Change the course of a film plot--while you watch

Romantic drama out of Israel invites viewer participation in selecting narrative developments. The interactive technology could show up in commercials and TV shows, too.

Leslie Katz Former Culture Editor
Leslie Katz led a team that explored the intersection of tech and culture, plus all manner of awe-inspiring science, from space to AI and archaeology. When she's not smithing words, she's probably playing online word games, tending to her garden or referring to herself in the third person.
  • Third place film critic, 2021 LA Press Club National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Awards
Leslie Katz
3 min read

Turbulence poster
Tel Aviv University

Ever found yourself yelling, "Noooo, don't do it!" at a movie screen? Or been in the mood for a happy ending and found yourself halfway through a film you knew would leave you in a puddle of tears?

A new system out of Israel's Tel Aviv University allows viewers to influence a movie's plot while viewing it, thus affecting the progression of events. For now, audiences are testing the technology with a full-length interactive pilot feature, "Turbulence." But the plan is to extend the tool to other "hyper-narrative interactive movies," including commercials and television series, said Nitzan Ben Shaul, a professor of film and television studies at the university who created the system.

Called InSplit, it consists of a Web-based basic editor and a standalone player for editing and playing interactive branching narrative videos. The interaction takes the form of an iridescent glow that appears onscreen as an "action item" at pivotal plot moments. Should a character send a defining text message, for example?

If viewers think so, they tap the screen of the standalone player or click "send" on a Mac or PC to activate the actor's cell phone. If the viewer hesitates too long, the action will continue on a predetermined course.

Ben Shaul said he was inspired by "Sliding Doors" and "Run Lola Run," two films that give audiences the suspense and thrill of multiple outcomes.

"They make you think about options in life, but they don't let you experience what responsibility feels like at crucial decision points," he said. "In our film you decide where the character should go, and you can decide to return to the point where the plot flipped. It's gripping."

Love affair rekindled--or is it?
In "Turbulence," three Israeli friends--Edi, Sol, and Rona--meet by chance in Manhattan 20 years after a Lebanon War protest in which all three were arrested and pitted against one another, leading to their separation. In present-day New York, two of the characters rekindle a love affair. But will Rona and Sol seal their fate as a couple, or will Sol answer the ringing phone and change the course of their history?

That's for you to decide. Without viewer interactions, the film lasts 83 minutes; with viewer input, it can last one to two hours. Viewers can also backtrack to narrative crossroads to see what would have happened had they made a different plot choice.

The film screened in September at the Berkeley Video and Film Festival in Berkeley, Calif., where it won the festival's Grand Festival Experimental Feature Award. Ben Shaul says the movie is perfect for touch-screen devices like the iPad or personal airplane movie players. But it can also be seen in groups, with a designated person making plot choices, or majority vote ruling.

Interactive footage seems to be gaining traction as an entertainment and marketing tool, but it seems InSplit could end up in home videos before long, as well. Come February, Ben Shaul and his team plan to launch a Web site that will offer users a basic editor to compile their own interactive videos. (Want grandma to break into her famous can-can? Click here.) They're also developing an advanced editor (InSplit Pro), and InSplit Script, a scripting tool to script interactive branching narrative movies.

filming of Turbulence
On the set of "Turbulence," an interactive film that lets viewers play a role in how the action unfolds. Tel Aviv University