What Lies on the Web

By Ben Slater


Moving image and fictional worlds in the age of the internet

The construction of “Content” as an idea is perhaps the key to the aesthetic failure of many online film-sites to be anything other than holding areas for a vast range of sub-standard short film-making. The web was envisioned as one big, powerful delivery mechanism, and for a while it existed with hardly anything to deliver. Entrepreneurs dabbling in the peddling of culture down the net needed original, valuable, exclusive stuff, and were willing to open the floodgates to vast pools of digitally enabled talent. In theory it all sounded fantastic, Francis Ford Coppola’s prophecy in Hearts Of Darkness about fat children, video cameras and masterpieces looked like it might be coming true. But somehow “Content” in its purest form was just that: all throwaway images and cheap gags with little or no sense of form, context or feeling for the new medium. More wannabe film directors pushing for exposure.


This isn’t to write off completely those well-known “download-the-wacky-movie” sites, because what they did at a crucial point was to provide an outlet for a new generation of film-makers suddenly shooting shorts on domestic DV cameras and then editing them on their home computers. A whole mess of “Content”, not generally good enough or well resourced enough to breakthrough into film festivals or TV, could at least stake a claim to some publicly accessible webspace. Professionals mingled with amateurs, polished student films mixed up with teenage camcorder flix, FX-house side-projects became interchangeable from painstaking bedsit animations. The cross-fertilisation of eclectic kinds of film-makers at all levels of the game, and many completely new to it, was exciting in itself, breaking down some of the boundaries and blockages that commissioning bodies, funders, companies and studios have always used to prevent inexperienced, untested talent from getting through too quickly.

Having got this far, the challenge now is to locate and explore the new styles and forms that actually are only just beginning to emerge from the web as a place where moving image is made, displayed and consumed.


One genre that is entirely exclusive to online short film, which has often been dismissed as purely ephemeral, is the Fan Film and its less reverent relative, the Film Parody. They are not new phenomena, there were amateur 16mm. Star Wars pastiches within a few years of the original’s release (but no real method to distribute them), and Parody films are the successors to a long history of films-mocking-films. Both of these genres have thrived on the web for a number of reasons. In the case of Fan Films the whole tech-enabled community aspect of the web is a perfect space for sharing tips, news, insults and feedback. More importantly, the internet is still a zone where regular copyright rules don’t quite apply. In the case of Star Wars, George Lucas himself has decreed that unless film-makers try and profit from their efforts, they are free to plunder whatever they like from the Star Wars universe.

What is fascinating is the way they show how new technology – desktop post-production software and the net as a distribution structure – has allowed fans an opportunity to create works that extend and develop the fictional world of their cult-objects. They are no longer passive multiplex consumers, but potentially creators themselves. Many Fan Films feature stunning CGI and surround-sound as well as highly imaginative use of locations. At the highest end, the professionalism is impressive.


The level of commitment to entering and maintaining a claim on these worlds gives them a certain poignancy. For me there is something gloriously triumphant about some Fan Films, especially ones made beyond the US. The Hungarian Star Wars mini-epic Sotet Ordal (The Dark Side) and the Finnish James Bond film, Uhka Idästä (The Eastern Threat), among others, proudly reclaim these popular myths for their own cultures and languages.

Although I’d argue Fan Films present an empowerment through digital technology that is entirely local to the web, they easily fit into the “wacky-movie” category so beloved of the entertainment dot coms. There are other forms of moving image work on the web that are deeply inspired by cinema, but exist exclusively online for different reasons. They aren’t films available via a website, rather they are websites.


Stuart Nolan, a consultant for interactive TV, is fond of rhetorically asking during his presentations: “Have you ever seen a website that’s made you cry?” This gets to the heart of the matter for many web-detractors, that it’s all (dubious or corporate) information, jokes and pornography. Web content lacks depth, is just surface and no feeling. Hi-Res’s widely lauded “promotional” site for Requiem For A Dream (2000) has probably come closest to blowing this notion out of the water.

Using a single screening of Darren Aronofsky’s finished film as the team’s starting point, it’s a linear but ever-changing journey through a series of fake websites and sequences of haunting animation, coupled with dialogue and music fragments from the film. Less a tool to push the movie than an extended web reverie on the themes of addiction and loneliness. The groundbreaking play with internet conventions (loading times, sites crashing, error messages) make it an exceptional work. It might even make a few users cry, or at least take them into emotional territory previously uncharted by web surfing.


Hi Res’s work can be placed in a loose wave of web-design based projects that use the interactivity of the web, the extraordinary potential of flash animation software and the vast scope of web architecture, to put online a series of experiences that echo cinema while drawing on computer games, fine art, graphic design, retro technology and their own unique sense of web-ness. Often these are side projects, labours of love worked on and continually tinkered with by highly paid, well-resourced designers, most famously Josh Davis’s Praystation and Once Upon A Forest sites, which are like evolving online artifacts, and Yohan Gingras’s magnificently unsettling Evil Pupil, a highly cryptic online game inspired by childhood experiences and mind-bending drugs. The “user” spends a great deal of time figuring out passwords from various clues buried within layers of haunting and deeply resonant imagery and sound. These passwords unlock and take users to further levels. The incentive to keep playing is the promise of more of Gingras’s vision – he asks for time and concentration, as opposed to money, in return for his unique content.

Eschewing all the typical rules of web accessibility and anything like clear-cut narratives, these sites (and many others) push users into the position of tentative explorer and player, sifting through a detailed and fully functioning imaginative world with increasing confidence. Slowly getting familiar with complex and bizarre interfaces, imagery is assembled in an apparently free-form associative manner, colliding unrelated objects, shapes, photographs, pop-up windows, quick-time movies, shards of text, all of it potentially shifting, responding and transforming in reaction to a click or mouse-roll on some invisible “hot-spot”: A new form of moving image vocabulary is starting to form.


Along similar lines of inquiry but with a lot less in the way of time and hardware, UK artists have been approaching questions about fiction and moving image online. In Nick Crowe’s Discrete Packets (1999) a narrative about a father searching for his estranged daughter is told via emails, music and video cues. It then ingeniously sends the user off (from a homepage) into various strata of the internet, where information related to the “missing person” story has been planted on “live” websites. The tale ends in the murky world of online porn and real-time sex chat with a bitter punchline about these new forms of communication and an unwitting reference to Wim Wenders’s Paris, Texas.

Map50 (2000), a collaborative site hosted by artists Desperate Optimists, brings eclectic perspectives to the travels of a female protagonist making her way around a district of London. Building up episodically in a freeform revision of a soap opera, it layers text, sound, photography, video and animation to build a multi-angled portrait of a largely bleak urban environment. It is a work that seems acutely aware of the limits of the web and makes no bones about loading times and file-sizes. Each artist pursues the “story” with a different style and tone, creating the sense that the heroine is being stalked by a number of different obsessive documentarists, uploading their visions to the website at regular intervals.

I could go on. There are myriad more examples of moving image work that are just starting to hint at the potential relationship between the web and “film”. There is also a whole other series of questions about what happens to the viewers (or users) of this stuff that goes beyond any simple concerns about the end of the communal audience. What is certain, though, is that as a developing medium, the surface is only just being scratched. As major Hollywood studios scramble to catch the broadband wave and secure spaces where they can pipe their “Content” into our homes, we can at least be sure that there are places where experimentation thrives, and original ways of fusing and evolving images and stories will persist.



Ben Slater used to co-edit Entropy with Gareth Evans, a magazine about experimental culture. He now programmes special events at the Showroom Cinema, Sheffield.