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Seven interactive essays on digital nonlinear storytelling
edited by Matt Soar & Monika Gagnon

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Case Study: The Johnny Cash Project

The Johnny Cash Project, created by music video director/interactive media wunderkind Chris Milk, invites global participants to rotoscope a single frame of musical icon Johnny Cash’s ‘Ain’t No Grave’ video. This collaborative effort results in a dynamic, ever-changing animated homage in which every frame is a personal artistic expression.

Launched in 2010 as a showcase for HTML5-friendly Google Chrome, The Johnny Cash Project draws upon fans’ mutual admiration for the musical hero as its impetus. From the project website:
The Johnny Cash Project is a global collective art project, and we would love for you to participate. Through this website, we invite you to share your vision of Johnny Cash, as he lives on in your mind’s eye. Working with a single image as a template, and using a custom drawing tool, you’ll create a unique and personal portrait of Johnny. Your work will then be combined with art from participants around the world, and integrated into a collective whole: a music video for ‘Ain’t No Grave,’ rising from a sea of one-of-a-kind portraits.

… What’s more, as new people discover and contribute to the project, this living portrait will continue to transform and grow, so it’s virtually never the same video twice.
In describing his online work, which also includes the interactive Arcade Fire music video project The Wilderness Downtown [case study] Milk specifically articulates deeper viewer engagement as a goal. “My real motivation came from my quest for music videos to have the equally soul-touching emotional resonance that straight music does,” he says. “Honestly, I’m not sure they ever can. Music scores your life. You interact with it. You listen to it in the car.  It becomes the soundtrack to that one summer with that one girl. Music videos are very concrete and rigid. They don’t allow for that emotional interaction.”

The website provides a choice of video frames together with easy-to-use, built-in drawing tools to enable low-resistance access to participation. In addition to crowdsourcing animated frames, The Johnny Cash Project affords participants the opportunity to view the finished work in multiple, shifting ways, drawing upon the now-vast database of images. Participants can choose to watch it in a particular style, culling only “sketchy,” “realistic,” or “pointillism” contributions from the archive, for example, or take part in curating which frames will play through a rating process. Interactivity occurs both at the crowdsourced level of creative contribution and at the viewing level.

The Johnny Cash Project engages deeper emotional valences in part by tapping into the international aura of Johnny Cash as a star and fan hero. Already, Cash’s celebrity persona and longstanding musical influence forge personal connections for participants; they bring their own, individual backstory with the man and his music to the interactive experience. The project cleverly engages participants in the “inside-the-skull” level of interactivity – the paradigmatic, internal level – at the start simply through the content.

The use of hand-drawn animation further adds to the sense of personal investment and inclusiveness in the project. Certainly, the traditions of drawing and painting have long been associated with a unique, personal expression, which the project underscores by asking the participant to look into their “mind’s eye” in crafting their drawing. The contributions, then, are not merely “paint-by-numbers” exercises, but individual artistic interpretations that reflect the participant’s own take on Johnny Cash as a figure and the individual frame they’ve chosen. In many cases, the submitted frames indicate significant time and effort in their complexity and attention to detail, so the investment in the personal contribution can be significant, which further emotionally invests the participant in the outcome of the project.

The provided drawing tools restrict the participant’s style to some degree; the only color choices are in grayscale, and the tools are limited in terms of shape and size. However, this restriction in the design ensures more consistency in the final video, which serves to emphasize inclusiveness. Rather than a haphazard collection of arbitrary images, the final video has flow and connectedness, as if the collaboration had been “directed.” The sense of unity among images more powerfully connects one image with the next.

This syntagmatic use of structure enhances the inside meanings by demonstrating the relationships between two or more participants – likely strangers. Each participant is able to “see” themselves in the other contributions, with a detailed understanding of the dedication taken to submit the frame. In other words, the peer participants function simultaneously as as "characters" and as authors in the final work, so they are, almost literally, "sutured" into an investment and affective engagement with the final work. Each participant can identify more deeply with other participants because of the shared collaborative effort, and the shared appreciation of Cash's music. Such a project almost invites the imaginative construction of peer participants as fictive characters – who might be the person behind each frame?

More importantly, however, the use of animation strengthens the inclusiveness of the project. Together, their individual contributions not only serve as a collective homage, but as animation, they spring to life in motion. Each individual contribution is needed to make the video move – each frame has significance. The whole is bigger than the sum of its parts – the end result is a global interpretation, a kino-eye of one of Johnny Cash’s own personal expressions.

As Chris Milk puts it, “[The Johnny Cash Project] is a super cool project and it has meant a lot to the many Johnny Cash fans who have been able to participate on that deep level. They have personally built Johnny’s last music video. All of their work combined makes for a beautiful tribute."

While the use of a rating system, and the default viewing selection focusing on “highest rated” frames, can serve to alienate some participants, the ability to “explore” all contributions, and shift styles and selections, reminds participants that no single frame is more valuable than others. Users of the site can explore all the contributed variations of one frame, choose to draw that frame for themselves, and watch the original participant’s drawing process in creating that frame. These tools enable participants to connect with, and even learn from, other’s artistic approaches.

In this fledgling stage of online interactive work, The Johnny Cash Project represents one of the most successful entries in terms of emotional engagement, and relies for its success on the role of crowdsourcing. The final video is engaging for both participant and casual viewer because it blends accessibility, stylistic consistency, and a familiar and well-loved subject – Johnny Cash.
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