September 24, 2008

Alternate Endings

SCA alumnus Greg Townsend’s high-def interactive movie bridges distances

By Cristy Lytal

One-sheet for Alternate Endings.
On Monday September 15, SCA treated the attendees of a networking conference at the University of California, San Diego to a cutting-edge cinematic experience — a student-made interactive HD movie entitled Alternate Endings that was streamed live from Trojan Vision over a long-distance network.

"This was a new type of movie experience for the audience, with live hosts in Los Angeles, superimposed onto an HD mystery movie, interacting with the audience in San Diego when choices had to be made," said Richard Weinberg, the research associate professor who spearheaded the technology and screening at the conference, hosted by CENIC, the Corporation for Educational Networking Initiatives in California.

Alternate Endings, the thesis project of Greg Townsend, MFA 2007, is a Choose Your Own Adventure-style murder mystery that allows viewers to navigate through a series of binary choices to determine the plot. There are sixteen different storylines, five separate endings, and the film can run anywhere from 25 to 40 minutes on average. The total amount of footage is close to an hour, and all of it was shot using HDV.

"It’s a whole spectrum that we’ve been playing with between movies and video games," Townsend said. "If people are going to experience some sort of media, do they want to just sit and watch it, or do they want to interact with it? And game is on one end of that, and movie is on the other end of that. So we’re playing in the middle of the spectrum."

To guide the audience through the experience, two student hosts — junior Zach Goldbaum and senior Jessica Wedemeyer, who both regularly contribute to Trojan Vision  — were filmed against a blue screen in the Zemeckis Center and superimposed over the film using Ultimatte HD. At each of the movie’s critical junctures, they would discuss the two options, and the next scene would unspool based on which choice received the most applause. "You could feel the energy that they had there in the audience," said Wedemeyer, who is an Annenberg broadcast journalism major with a minor in theatre. "You could hear them cheering and clapping and laughing in the background."

A still from Alternate Endings showing the interactive choices available to the audience.
In addition to the hosts, Trojan Vision’s technology wizards and student staff lent their talents to ensure that the broadcast went off without a hitch. "It was all students that were working on it," said Goldbaum, an SCA production major. "So it was this really cool, collaborative environment."

 "This is our latest project on the CineGrid network, a multi-university international collaboration that has enabled us to stream 4k digital movies from Zemeckis Center to Tokyo, Prague and Amsterdam," said Weinberg. "The long distance performance of Alternate Endings serves as a fresh example of alternate entertainment experiences for digital cinema theaters, which are coming online around the world."

Townsend, who has been screening the movie at film festivals, sees the potential for interactive movies to bring people together and rekindle a lost spirit of community. "A lot of the move for entertainment is to the personal: to the home theatre and the movies direct to your TV," said Townsend. "Something like this is a reason to go to a theatre, because you never know what’s going to happen, and you don’t know what the crowd’s going to be like. Being part of a crowd is part of the fun. It gets people interacting with real people."
Contact Information

Name: Greg Townsend