“What is a story?” asks Florian Thalhofer at the Korsakow hackathon in Brighton. The audience’s responses consider ‘structure’, ‘communication’, ‘changes in situations’, ‘ideas’, ‘message’, ‘experience’. But no single answer wins out. “Humans are narrative creatures” he says. “Causal thinking forms decision making… but Korsakow is not the linear-causal way of thinking”.
Korsakow is a software application for building interactive film projects. Its name was derived from a psychological phenomenon known as Korsakoff’s syndrome. In Korsakoff’s, alcoholics with short-term memory loss begin to compulsively tell stories, in order to preserve a sense of narrative in their lives. With narrative, with stories, comes a sense of purpose and meaning. The “linearity of getting drunk”, as Thalhofer puts it, is the organising principle Korsakow uses to allow filmmakers to approach narrative in a more open way. Instead of holding to a linear structure, a K-film can shift, deviate and diversify as it goes on, according to the choices the audience makes at select points. The results of their choices can be predetermined or randomised, according to the filmmaker’s design.
For Thalhofer, this method of presenting a story has a significant advantage: it potentially bypasses the usual editorial constraints a filmmaker faces. Online, the storyteller has the freedom to use content that might have been cut from a traditional film, particularly if it wasn’t perceived to ‘progress’ the narrative in an efficient way. And because they’re online, there is a significant amount of latitude in exactly how that material is included in the story. Sometimes, he wryly notes, the initial response to K-films is that they’re boring… but, he adds, an appreciation comes later. The audience, adapting to a more interactive mode of watching movies, learns the rules of engagement as the experience unfolds. So what is lost in narrative pacing may be gained in giving the software’s users – filmmakers and audiences alike – the freedom to explore multiple aspects of a story that might have been simplified in a more traditional format with more standardised editorial preferences.
As well as making films for online viewing, Korsakow has been used to create multiple-screen film installations. (For installations, Thalhofer uses the older version of the Korsakow software, version 3). At a screening of one of his own K-films, Money and the Greeks, the live audience was able to decide the direction of the narrative themselves. They would vote with laser pointers. The show also included two live guests, positioned in front of the audience, who were experts on the film’s topic. They could speak only when selected by audience members in order to respond to events unfolding on screen. Another screen nearby showed text messages as they came in from the audience. In this instance, the interactive method had an explicitly political purpose: mimicking the democratic procedures of voting and consulting information sources in order to implicate the audience in the film’s central issues.
Korsakow films are, as the team puts it, always rule-based, often non-linear, and often interactive. And since narrative logic in Korsakow can be determined by rules beyond those of traditional story development, filmmakers have come up with playful and experimental conceits that would be difficult to realise in traditional film formats. Matt Soar, the project developer for Korsakow 5, has created abstract, randomised K-films called Fibonacci Korsakow #1 and #2, which use a database of Vine videos as their source of content. Soar used the Fibonacci sequence as an algorithm to determine how many video clips would appear on screen at a time. As more appear, they spiral outwards, appearing in new arrangements every time one of the films is played.
The Korsakow team suggests that Version 5, the software’s most recent iteration, represents a complete overhaul of the program in both design and function. Programmed as an open-source program using Java, it is now available to install on Macs and PCs as an app. If you’re installing the Korsakow software on to a PC, it’s crucial to know that you’ll need Quicktime on your computer, including the legacy file ‘qtjava’. This file doesn’t come automatically bundled with the ‘minimum’ or ‘full’ QT installation, and if Korsakow isn’t running at all on your PC, this may be why. Download Quicktime again, select ‘custom’ download, and be sure that you’re installing the qtjava file as well.
Korsakow has a much simpler, less polished interface than those of other interactive filmmaking software, with a less ‘consumer-facing’ style that is characteristic of its open-source background. In the main menu, the user can click on a media asset to turn it into a SNU: Korsakow-speak for the Smallest Narrative Unit, or the smallest cohesive piece of a given project. In the SNU editor, in- and out-keywords can be added to the asset. The in-keyword describes the SNU, and an out-keyword matches it to others in the project. Labelling the SNU in this way determines the behaviour of the unit in relation to the whole film. Keywords are considered very important, the Korsakow manual calls them the ‘DNA’ of a K-film’. It may seem counterintuitive to make a descriptive keyword so functionally crucial to a project’s narrative, but this does allow the user to very easily match up SNUs as they wish. When a media asset has been successfully SNU-ified in the editor, a red, white and blue cube icon appears next to its name back in the main menu.
The main Korsakow editing screen allows the filmmaker to control the overall shape and appearance of their K-film. It includes the ‘stage’ (which represents the film as it will appear in a web browser) and an adjustable grid. There are two tabs on the right-hand side: Tools and Settings. In Tools, Korsakow users can create widgets – the interactive elements of their K-film. Preview images, text and subtitles can be added to SNUs as ‘basic widgets’. More complex design choices are available as ‘media control widgets’, including play buttons and volume controls. A K-film can be made more interactive with the ‘experimental’ widgets, such as the ability to add a comment box to your project. As their label suggests, however, this final widget type is not supported, and might cause unexpected complications for some users. Under the other tab, Settings, a filmmaker can design the overall layout of their film. To make a simple project, Korsakow recommends choosing the default template, which presents one box for a SNU, with three Preview boxes underneath it.
For those who require an overall guide to the software, an extensive manual is available at Korsakow.org (including a video that provides useful explanations for Korsakow’s unique jargon). There’s also a succinct quick-start guide for more confident users. Korsakow recommends tinkering with another K-film before starting on your own, so they’ve made the files and interfaces for an example project, ‘Circle of Life’, available for free to all users. The Korsakow application itself was previously free to download and use, but since the beginning of 2015 has implemented a licence-based model. Their basic licence is currently available to users in the UK for £33.28. Non-commercial Korsakow projects that have a budget of below €2,000 are covered by the basic licence. Completed K-films can be hosted on a web server through the usual process (uploading your files to a server using an FTP client). Alternatively, a completed Korsakow project can also be uploaded to Korsakow Publisher for a set-up charge of €50 and a yearly fee of €35.
Though it’s no longer free, Korsakow is cheap – still cheaper than many of its competitors. Its tendency to throw up occasional error messages (or stop working altogether) is frustrating, but its rivals in the field have the same problems, with comparable frequency. Korsakow’s open-source, indie background is most apparent, however, in the monochrome plainness of its interfaces and tools. Users who are used to a slicker look, and used to having responsiveness and intuitiveness built into a program’s appearance, may struggle to use Korsakow effectively. But even if the software is not as visually striking as other interactive apps, it does at times make a virtue of its simplicity. If an interactive filmmaker wants to develop a new project, they can make a working K-film within hours – as long as it functions with a basic, ‘choose your own adventure’ mechanic. Filmmakers can also preview and test their design easily throughout the process, by exporting the work-in-progress to their own web browser. It’s clear that the Korsakow team has drawn carefully from design theory, shrewdly emphasising iteration as a key part of experimenting with new narrative forms.