Digital Storytelling and Learning

Vladimir Cerić MA Student of University of Arts in Belgrade
Abstract: In the last decade of the 20th century, a new digital era for learning first emerged through movies, and then came to television almost silently. Digital storytelling has started new digital learning era with Hollywood spectacle – The Jurassic Park. Then, it was the first time digital technology was used to create a complete and detailed living creatures, the dinosaurs. Their photo-realistic appearance opened a new world for many broadcasters such as BBC, Discovery and History. Today we could hardly imagine their new production of television shows without some amount of digital storytelling, which is going to be analyzed by its self-oriented being, and its acceptance by the spectators on the example of the BBC’s educational series: Walking with Dinosaurs.

Keywords: digital narrative, learning, television, educational television shows, digital visual effects.

Table of Contents 1.  Preface.................................................................................................................1  2.  Ontology of Digital Video Effects......................................................................3  3.  Digital visual effects and Narrative ....................................................................5  3.1. Case study: Walking with dinosaurs...................................................................9  4.  Survey ...............................................................................................................10  5.  Conclusion ........................................................................................................15  Bibliography ............................................................................................................16 

NOTE: Term digital storytelling means two opposite things. In this paper, term digital storytelling is used for a process of storytelling by using digital visual effects. Other meaning is for short Internet based video form made for educational purposes, from archive footage with narrator’s voice explaining in interesting way some famous person, event or a fact.

1. Preface Process of information, which came from other media than television, had educational contents. Learning in the traditional manners, on television, because of mainly commercial program that television offers didn’t exploit all the possibilities that television as a media offers. Learning is often part of narrative on television, not dominant. Worldwide there are specialized television channels that are based on education: fundamental education and append education for big masses. television channels that are giving priority to the basic knowledge usually are made in such a way to show recorded lectures from a classroom, school or university; not only that they have a slow rhythm and hardly any interactivity in studying, but they also present the coldness of television as a media. These kind of television channels could be found in many developed countries, sometimes they are broadcasted on special frequencies, but sometimes they are sharing the frequency with commercially more attractive channels in non-prime time; very often they are produced by some universities, institutes or colleges. There are also other channels that are adjusted to the modern technical and recording means used on today’s television: live recording, using archive footage, re-recording, reporting, interview, reconstruction and visualization of historical events, special visual effects... – these means bring the new creative way in education to the audience (de Moura Castro 2000). These kind of specialized channels exist in countries with the low standard of living, such as Mexico and Brazil, where the great part of population has only lower education. Because they


have almost no condition for getting regular education, they now have the chance to get educated via television, instead of going to school. These channels, made for the masses of different age and education level, are specialized for science and social studies: History, Discovery, NASA, and Animal Planet etc. As channels, they evolved from educational channels of big broadcasting corporations such as BBC, ITV, NBC, ABC, CBS and ITV, by taking their shows connected to history, architecture, art, music, geography, biology, medicine, computer science. Nowadays, the mentioned television channels often combine their education programs with reality television shows, such as Man Vs. Wild. Almost 25 years ago, synonyms for a good educational television program in Serbia were wildlife series Survival in production of British ITV. Practical implementation of recording, from documentary point of view, shots made world wide, and technically revolutionary framing, camera movement, also specific sound design made standards for every future television production regarding wildlife series program. In the last decade of 20th century, new era of learning and production of educational forms came from movies to television gradually. Hollywood spectacle Jurassic Park by Steven Spielberg started new development of digital storytelling. Than it was the first time digital technology was used for making detailed and complete presentation of live beings – dinosaurs (Elsaesser 2002). Their photorealistic display opened new production forms that many broadcasters such as BBC took and have implemented for many other genres of educational program. Perception of digital narrative by television and movie spectators, their adequacy, relation with real world, and basic ontological problems of DIGITAL VISUAL EFFECTS as main ingredient of digital narrative were analyzed based on BBC educational series Walking with Dinosaurs with a retrospective view on Jurassic Park and foundations it has made.


