinema. I am particularly focused on the use of screen space, the potential for narrative across more than one screen and how audiences’ understanding of this phenomenon develops. I am also concerned with how developments in recent technology have affected audiences’ perception and expectation of narrative and the implications of this for multi-image screen storytelling.

My personal research explores the contexts for the above through examining development of visual story telling in art and film history, and using this research to build strategies for new media cinematic stories.

‘Writ in Water’ is the second film I have made that explores the uses of multi-screen storytelling and I am planning a third work to further develop a poetics for this type of work. I am looking for a commercial outlet for this research and currently seeking partners to work with.

The methods draw upon Film Production, Fine Art, and Video Art, and particular the synthesis of practice as research with traditional text based research. I am currently writing an article that attempts to map out the history of multi-imaging visual story telling.

The potential of multi-images story telling within the domain of new media

The significance of film language in the making of such projects

The historical development of multi-image story telling.

The approaches to scriptwriting that a project like ‘Writ in Water’ demands in order to explore multi-image story telling.

The significant changes we have seen in recent years in technological development and audience understanding of new media narrative.

The significance of practice as research within the domain of academic research

The work was funded by Farnborough College of Technology, Department of Creative Arts Research Fund, Roehampton University Department of Culture and Language, supported by Silverglade Post Production, London, and Rivernook Film UK.

‘Writ in Water’ has been shown at, Aristotle in Change Conference – University of Art and Design Helsinki (2009); Farnborough College of Technlogy, Research Screening (2009); Determining Creative Practice Symposium -University of Bedfordshire (2009); MeCCSA –LSE London (2010), AVANCA Portugal, Film Festival and Film Conference (2001); CRFAC – Centre for Research for Film and Audiovisual Cultures Roehampton University; Post Digital Encounters Symposium – UWE Bristol The Watershed (2011).

‘Writ in Water’ has been included in various conferences and screenings. In 2009 I presented a paper entitled ‘From Three Acts to Three Screens’ at the Aristotle in Change Conference – University of Art and Design Helsinki. The project was of particular interest as it contributes to a re-examining of the use of Aristotelian methods in a new digital context.

Also in 2009 I presented extracts of the film as a part of the symposium on ‘Determining Creative Practice’ at University of Bedfordshire.

In 2011 I was invited to present and screen the film at the Symposium on Post Digital Encounters, organised by UWE and The Watershed, Bristol.

In 2010 I published a peer reviewed article in The Journal of Screenwriting entitled ‘From Three Acts to Three Screens’.

I am currently writing a second article based on research from this project for publication, entitled: ‘Back to the Future: Multi-image Screen Narrative in a Digital Age and Beyond‘.

Peer Reviews

All reviews refer to original research statements which have been edited in response to what follows.

Review 1: Accept subject to minor revisions of statement
Writ in Water is a compelling example of a multi-screen cinematic narrative that develops and advances new methodologies of practice and production. The artists’ aims to present a coherent narrative experience which follows Aristotelian tradition through the presentation within a new media aesthetic are accomplished in a novel and engaging way. There has been much practical and academic exploration into multi-channel aesthetics and multi-screen explorations, which Writ in Water advances through its nuanced and focused approach to integrate the new multi-screen aesthetic into the stories that unfold. Writ in Water is a multi-protagonist story; part film, part installation, part computer-based narrative which utilizes three screens to facilitate the development of the story and its four characters. The resulting piece offers a compelling narrative experience that could not have been achieved through a single-screen presentation. The narrative complexity of writing this piece extends work such as that undertaken by the multi-screen filmmaker Chris Hales (2000: Bliss – a story told in nine-screens) through the introduction of multiple and intersecting narrative arcs and complex character relationships. Writ in Water is a sophisticated exploration into the practice, production and poetics of multi-screen storytelling; most notably it offers new possibilities and new paradigms of screenwriting, characterization and production techniques.

The artistic context in which the statement is written is good; thorough reflection and insights are provided into the creative intentions of the piece. The questions are well framed; although there is no evidence to suggest how the second question; relating to audience response and engagement will be explored. Has an audience study/survey been undertaken? This needs to be qualified, else I would suggest removing or reframing this question. The statement requires a more rigorous theoretical underpinning (see some suggested references below) which it currently lacks. The acknowledgement of the proliferation of academic debate within screen studies needs to be captured and summarised. A useful list of resources and articles can be found here: http://filmstudiesforfree.blogspot.com/2010/11/split-screen-studies.html It is notable that ‘split screen studies’ has been identified as a subject area in its own right. The author has previously written an in-depth article, published in the Journal of Screenwriting; this could be cited and referenced within the statement too.

