If you read just one article this week, no, make that this month, make it Kevin Kelly’s “Becoming Screen Literate” from last weekend’s NY Times Magazine. It is essential reading for anybody who works in the visual arts. In the piece, Kelly argues that images have replaced words as our dominant form of expressive currency, though we have not yet achieved “screen fluency” that allows us to utilize and manipulate moving images in the same way that we can do with text.
It’s interesting to note that a lot of Kelly’s descriptions of contemporary live-action filmmaking basically describe the process that animation artists have been pioneering for the past century. Even before CGI, animation has always been a more flexible and fluid art form than live-action. Finally, live-action is achieving that malleability, he writes:
For directors who speak this new cinematographic language, even the most photo-realistic scenes are tweaked, remade and written over frame by frame. Filmmaking is thus liberated from the stranglehold of photography. Gone is the frustrating method of trying to capture reality with one or two takes of expensive film and then creating your fantasy from whatever you get. Here reality, or fantasy, is built up one pixel at a time as an author would build a novel one word at a time. Photography champions the world as it is, whereas this new screen mode, like writing and painting, is engineered to explore the world as it might be.
Another major theme in Kelly’s piece is that the line between creator and consumer is blurring to the point where average people are not only consuming visuals but also creating their own through remixing and repurposing existing imagery.
Rewriting video can even become a kind of collective sport. Hundreds of thousands of passionate anime fans around the world (meeting online, of course) remix Japanese animated cartoons. They clip the cartoons into tiny pieces, some only a few frames long, then rearrange them with video editing software and give them new soundtracks and music, often with English dialogue. This probably involves far more work than was required to edit the original cartoon but far less work than editing a clip a decade ago. The new videos, called Anime Music Videos, tell completely new stories. The real achievement in this subculture is to win the Iron Editor challenge. Just as in the TV cookoff contest “Iron Chef,” the Iron Editor must remix videos in real time in front of an audience while competing with other editors to demonstrate superior visual literacy. The best editors can remix video as fast as you might type.
What is most thrilling, however, is Kelly’s vision for the future of media, which is something that I’ve long thought but been unable to put so eloquently into words. Having witnessed the technological progress of the past twenty years, we’re not too far from achieving these possibilities:
With our fingers we will drag objects out of films and cast them in our own movies. A click of our phone camera will capture a landscape, then display its history, which we can use to annotate the image. Text, sound, motion will continue to merge into a single intermedia as they flow through the always-on network. With the assistance of screen fluency tools we might even be able to summon up realistic fantasies spontaneously. Standing before a screen, we could create the visual image of a turquoise rose, glistening with dew, poised in a trim ruby vase, as fast as we could write these words. If we were truly screen literate, maybe even faster. And that is just the opening scene.