This article may contain personal views and opinion from the author.
I am a complete media nerd. I have boxes of comic books and DVDs, a Google Books library and Pocket reading list that I will likely never get through, a constantly moving YouTube Watch Later list, and subscriptions to Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Google Play Music. I studied TV & Film in college; and, I'm the kind of guy who will study and critique all aspects of TV and film while watching (lighting, cinematography, score, writing, acting, and directing.) Now, I'm a writer, but until today, there hasn't been anything in the mobile space that would allow me to unleash my full film-geek brain in this sphere. However, the newest Motorola Spotlight Player story, Duet, looks like the first example of a narrative that merging beautifully with the medium it inhabits.
Duet, because it is absolutely genius. It represents the perfect use of the medium for a story. I'll dig more into that in a bit, but first, I think it wise to talk about what the Spotlight Player is, and why the first two stories didn't work quite so well.Obviously, only a few of you out there have a Motorola device, and even out of that subset, there are some Moto users who may have never opened the Spotlight Player. Or, if you have opened it up, you might have been somewhat less than impressed with the first couple of stories released for the app. If so, you're going to need to go in again and try out the new story,
The Motorola Spotlight Player is essentially an app that is attempting to apply some of the augmented reality ideas to animated stories, rather than to the world around you. This means that your smartphone is the camera, or more accurately, the viewfinder into this fictional animated world. You turn and point your phone in different directions in order to see more of the story-world that you're in, and find the characters that you are supposed to care about. Then, the story plays out before your eyes.
The first two stories, Windy Day and Buggy Night, both have impressive animation pedigrees, having been made by former Pixar animators. Both stories also used the same kind of interaction method, which is that you as the viewer were in control of how quickly the story would play out. By this, I mean that you could look around the world as much as you wanted, but when you settled on a certain piece (the hat in Windy Day or the bugs in Buggy Night), a scene would play out for you. This was an interesting interaction method, because it let you control the pace of the story, but it also made for bad storytelling, because you controlled the pace of the story.
Pacing is hugely important for narrative, because it has a big influence on the emotion of the viewer. Consider any suspense/horror movie (and I mean good horror, not just gore porn), it has wave-like pacing - long stretches of slower movement to increase tension that something might happen, then a burst of faster action as the payoff, then back to the tension-building. Action movies use fast-paced cuts to increase the speed of the movement. And, dramas tend to move a bit slower, so you can absorb the full weight of the situation. However, when you put the pacing control in the hands of the viewer, it messes that all up. This is a big issue that video games have when it comes to storytelling.
This is also the main problem with the first two Spotlight stories. Because you can diverge and look around at whatever you want, those moments tend to be faster paced with the camera bouncing around as you try to find something interesting. Unfortunately, when you do find the thing that is supposed to be interesting (the hat or the bugs), the movement slows to a crawl as you simply watch a relatively static scene play out. You might have to follow the action a bit, but overall, it just isn't that engaging. Buggy Night was somewhat better about the interaction, requiring more movement, and keeping you chasing the action once you found the bugs; but, it ultimately became repetitive because the story was the same basic scene, just with an increasing number of bugs.
As you might have guessed from how I opened this piece, that is not how Duet plays out. Just for reference, here is the original animated short for Duet: (*warning for Motorola users who want to fully experience Duet: there are major spoilers from here on out. So, you should go and take the few minutes to run through Duet before continuing.)
Now, imagine that you are in control of the camera while watching that story. You desperately want to see everything that happens, but as the two characters go their separate ways, it becomes clear that is impossible to do. You have to make split-second decisions of which piece of the action you want to follow and commit to your choice, or else you'll miss everything, because this story doesn't wait for you. If you're not watching the right spot, that moment will be lost to you (until you watch again, of course.)
This means that the interaction with the story of Duet becomes something of a chase, mirroring to a degree the character of Tosh in the story as he runs around with his dog, running and climbing and eventually running into Mia. You ultimately feel less like someone looking on to a scene, and more like someone who is a part of the scene, just trying to keep up with the action. And, because you need to be physically turning your body to follow the scene, it feeds into that feeling even more.
As you can imagine, suddenly the pacing of the story is not under your control. The story will play out at the same pace, whether you're watching the right part of the world or not. Except for one moment (kind of). About three-quarters of the way through the story, when Tosh and Mia are up in the tree, suddenly the movement slows down and lets you breathe a bit. In this moment, you are following a butterfly, which naturally will move much slower than two active humans. The butterfly slowly makes its way up the tree, until it reaches Tosh and Mia. You can jump up the tree faster, if you want, but this is a perfect moment added to let you process everything that you've just seen.
Because you are so busy trying to follow the action throughout the story, you don't experience it the same way as you would when watching the static video embeded above. Just like when things happen quickly in your own life, your brain captures the information, but you may need a moment afterwards to process and fully take in everything that happened. That's what is afforded by the moment with the butterfly. In that way, it is more the filmmaker (Glen Keane) giving you control of the scene, and more of simply allowing you a moment to breathe before Tosh and Mia come to the end of their tale. Perfect storytelling masked as a moment of agency for the viewer.
The beauty of Duet goes beyond the story, the art, and the animation (which are all lovely), and to a place that finally gives us a snapshot of what could be a new medium for stories; and, it is a medium that could only exist on mobile devices. The story itself, quite obviously, doesn't necessarily need to be on mobile. It exists as a traditional video (and one that is on the short list for the best animated short of 2014); but, its existence on mobile has opened it up to something new, something that wasn't possible before.
To go back to the video game idea a bit - although the first couple Motorola Spotlight stories fell prey to one of the same issues that plagues storytelling in video games, the type of storytelling in Duet is not something that would translate properly to a video game. Sure, you can control the camera in a video game, and this may even allow you to follow the action of a story the same way; but, it still wouldn't be the same experience. This kind of storytelling can only exist on mobile because not only are you in control of where the camera is pointed, but the viewfinder into that world (your phone's display) moves as well.
When your phone is both camera and viewfinder into a fictional world, it creates something of a portal that can truly transport you into that world. That is a powerful starting point to storytelling. There is certainly potential for this sort of storytelling to be overused (as evidenced by all of the "found footage" movies that have tried to recreate the success of The Blair Witch Project, from Cloverfield to the various Paranormal Activity movies, and beyond). In terms of movies, "found footage" is something of a gimmick used to raise tension while simultaneously breaking the suspension of disbelief that this kind of footage could have ever been created in the first place, let alone found and built into a proper movie.
Motorola Spotlight Player stories have some deep ties to "found footage" movies, except that you are controlling the camera. This can create more engaging, but ultimately bland, stories like the first two Spotlight stories. Surprisingly, giving the viewer agency in this process may increase engagement to an extent, but it has a big negative impact on the story itself. Duet has found the perfect balance of guiding the storytelling process and pacing while offering the viewer some agency in the process.
The surprising trick to success with this balance is in giving the viewer the potential to miss something important. Offering the viewer control, but then waiting on them to find the important pieces of the story results in an uninteresting and static experience. On the other hand, the storyteller can keep control of the tale and the pacing while still giving the viewer agency in what they see; they just might miss something, and need to watch the story multiple times. Not only does that make the first viewing more engaging, but it leaves the door open for multiple viewings, in order to catch the pieces that you didn't see the first time through.
With Duet, Motorola has finally found that balance, and in the process, has opened the door to some amazingly interesting storytelling through the mobile platform. Now, we'll just have to see if Motorola can follow this up properly, and if anyone else realizes the potential that has been uncovered here.