The woman's husband is cheating on her, but she does not know this yet. She stands alone in their dark bedroom. On the floor is her husband's coat, and a photograph of him with his lover peeks out, just barely, from a pocket. The woman turns, and her eye is caught by the photograph.
Or is it?
With Turbulence, an Israeli interactive film directed by Nitzan Ben-Shaul, the choice at that moment is up to the viewer. Turbulence is one of several recent experiments in interactive filmmaking, given new life by the advent of devices like the iPad. (See our series on Touching Stories, a set of interactive iPad films, from June and July.)
Turbulence, an 80-minute thriller, is about three Israelis who meet by chance in New York 20 years after they were arrested together at a protest in Israel. At various moments in the film, a glowing light will surround an object, indicating that the viewer can interact with it in some way—to choose to press CANCEL on that impassioned text message a character just wrote, but is on the fence about sending; or to tease that photograph out gently from the coat pocket, so that a wife can know the truth about her husband.
Turbulence completed production in December of 2008, and was first screened at the Berkeley Video and Film Festival. Ben-Shaul's wife canvassed the audience at decision points in the film, while Ben-Shaul executed the decisions. "The audience loved it," Ben-Shaul tells Fast Company; the film took away an award for Best Experimental Feature.
Others have ventured where Ben-Shaul treads now; on top of Touching Stories, the critically acclaimed PlayStation 3 game Heavy Rain was sometimes billed as an interactive movie, and similarly entailed decision points with icons to prompt the viewer/player.
What sets Ben-Shaul apart, though, are his theoretical chops. He's not part of a small production company, like the Touching Stories crew, nor does he run a game studio like Heavy Rain's David Cage. Ben-Shaul is a professor at the Film and Television Department at Tel Aviv University, and he's written several books on the problems posed by interactive cinema. He's just submitted the manuscript for one, called Optional Thinking and Narrative Movies, due out in 2011. He is probably the first person to have said of Heavy Rain, as he did to me, that it "lacks dramaturgical considerations."
For a new form of storytelling to emerge—particularly one with as many false starts as the interactive movie, which arguably dates back to 1983's Dragon's Lair, at least—a sort of theory ought to undergird it. Ben-Shaul's thinking is intriguing in that he pays as much attention to how to disengage the interactive impulse as to how to engage it. A draft of a "brief" on Turbulence outlines "several principles guided by dramatic considerations," the first two of which are: 1) "To cause the viewer not to wish to intervene due to his being in a state of curious or suspenseful expectation" (for moments when the action unfolds on its own), and 2) "To cause the viewer to want to intervene in the drama at places where an intervention will increase the dramatic experience." At too many moments in Heavy Rain, the viewer/player was called upon to make a not-quite-life-altering decision—to brush the teeth, or not to brush?—but Ben-Shaul's theory should help avoid repeating such mistakes.
The film has been in the can for a while, so when will it be coming to a screen near you? Ben-Shaul is as much entrepreneur as professor, and he has several projects in the works. First, though the film currently runs on PC or Mac, he wants to ready it for the iPad, "a main target." He and his tech wizard, Guy Avneyon, should have it ported over within two months. Ben-Shaul and Avneyon are also working on developing screenwriting and editing software that makes the creation of interactive narratives easier for others who aspire to do it. They have a patent pending. The team also wants to develop a "decision technology" to automate the screening process Ben-Shaul and his wife implemented manually at Berkeley—so that the audience's opinion can be canvassed in real-time, with decisions sometimes being chosen democratically, or sometimes by a given representative selected from the audience.
In other words, there's a lot on his plate, and it's no surprise that Ben-Shaul is currently seeking angel investors to help implement his vision. "All filmmaking is based on a lie," Ben-Shaul told Israel 21c. "In life there are always options."
[Image: Flickr user toasty]