Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Economics of Interest

by Kate

How can we make our movies more interesting
? Today, I search for an answer to this question in the book mentioned in my previous blog (Emotion and the Structure of Narrative Film: Film as an Emotion Machine by Ed S. Tan, 1996), as well as a few examples of machinima pieces. Tan's book offers so much food for thoughts that I can see it inspiring a few more blogs.

Tan compares interest to investment. Being interested means investing time and energy to explore the stimulus at hand. The return includes the satisfaction of being confirmed of one's expectations or that “ah-ha” experience. Like any investment, “[i]nterest is determined by the prospect of return.”

According to Tan, the prospect of return is partly determined by the past return. Just like you will not keep investing on a losing stock, the viewer will not continue watching a movie that does not reward him/her. If this is true, small revelations and emotionally satisfying moments, scattered throughout the story, will help keep the viewer interested. Intervention by Overman offers an excellent example of how this may works. (Disclaimer: I'm not attempting to guess Overman's intention. I'm merely describing what the movie was experienced by this particular viewer.)

Intervention from Phil Rice on Vimeo.

At the beginning, we see a man holding onto a buoy in the middle of the ocean. Even stranger is the way he gets away from the buoy. This clearly demands an inspection. Quite soon, you figure out what it is. The man is swimming backwards. This movie plays backwards! (A small reward was granted in the form of this little ah-ha moment.) You follow the man running backwards for a while, and soon receive a new clue. He is hiding from police vehicles. He must have been running from the law. (Another piece of reward.) This way, you follow the backward-running man till the end, while picking up morsels of returns to your investment, until the very end when you finally learn the whole truth, including the meaning of the title and the song, in a one single mind blowing rush of Eureka!

According to Tan, interest is a self-enhancing emotion. Once the viewer gets sufficiently interested, and spends enough time and energy in figuring out the story and character, they are more likely to be deeply involved in the story, as well as develop a stronger desire to find a closure or a stronger expectation for a particular end-state. They will have more at stake now. They cannot leave. Past investments lead to more future investments. In this light, what we story-tellers want to do is get our audience sufficiently invested in the story from early on, and keep them invested by withholding the biggest reward until near the end.

Intervention illustrates the self-enhancing nature of interest very well. As we explore the unfolding story for a prolonged period of time, our involvement with the protagonist gets stronger, and so does our desire to learn how he got into all this mess. We also have made, consciously and unconsciously, inferences and predictions that need to confirmed. With time, our desire to see things through only grows.

Another good example of the previous investment leading to even more investment is The Snow Witch by Britannica Dreams.

Toward the end of this story, near the climax, we have developed a strong suspicion of the truth about Yuki-onna. In fact, we’re almost sure of what is coming. But instead of turning it off, we are transfixed in our seat, wanting to witness our anticipation being realized on the screen and curious to see how it happens. It is as if we worked toward this moment, and now we have to see it materialized.

Intervention and The Snow Witch also reveal another aspect of "interest" in movie watching. The streets of Intervention are relatively novel to me, and they look fantastic. Had they been exactly the same streets I watched many times before, or if they were shot with poor cinematography, would my interest have stayed at the same level? If the world of The Snow Witch were not as heartbreakingly beautiful as it is, would I have been equally motivated to explore that world? In these movies, the style and technique serve the story by helping to keep the viewer engaged. The quality of the artifact surely seduces the viewer. Possibly even more important is that it gives the viewer the sense of being at the hands of an able story-teller. It makes her feel safe about her investment.

We, story-driven machinima makers, have an obligation to our viewers to make our stories more interesting and rewarding for them. The viewer experience deserves more attention, and can be improved by better story design as well as other means -- such as pleasing dialogue and visuals. It would be mere laziness, or in some cases, sheer arrogance and conceit, not to try harder.


Overman said...

Thank you so much for this mention and analysis of "Intervention." It's very gratifying when something you tried hard to do comes through for the viewer.

Norrie said...

Another subject of great interest to me as a watcher.
It's something I hadn't really thought of before, but I guess, for me, interest and investment are synonymous.
If I watch something new, that is from someone whose work I don't know, and it interests me I'll invest the time in seeking out other works.
If it's a name I have experienced, I'll invest the time, with an expectation of interest.

Here's where it changes though: I'll watch start to watch something by someone unfamiliar if my interest is piqued. By a forum post, a description, someone else's comments, etc. But, and it's a big but, if I'm not invested in the story I'll stop watching; unwilling to invest my time in watching it all. That may be a fault, but it's all about gut feeling for me.

An example, if I may, that just happened today. There is a film out by someone, based on their self published book, that interested me for various reasons: forum activity, other's comments, and so on. But mainly because Matt Kelland blogged about it. This got me interested so I watched it. I stopped after five minutes or so, and here's why: the story didn't interest me, and it, to me, was JK Rowling territory.
There's my prejudice up front. I don't dislike Rowling's oeuvre (or milieu as I'm being pretentious!), but it doesn't interest me. So I decided not to invest my time watching the rest of the film.

Be careful though Kate; it seems to me that you could drive yourself nuts wondering what others look for in your work. Tell your own stories, make your own movies, be true to YOUR ideas, not others expectations. Imagination by committee is a dreadful thing, just look at mainstream TV!

I've rambled incoherently again. You bring that out of me :)

P.S. Downloaded Intervention whilst typing this. Off to watch it.

Chat Noir said...

So Tan's comparison rings true to you too. :)

"Tell your own stories, make your own movies, be true to YOUR ideas, not others expectations."

That's a great point and, we do that more or less as hobbyists. I agree we have to tell OUR stories that we WANT to tell, but on the other hand, we can always try to get better at HOW we tell these stories. The art and craftsmanship of story-telling is what I strive for. :)

Norrie said...

Ah, but how much is art, and how much craft?
I suspect that's worth a blog of its own!