'Searching' & The Changing Format of Storytelling
A long, long time ago there was a Big Bang (some would argue the biggest) and everything was created in a forceful shunt of matter. Planets, creatures, life, you name it. Over time such creatures evolved and yadda yadda yadda…not long after, stories were born. Whether it was an ape communicating the most bountiful fruit tree they had come across during their migration, or an ant bitching to his neighbour about why they’re still living under a monarchy when they (the workers) are the ones who ensure everything runs, stories went hand in hand in communication. Stories were communication. And then humanity came along and had to show off.
In the 5th century, no longer pleased with the notion of written stories, the Theatre of Dionysus in Athens sprouted…well, theatre. Live performance which took the ‘acting’ of modern-day anecdotes to the stage kickstarted an entire profession that hooked others. Alongside it and writing, theatre dominated culture around the world, from Greece’s initial ownership all the way to London and what we Britons would (as usual) declare as our own thanks to the popularity of the West End and William Shakespeare. Then for another couple hundred years nothing much changed. Theatre and the written word simultaneously filled penny dreadfuls, novels and playhouses across the world – they were how audiences were told stories professional.
That is, until the 19th century. After becoming fascinated with the persistence of vision and the phi phenomenon, ambitious painters and inventors Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre and William Henry Fox Talbot successfully kickstarted the process which would become photography. They could capture still image outside of human sight, but what about the possibility of moving images? The phi phenomenon stated that in order to retain images succinctly enough for clear movement the possibility of at least 16 frames per second were needed, this was just the next logical step in photography, surely?
Roughly around 1870 (it’s not known exactly) the possibility of such reduced exposure time that images could be photographed simultaneously and spontaneously was invented, and this then lead to the extraordinary art of filmmaking. Silent shorts at first developed sound thanks to advances in technology. These ‘talkies’ soon became widely popular as their accessibility grew. Of course the notion of colour footage sparked even greater interest, and just over a decade ago the switch to high-definition ushered in a perfectionist state of film. Whilst we’re now toying around with 8k resolution, the format of mainstream storytelling has seemingly reached its conclusion in the form of film. But thanks to other side-line endeavours, there’s always going to be anarchists and experimenters trying new things.
And now the internet gives those very same people a chance to be seen. Rather than wallowing away on experimental processes and having your findings lost to time, it’s now possible for anyone and everyone to create thanks to advances in modern technology. That means that any creative with a fresh way of storytelling has the tools needed in order to try something different. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Where does Searching come into all this?
Searching is a 2018 mystery thriller film directed by Aneesh Chaganty and written by him and Sev Ohanian. It tells the story of a father (John Cho) using various online practices and sleuthing to find his missing 16-year-old daughter. It received positive reviews and was a modest hit at the box-office, but also managed to be the largest release in a burgeoning subgenre of film titled ‘Computer Screen Film’ or ‘Desktop Film’. That’s right. Searching is told entirely from the view of a various pieces of technology. Being a desktop interface, webcam, go-pro or videophone, everything within it is used to enhance the verisimilitude of the story and allows Searching to stand out as a smart story first and foremost, more so than any kind of gimmick. And honestly, it’s one of the tightest thrillers and most encapsulating films I’ve seen over the past few years.
“We saw it as an eight-minute short film. That’s it.”
Searching’s originality comes from its presentation more than its narrative. It’s an incredibly well-written tale of suspense and emotion with enough twist and turns to give genuine goosebumps, but story-wise it’s not anything completely different. What matters is the commitment to storytelling. Other examples of the subgenre that had come beforehand (films like Unfriended spring to mind) utilise their ‘gimmicks’ whilst attempting to adhere to bespoke realism. Despite Unfriended being about a malicious demonic spirit haunting teenager over skype, there’s no soundtrack or major flourishes within editing. Everything is told in real time and it feels more like performative experimental theatre than anything else. And that’s not a bad thing.
The notion of realism within stories has been around for centuries. Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein are, technically, ‘real’ accounts from various diaries and reports. They’re the literature versions of found-footage movies (not to be confused with first-person stories, of course). This ‘raw’ element to filmmaking not only allowed genre creators to experiment with form but naturally transcended medium. Again, the creation of the internet allowed fictitious blogs to weave stories of terror with a sense of mundanity in order to blend into their surroundings. Online web-series such as Marble Hornets or Twitter accounts like TheSunVanished exist as sole entities. But there are complications from this ideology too. With such a penchant for ‘realism’ it becomes very easy for certain texts to exploit the primitive styles and tropes in order to make a quick buck. For every The Blair Witch Project or Cloverfield there’s a Megan is Missing.
