Convergence and screen aesthetics

A. O. Scott recently articulated a trend that a lot of people sense: the distance between movies, TV shows, web series, and video games is growing smaller and smaller:

Equally hard to refute is the idea that we are approaching a horizon of video convergence, in which all those screens will be equal and interchangeable and the distinctions between the stuff that’s shown on each one won’t seem as consequential as it does now. We still tend to take for granted that a cable drama, a network sitcom, a feature film, a web video and a first-person combat game are fundamentally different creatures, but they might really be diverse species within a single genus, their variations ultimately less important than what they have in common. They are all moving pictures, after all, and as our means of access to them proliferate and recombine, those old categories are likely to feel increasingly arbitrary and obsolete. The infrastructure of a multiplatform future is before us, and resistance to it can look like an especially tiresome kind of sentimentality.

Spoiler alert: Scott doesn’t think cinema is going away. But convergence doesn’t have to mean a complete dissolution of boundaries between media, and it is a useful context to think of the connections between these forms.

The common element linking films, TV, video games, etc., is often thought to be story. And that’s a useful vector to approach the question of convergence, but perhaps not the most fundamental: films can be non-narrative, and I’ve heard of non-narrative video games also.

A candidate for a true shared foundation comes from a recent essay by designer Frank Chimero. In “What Screens Want,” he starts with what is often heralded as the beginning of cinema and instead posits it as being, more generally, the beginning of an aesthetic of screens:

Muybridge’s crazy horse experiment eventually led us to the familiar glow of the screen. If you’re like me, and consider Muybridge’s work as one of the main inroads to the creation of screens, it becomes apparent that web and interaction design are just as much children of filmmaking as they are of graphic design. Maybe even more so. After all, we both work on screens, and manage time, movement, and most importantly, change.

Rather than pixels or celluloid, Chimero sees this capacity for movement as the most salient material quality of screens, one that binds together the art forms presented on them:

Just like any material, screens have affordances. Much like wood, I believe screens have grain: a certain way they’ve grown and matured that describes how they want to be treated. The grain is what gives the material its identity and tells you the best way to use it. […] the grain of screens is something I call flux […] Flux is the capacity for change.

Cinema and graphical software are blood relatives. And Chimero paints film as the father, mentioning that software developers would do well to adopt some of the language we use to understand the cinema.

This isn’t a new idea: there are experiments at the intersection of software and traditional arts both old and recent but with the film and video game industries on a collision course and high definition interactive screens in a majority of pockets, this is not going to remain solely an avant garde concern very long.