Until last year, the technical aspects of film didn’t get talked about much among the general public. That changed somewhat last year with the release of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, which was released in both a standard 24 frames-per-second version and a 48fps version. This brought some of film technology to the forefront of the conversation, if only for a little while (I imagine the discussion will resume this fall with the release of the 2nd film of The Hobbit trilogy). But it started me thinking both about what is required for something to be considered a movie and how the art of film can be influenced by the different technical options open to storytellers. There are a myriad of choices, from framerate to aspect ratio, color or black and white, sound or silent, spoken or musical, live action or animated, not to mention all of the different storytelling methods, and all of these choices have an impact on the way the story is told.
What has gotten my attention, and has me questioning what truly defines the film, is a story that is currently being told at the rate of one frame per hour, and has been ongoing since March. It began with the simple image of two people, and has gradually grown into an epic tale of a journey for answers, all with only one frame per hour. But here’s the twist, and the reason why people will tell me it’s not a movie: it’s from a webcomic.
The long story is this: there’s geeky webcomic called xkcd, which generally updates 3 times per week. It was created by Randall Munroe, it has a devoted following, and has been around since 2005. xkcd is similar to other webcomics found on the internet, really, though it has no general story arc or recurring characters. Each comic is usually a standalone experience. So what makes this particular comic like a movie?
Well, to start with, you have to define what a movie is. Most dictionary definitions out there seem very limited to me, and generally talk about “audiovisual” live action experiences filmed with a movie camera and projected on a screen. So these definitions all seem to rule out silent movies, animation, and anything watched in any way other than with a projector in a theater. I tend to think of “film” as a less defined experience. After all, is television really different than film? It uses the same techniques.
To me, for something to be a film, all it needs is to be a series of images involving some kind of motion. But more than that, film for me is all about the story. Sure, there are experimental movies that play with perception or meaning without story, but what draws me in is always story.
The comic that has so fascinated me is called “Time” and has the subtitle of “Wait for it.”. It began with a single, black and white image of two people:
At first, people who checked the site for its typical update for the day were confused by the image, but as time went on it became clear that the image was changing, much like a movie, but at a rate of 1 new frame per half hour (later it changed to 1 per hour, and is still ongoing). It began simply as the story of two people on a beach, who start to build a sandcastle out of boredom. The sandcastle grew and grew, until it filled the frame, and then the perspective changed. The “camera” panned left, up the beach, and zoomed out to show a much larger sandcastle than we had expected. Eventually, the character with hair (who I’ll call Megan), brought out a trebuchet and destroyed part of their creation, while they continued to build until it could get no larger.
As the scene progressed, we got an increase in dialogue from Megan and the bald figure, Cueball. They noticed around frame 400 that the sea was rising, and they began to discuss what might be causing it. So once their castle was finished, they set out on a quest to understand what is happening to the sea. They followed the shoreline until they reached a river, and then followed the river upstream towards the mountains. Every discovery was new and fascinating to them, and the story varied from humorous encounters to existential wonderings about the way we understand our world. (“Maybe the sea is too big to understand. We can’t answer every question.” “No, But I think we can answer any question.”)
Eventually, the two characters discovered an abandoned shack, and were attacked by a cougar. Megan fought it off, but it clawed Megan’s leg, and the two decided to press on up the mountains, where they suspected there might be people nearby who could help, instead of returning a long way to their village by the sea. A short while later they found some people, who speak a different language but who helped Megan with her leg. As things currently stand, our protagonists are drawing pictures in the sand to explain where they came from to the mountain people.
It’s a simple story, but it’s been captivating for me and for many other people (the forum thread for “Time” is now at over 1070 pages). You can watch the “movie” in its entirety here, along with the ability to change the frame rate, move back and forth, and pause on “important” frames. (I recommend loading all of the frames before you watch, just so there are no interruptions.) But as enjoyable as the movie has been so far, it’s made me think about a lot of things with regards to movies and our interpretation of them.
The early days of “Time” were dominated by online discussion both about its meaning and about what we were really looking at. If you scroll up and look at that first frame, there’s really nothing we can say for sure about the scene, other than that there are two humans in it. It’s easy to interpret the character with hair as a woman and the bald character as a man, but there’s no guarantee that any of that is true. The setting resembles a beach, but we don’t know that it is one. Is it day or night in the scene? How old are these characters? We’ve learned a lot in the months that have passed, which confirmed that our early assumptions were correct, but they could just as easily have been wrong.
It made me think about the assumptions we make when watching film. Everything relating to a character’s appearance forms our assumptions, before we ever see enough of the character to know anything about his/her makeup. Clothing, hairstyles, scars and facial features, posture and a myriad of other things affect our appraisal of the character. Assumptions about setting, time and location are prominent too. Of course, part of a filmmaker’s job is to convey as much as possible about a character or location in the allotted running time, so these assumptions can be important. But like in The Usual Suspects, assumptions can be played with. It was fascinating to see the assumptions I and everyone else made in the first days of “Time”.
Of of the more interesting things about this comic is the level of immersion (for lack of a better word) that exists in this “film” as a byproduct of its unique presentation. We’re used to seeing movies on large screens with surround sound, giving us gorgeous scenery, detailed sets, or animation, but deep inside us film fans know that what we’re seeing is all that exists. They only build sets for what the camera can see, and the desert might look untouched in The Lone Ranger but if you swung the camera around you’d see a modern highway. We know that we’re watching actors and not real people, and that when they leave the screen they cease to be those characters. It’s even true in animation, where we know that the characters are simply being voiced by someone else. Have you ever seen a door on a set and wondered what was on the other side? The answer is probably that the door doesn’t open, that it’s an animated texture in the digital room, or simply a wooden plank on the side of the set, painted to look like a door.
