Tracking Theory, Terminal Time, and Closer

Note:  Links to the first two projects are completely optional views.

My favorite digital story is Eric Faden’s Tracking Theory:  The Synthetic Philosophy of the Glance, published in the Perception Issue of Vectors Journal:

The Synthetic Philosophy of The Glance derives from a quote by 19th century French writer Benjamin Gastineau describing a new type of perception initiated by rail travel.

Scholar Wolfgang Schivelsbusch noted this new perception–what he called “Panoramic Perception”–was especially suited to new visual technologies like cinema that could effortlessly and instantly move across space and time with a simple cut. The film explores how the railroad and cinema changed human perception in the late 19th century.

This work is what Faden calls a “media stylo”.  It works like a historical documentary, but puts a fairly unique spin on reenactment and archival footage, which is documented in a ‘Behind the Scenes’ section:

The Synthetic Philosophy of The Glance plays with the idea that early cinema had numerous functions beyond storytelling and imagines what an early “essay” film might be like. Rather than exclusively repurposing original early films, we simulated early cinema’s look and texture by compositing live action video with vintage photographs.

But…this work is 12 minutes long, so I went searching for another digital story for my blog post.  During my search, I found the Terminal Time project from 1999-2000:

Terminal Time is a cutting edge, audience-powered history engine combining mass participation, reel-time documentary graphics and artificial intelligence to bring you the history you deserve.  Each half-hour cinematic experience is custom-made to YOUR values, biases and desires and covers one thousand years of human history.

This project, however, was a live action experience and the content is not saved on the site.  Furthermore, the user driven products were thirty minutes.  Still, I couldn’t resist linking to it and thought this was as good a time as any.

I looked at some other academic type works, but decided to post on a fairly widely seen video, at almost a million and a half youtube views. Since it was a featured selection at last year’s 24/7 a DIY Video Summit at USC, I’ve deemed this pop culture artifact a digital story worth analyzing. I’m sure most of you have seen this sort of “vid” or “fanvid” on youtube.  They are basically music videos which reassemble or mash up source material to provide an alternate take on a movie or television show’s plot or characterization. This one is called Closer.

It uses clips from an episode, or perhaps a couple of episodes, of Star Trek to suggest sexual tension and unrequited desire between Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock. From my understanding, this love affair is a long standing practice in written fan fiction, which uses characters from popular television, often Star Trek, as the basis for new, fan generated stories. Through visual juxtaposition of shots and provocative soundtrack, the story is laid out quickly. The video is made to fit the length of the song, and goes on a little longer than the story probably needs. For an entire three and a half minute video, a little more of a story might have been developed, but Closer serves as a good, clear, example of how “fanvids” tell stories.

First, the video begins with a prompt.: “What if they hadn’t made it to Vulcan in time?” This sets up the video as an exercise in counter-factual thinking, if we suspend our idea of facts/past actions to include the events which occurred in the original episode. In this context, we can assume that’s fair. I find this interesting because one of the lauded abilities of documentary film is its ability to provide a counter-history, primarily by introducing new evidence. Closer does not provide any new evidence, but instead calls attention to the more overarching power of any filmic product, the assembly of shots.

In this case, the same source material is rearranged to tell an alternate story. The original is also altered by video effects, which pull the images slightly out of context and give them a tone more aligned with the soundtrack. The sepia tone and shutter flashes also give the video a somewhat archival or dreamlike quality, which adds to the overall tone. Finally, the video works because it uses characters which are extremely familiar in popular culture, Kirk and Spock, but a theme that is a little less common, male homosexual love affairs. If the story-tellers had assembled a series of shots with Kirk and his numerous female love interests, that would be cliche and fairly uninteresting. A buddy song with Kirk and Spock would be an equal bore.

By using images and characters with which viewers would be familiar and perhaps identify with in some ways and putting them off-axis the videomakers create drama without having to create their own characters, film their own scenes, or even provide their own score.  This exercise might seem fairly simple, but there are many examples of fanvids of this sort that completely miss the mark.

Category: W2: Digital Story
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4 Responses
  1. tgoodwin says:


    In reading more about “media stylo” I found it interesting that Eric Faden is quick to say that this does not replace scholarship. (“…the media stylo does not replace traditional scholarship”) rather it is a technique by which one can experiment and explore. But isn’t what we are interested in is to “reshape the narrative” as Janet Murray says in “Hamlet on the Holodeck” (p.10)? It is not a matter of “replacing” scholarship, in my view. It is a matter of creating a different kind of scholarship and digital storytelling is an alternate narrative to that of “traditional” scholarship.

    Your example of the Star Trek/Nine Inch Nails mash up reshapes the “narrative” of Star Trek. I like the video and find it creative, fun and well done and it certainly succeeds in creating an alternative view of the relationship between Kirk and Spock.

  2. aodiorne says:

    Murray explains that her students, “are drawn to the medium because they want to write stories that cannot be told in other ways.” While I don’t think its absolutely necessary to do something that can only be done digitally with digital storytelling, it is important to think, “would this be better on paper?”.

    Many of us probably found it a little challenging to describe a video. If we hadn’t been able to link to the document, it would have been even more difficult. Historian’s source material is primarily written documents, so it makes sense to write about them. But if the source material is photographs, moving images or material culture, perhaps writing isn’t always the best medium.

  3. rsuiter says:

    I like this one– I’d forgotten about it.

    Just to share one of my favorites:

  4. rsuiter says:

    Okay, apparently embedding in replies is a no-no…

    HERE is one of my favorites.

    (It appeals more to my fandom, and besides that, I just think it’s a brilliant editing job.)