blackbirdonline journalFall 2009  Vol. 8  No. 2
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Brainstrips: A Note on Process

Once upon a time (before this century), I wrote stories for print publication. Then I discovered the web, a discovery that transformed my view of what fiction could be and totally changed my way of telling a story.

Now, I tell stories using images, video, audio, and text, all combined in a Flash movie and posted to my website. My work is eclectic in subject and form. I have made pieces on politics, family, literature, and the arts. Some pieces are humorous, others are not. Some pieces allow the reader to write into the story, adding fresh insights or new points of view, some do not.

What these pieces share, however, is a story. This story does not necessarily use the traditional elements of character, plot, setting, and symbol, but it achieves the same effects within the interplay of media, the tension between image and text, text and video, video and animation, animation and sound. Fewer words are needed because the story is told using not just one, but a variety of media.  

Brainstrips: A Three-Part Knowledge Series is one of those stories. This piece is composed of three comic strips for the web, which explore key concepts in philosophy, science, and math. Each work is created in Flash and includes text, animations, still images, audio, and video. I do not usually use comic strips, but in this particular instance, they seemed appropriate to the subject matter.

“Deep Philosophical Questions” (2008) is the first in the series. This work uses copyright-free comic strips from the Golden Age of Comics (American comic books created in the 1930s and 1940s). The strips have been re-colored and digitally edited to enhance their clarity and to accommodate new dialog boxes and Flash animations.

For example, below is the original strip for “Is Color Real?” after being digitally edited to remove the dialog boxes and to enhance/clarify the background colors.

Original strip used in Brainstrips

Next is the final version as it appears in “Deep Philosophical Questions”:

Screen capture of Brainstrips

What you see of the final version is, of course, a still image; on the web, portions of the strip, including the dialog boxes, are animated, and sound files have been incorporated to help establish setting and support the narrative line. The work uses images, video, and audio files acquired online, and modified by the artist. (A credits page is included on the site.)

In “Deep Philosophical Questions,” the tension between an earlier art form (static comic strips) and its contemporary counterpart in Flash animation (a digital-based art form) is deliberate. The two forms are meant to contrast against each other while, at the same time, providing an aesthetic and theoretical balance that points toward a new way of creating and reading comic strips.

“Science For Idiots” (2009), the second strip in the series, takes a humorous approach toward explaining some of the greatest scientific puzzles of our time. This work, in addition to its text, uses comics and clipart images (retrieved from subscription sites, and other image sources online) that have been digitally edited and then animated to create a multimedia story event for the viewer. This piece is more cinematic than “Deep Philosophical Questions,” and takes advantage of multiple sequences, many of them with layered animations.

For example, in “Gravity And You,” the still image of the background terrain is first layered with an animation of a telephone ringing, then a woman licking a lollipop, and finally, the blurred animation of a man falling past them. The text and its white frame (plus navigation buttons) are placed in the foreground, and the audio shifts as it adapts to each of the different animations playing behind them.

Screen capture of Brainstrips

In “Elementary Particles,” the background animations are of (in descending relative size) atoms, protons, and neutrons, leading to the foreground, which is an animation of the six types of quarks. The audio in this portion of the strip is composed of two sound files edited together as a counterpoint to the staccato movement of the quarks.

Screen capture of Brainstrips

Finally, in “The Special Theory of Relativity,” the static image of a globe has been used as the background. Over it, I have superimposed an animation of trees and added a “moon” (with an animation of a woman's face inside it) into the Earth's orbit. The text and frames are placed in the foreground.

Screen capture of Brainstrips

Sound, as mentioned before, is an integral part of “Science For Idiots,” as well as the other strips. It has been layered into each of the segments, and the final result is a combined visual and auditory experience for the reader, and a closer look at the potential within animated strips on the web.

“Higher Math” (2009), the final piece in the series, examines key concepts in math: addition, subtraction, irrational numbers, multiplication, geometry, and the Googolplex. Each concept has a human element, and their commonality is a bridge between math and ethics.

This strip is, I think, the most developed in terms of achieving a synthesis of forms. Animations in this piece, for the most part, co-exist with video. Here, in “Irrational Numbers,” is a centered video with animations in both background and foreground:

Screen capture of Brainstrips

And below, in “The Googolplex,” a video is masked behind an animation of zeros:

Screen capture of Brainstrips

And finally, in “Multiplication,” there is a background video of cells splitting behind a foreground mix of image (the Statue of Liberty) and a video of crowds walking (barely visible at the bottom of the still image).

Screen capture of Brainstrips

In addition to using more video, the text narratives in “Higher Math,” generalized into concepts in the earlier strips, are narrowed into more personal stories, mostly individualized into singular, rather than plural, accounts. The quiz at the conclusion of “Higher Math”—a common feature of all three brainstrips—seems (from my biased point of view) to be more personal. It should be, because the closing frame is a video of me creating, yes, the Brainstrips series.

I am often asked by people who read my work for the first time, “What do you think is the future of digital literature?”

My answer: The future of digital literature is already here.

By this, I do not mean that new forms of digital literature, and new platforms to present them, will not evolve from current practice. What I mean is that, for the past few years, most of us have been writing, or at least reading, some form of digital literature on a daily basis. If you belong to Facebook, with its stream of text, video, images, and sound, you are reading digital stories, memoirs, or other personal accounts using multimedia. If you read blogs or write your own, or if you post to a wiki or read Wikipedia, you are in the world of digital literature. If you tweet or plurk, or better yet, post a video to YouTube, you are a citizen.

So what do I think is the future of digital literature? You tell me.  end

  Introduction | Reader Commentary | A Note on Process | Launch Brainstrips

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