Stephen Slappe’s 8
Faculty member Stephen Slappe develops a new category of app, an experimental immersive film controlled by your movements
Imagine watching a film, but being able to direct the camera yourself. You can track the masked figures and shadows moving through dark interior spaces and lush forests. If you have a sense that you are glimpsing the action out of the corner of your eye or you just wonder what is happening off camera to the right, you can instantly order the camera to pan right with a wave of your hand. The closest thing to this that currently exists is in the virtual realm of open world free-roam video games like Skyrim. And imagine as well that you didn’t catch a scene fully the first time, you can review the action, or jump to another part of the film.
Artist Stephen Slappe, head of PNCA’s Video and Sound Department, has built just such a project—somewhere between a short film, a video game, and a video installation for your pocket. His new app for iPhone and iPad is appropriately called 8, the numeral that recalls the lemniscate or symbol for infinity. 8 has neither beginning nor end but is a series of film loops through which the viewer navigates by touching the screen. But what makes 8 extraordinary is that it takes advantage of the iPhone’s accelerometer, allowing the viewer’s movements to control the framing of the scene. One can swing the phone overhead and look up at the ceiling or the sky depending on the scene. Or one can sweep it around to check out the whole room in which the action is happening.
This was made possible via the programming of PNCA alumnus Jacob Fennell MFA ’09. And more fundamentally, it was made possible because Slappe was able to use an immersive video camera not unlike the one Google uses for StreetView to shoot the scenes.
This presented some interesting problems as in a spherical, all-encompassing view of a space, there is nowhere to hide the cameraman, the cords. There is no “off camera.” Or rather, as Slappe puts it, there is a 60 degree cone of invisibility. So he developed a rig which held the camera straight above his head.
Here is how Slappe’s website describes 8:
Parallel dimensions, dystopic visions, and haunting noise.
Part short film, part game, and part video installation, 8 places users in the middle of a spherical video environment where their physical movements reveal events unfolding and repeating around them. Each scene has been designed as a loop, suspending space and time and inviting exploration. Users can navigate between scenes by simply tapping the screen and a series of navigation symbols can be used to move through the scenes in a variety of directions, without a true beginning or end.
The viewer can never assemble a complete picture of just what is happening. This is no straight narrative work. It is born of the tradition of experimental film and video. Navigating through 8 provokes a sense of feeling more than a story. And once the viewer realizes that coherence will remain illusive, one thinks more about how one is moving through the video loops than what is contained in each.
When Slappe first proposed the project in a grant application, he merely said that the piece would deal with interior and exterior spaces. But it is as much about the disorienting capabilities of technology, and more, about the viewer’s feelings of control or lack thereof in a media piece. “When the camera is still, the viewer is in control, but there is also a feeling of entrapment. People want to move into the space, but they can’t.” They are trapped in the center of it and can only look around. Previously, Slappe had made multi-channel video works that surround the viewer, giving the viewer the sense of being in the video. 8 takes this one step further.
Slappe has been working on this project for years. When the Xbox Kinect came out, he thought about the implications of this technology for his art making. “What if I could put someone in a multidimensional space with their body?” When Slappe got his first smartphone, he realized that with the phone’s accelerometer, he could put this kind of film on the phone. And he liked the idea of the populist distribution method—no galleries involved—and that it was specific, and could only be viewed on this device in one’s pocket.
But meeting the owner of the immersive video camera through a friend kicked the thinking into high gear.
Before filming began, Slappe established rules for the videos. He had long thought about a viewer coming into the gallery in the middle of the video piece. “Being aware of that, about beginnings, middles, and ends and how a viewer experienced that, if at all, began to have more of a role in how I thought about video in general. And I love a loop. A short loop always reminds you that this is not real. It is an impossible temporal thing that is happening.”
Slappe’s rules included that the work would be made up of a series of episodes or loops of either long or short lengths and that each had to co-exist with the other loops, that “any human presence should emphasize the characteristics of the space they interact with, and that all scenes should be narratively ambiguous, striving for unexpected moments.” Oh, and “It’s a sphere. USE IT.”
Slappe developed a shot list and a model for how the loops would fit together. There would be eight major loops of up to a minute and 16 shorter loops of 1-10 seconds. In an elaborate donut diagram, Slappe points out that each of the major loops is connected to each other in a sequence, but accessible only through one of four shorter loops. He calls the narrative structure Brechtian, pointing out that “things collide, but don’t fit together. Or they go together but don’t go together.”
While working on the structure of the piece, Slappe had Fennell mock up a version of 8 with stock footage to get a sense of what it means to experience sound and moving image in this way, to research how people would use and move with it. He calls it researching, “the choreography of the viewer.” The first prototype was finished in June of 2013.
When it was time to shoot, Slappe had to plan carefully. He was able to use the camera for just a month. He had limited time in the spaces available (one being the 511 Building, a derelict Federal Building that was undergoing demolition in preparation for being renovated as PNCA’s new home) and limited time available from his actors. But more importantly, he knew he would have to take whatever the camera captured. He couldn’t stand off to the side to watch the filming. He was in it, hidden under the 60 degree cone of invisibility. He calls the process, in which you only had 3 or 4 takes where one was going to have to work, “controlled chance.”
In creating this dystopic atmosphere, Slappe worked for the sound design with alumnus Bryson Hansen, MFA ’11. “I wanted it to sound supernatural, sci-fi, ominous, disorienting.”
Slappe worked on a lot of models for the user interface, wanting to limit choices but also create a fluid experience of moving from one loop to the next. “I wanted it to be as simple as possible, because I thought the process of the viewer figuring it out was important,” Slappe says. But early efforts weren’t working. “It was a world of chaos. People would go in a circle and get stuck and think that’s all there was.” So he eventually introduced a system of tiles with symbols that are ambiguous but call to mind the primitive, the astrological. And he reluctantly added elementary instructions.
Slappe released 8 on April 20, 2014. An early review calls it “must see” and notes, “A new medium is born with Stephen Slappe’s 8. Well shot and edited. You are thrust into the scene. Truly unique. The potential here is bubbling on the surface.”
Photographer and alumnus Sarah Meadows ’08 went along with Slappe while he was shooting in the 511 Building and captured the scene behind the scenes.