Portsmouth University student Chloe Franks salutes an extraordinary new genre that is revolutionising the way we watch and judge films and television programmes.
There’s a man stumbling along the middle of a deserted road, back to the camera. His hair is dark and he wears a pristine black suit. His left foot drags a little and he shifts. The movement brings a growing crimson stain on his torso into view. It’s in stark contrast to his white shirt.
The image blurs before refocusing; a representation of the way the man’s own vision must be fading in and out. He turns to look behind him and his gaze meets the dead centre of the camera. His eyes are vacant, his brow furrowed, his jaw locked. A half second later his eyes roll back and he tumbles to the ground.
A wanted poster flashes up on the screen. It tells the viewer that the man’s name is John Swift and he’s wanted by Scotland Yard for murder and armed robbery.
The late twentieth century witnessed the birth of the literary form known as flash fiction. Flash fiction stories can be anything from five to 1,000 words long and have been likened to poetry due to the intensity and succinctness of their diction. Luisa Valenzuela has compared the form to ‘an insect (iridescent in the best cases)’.
The twenty-first century is seeing the emergence of social cinema, that could fairly be described as flash fiction for television. Social cinema makers utilize the platform of Instagram to create shows with episodes of only fifteen seconds each. Where flash fiction succeeds by stripping a story to its bare bones and deploying just a few words to tell it, social cinema aims to convey an awful lot with just brief snatches of footage.
On average, Britons spend 1 hour 40 minutes a day online and have access to at least four social media platforms. Young people have grown up with the ability to quickly access almost anything they want. One tap on a smartphone and you can go on a shopping spree or send a message to the other side of the world.
Furthermore, the newer generations have shorter attention spans. According to a Microsoft study, the average attention span of humans has decreased from twelve seconds in 2000 to eight seconds in 2015.
Social cinema would seem to be ideal for the modern internet-savvy person with a relatively short attention span. Its productions rely on the ability of the audience to make leaps of logic from one small piece of information to the next. This being the case, the question has to be asked, can social cinema become a viable replacement for television?
Anthony Wilcox, the director of Shield Five, Instagram’s first officially scripted web series, believes it could be. He said, ‘I hope other people will try this method of storytelling and I see no reason why this can’t be a successful format.’
Broadcast last February, Shield Five starred Christian Cooke (Witches of East End) as protagonist John Swift. The 28 episodes slowly revealed the story alongside “evidence” like the wanted poster described at the beginning of this article. Wilcox, who was assistant director of the Simon Pegg comedy Hot Fuzz and the romantic drama One Day, said, ‘fifteen seconds [per episode] is very short but adding the pictures helps add many layers to this story that may otherwise have not been possible.’
But Shield Five was not the first series to broadcast via Instagram – that honour belongs to a show entitled Desert Friends, which first aired the day after Instagram released its video feature in 2013.
The creator of Desert Friends, Dave Hill, agreed with Wilcox that this new format could turn out to be successful: ‘Fifteen second clips could totally work. [They’re] perfect for our fast-paced generation. You can catch up with Desert Friends in line at the grocery store, at a stop light or even in the bathroom.’
Given that social cinema is such a new phenomenon it’s hard to measure how popular it is. According to Instagram, Shield Five already has 32,900 followers and Desert Friends 23,200. Anthony Wilcox said, ‘[Shield Five] has been far more talked about and viewed than we ever imagined it would be. One thing we hadn’t anticipated was how far across the world this would go – lots of people have asked for subtitles.’
Although the entire cast and crew worked for free and, according to Wilcox, they had just enough money ‘to pay for expenses, food and the odd location,’ Dave Hill insists that ‘the real problem is how to monetise it [social cinema].’
If investors don’t start turning their gaze to social cinema can it really survive?
Hill said, ‘We’ve been trying to raise money for season two, but it’s been a challenge. We’ve considered doing commercials every five clips or so, but haven’t found a backer yet.’
Wilcox seems to think the difficulties of social cinema lie more in its form, as only so much can be shown in the small amount of time provided by Instagram’s video function: ‘You can’t be too subtle in fifteen seconds – you have to let an audience know where they are at any given time.’ He added, ‘myself and the writer, Adam Dewar, had to approach this in a unique way. For me that was the script, music, shot choices, costumes, everything.’
Wilcox was fully aware throughout the entire process that audiences would be viewing the show on a tiny screen. This had to be worked round: ‘It was made like a short film, just released in a very different way.’
Each block of fifteen seconds is released separately with a twenty-four-hour period between them, a process that makes social cinema unique to other forms of entertainment. The distribution method is also unique: every production is released onto a complete-access, no-fee platform.
While social cinema’s 15-second episodes seem ideal for our concentration-challenged world, what happens when, in another 15 years’ time or sooner, people’s attention spans have shortened even further? What then, extreme social cinema?
Photography by Moshe Tasky.