Thursday, February 22, 2007

The Format Wars

A John writes to John August about an article an article from the New Yorker by David Denby. The two articles talk about the new video format, namely watching movies on your iPod. There is, undeniably, something lost in the movie experience when you're watching it from your palm -- that is what David Denby mourns. John August, on the other hand, is a bit more optimistic, accepting the possibilities that might emerge. (And indeed, just look at the Green Arrow spinoff from Smallville that will be released only in Sprint phones.)

Format affects form, no doubt about that. Although perhaps people aren't necessarily making the most out of it at the moment. I do think there's an "optimal" show to be viewed on the iPod, to be posted on YouTube, videos on mobile phones, etc. (Check out Ze Frank as he doesn't overuse his small screen.) It's just not maximixed, I think. And in terms of entertainment, it is important. Because more and more people are exploring these mediums without necessarily giving it the right form. (Trailers for the US run of Death Note will be released at the New York Comic Con for example and fans will view in on their phones -- hopefully it'll be presented in the right way.)

An example of format not matching form occurs in comics. The format isn't necessarily the size of the sheet but when it's released. To a US comic fan, manga might appear decompressed. To a manga fan, Western comics might seem like the opposite: compressed (especially with those huge chunk of text). That's because both markets are used to different formats. The manga format works because it's released on a weekly basis. (There are manga titles that are released on a monthly basis as well but their stories are more tighter than the weekly manga titles.) US comics, on the other hand, are typically monthlies. Which is also why US comics usually cope with large chunks of text as exposition (instead of just huge chunks of text in dialogue, which manga has no shortage of). It's about as different as watching a 30-minute episode from a 1-hour one: one has more freedom to tell the story while the other must make do with what he has.

Prose, I think, hasn't truly caught up with this problem yet, simply because there's too many formats running around. In print, prose has no problem -- that's the job of the graphic designer. In other formats, however, such as web pages and eBooks, that's a different matter. The publisher of eBooks, for example, has no control where you'll be reading the document: will it be on the computer which has a larger screen? On the phone? On an eBook reader? The dimensions are fluid and vary -- it's far from consistent yet. The same goes with web pages: heck, I don't know how many times you've scrolled down to be reading this part. Blogger's tools aren't up to part to give me an idea on how many "screen units" I've consumed, and perhaps any web designer knows the true problems of publishing on the web: there's no consistent resolution size. The best they can do is recommend the "optimized resolution" for viewing a certain web page. Seven years ago there was consistency in the 800 x 600 resolution but no one uses that these days. The thing with resolution is that it quickly scales up with the video cards and monitors that get released (granted they're not as fast as breakthroughs in processesors and memory but they're still fast). Which is something to consider especially when you're in advertising.

The possibilities I see for fiction, for example, is something that's faster than "fast food fiction" or "short short stories" -- perhaps a story that fits one screen (given of course a reasonable font size). Maybe it's something online writers should consider. But again, unlike iPod screens and YouTube, there's no "universal" resolution yet and screen sizes remains fluid (and in the end, one could always reshape the browser window).

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