2. Ontology of Digital Video Effects Theory by French film theorist and critic André Bazin of ontology of photographic
image (Bazin 1967), is based on historical tendency of human kind of portraying real

world and its analogy with a real world. Based on analyses of psychological circumstances that led to archeological findings of many artifacts and problem of preservation of human body in time of his immortality, Bazin makes his theory with a reflection of transformation of fine arts from basic reproduction of form to illusion. In this process of transformation and development, perspective, third dimension, gave a possibility of completely understanding the form, shape of things. So the next step was to eliminate problem of movement, which wasn’t possible until much later with a new technical innovations (Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory, 1895). Bazin emphasizes the difference between subjective work of painter while portraying real world, and the photography that made absence of human from its mechanical portraying of real world, objectivity and its real presence in time and place. Bazin says that: “…photography does not create eternity, as art does, it embalms time, rescuing it simply form its proper corruption”. Bazin says that reproduction of real; its objectivity comes from portraying motion – through movies. Thanks to studies of modal logic David Lewis and possible worlds and their goal, which is to have same ontological status as real world, digital photography can be matching to analog, have same ontological status, which is their jointly being based on impossible possibilities in real world. Digital photography, opposite to analog, which is based of portraying the real, trace of light on a film, its presence is based on process of digitalization and recalculating information which light sensors embraced.


These information, are chains of numbers which can be seen on computer display. Their numerical values can be easily changed, and by changing one or many new generated images can be produced. With every change we make we will be more apart displaying real world. These previews can be visible or invisible. Visible In case of Spielberg’s movies or television shows Walking with dinosaurs visible visual effects make dinosaurs share same time and place in real world where they normally cannot be. They are hidden with their photorealistic appearance and by that they could be referred as invisible. Digital images are not produced by optics, mechanics, by real or real possible environment, and they are portraying images of ideal dinosaurs from real world. For viewers, spectators, they could be real. In Studying contemporary American film, Elsaesser said: “…although optical composites can always give the impression that the two separate events occupy the same screen space, they eventually fall short in convincing the increasingly sophisticated spectator that the separate events occupy the same diegesis…” In movie Jurassic Park composite of real environment, people and dinosaurs within the frame, made semblance of real with a main goal to make believable image for the spectators. Implementing different recording techniques, editing and visual effects made those composites real: • Use of deep focus shot for making easier spatial interaction between people and dinosaurs (and their placing into real space) and dynamic camera movement made framing less needed; • • Use of subjective low-angle shot for people, and high angle shot for dinosaurs made real point of view for the audience; Due to different nature of shots (digitally and optically made), problems when displaying movement could be seen so differences in focus of real object in motion and computer generated motion of model (which is by its nature perfectly focused and unnaturally clear) could be span by using motion blur effect which made composite real in same diegesis.


3. Digital visual effects and Narrative Many theories written within past 20 years about using digital video effects on film have same background; they include their relation to spectacle or narrative. Authors of these theories have almost same starting points: • • • Digital video effects could be substitute for a good story; Development of new technologies doesn’t underline the story, instead story develops from, and based on new technological development; Heavy usage of digital visual effects takes control over many film genres, which were, in time of their development and early age natural space for exploring new narrative possibilities. Questions that Shilo McClean makes about usage of digital video effects on film in the first chapter of a book Digital Storytelling (McClean 2007, 3), could be transformed and used on television (instead of film): • • • • Does usage of digital video effects underestimates classical narrative structure by specific television genres? Can usage of digital video effects be replacement for a story? Can usage of digital video effects be invisible from its self-oriented existence? Does usage of digital video effects on television changes television production, and how? Common narrative structure of movie is easy to understand story, linear development, with clear why and clear because, with typical characters, and especially clear end. While in that kind of movie structure there is headroom for different interpretations, television is more specific in its goal to be very easy to understand and totally linear story. If we make an assumption that film using too much digital visual effects can be bad for a story, on television, because of its stronger and simpler narrative structure, their use can be freer for interpretation with out being bad for the story. There is a problem, however, television doesn’t have to many programs based on this kind of narrative structure, so by using digital visual effects in for example news we could be abusing spectators. For example, state owned Serbian broadcasting corporation in


