The New Documentary Screen: "Proleptic Montage"
“Past, present and future can be spoke in the same frame at once”
– Gene Youngblood
Films such as Mike Figgis’ Timecode and Zbigniew Rybczynski's New Book showed us that we are quite capable of following multiple separate screens and establishing meaningful relationships between individual sources of information. With their ubiquitous navigation interfaces consisting of countless data windows, digital technologies now expand and reshape our demands for narrative and afford what Jeffrey Shaw termed "new poetics of narrative." As a consequence, images can adopt new meanings through navigational and cognitive processes.
While designing Dayton Express, I became somewhat obsessed with this idea of collapsing temporal relationships between individual clips. I was particularly interested in the ways new media can appropriate traditional elements of documentary production such as cutaways, inserts, etc. This started in 2007, after hearing media theorist Alexander Galloway speak about the concept of ‘proleptic montage’ in present-day computer interfaces. The talk greatly inspired me to experiment with the design of Dayton Express and look into literature that addresses the aesthetics of new media and the ongoing reshaping of the functions of the screen. Anne Friedberg’s The Virtual Window, Steven Johnson’s Interface Culture, Gene Youngblood’s essays on digital cinema, and Kristen Daly’s PhD thesis titled Cinema 3.0 (specifically her segments on web browser aesthetics) were invaluable sources that profoundly informed my production methods. I shot and edited with fragmentation of the screen in mind, envisioning simultaneous/parallel storylines unfolding in separate windows.
Working on a typical linear documentary, editors often divide the clips into two bins: interviews and the so-called B-roll. The idea is that the B-roll can provide and expand contexts while simultaneously concealing any inconsistencies or manipulations (camera zooms, poor framing, etc.). This type of edit is very common in linear documentary, especially in those produced for TV. In the fourth section of Dayton Express, The Appendix Route, I was dealing with pre-edited video clips that were divided into two such categories. As a conceptual experiment, I decided to disrupt the temporal relationship between them. The results of this investigation are two interface designs that incorporate proleptic montage, one allowing the viewer to see both B-roll and interviews simultaneously and alter the sequence on the fly, the other maintaining the dominance of a single frame, but giving the viewer editing agency between the two audio/video tracks that can populate the screen space.
This method also significantly influenced the way the interviews were conducted and edited: everything was done in one take, the camera sharply focused on the interviewee with only minor variations in framing. The initial idea was not to cut any naturally occurring pauses, and thereby provide room for the audience to shift their attention to another screen. Users could then return to the previous screen as the interview continues, or something else sparks their interest. Although the final version included more cuts than previously imagined, I have continued to experiment with this mode of representation in my subsequent work.
What I found especially interesting is that the audiences’ relationship to the subjects changes when they are given the opportunity to experience the interviewees not only as speakers but also as listeners. The modularity of web-based projects further complements the aim of creating a space for discourse: for example, one can keep populating the database of The Appendix Route with newer clips or crowd-sourced/curated material that expands the discussion and offers alternative contexts through split-screen formats.
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