Obviously, “Time” is also simply animation, none of it is real, but it does something very clever by the very nature of the way the story is being told. For the first three days of “Time” we got a single, fixed shot, covering a very small area. Megan and Cueball would come and go from the left side of the screen, and the speculation as to what was just beyond the frame was rampant. What I would call the “directorial style” that Randall uses makes it clear to us that we’re only seeing a small portion of the world. It almost makes it feel like a documentary. In most movies the general feeling is that what you’re seeing is all that is worth being seen. Nothing is shown that isn’t necessary for the story, so therefore little time is spent in pondering what we’re not seeing. But when Randall did that first zoom and pulled back from the sandcastle as we knew it to something much more impressive, it changed the audience’s perspective about the world outside the frame. Considering that in many ways the story is about two characters broadening their horizons and discovering the world around them, it’s a fitting sentiment as it relates to film.
Of course, the boldest and most inventive aspect of “Time” is its pacing. From the earliest days, the comic’s subtitle “Wait for it.” has been difficult to follow. With film we’re used to instant gratification. Either a story is told and done within 2 hours, or it’s a serialized TV show, with weekly, hour-long installments. With TV, of course, we’re used to waiting, but the time waiting is filled with teasers, interviews, and clips to excite our interest for next week’s (or next season’s) show. So by the time the episode rolls around we generally know what we’re going to get. In this case, each new frame has the potential for infinite surprise, while the half-hour or hour wait allows us to digest and contemplate the previous frame. There were periods where hours and hours went by with no change other than a few pixels here or there. It is both tantalizing and frustrating, in the best way possible.
Having the frames animated in such a way also allows for some interesting time shifts. We’re used to slow motion and fast motion photography, both of which get used on the big screen fairly regularly. But the hourly frames of “Time” are not spaced evenly apart in terms of the length of time represented in the story. There are frames that seem to be merely seconds apart, while others last minutes or longer. When you play the first segment of the story, as they build sandcastles on the beach, you can imagine it taking place over an afternoon, perhaps, giving us maybe 3 frames per minute of castle building, but it’s never quite constant. As the castle grows, the action speeds up, with larger changes happening between frames, slowing down for things that are out of the ordinary (dialogue, action, etc.). It gives Randall, as a director, a unique way to emphasize some events over others. The movie industry likes to play with color, sound, camera angles and editing techniques, but they rarely play with time as a way to enhance moments (outside of the previously mentioned slow motion). In essence, Randall gets to fastforward to more interesting parts without ever having to simply skip ahead.
But the flexibility in time also allows for some stunning moments. After Megan is attacked, the pair decide to rest for the night, so that hopefully her leg can heal a bit. For the next 7 days of real world time, we were shown a complete night’s worth of sleep (with the characters taking shifts). The sun set, the stars emerged, the sky moved as the earth turned, and we watched characters sleep. Can you imagine any film or TV show devoting so much time to something like this?
Even more creatively, when a meteor passed overhead, Randall published 5 frames spaced one minute apart, which allowed him to maintain the smooth progression of time in the film while increasing the framerate so as to capture more detail. On the link I posted earlier, you are able to vote for which frames you think the playback should be slowed, allowing the viewer more time to absorb the dialogue or notice the details of what might have changed from one frame to the next. The entire comic can be played back at a constant speed, and works just like a film, with the mind and the eyes filling in the gaps between frames. But it can also work at varied speeds, as I imagine Randall intended, allowing us to catch our breath at important moments.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the community aspect of “Time”. I go to see films in the theater for many reasons, but one of the biggest is the sense of community. There’s nothing that compares with seeing a film as part of a shared emotional experience with strangers. It’s a way to connect people through a common work of art, and it’s something that is slowly dying as people begin to prefer watching films at home. But with “Time” it’s impossible to fully experience the story alone, due to the round-the-clock nature of Randall’s method. You have to rely on others to capture what you miss while sleeping. It unifies the audience in a unique way. I mentioned the forum earlier, and from that forum have sprung a variety of ways to experience “Time”, all of which remind the audience that this is not a solitary experience.
The biggest question of “Time” is, of course, when will it end? There were many guesses when it first started, but I, for one, am happy simply to watch and find out. The aspect of not knowing what to expect is thrilling in many ways. It’s like watching a movie in which you don’t know the running time (which would most likely frustrate a lot of people). There’s an aura of mystery around the entire project, but while many people are probably dying to know how it ends, “Time” has taught me to enjoy the ride. To “Wait for it.” If the story ended today, I would be satisfied, and if it continues indefinitely, that will be great too. In today’s era of instant gratification, where spoilers and pirated media allow us to access film on our time, it’s refreshing to be taught a little patience. It makes us appreciate what we’re getting, and in many ways gets rid of disappointment. And it has made me reconsider the way I watch film and television. When every hour holds a surprise, and there’s no way to speed it up, it can make even the simplest of things, like building a sandcastle, exciting.
*Note: I do not own any of the images posted above, they all belong to Randall Munroe of xkcd.com
What do you think? Is “Time” a film, or simply a creative webcomic? Is there anything we can learn from it, to apply to the films we watch? Check out this map someone created of the journey! Am I crazy? Let me know in the comments!
*A quick update. “Time” has officially ended. At some point I may post my thoughts of the project as a whole, but for now you can read Randall’s thoughts about “Time” and some behind the scenes information on his blog.