October of year 2000 used digital narrative when there was an opening of new bridge in Novi Sad called Rainbow, dough it was very bad weather with no sun at all digital visual effects made rainbow just above the bridge, as a part of propaganda how everything is going well in troubled war destroyed country. Too much of digital visual effects can put the story in background, in movie and television. Examples for these claims are easiest to be found in science fiction genre, with digital visual effects only used as a spectacle and when their technical superiority (comparing it with previous blockbuster, with more and more of photorealism), hides very weak narrative. In the early days of digital visual effects their usage was spectacle without any high esthetic standards, while with technological development digital visual effects started to create reality more real than world we see with our own eyes. Authors of many theories about digital visual effects underestimated that they were used in a manner in storytelling that traditional special effects never could. Also with their massive usage, progress, they led to creation of new movie and television subgenres. Common position of most authors is that digital visual effects are simply bad or negatively critical. By using photorealistic digital visual effects on film we can cut expenses of production, but wit their use on television this, yet because of relatively high price, isn’t a case. Only biggest broadcasters freely use all the possibilities of digital visual effects, exploring its capabilities in different types of programs from educational to central news show. On the opposite of film stories were you can expect happy ending, or justice to be served, in television educational shows, because of their scientific and historical background – in both cases immortality of a hero or his idea, television educational shows, hero isn’t a motive for structuring the story (all dough he can be a part of it), it is a relation between truth which is being told and dramatization that it follows. Between these two, there is a story.


Importance of story in digital narrative can be examined on example of typical show on History channel: Egyptologist talks about life of a pharaoh (dramatization) based on data collected from new tomb they have discovered. In that relation dramatization is digital storytelling, and because of television environment, narrator and the facts based on live, claims by professionals, from fiction dramatization is transformed to faction and in their togetherness they act as a digital narrative. Digital narrative can or doesn’t have to exist dough story can be combined just from digital visual effects, an example for that is in medical shows, where there is no narrative, in the way human body works, of course it runs in a complex system, with beginning and ending. On the other hand, writers will use dramatization and reconstruction of time, place and people that took part in that medical discovery. So by placing non-narrative digital form inside wider narrative they make a connection on higher level into a digital narrative. Digital narrative on television has to have a narrator, regardless where story took place; he shares our trust with a control he has over a situation. He knows what is next, and he has a knowledge that he is sharing with the audience piece by piece. He is an immortal hero, who didn’t get his status with spoiled tears or blood; he used his knowledge and facts to explain from a distance what we see on a television screen. Knowledge is his power to draw attention of spectators to a show. Narrator is a usually a man, he talks from off, or he is sitting in some “cozy” leather chair of important university or institute. He is framed in close shoot, with his eyes pointed straight into the camera. With all this, we cannot be unsure in what he is saying, is it true or false. With the help of narrator, narrative, we believe in show. Sometimes he is in same space where story is happening, but not in same time, or not same circumstances: between dramatized story and the past, presence or the future he talks about, he never crosses the line which makes him a hero, and he stays on correct, true side, as the strongest non digital link of digital narrative in educational television programs. On television, part of diegesis and mimesis in digital narrative of educational television programs takes our attention from a spectacle of new technologies to its main goal – to educate. Also, television – a spectacle by itself by implementing digital


narrative in educational shows - tries to position itself on higher intellectual scale that it normal would be. Audience partially let themselves free to the narrator’s will, and partially because of photorealistic dramatization and corresponding true data, audience inserts themselves into diegetic faction that show is all about. Other goal for producers of educational shows is to make audience partially identified with the science show is about. Because the way that science is presented, it’s easy to correspond with fundamental education that its target population has. Good educational shows have very wide range of targeted population. Because of fundamental knowledge it refers from its first minutes to last shot, educational shows are placed higher in television hierarchy when comparing to other programs. On every few minutes producers made us believe that our fundamental knowledge is of great importance for understanding what just have happened or what is happening next. Storytelling as a part of educational television show uses digital narrative to interpret many times, in (very) similar ways, every aspect of a problem that shows is about. Often there are few summaries, which have connections with fundamental facts it’s comparing to, from something audience learned today, or even in elementary school. All that makes audience feel smart, as a participant, as co-builder of a new learning process.


3.1. Case study: Walking with dinosaurs Walking with dinosaurs has six episodes. It was presented as BBC event of the year at the end of 1999. When it was fires aired, more than half of England’s population watched it. Program is based on newest research in paleontology which was brought to life thanks to advanced 3D modeling, animating, animatronics and real (and adapted) recordings of natural habitat: it was shot in California, Bahamas, Tasmania and Chile. All episodes have chronological evolutionary development of dinosaurs. Storytelling in every episode is based on main member of particular species of dinosaurs and his factional life on Earth, with massive usage of digital narrative. From the experience that television audience had from other wildlife series, like already mentioned Survival, they can construct fictional inter-narrative that connects characters, and we connect them with audience by showing dinosaurs almost as a pets, with a narrator’s voice presenting scientific facts and assumptions in elegant and easy to understand way. Show is based on scientific facts, but very important part is a factional reconstruction of dinosaurs’ lives, even the way they looked, and their interaction with other members of community or other species.


