Its title might just say it all.
Bla Bla, a new interactive animation piece by Montreal film director Vincent Morisset, defies easy description. There's no dialogue, but it's about language and communication. It's made for adults, but it's one of the best recent works of media art for children.
Produced by the National Film Board of Canada, Bla Bla ( blabla.nfb.ca) focuses on an animated boy with a large, pancake-like head. Everything he does is a surprise: In one chapter of the approximately six-minute work, the boy says babyish abstract words when you feed him little coloured discs, as if you are feeding him ideas. In another, a mouse click makes the boy butt heads with his mirror image, sending colourfully drawn epiphanies shooting from their joined heads, along with harmonious tones that they say in unison; other segments have the boy falling through the air and being struck by ideas like lightning bolts, depending on where you click your mouse on the computer screen.
And none of the above really does the plot or feel of the film justice.
"It feels like something intended for kids. Kids were part of the public I was aiming for, but never the centre of it," Morisset says. He adds that he stayed clear of making it too cluttered, like many interactive games for children, or too dark and stylized like those for adults. "I wanted something a bit bland."
But that's not really the right word either. Like the interactive video Morisset directed for Arcade Fire's song Neon Bible , which only shows singer Win Butler's face and his hands performing sleight-of-hand tricks on a black background (which also can be manipulated with the click of a mouse), "spare" may be a better word for Morisset's style.
Then again, that word belies a year of intensive trial and error on Bla Bla, which included new techniques of mapping video over stop-motion animation and 500 pages of computer code.
The piece is part of the NFB's continuing shift into digital media and distribution. In addition to a recent push to make a large collection of its films available on the Web, the NFB has earmarked 20 per cent of its production budget specifically for interactive films, says Hugues Sweeney, who is charge of the NFB's interactive French programs and Bla Bla's producer.
For Bla Bla, the basic goal was to give Morisset, who is 34, freer rein than he'd had on commercial film and interactive projects for bands such as Arcade Fire and Sigur Ros or for the online trailer he made for director Peter Greenaway's Tulse Luper Suitcases. His breakout work with Arcade Fire came about through his long friendship with the band, seeing them play living rooms with only 15 people, developing the band's first website and gradually turning that into more elaborate projects along the lines of his film work.
Yet Morisset shuns being pegged as only an "interactive director." Interactive storytelling, for him, is one tool among many, "part of a broader grammar," he says. So, a new experimental concert film on the Icelandic band Sigur Ros, which he is directing, will undoubtedly have Web components, but it will still be very much a feature film in the traditional sense. Bla Bla, however, allowed a new outlet.
"What we wanted to do at the NFB was to create the conditions in which someone like Vincent can have the time and space and the best conditions to create his own piece," Sweeney says. "It's like back in the time when [animation great]Norman McLaren was here or Ryan [Larkin, another animation master]"
However, as with the groundbreaking animation by McLaren and Larkin, which propelled Canada to the forefront of experimentation in animation, an abstract work can remain a tough sell at the development stage - even at the NFB.
"As a producer, I have to pitch the project. And it was not really clear where we were heading. We knew it was something around language and communication. And we knew that you would be interacting with one character," Sweeney says.
Ultimately, the aim is to target primarily at 25- to 40-year-olds, the most active users of the Internet. But whereas the NFB's interactive documentaries, such as Highrise, appeal to adults because of their exploration of real-world topics, interactive animation projects such as Bla Bla can have a wider audience, including young children. Plus, as Morisset has found, very young viewers often interact with the piece much more intuitively than adults.
"I want people to forget about the computer, so that there's a genuine connection with the piece, and I didn't want to have buttons and things that are normally related to games and websites. So, for me, it was really important to have this homemade feel," Morisset says.
In other words, to go beyond a commercial straitjacket - and beyond pat descriptions.