“This is complete commitment to the fact that drama is happening inside these devices…”
Searching is a heavily edited piece of work. There’s no denying it’s a fictional creation. The opening eight minutes immediately dispel any doubts the audience could ever have on the format too. In a manner similar to things like PIXAR’s Up, editors Nicholas D. Johnson and Will Merrick weave a complete human tale, which is only bolstered by Torin Borrowdale’s impactful, modern, traumatic score. It’s a story with the exact same amount of effort, but in a different way. It’s not trying to fool you into thinking it’s a true story, and Searching is all the better for it. And it’s from the understanding of a filmmaker who knows the human condition.
Aneesh Chaganty was only 25 when he began working with Ohanian on Searching. He had managed to achieve relative success after a short film he made in 2014, Seeds (shot via Google Glass) caught the attention of Google and they hired him as a writer and director for their commercials. He left the company (imagine leaving Google) in order to pursue Searching, and even though the studio offered them complete financial support to turn their short idea into a feature Chaganty initially declined, much to the confusion of his co-writer. But this refusal to simply give in to studio demand wholly encapsulates why Searching works – it’s not made for profit. If the filmmakers hadn’t found a story they wanted to tell well, they wouldn’t have done it. It just so happened that the story in question they wanted to tell would take a whole lot of work.
“[at Google] I learned how to emote using computer screens. I learnt what love looks like with a cursor button, what nervousness looks like with a rainbow bar…”
It’s interesting to note too, that Searching acts as part of Russian filmmaker Timur Bekmambetov’s efforts to produce what he refers to as ‘the Screen Life genre’. Having also acted as a producer on Unfriended and its sequel (of which Searching shares a fictional universe thanks to some tiny easter eggs), there have so far been a handful of entries within this subgenre as a kind of statement of intent for Computer Screen Films to be taken seriously as a medium. Whilst the likes of Unfriended aren’t without merit, this ideology of specifically adhering to format first is a strict hinderance on the very art of storytelling. If a story organically grows to suit such a presentation great, but everything needs to be in service of the story being told from the get-go.
Searching acts as an anomaly in some ways. Whilst its screen-based visuals give the appearance of simple recorded online activity it was actually the result of a year and a half of tireless editing work. Everything seen on screen, from 2005-era Youtube layouts, old-fashioned desktop images, protocols and seemingly-endless social media feeds are all created meticulously in-house from both the writers and the editors. Chaganty and Ohanian crafted ‘roughly 1000 pages’ of extra detail and world-building across all the webpages within the film, everything from developing side-characters who aren’t even featured in person to telling a background subplot of a potential alien invasion at the exact same time (I wonder if a future Bekmambetov production will focus on this?) – it’s a living, breathing world that has to feel realistic in order for narrative to work as a thriller. John Cho’s performance, as wonderful as it is, does only half the job for his character. There’s a huge chunk of the film where characters are neither seen nor heard, and instead the only characterisation we as an audience receive is through their computer habits. It all plays into the old adage of show don’t tell.
But does Searching actually present an advancement in the format of storytelling? Short answer ‘yes’ with an ‘if’, long answer ‘no’ with a ‘but’. The same way technology enhances elements of storytelling, Searching manages to nail (or even perfect) this new presentation style. Sure other films had done it before, but films like Young Sherlock Holmes had done fully-CGI characters before Jurassic Park came along and blew them all out the water. Watching the behind-the-scenes footage it’s clear how much of a passion project this was. The editors were tasked with beginning their job seven whole months before any actual filming took place, just so they could nail the flow and feeling of what is now considered everyday behaviour…seriously, the editors need as much praise as humanly possible.
“We started making an animated movie. Then we shot a live action movie. Then we put the live action movie back into the animated movie and then kept refining the animated movie.”
But if Searching isn’t a sign of things to come (or a side-line for project to go down) then what is? Well there’s certainly other avenues that have proven successfully. Films like Sean Baker’s Tangerine and Steven Soderbergh’s Unsane were shot entirely on mobile phones now that the technology allows such a thing. But this is just window dressing for stories in the same vain as we’ve been getting for centuries. Platforms like Vine (RIP) and TikTok have given birth to a surge of homemade content, but many of the individual stories that hit big often rely on good ole’ fashioned passion.
The cynic in me believes that the form of film bookends the trilogy of human storytelling that began with literature and progressed to theatre. Nothing’s completely changed, and maybe that’s the point. In their most basic form films are just novels that are…visualised. The presentation is the change. And when an avant-garde or surrealist filmmaker like David Lynch or Andy Warhol toys with structure and expectation that’s having as much of an impact as, say, experimental theatre that relies wholeheartedly on sense other than sight. Music tells stories too. It’s easy to think of a Black Mirror-esque future in which stories are injected via syringe or sprayed onto the skin like a fragrance, but there’s most likely art students out there who are claiming to be doing that exact thing right now (note to self, try that).