4. Survey For the purpose of examination of viewers’ reception of television show Walking with Dinosaurs, small survey was made (Figure 1). In survey that contained twentytwo questions, there were four sections regarding different approaches to people’s point of view regarding the show.

Figure 1 - Example of survey, with most different types of questions and answers

First section had three general questions about gender, level of education and age. Second section had eight questions about storyline, narration, and overall quality of the show. Third section had five questions about narrator, his place within the storyline, and his attribution for reception of show by viewers. Last section has six questions about dinosaurs, their photorealistic appearance, and their (non) believable role in the show. Twenty-five carefully selected people participated in the survey regarding their gender and background. Among many principles, goal was to select people with different level of computer skills. They could be divided into three categories. First

category, skilled computer natives includes a number of participants that use computer for everyday business. Their skills exceed everyday usage of Office package and user side of Internet, by using interactive applications for Webs, Elearning, video editing, sound design or graphic editing. Second category would be a category of everyday computer users with much less skills regarding multimedia and web; they participate everyday in digital world but not as developers. Third, and last category were mostly older participants with very few or no computer knowledge at all, but they were also mostly well educated like other categories just in different fields. Score was: 28 percent of finished secondary school students, and 72 percent of finished higher education students. In gender score, 52 percent of participants were females. Both males and females were mainly between 25 and 35 years old (64 percent), with five participants age 14-19, and four participants older than 36 years of age.


Possible Values

Given Answer - Value Extremely important - 1

Mean Answer

Would you say that the relations between dinosaurs, for example family relations, are important for the quality of the video? 1-4

Somehow important - 2 Somehow unimportant -3 Extremely unimportant - 4 Extremely realistic - 1


Would you say that family bonds between dinosaurs are realistically presented?


Somehow realistic - 2 Somehow unrealistic - 3 Extremely unrealistic - 4


Do you think there are too many scientific terms and data in the video (for example timelines, years, Latin names etc.)? Do you think that the video would be less good with fewer scientific terms and data? Do you think that visual presentation of scientific data, for example timelines, Latin names, geographical maps would make the video more understandable? Do you think that graphical presentation of scientific data on screen could draw our attention from the story of the video? 1-3 1-3 1-3

Yes - 1 Maybe - 2 No - 3 Yes - 1 1-3 Maybe - 2 No - 3 Yes - 1 Maybe - 2 No - 3 Yes - 1 Maybe - 2 No - 3 1.68 2.08 1.64 2.88


Extremely interesting - 1 Somehow interesting - 2 This video could be described as: 1-4 Somehow uninteresting - 3 Extremely uninteresting - 4 1.68

Extremely useful - 1 When it comes to learning about dinosaurs, this video could be described as? Somehow useful - 2 1-4 Somehow useless - 3 Extremely useless - 4 1.60

Figure 2 - Table with questions about storyline and quality of the show

In this section (Figure 2), it was important to understand audience’s point of view regarding storyline, narration and overall quality of the show. A key point in this section could be that well educated audience wanted to watch somehow more challenging television program so the answers pretty much emphasize the importance of science inside the show. But, a natural socially oriented view for factional family and other bonds could led to a conclusion that hero-story pattern which could be described as a basic narrative structure also had importance to well educated, as well as small number of less educated participants. Interesting was that well educated audience was pretty unsure about using more visible graphics inside the show, which by their everyday use of hyper textual environment could be seen as fear in television environment as a media for serious study, so they have seen that as more challenging environment that television should be. Overall quality of the show was described as interesting, and when it comes to learning about dinosaurs neither one participant saw this show as extremely useless, mostly it was described as extremely useful.


Possible Values

Given Answer - Value Extremely realistic - 1

Mean Answer

How does the narrator fit in the story in show?


Somehow realistic - 2 Somehow unrealistic - 3 Extremely unrealistic - 4 Extremely realistic - 1


3How does the narrator tell the story in this video?


