The director/producer talks about his latest experiment in cross-media storytelling, Collapsus.
Tommy Pallotta is best-known as producer of Richard Linklater's A Scanner Darkly and Waking Life, and for his self-directed 2009 documentary American Prince. Both Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly were animated using a technique Pallotta co-developed that is a hybrid of live action and animation called 'interpolated rotoscoping''.
Pallotta's latest project Collapsus, a cross-media conspiracy thriller, went online on October 1. Collapsus looks into the near future and shows how the imminent energy transition from fossil fuels to alternative sources affects a group of ten young people who encounter all manner of perils including failing energy supplies and global black-outs.
Collapsus was screened at the Sheffield Doc/Fest and will show at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam later this month. LWLies caught up with Pallotta in Amsterdam recently to talk Collapsus and transmedia experiences.
LWLies: Collapsus has been described as a transmedia online interactive experience. Can you expand on what the film actually is?
Pallotta: Collapsus is a transmedia experience that takes theories and elements from a documentary and places them in a not so distant future as fact. It blends genres. It is part documentary, part game, part animation and part drama and it mashes all these components together to create an experience unlike any other.
Is Collapsus aimed at a particular audience?
Collapsus originated as a documentary for the Dutch broadcaster VPRO. They made a film called Energy Risk about the impending transition of fossil fuels to alternative energy sources but they encountered a problem. The average age of their documentary audience was 55 or over and they wanted to attract a younger audience yet still cover the same ideas and themes. And so Collapsus was created as a companion piece to the documentary. What we tried to do with Collapsus in order to attract a certain younger audience was to really look at the visual syntax of the connected image and reflect that in the experience. So, really by blending the genres of documentary, fiction and gaming we're borrowing heavily from remix and mash-up culture and we are letting these experiences happen simultaneously and letting people choose which section they want to go into and how they bring in information.
When we last spoke you had just directed and produced what by contrast seems a much more conventional feature documentary, American Prince. How did you come to find yourself working on Collapsus?
American Prince was a pretty traditional documentary but the way that it was distributed was not so traditional. I was using the internet as a way to reach a mass audience and playing with technology in that respect. I was toying with the idea of making experiences specifically for the web as opposed to making a movie for theatrical release or television. Collapsus expands on that in that it is really an experience that you can only enjoy via the internet.
What is the significance of the title?
Collapsus is Latin and means 'collapse' which means to 'break down' or 'fall together', and I was interested by this notion. I have the impression reading the news that everything has the ability to fall down very quickly and I wanted to have that sense of urgency in this experience and of course I also saw that this was about an energy collapse. But I was hoping that this would be the first episode and that in the future we could approach other issues such as water wars or economic collapse. Also the domain just happened to be available. On a superficial level Collapsus is about the collapse of energy, but on a meta-level it is very much about the collapse of genres and communication as we know them. My inspiration for Collapsus really comes from living in New York during 9/11 and seeing how quickly things can change and society can crumble. I was also living in New York in 2003 during the great black-out that happened. The black-out only lasted 24 hours but it was enough to show me how completely dependent we were on energy. Luckily the power came back in 24 hours. But I don't think that society could continue for a week without energy, at least not in New York. That left a very strong impression on me.
The narrative of Collapsus deals with a fictional energy risk conspiracy. To what extent do you believe that an actual energy conspiracy exists in the world today?
Collapsus was based on a documentary that had a very specific perspective and when I came on board I very much wanted to deal with multiple perspectives and uncertainties, because I know that there are a lot of theories surrounding energy and I did not really have the time or inclination to find out what was really true and what wasn't. Nor did I believe I could. And so what I decided to do was to employ a fictional narrative with multiple characters. Each character represents a different perspective whether it’s geological or ideological and in that sense Collapsus becomes a much more morally complex story and really is a much more accurate portrait of the way that I think about the subject.
The fictional conspiracy plot of Collapsus involves issues such as free energy technology suppression and collusion between the oil, gas and carbon industries. How real a threat are such factors in today's world?
It is hard for me to say if they are real. I don't know for sure. I have my suspicions. Whenever you talk about conspiracy, a conspiracy is by definition two or more people getting together and doing something illegal and obviously that happens all the time. As far as free energy and all these things go industries have a history and indeed a recorded history of suppressing technologies that are threatening to their business model. For instance, there was a public transport system that was set up in Los Angeles and the automobile industry and tyre industry got together and bought this public transportation system and dismantled it. I think there is a conspiracy in the sense that people try to maintain their status.
