What Can Fractals and Dante Tell Us About the Future of Storyworlds?

Fractal may be an unfamiliar word to most filmmakers.

But a key concept behind the mathematician's conception of fractals (introduced in the video narrated by 2001: A Space Odyssey author, Arthur C. Clarke, above) is that patterns in many natural objects are repeated in the details of those objects.

This idea is probably not entirely new to most artists.

Screenwriters and filmmakers (and other artists who spend their lives closely examining the world around us) may have already noticed the mandala-like aspects of certain natural objects: For example, the leaf that seems to mirror the structure of the tree...

Is it shocking to suggest that the structure of an object can often be seen in the details? Or that, with the power of computers, mathematicians are burrowing down into equations that reveal fascinating repetitions that mirror these repeating geometric patterns in nature?

How might screenwriters and filmmakers use the insight that the parts in nature are sometimes profundly similar to the whole?

As blogger mobcon has written about the Old World of storytelling:

"A narrative, no matter what its size, is designed to be taken whole. Its parts are not functional in themselves... Narrative is not a fractal. The chapters of a novel are not short stories. Scenes from a film are not short films. Zoom in on part of a narrative and you will not find perfect miniature narratives."

That was the Old World.

But what if a story was constructed as a collection of fractals?

What if each chapter of a book was a short story?

What if each scene from a long film was itself a short film?

What if the parts of a genre story actually contained all the elements necessary for a discrete story in that same genre? For example, what if each scene from a horror movie was itself a complete miniature horror movie?

Is this possible?

And, if so, would it suck?

Would fractal storytelling necessarily be inferior to the traditional forms where the entire story (and a fixed linear order of events) was essential to the experience?

Is linearity an essential element in filmmaking? Or - if the elements can indeed be treated as fractals with their own internal order and beauty that mirrors the whole - could a non-linear form of filmmaking flourish online?

For the last 100 years, movies have been manufactured and released into the world following fairly predictable conventions of production, form and marketing. Even most so-called indie and experimental films were made to be projected to a passive audience who saw the film from "the beginning."


But is that the only way that motion pictures can be experienced?

In the 21st century, many of the behaviors that supported that Old World of movie-going are being questioned or replaced.

Will online platforms, social sharing via smartphones, participatory culture, etc. lead to new forms of motion picture storytelling?

Aren't YouTube (in 2011, just 6 years after launch, over 1 trillion views = 140 views for every person on earth) and China's Youku Tudou (with 170 million daily mobile views) already demonstrating that the old forms of motion picture consumption may not be the only ways - and may (dare I say it?) be replaceable?

What about subscription and sponsored television series? Isn't TV a platform where motion picture storytellers have for years explored less-traditional forms of narrative (while earning a living)? Yes. But on TV interactivity and non-linearity have generally been commercial and creative failures: TV viewers will vote for American Idol, but the audience just hasn't been that interested in interacting with content on TV.

Does the failure of interactive TV mean that interactive non-linear motion picture storytelling has no human behaviors to support it - and that it's an idea that is doomed to commercial failure?


But remember, TV's revenue model for over 60 years has been to deliver the largest audience for a given time-slot. The business model for broadcast and cable television is not the internet's model. And the way that the typical user has passively received TV is not how the typical mobile device user interacts with the internet.

The failure of technologists to create devices or programming to make TV - a tool for receiving and playing linear broadcasts - into a tool for interactivity, should not be the basis for judging the commercial or artistic potential of online motion pictures.

Users ARE interacting with content online.

And history has shown us that it's a mistake to judge a new artistic form based solely on the popularity of old forms.

And, as Professors Lawrence Lessig, Henry Jenkins and others have noted, the 20th century's taste for passive entertainment was an anomaly: For most of human history, the user has willingly assumed responsibility for participation in the popular artforms.

With the internet and touch screens we may be entering an era where participatory culture is revived. And the joy of finding order in non-linear elements - of solving a puzzle created by an artist - may be reborn.

In other words, skeptics (like many Old World filmmakers) may be underestimating the audience's ability to gather non-linear elements into unique stories or satisfying muliple-story motion picture experiences...

Dante Alighieri (c. 1265–1321) apparently understood that a predictable sequence (based on linearity) was sometimes over-rated:

"Then maybe in the time an arrow takes/ to hit the target, fly and slip the notch."

This quote from the Paradiso section of The Divine Comedy (Canto II:1-45, translated by Robin Kirkpatrick) is like a piece of film that runs backwards... a small puzzle that the reader delights in solving by re-ordering.

Isn't a memorable line from a great poem often a form of fractal - in the sense that it can be appreciated in isolation but it is also part of a larger whole? Isn't it also a feature of lines from great literature that the words themselves can be examined and unlocked for deeper - but consistent with the whole - meaning?

Can't films be like that?

As millions tap on their phones and tablets, haven't many already sailed off into new waters for storytelling - often leaving traditional auteurist linearity behind?

As each user tacks from link to link, isn't each new window opening on what each user hopes is a fractal?

When an online user clicks on a link, what is he or she expecting?

Isn't there the hope that each new link or video will contribute in some small way as a discrete experience but also as a part of each user's larger experiential whole?

And why haven't more Old World filmmakers noticed the enthusiasm with which millions of users have assumed responsibility for how their larger online narratives will play out?

As millions more each year gain access and begin surfing the web, why aren't more Old World filmmakers questioning whether Hollywood's beginning, middle and end will always be the only (dominant?) paradigm for filmmaking?

Hasn't the audience already begun to slip that notch?

How long will it take until 21st century film artists and other storytellers follow the audience into these new waters - where each user takes (increasing amounts of?) responsibility for organizing the experience?

In this New World, how will the imagery and ideas in each piece replicate and comment on the whole?

The past has been prologue. And filmmakers can still live and work in the Old World of Hollywood and 20th century indie and experimental films. (Someone's got to make the sequels and remakes that Hollywood keeps churning out and the films that play at festivals, galleries and museums.)

But I also think there is another choice.

And, as we push off into this new century of online filmmaking, I'm reminded of the words that Dante used to caution and prepare his readers seven centuries ago:

"You in that little boat who, listening hard,
have followed from desire to hear me through
behind my bowsprit singing on its way,
now turn, look back and mark your native shores…"

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