New platforms come along and change the way things are told, but storytelling itself hasn’t changed. It just now encompasses twelve times as many aspects and ideologies. It’s naturally evolved over time. The reason why Searching feels like an oddity in itself is because as a thriller it does every conceivable idea it can to take advantage of its presentation. Honestly, it’s amazing how many ideas and risks are taken and how many pay off to the point where it’d difficult to see any other self-proclaimed thriller in this style not feel like a rehash. It’s a commandeering of a tale from nothing but talent and triumph, and I highly recommend seeing it with a group of people.
“I hope the next movie that maybe does something like this isn’t like this because it’s going to be this movie again.”
Searching is available now on DVD and Blu-Ray.
Seeds, Aneesh Chaganty's short film that got him the job at Google
Of course, across the last couple of months we’ve all been kept safely entertained by the arts industry. We’ve sat at home gorging ourselves on Netflix shows, DVD boxsets and online uploads of theatrical performances. Maybe you were counting down the days until Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton graced Disney+? What about all the independent alternative/experimental theatre that’s been going on? There’s been a huge uprising of those from the industry just acting out because they want to keep busy. But their livelihoods are being treated like crap.
The UK in particular, a so-called hub of culture cares so little about its arts funding that there’s no emergency help for the times we’re in. The entire UK music industry is asking for help via a £50 million fund but nope, nothing. And yet Wetherspoons, a company lead by an abhorrent and man of such distaste that he left his staff nationwide in the dust during a global health crisis, was granted £48 million. Don’t worry, at least you could go have your pint in a COVID-infested pub at 6am…
Theatres across the nation are closing down, haemorrhaging jobs and leaving those who’ve been providing you with entertainment out in the cold. Not to add more fuel to an unholy fire, but it’s traumatising to see an industry I adore being treated like this. But the advice is always the same when you’re not in positions of power. Educate yourselves and spread awareness. Hashtag whatever works and show moral and accountable support for the things you believe in and remember all of this hatred and lack of human decency when it comes to the next election.
UPDATE: Obviously I write these posts in advance and on Sunday 7th July the UK government has now announced a £1.5 billion emergency fund for the arts (ranging from film/tv production, theatre, museums, music, galleries etc.). Whilst again the cynic in me is cautious to the fact that this fund covers such a wealth of careers and businesses, it's a sign of some hope at last so thank you.
On a personal level, as someone who’s been without work for over a year now, I’ve been given the chance to write some stuff. Paid or not, the last thing I did was the London Horror Festival in October 2019, so to be able to say I’m working alongside some wonderful people that are struggling at the hands of a government who doesn’t care for their existence troubles me greatly. Much like Searching, we just wanna tell some stories as best we can in these troubling times.
The Show Face Festival was started by Lauren Elizabeth as a way for creatives to have another outlet and meet each other whilst shining a light on the many problems currently going on in the world, ranging from the utmost personal to the broadest subject. It’s all going to culminate in a 4-day long festival of online theatre with dozens of pieces of new writing/performing from a group of incoming writers/actors/producers/directors/designers/make-up artists and musicians. I would never mean for this to come across a cheap plug for my own gain, the only thing we’re getting out of this is the chance to broaden our knowledge and help tell stories to an audience who happens to stumble across them.
The Show Face Festival will run from 28th – 31st August, stemming from http://www.showfacefestival.co.uk (various pieces will be across a number of platforms from social media pages to public zoom calls).
I’ll talk more about it the closer the dates get, but for now if you’ve got nothing planned we’d love to see you at the end of August…
The world has finally taken inspiration from all those dystopian novels we’ve been reading and is currently kicking our ass. Better yet, we’re kicking our own ass by not being better as a society. As a species. We marginalise and trivialise problems that don’t bother us personally, and that’s the most inhuman thing I can think of.
Whether it’s the continuation of the #BlackLivesMatter movement (HEY, START ARRESTING/PUNISHING THE COPS WHO ARE FUCKING MURDERERS, YEAH?) or the crisis in Yemen, or the continuing upwards spike of COVID-19 due to the poor decisions of those in charge, it’s difficult not to be overwhelmed.
But even in these times it’s important to take 10 minutes. At least ten minutes a day to learn something new. Or relearn something so often that it becomes embedded in your soul. Until you can spit lyrically about world problems elegantly in conversation and come across as the most well-versed person who ever existed. 10 minutes is all it takes to remember something longer than your social media feed would.
To remember the movement kickstarted by the murder of George Floyd. Or the continued disrespect towards the memory of Breonna Taylor by letting her murderers carry on without punishment. Or Elijah McClain. Or Tete Gulley. Riah Milton. Dominique Fells. Mekhi James. Amaria Jones. It’s not stopping and it shouldn’t. Just keep up to date with what’s going on use your voice.
Here’s a helpful list of (some) of the problems within the world currently, with links on how to help. Whether it’s by signing petitions and educating yourself. Help do your bit. 10 minutes. That’s it.
Stay safe everyone. Don’t give up. It’s weird that I feel the need to put that at the end of a fucking blog post.
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