In addition to the advancement of creative practices and processes, there needs to be a reflection upon how Writ in Water advances and forwards the theoretical debates, which are clearly being addressed in the practice work but are not fully explicated by the author.

The author aderes to the structure and the suggested headings of the statement, but this means as a piece, arguments cannot be fully developed. As a research summary, it is well structured. I think the author needs to capture the breadth of ground that Writ in Water covers – and the fact that it can be contextualized in many academic discourses, for example it spans film studies, cinema/apparatus studies, new media theory and audiences theory.

In addition to the inclusion of references to other research as detailed about, I would suggest the following prior to publication;

p. 2 Para 5: Lev Manovich citation required;

p. 3. Para 3: ‘Continuous Partial Attention’: this needs referencing;

p. 4. Para 1: Consider the inclusion and acknowledgement of other notable new media multi-screen cinematic narratives: The Tracey Fragments (2007, Dir: Bruce McDonald), Pretend (2004, Dir: Julie Talen); and then make clear how Writ in Water is exceptional and generates new knowledge in the field. (Re-phrase the statement on pg.3: [‘there was little in the way of multi-image films using Aristotelian methods of storytelling made for consumption within a cinematic space’] in order to acknowledge these examples;

p. 3. Para 4: [and time and space, in a different way.] – remove comma between space and in.

 Review 2: Accept subject to minor revisions of statement
Writ in Water is an accomplished piece of filmmaking which engages with the complexities of multi-screen narrative storytelling in the digital age effectively. The film begins with the central protagonist Mike, sealing some paperwork in a waterproof bag and strapping it to his stomach. The film shifts into a multi-screen mode where different characters are introduced, first through family portraits, then through live-action in the different screens. The triptych allows us to see Mike in the central panel whilst his children flank him on either side in their own individual sequences as a family drama unfolds in which Mike’s attempted suicide is revealed in relation to his suspected infidelity, ending with the water-stained and now unreadable suicide note the he had taped to his side in the opening sequence of the film. The multi-screen layout is further complicated by the screens within the film, with the device of the text message and the mobile phone screen becoming part of the exposition. The innovation, then, is mainly in the formal construction of the piece, as opposed to its content which doesn’t do a great deal to further the form of family (melo)drama apart from the fact it unfolds across multiple screens. Some of the most effective moments are when the screens become more abstract – such as the three shots of Mike’s face in extreme close up which collectively resemble a cubist painting – not in the attempt to uphold the Aristotelian narrative.   Where this is innovative is in using the multiple screen format within a cinema context as a comment on the second screens, or sometimes fifth screens (see research on children’s use of up to 5 screens simultaneously, e.g. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/health/healthnews/8677115/Just-watching-TV-too-boring-for-todays-children.html) in contemporary viewing practices. The screens interact / conflict / weave together in interesting ways and the piece as a whole is well-crafted in terms of the choreography between screens.

I think the work should be published with the following suggested amendments / additions to the research statement:

“Continual partial attention” needs a reference. Might be worth referencing the Digital Cultures Research Centre ‘Paying Attention’ conference (2010) http://payingattention.org/

Is there a link to Angels with Folded Arms online anywhere? Be useful to see the development from previous work.

Can you develop the Aristotelian point – by referring to specific points in Poetics (e.g. unity of character, time and place, etc.)?

Is there a link to the script so we can see how the multi-screen story was scripted in answer to the research question and outcomes listed?

Marcha Kinder works need full reference in a filmography.

Maybe move ‘field as a whole’ bit down into Contexts?

Contexts needs more academic references listed in a bibliography (include the Lev Manovich reference here).

Here’s some suggested useful reading in the development of further multi-screen works (not necessarily to include in the revised statement, but may be of interest):

Atkinson, S. (2009) An Interactive Film Demonstration: Crossed Lines In: Interactive Storytelling: Second Joint International Conference on Interactive Digital Storytelling, ICIDS 2009, Guimarães, Portugal, December 9-11, 2009, Proceedings. Lecture notes in computer science, 5915 (5915). Springer, Berlin, pp. 328-331. ISBN 3642106420

Crossed Lines featured as a detailed case study in Dixon, S. (2010) ‘Practice-as-Research Methodologies in Digital Performance’ in Kershaw, B. & Nicholson, H. (2010) Research Methods in Theatre and Performance Studies, Edinburgh University Press.

Atkinson, S. (2011) Multiple cameras, Multiple screens, Multiple possibilities: An insight into the interactive film production process In: Visual Research Methods in the Social Sciences: Awakening Visions. Routledge, Oxon, pp. 184-198. ISBN 978-0-415-48385-8

Atkinson, S. (2007) Crossed Lines: the creation of a multiform, multiscreen interactive film Nebula, 4 (3). pp. 79-99. ISSN 1449-775


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