What do you think transmedia storytelling offers that more orthodox storytelling cannot?
A great story is a great story regardless of what the medium or platform is and I don't think that transmedia can improve upon traditional storytelling methods. But each story brings with it the challenge of the best way to tell it and as society evolves and technology changes sometimes certain stories are best told through multiple platforms. That is where transmedia storytelling can serve in a way that more traditional storytelling can't.
What about the interactive element in Collapsus?
The idea of interactivity in Collapsus is different from the idea of interactivity say in a video game. The choices that you make in Collapsus don't effect the outcome but the choices that you make in the narrative will allow you to bring in information in a different way. In that sense the annotated storytelling experience is much more like that of a postmodern novel than a videogame. I am interested in a fragmented narrative that mirrors our own lives instead of a highly constructed and forced narrative. In that sense when I watch a movie on my computer often I am also surfing the web, chatting with a friend or doing things like that and I wanted to bring this multi-tasking approach to story telling. So that is where I came up with the idea of this annotated storytelling experience. There are some postmodern novels where the annotation overtakes the main narrative. This has always fascinated me. Like when I go to do a search and I end up somewhere completely different from where I wanted to go. I get lost in the 'rabbit hole' of information. It is exciting to think of how stories can work in this way.
Do you see the trend of transmedia storytelling gaining increasing popularity?
Well, the term 'transmedia' is new but the practice is not. In very simple terms something like Star Wars is a great example of a transmedia story. It is on multiple platforms. It's an entire world and it inhabits all available platforms. But I think there is a big difference between franchise building and the sort of transmedia storytelling that I am exploring. Regarding a franchise I understand why people in the studios are very excited about this because ultimately it provides them with additional revenue streams but I am coming at it from a place of wanting to explore ways of telling stories from these multiple platforms. I'm trying to find a way to create more empathy for the characters in the story and through that to actually engage the audience in a way that you create a sense of agency through the viewer or player. I want to explore what new kinds of stories can be told in this fashion.
Do you think transmedia storytelling could replace other more traditional forms of storytelling? Do you think that cinema could even be in danger?
No. I think that traditional media is very, very safe. Every time there is a new technology everyone says this is the end of something. I remember the internet was thought to be the end of books and I think books are healthier than ever now. There is simply a lot of room for different ways to consume media right now. I think one of the most exciting things about transmedia for me is that my life is becoming more fragmented and so what I would like to do, instead of sitting in front of my TV for two hours to enjoy an experience, is I'd like to be able to take that experience with me and enjoy it when I can. So let's say I start my experience on television and then I have to leave and take a train. Well then I can continue my experience on my mobile phone. Then it might transpire that I go somewhere else and I interact with someone else and then maybe I get a phone call. I just always want to be able to plug in when I can for that time period and for me that is an exciting proposition because I just find it more and more difficult to have the time to read a book or watch a movie. I want to be able to jump into that experience and enjoy it when I can.
Why did you choose to revisit the rotoscoped animation that you used in Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly in Collapsus?
There were limitations to the Collapsus project regarding budget and time. The project had to be done quite quickly and it was a fairly ambitious project. It is a global story. It takes place all over the world and we did not have the time or budget to go and shoot that in a realistic manner so I came up with the idea that I would use the rotoscoping technique to give it a high production value and really also speak to that younger audience. And I was really interested in mixing live action with animation. Even though in the past I had made a hybrid with live action and then animation, this time I wanted to use both. After A Scanner Darkly it took about 500 hours to animate just one minute of film footage and so my interest in it started to wane because it was so labour intensive and it felt like it had been done. So what I wanted to do with this project was to take rotoscope to a new level and I came up with this idea of a motion graphic technique which takes the best parts of rotoscope illustration and blends them with a graphic novel approach to make something new and then blend that with live action.
What do see on the horizon? Do you see yourself returning to work on films with a theatrical release?
I am directing a feature documentary next year intended for theatrical release. It is going to be about Somalia and the pirates and the situation surrounding a failed state. That is going to be a hybrid documentary. About half of it will be animated and half will be live action. Therefore, I am extending some of the experiments that I was doing in Collapsus. There is going to be an online interactive component to that project as well. So for every project I try to extend whatever I did on the last one a little bit further.
If you want to experience Collapsus for yourself go to collapsus.com/experience.php