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"New Millennium Telling"
by Eric Miller
A Report on the 1996
Storytelling for the New Millennium
(Originally published in Storytelling Magazine, July 1996.)
Over 400 people attended the Storytelling for the New MillenniumConference
held April 25-27, 1996, in Kauai, Hawaii, for a look at the new media,
which include multimedia, virtual reality, digital, interactive, and telecommunicational
Organized by the American Film Institute and the fledgling Kauai Institute
for Communications Media, the event brought together leaders from the American
film and computer industries, as well as representatives from the fields
of telecommunications, publishing, comedy, rock music, academic, and education.
Long a favorite site for the filming of movies (South Pacific, Raiders
of the Lost Ark, Jurassic Park, to name but a few), the entire Island is
in a sense a movie set. Almost fully recovered from 1992's hurricane Iniki,
now Kauai is also becoming a think-tank and a laboratory for new media.
The great westward flow of United States civilization--across the prairie
and over the Rockies--is now extending in full force over the Pacific and
through Hawaii, which borders Asia, with her massive markets and relatively
low cost of production.
Throughout the Conference the term, storytelling, was used in its broadest
sense, referring to the production of culture in general. Every graphic
designer, producer, and so on was called a storyteller. Two direct applications
of the new technologies for oral storytellers were the use of electronic
images and sounds in accompaniment of storytelling performances and storytelling
through video conferencing.
The Conference keynote address was delivered by Peter Bergman, co-founder
of the comedy ensemble Firesign Theatre. Mr. Bergman said the computer
was more like an "airplane cockpit than a camp fire" and jokingly cited
the first great story of the Digital Age as being "11010100101101101..."
(the binary language of the computer). During his address, Mr. Bergman
announced the formation of a comedy web site, Radio Free Oz, through which
he will be "streaming" live and prerecorded audio.
Martin Behrens, president of Artifax Entertainment, led a three-day
pre-Conference workshop which surveyed the new media's use of interactive
narrative. Mr. Behrens urged participants to "analyze everything, reject
nothing." He described "The Spot," a web site modeled after a TV situation
comedy, which encourages audience members to exchange e-mail with the characters.
Mr. Behrens also told of "games" in which participants can click on visual
representations of characters to hear their thoughts and see the game/story
environment from their points of view. "A dialogue between the oral tradition
and the new technologies would be mutually beneficial," said Mr. Behrens.
San Francisco-based multimedia artist Dana Atchley also led a pre-Conference
workshop in "digital storytelling" (face-to-face storytelling accompanied
by digitally-composed imagery and sound). Participants in the workshop
learned how to use a non-linear editing system--in this case, Premiere
(a software program made by Adobe), used on Apple's Macintosh computers.
A non-linear editing system takes video--along with data in the forms of
photographs, audio, etc.--into the computer's hard drive. That data can
then be arranged via the cut and paste method. Premiere enables 99 visual
layers to be seen simultaneously.
As we were waiting to enter the workshop's opening session, a film professor
cheerfully informed me that "narrative is dead." I was not surprised.
She proceeded to tell me about chaos theory. Later, Harry Marks, Senior
Advisor to AFI's Advanced Technology Program and Conference Chair, assured
me that in Hollywood films at least, narrative is alive and well. When
asked why storytelling had been chosen as the theme of the Conference,
Mr. Marks gave a number of answers. First, he said that as he had been
growing older, storytelling was becoming more important to him, as a way
of looking back upon and organizing the experiences and relics of his life.
He had recently made a brief digital documentary of his life--originally
for his mother, but it had also been seen and appreciated by many of his
colleagues. Mr. Marks also said that in his field (television and film),
"content is king." This sentiment was echoed by many at the Conference.
There was a general agreement that technology should serve the story: "tools-centricity"
was to be avoided. To the degree a project was "hi-tech," it could also
be "hi-touch." Mr. Marks noted that while the model of feedback presented
by storytelling (wherein audience members' responses are received by the
storyteller and incorporated into the ongoing work of art) is useful to
the new media, and while digital media enables this sort of feedback, not
all digitally-produced entertainment would be interactive.
Dana Atchley demonstrated the genre of digital storytelling by giving
a performance of "Next Exit," his life story. On stage, Mr. Atchley was
accompanied by a large screen on which there were folders labeled "the
'40s," "the '50s," "the '60s," and so on. Using a wireless mouse, he opened
the folders and dragged out files of movie clips, placing them along a
time-line at the bottom of the screen. While telling the story, Mr. Atchley
periodically clicked open the files, each of which showed a brief episode
from his life. This definitely was a storytelling performance--it would
have been as stirring without the electronic images and sounds.
Graham Nash, co-founder of the Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young folk-rock
group, discussed and showed video documentation of his new stage show,
LifeSighs, in which he accompanies himself with advanced computer graphics
on a large screen, including a speaking mask that is generated live by
technicians and an actor in Mr. Nash's Los Angeles studio. Mr. Nash ended
his presentation with a video conference between himself and David Crosby,
who was at home in California. In an interview, speaking of the future,
Mr. Nash expressed interest in developing input devices (such as video
cameras and sensitive chairs for measuring body movements, blood pressure,
etc.) that would enable the storyteller to receive unconscious as well
as conscious feedback from listeners, be they at the performance or attending
via telephone lines.
Other notable remarks: Ralph Rogers (Apple Computers) pondered setting
up video conferences between master storytellers and the public. Todd
Rundgren pondered ways of enabling audience participation: one difficulty
he mentioned was that sometimes when audience members had been invited
onstage to jam with his band, the drumsticks had tended to disappear.
Linda Stone (Microsoft), in discussing the danger inherent in permitting
corporations to create the infrastructure of culture, pointed out that
an unlimited number of platforms can work in conjunction with each other.
Screenwriter Michael Backes advised that villains should be portrayed in
part as reacting reasonably to circumstances--in order to humanize them
and make the story more interesting. John Plunkett (Wired Magazine) said
that no matter what medium one uses, one must choose one's story wisely
and tell it provocatively in order to engage one's audience. Tom Rielly
(PlanetOut, a gay internet service) called cyberspace a "sexy and androgynous
The conference ended Saturday night with an open-air banquet. Graham
Nash sang, accompanying himself on acoustic guitar and piano. He dedicated
a rendition of "Our House" to Judy Drosd, Director of the Kauai Institute
for Communications Media. His final song was "Teach Your Children Well."
As I listened to the lyrics--"You who are on the road, need a code, that
you can live by"--I realized that we are updating the code for our new
road, the so-called information highway.
Digital Contacts for Tellers
For more information about the Storytelling for the New Millennium Conference
and upcoming events, write Kauai Institute for Communications Media, 4280-B
Rice St., Lihue, Hawaii 96766; phone 808-241-6390; web site address: http://www.filmkauai.com/kicm/.
For information about classes and a salon, write the American Film Institute,
2021 North Western Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90027; phone 213-856-7600.
For information about workshops, a salon, and the annual Digital Storytelling
Festival held in Crested Butte, Colorado, in early Oct., write San Francisco
Digital Media Center/Dana Atchley, 3435 Cesar Chavez Blvd. (Suite 222),
San Francisco, CA; phone 415-824-9394.
For information about Graham Nash's upcoming tour of LifeSighs, phone
For information about Peter Bergman's comedy web site, Radio Free Oz,