The Big Screen on a Small Phone

Making cinema social for smartphones

You reading this on your phone? Your iPad? Your phablet (ugh)?

Doesn't matter, really. Small electronic device, tiny electronic device, whatever: It's a field of text. It's not meant for exceptional visual impact.

But, now, movies. Film. Video. Motion pictures that tell stories. Those are things that require bigger real estate, right? Something at least the size of a television or, better, the legendary silver screen – if not a surface of IMAX proportions. And something that won't interrupt you with chat alerts and so on. That's what's needed for the devised narrative to be effective. Right?

Not necessarily. But there are problems.

"If you're playing the movie on a telephone, you will never in a trillion years experience the film," says David Lynch in the DVD extras of Inland Empire. "You'll think you've experienced it," says the director, "but you'll be cheated. It's such a sadness, that you think you've seen a film on your fucking telephone. Get real."

But Eline Jongsma and Kel O'Neill, the Emmy-nominated documentary team who are presenting a part of their exclusively-for-smartphones EXIT project at a SXSW event called Cinematic Apocalypse: Storytelling for Smartphones, they recognize the problems. Or, as the more gung-ho among us might say, the challenges.

"When we started developing EXIT a few years ago," says O'Neill, "we asked ourselves, 'What doesn't work on mobile?' And we came up with three main points. First, it's an interactive experience. Your phone likes to be touched. It can't help it; it was designed that way. If you open up EXIT on your phone and do nothing, EXIT will do nothing. You have to keep the experience alive through constant movement, and constant swiping. For inspiration in designing our interface, we looked at current-day slot machines. The machines' flashing lights and pleasing sounds ask you to interact, then reward you for doing so with more flashing lights and pleasing sounds. It's a feedback loop."

What works in Vegas doesn't always have to stay in Vegas.

"Second," says O'Neill, "if you're designing for mobile, you can't always make people use your website the way you'd like them to. We'd love everyone to put on headphones at the beginning of the chapter we're revealing at SXSW, for instance ... But it's a huge task, so we've made sure that the experience works without sound as well. Third, it's not always about solitary viewing. Mobile devices make you want to be social, and want to share. I'm not a huge social-media guy, but I still feel the urge to spread the stories I love around to all the people I love. EXIT is a super-personal story – about parenthood, about the fear of societal collapse – but it's a story I want to share, and want other people to share. So Eline came up with a really clever way to integrate that desire into the very fabric of the experience, and into the design of the project."

You want to see just how clever and effective that integration is, you'll need to attend the session that Jongsma + O'Neill are presenting, with Adnaan Wasey of PBS's POV Digital, on Monday, March 14. Regardless of your phone's dimensions, you can bet the humans (even with flashing lights and pleasing sounds) will be precisely life-sized.

Related Panel

Cinematic Apocalypse: Storytelling for Smartphones
Monday, March 14, 2pm
Austin Convention Center, Ballroom C

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SXSW Interactive 2016, EXIT, Jongsma + O'Neill, Kel O'Neill

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