Practice-Based Case Study 1: Dr Chris Hales

Chris Hales spoke at length about the process of doing his PhD in interactive filmmaking. In Chris’s case the films he used were made before he was enrolled as a PhD student, so he wrote about them, but didn’t submit them for examination. Chris said his objective in embarking on the study was to know more than anybody in the world about his specialist area. Because Chris had always taken a great interest in observing how audiences responded to and interacted with the work, he was able to draw from an extensive archive of documented (mostly by video) audience responses to the work and include this on the DVD of 15 interactive films. Chris classified the films on the DVD in the following categories: Movie as Interface; Algorithmic Multiscreen; Group Interaction; and Audience Response Archive. By putting time codes on all his clips, Chris was able to refer to specific events in the footage he wanted the readers/examiners to look at. Chris said that over the ten or so years he worked across 4 different institutions he wrote and published a lot of work (approx 60,000 words) and that in preparing the manuscript of his thesis the best thing he did was to stop trying to piece together a ‘greatest hits’ manuscript pieced together from all the previous work but instead just to start over again from scratch and write everything up fresh in one coherent piece which turned out to be 52,000 words.

After Chris’s presentation there was a group discussion around whether to write a PhD about a creative practice that already exists or whether to make creative work for and within the framework of the PhD. Chris said that in his case he thinks it would have killed the creative spark for him to make films ‘for’ the PhD, but he noted that other SMARTlab graduates such as Anna Birch have made creative work specifically for their doctoral studies and that this just seems to be quite a personal choice that people have to make for themselves.

Lizbeth said that because Chris was one of the first practice based PhD students, particularly in his field, it was actually easier for him to write up a retrospective of his life work in interactive films as a PhD than it would have been to submit interactive films as part of the material he was examined on, but Lizbeth said that today that would not hold so true in that it would be easier to be examined on an art/programming artefact

today than it was then.

Kasia reflected that in designing the DVD Chris categorized the films by form rather than by content and wanted to know about this choice. Chris said that as an artist the content is equally important and in fact integral to the type of form one chooses, but that in terms of how to frame the work as part of the PhD document the formal categorization made more sense.

David Dunkley-Gyimah was taking notes…

Chris introduced his publication, which entered the world at the end of 2006. It is concerned with rethinking the interactive movie. The video material was created for the support of the written thesis. All the classification and contextualising, of material produced before, happened during the registration period. Chris had experience at four universities before settling on completing his studies at Smartlab.

Having started at Masters at RCA- his work on interactive film happened to grow so quickly as he was in the right place at the right time. The communication programme leader at RCA encouraged showing some of the materials at exhibitions. Switched to RCA PhD but not satisfactory-registering with the TV and film department, later closed by Christopher Frayling. With an advisor, and through a lecture series by Bruce Archer that explored what research practice in an art an design context that was happening at this time, his passion was fired. His time at RCA was spent designing and making interactive film. The greatest achievement was deciding to become ‘the world expert’ in the subject, to try and understand why audiences were interested in the work, and what was making it original. There was a drive to know more than anyone else in the world about his subject. The masters students who had posted him work from MIT Media Lab were interested in elements within this – for example, interface design. It was when linking up with Lizbeth at University of Surrey in 1999 that Chris understood that putting existing work aside, and starting again, would be incredibly liberating. It meant that he was not ‘hacking’ away at existing work and compile a ‘greatest hits’ of his work. There were some anxieties about systematic methodologies.

He showed his personal copy that came into the viva, with reference tabs for core arguments. He showed a slide with the sections listed from the thesis:

1. Narrative Intention

2. Design Aesthetic

3. Principal Objectives

4. History

5. Brief description

6. Film and production techniques

7. Structure

8. Interaction technique

9. Software used and/or developed

10. Audience feedback and author’s observations

11. Conclusions

He was driven to create a methodological approach that meant his findings would live on and be useful to future generations of film makers working in this field.

The DVD was shown (Mac files only- and no-one complained when in the viva!)

The lines of enquiry which were original:

‘Movie as Interface’ the way the objects are positioned, characters placed- and nine films that investigated this topic

‘Algorithmic Multiscreen’ multi screen components, that there is behaviour between the elements.

‘Group Interaction’ how a live audience responds to interactivity within the film

The early material was NOT re-interpreted for the PhD- but having to create them again on newer Mac OS was necessary, that was the only ‘upgrade’ that was made.

All the video material shows features of the audience engagement. This is powerful as single elements of the experience – such as the characteristics of why two people ‘fight’ with fingers to control a film, or an audience reaction singing and breaking glass on film, or why a person will sit for 45 minutes to watch an interactive movie.

During the questions, Chris returned to saying that his inspiration was to create guidelines. There was no single film that was held up as the finished article, the piece that exemplified the approach. There is no right or wrong approach- Chris felt it important to range over his past work, but from the point of research to take it forward.

Lizbeth: Chris has to set up some paradigms doing his studies as there were very few practice based PhDs, and had to be retrospective. There were ‘no shoulders to stand on’, and now there are rules and methodologies which have grown from his work. Knowing about how to use and involve past work was not known when he started and time was used in finding out how valuable this was, and now his efforts have made it easier for further students in this area to progress.

Chris: would not have felt happy to create a ‘final piece’ which fitted all this together- comes from passions and motives, but was really happy to carry out surveying.

Taey: when did you decide to break the films into the 3 categories? Also, was there more work left out, how did you select?

Chris:It could have been a number of ways, the categorisation, for instance, thinking about visual language, multiscreen language and then audiences. But the structure settled on worked?

Galen: where does the ‘says who’ come from? The interface rules, the reaction and so on, how does the authority exist, and how did you go about creating it?

Chris: found out who was doing work. He was often with other exhibitors, some of who had published. There is a historical context- and Chris had to ringfence his work, and set boundaries, and say what was not being covered. And the second point is looking at audience, to see what reaction was, to see if it matched the makers intentions. Part of writing is challenging other film makers too- to say, let’s look at the audience in more sophisticated ways.

Galen: you could use your own markers of success?

Chris: not totally subjective: have referred to written articles, audience books etc, there are third party comments

Bruce: were you challenged on the viva?

Lizbeth: through this work, learnt to keep video diaries, evidence, and what was acceptable to justuify the methods, and were careful in finding artists with experience and understanding.

Kasia: how important was the actual content of your films. You want to say something- but it is not going to suit the medium I am going to use. What balance?

Chris: some films are poetic documentaries, and some are comedy (someone falling over), or video portrait of a man and his dog. If there more attempts to subject classify them, they would have been hard to use in the PhD. This was underplayed for the viva. The content was ‘subjugated’ – but of course lessons were learned and influences seeped through. In conclusion: these techniques are generic (not just a great technique for slapstick comedy)- they are not specific to the content of the pieces.

Camille: narrative, story arcs: is that something you wanted to get away from?

Chris: PhD level/MA level work- all wasted time thinking about history, branching structures, and were not ‘healthy’ research. The larger concepts, like interactive narrative, must be dealt with by the ringfencing, saying looking specifically at this. Pick out the issues from the big concepts, and apply them to your own work.

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