Searching Aneesh Chaganty interview

Everything happens on the internet now, and that poses problems for filmmakers.

For decades, movies and TV have struggled with how to depict the decidedly un-cinematic act of using computers. In the ‘80s, ‘90s and early 2000s, the typical approaches were to hype up the user interface with animation and 3D graphics, put the user in virtual reality, or make the computer talk. None of these were particularly realistic, and as the internet became more familiar to everyday people through the 2000s, movies had to change. We saw work that used floating, abstract graphics to depict phone or computer use. But these still suffered from the same inherent problem: how do you visually tell a story that takes place on a computer?

Surprisingly, the answer seems to lie in the least expected place. What if audiences didn’t need conventional filmmaking to be drawn into the story? What if the computer screen itself was enough? Enter a burgeoning new wave of cinema, consisting solely of recorded video from computer desktops.

Unfriended Dark Web

A New Wave

Dubbed “screenlife” by advocate Timur Bekmambetov (director of Night Watch, Day Watch, and Wanted), this new movement has already spawned several surprisingly great movies, and it’s just getting started.

Bekmambetov and his stable of directors didn’t invent screenlife. Emerging from the language of found footage, early examples like The Den and Open Windows touched on similar techniques, but either minimised computer interaction, in favour of video capture, or heavily stylised it. It wasn’t until Leo Gabriadze’s horror film Cybernatural – later recut and retitled Unfriended – that screenlife started to find itself. It also found a patron, in the form of the highly successful Russian producer-director.

Bekmambetov brought three screenlife films (Stephen Susco’s Unfriended: Dark Web, Aneesh Chaganty’s Searching, and his own Profile) and boundless enthusiasm to this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival. He refers to screenlife not as a genre but as a visual language, like found footage or conventional montage-style editing, capable of sustaining genres inside it. Screenlife excites him because it’s a new form of storytelling ripe for development, for discovery of new techniques. And he’s right: based on the films shown at Fantasia, and Bekmambetov’s passionate rhetoric, I’ve joined the pro-screenlife camp.

Screenlife works because, frankly, we deal with computer screens all the damn time. We instinctively understand the meaning of everything on screen, and not just in terms of icons and terminology. A computer screen represents a character’s subjective point of view, as well as their inner thoughts. The manner in which people move a mouse, or type, or arrange their desktop, or use apps, speaks volumes to a person’s psyche. When somebody’s typing, we’re literally seeing them form thoughts in real-time – including editing or even censoring themselves. As a result, screenlife films can be extraordinarily intimate experiences.

These movies are also, amazingly, a blast to watch with an audience. They wring enormous effect out of the tiniest actions, drawing us into their stories just like how we become absorbed in our own computing. Fantasia’s trio of screenlife shows were among the best audience experiences I had in the three-week festival. They absolutely enthralled audiences, creating sadness, joy, comedy, tension, horror, and even empathy, in a way that felt genuinely new.

How It’s Made

Screenlife films are jam-packed with storytelling, simply because there’s so much information that can be displayed at once. That’s exciting for filmmakers, but it doesn’t come easily.

All the traditional filmmaking disciplines come into play in screenlife. They’re just deployed in a different manner to a conventional film, or even to animation. Scriptwriting functions as normal, except the action describes mouse movements, and there’s possibility for peripheral writing in incidental social media posts, instant messages, and so on. Art direction determines what we see on the computer: the desktop layout, the images on someone’s social feed, and even – in Searching’s case – the operating system, which also helps to signpost different physical locations and time periods. Sound can be a combination of computer audio, ambience around the computer, or more expressionistic effects (although mouse clicks and typing sounds are more or less mandated). “Camerawork” can encompass many things, from webcam placement to the way the desktop is framed. With Profile, even casting was done entirely over Skype. But it’s in performance, directing, and editing that things get super interesting.

In developing the screenlife concept, Bekmambetov’s team designed a specialised piece of screen-capture software that doesn’t just record video, but code as well. A filmmaker can record a performance, then tweak it for timing, or even alter the onscreen images and text. In making Profile, much of which takes place over Skype between the UK and the Middle-East, Bekmambetov literally had actors Valene Kane and Shazad Latif Skype each other from those locations. What you see is the actor’s performance – not just on camera, but in the use of the computer itself. Every interaction is real, an extension of the actor’s body language and characterisation. Even their breathing becomes a crucial component – think of all the unconscious sounds you make when using computers.

Each of the three films shown at Fantasia sported a vastly different approach to editing, representing a small portion of how much stylistic variation is possible. Unfriended: Dark Web takes place in real time, so it’s pretty much an uninterrupted screen recording. Profile starts out as an uninterrupted recording, but pulls out to reveal we’re watching a series of recordings stored on a different computer, with someone else scrolling through the different movie files and jumping nonlinearly through the timeline. Later on, the protagonist begin to edit her own recordings, which adds fascinating additional layers. Finally, Searching uses the most traditional editing style of the three, employing close-ups, zooms, and cuts to direct the audience’s attention just as a conventional drama would.

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