Developing the Next Talkie

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If you haven’t seen the 1952 movie Singin’ in the Rain, well, I envy you, because you can only see it for the first time once. Aside from being one of my favorite films, I’ve found that to be a great look at the collaborative creative process, especially in trying to figure out how to use a new technology.

The MGM musical is set in the late 1927s, in the last days of the silent film. Fictional studio Monumental Pictures is in the midst of filming a new swashbuckler (more of the same that they’ve been cranking out for years) with Gene Kelly’s character as the star. Things are going fine, although Kelly’s feeling a little hemmed in by the medium (what another character called “so much dumb show”).

Then word starts circulating around the industry that Warner Bros. are working on a picture called The Jazz Singer with synced sound and image. The newfangled technology is touted by some as great, doubted as a fad by others, and deemed “vulgar” by others.

Monumental resists until finally, it’s clear that talkies are here to stay, so they temporarily shut down The Dueling Cavalier, install recording booths on their soundstages, and prepare to turn the film into Monumental’s first talkie. One scene shows the production staff try to work out the details. They run the wires across the floor and put the microphone — which is about the size of a Roomba — in a bush. When that doesn’t work, they sew it into the actress’s clothes, but it picks up her heartbeat. When they finally screen the movie, the audio goes out of sync.

As I rewatching the film recently, it occurred to me just how similar this situation is to what is happening again and again in our own field, where game-changing emerging technologies seem to be coming faster and faster: Depth cameras as interactive controllers, HTML5/Ajax, Processing and OpenFrameworks, image recognition and mobile technology, including near field technology, even this wild thing:

At Second Story, we get really excited about the possibility of using these technologies to enhance storytelling and create more immersive and engaging experiences. But the possibilities outweigh the certainties. At this point, the language of the talking film and the user experience of sitting in a theater and watching one is clear. Expectations have been set, and from there the storyteller can meet, exceed, subvert, or otherwise play with those expectations.

That’s not entirely true yet with many kinds of interactions. Notice that interfaces and navigation ideas are constantly being innovated, raising new expectations in users. We’re too eager to experiment and figure out what these new technologies mean for telling the stories we want to tell. In the movie, the divided opinions about the new technology underscores the need to embrace new technology in the creative process and simply try things. You never know what’s going to stick around. If you need confirmation of this, simply go look up early doubters of the web itself, or look at early reviews of the iPod.

One of the central plot points of Singin’ in the Rain (do you have to issue a spoiler alert for a 59-year-old movie?) is that the new sound technology reveals a serious problem with the way they’re telling the story: they have an actress who looks the part, but when she opens her mouth, she sounds like an idiot. The filmmakers adapt to this problem by accepting the limitation of the technology and coming up with a creative solution, or, in other words, a hack, that makes the final product even better. Working with our technologists and developers, that’s one of the most exciting parts of living now: we’re constantly developing the next talkie.

—Scott Smith, Content Strategist

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Second Story creates enchanting, informative, and entertaining media experiences with innovative technologies that empower connections to ideas.

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