Somehow realistic - 2 Somehow unrealistic - 3 Extremely unrealistic - 4



Extremely realistic - 1 Physical appearance of the narrator in the story in this video would be: 1-4 Somehow realistic - 2 Somehow unrealistic - 3 Extremely unrealistic - 4 Do you think that the narrator is the specialist from the same field of research as shown in the show? Would a female narrator have a better impact on the story rather than a male one? 1-3 Yes - 1 Maybe - 2 No - 3 Yes - 1 1-3 Maybe - 2 No - 3 2.68 2.20 3.68

Figure 3 - Table about narrator within the story

In section about narrator (Figure 3), almost all participants unanimously described narrator as an important part of the story. His part was pointed as very important to the viewers, they do believe him, they don’t question his field of expertise, but his physical appearance in show for most of them would be extremely unrealistic or somehow unrealistic. Interesting is, regarding a number of women in survey, that for most participants, female voice would be inappropriate.


Possible Values

Given Answer - Value Extremely realistic - 1


How realistic do the dinosaurs look in video?


Somehow realistic - 2 Somehow unrealistic - 3 Extremely unrealistic - 4 Extremely realistic - 1


How realistic do the dinosaurs sound in video?


Somehow realistic - 2 Somehow unrealistic - 3 Extremely unrealistic - 4 Extremely realistic - 1


Are the movements of dinosaurs realistic in video?


Somehow realistic - 2 Somehow unrealistic - 3 Extremely unrealistic - 4 Extremely realistic - 1


Is the dinosaurs’ behaving realistic in video?


Somehow realistic - 2 Somehow unrealistic - 3 Extremely unrealistic - 4



Extremely realistic - 1 Is the shown environment realistic? 1-4 Somehow realistic - 2 Somehow unrealistic - 3 Extremely unrealistic - 4 Extremely realistic - 1 Are the relationships between different species presented realistic? 1-4 Somehow realistic - 2 Somehow unrealistic - 3 Extremely unrealistic - 4 1.48 1.48

Figure 4 - Table about dinosaurs' appearance

Because of the fact that people believe their senses this section of question is of a great importance (Figure 4). Realism of dinosaurs’ appearance had a key impact for the success of the Walking with dinosaurs, and also for audience’s embrace of new technologies such as digital visual effects, silently without too much resistance. Here data showed that although show is old, and beside the fact animators use animatronics much better these days, than in 1999, every participant saw dinosaurs as realistic, 76 percent of them as somehow realistic. They had less believe in the way dinosaurs’ sound or move or interact with each other. But, with a help of real life composites with environment and other known animal species people started to believe more in what they see with only few answers in unrealistic domain, and with very few differences between the answers.


5. Conclusion Using digital narrative is pretty much undefined terrain for television writers and theorists’ especially in educational programs. In theory there are very few examples of television forms and digital narrative, and usually where they exist, they are too connected with film, and ties between film and digital narrative. Problem of digital narrative in movies is seen through two types of digital visual effects: visible or invisible and their legitimate usage inside the storyline. Film theory justifies use of digital narrative if it is in simplest form: introduction – body – conclusion, based on certain type of esthetical norms, if it is not self-oriented, and if is blending seamlessly in structure of storytelling. But, in television programs, especially educational, this form isn’t possible: there is no hero, instead, there are chronological and scientific facts that make narration. In that chronological order dramatization (which is digital storytelling), with a narrator-hero aside in television environment combine, all together in higher narrative structure which has no problems of it self-oriented ontological being for exploiting and using digital visual effects. In Spielberg’s movies dinosaurs are simulacrum, put in same space and time with people, but in television show Walking with dinosaurs authors of this Survival-like show were send back to past for “live footage” to record and show reality.


Bibliography Bazin, André. 1967. Šta je film? - I Ontologija i jezik. Beograd: Institut za film. Elsaesser, Thomas. 2002. Studying contemporary American film: a guide to movie analysis. 1st ed. London [u.a.]: Arnold. McClean, Shilo. 2007. Digital storytelling : the narrative power of visual effects in film. Cambridge Mass.: MIT Press. de Moura Castro, Claudio. 2000. Is Education by Television Just an Old Technology? Notes from the Education Unit. Washington D.C.: Sustainable Development Department Inter-American Development Bank. Ryan, Marie-Laure. 2001. Beyond Myth and Metaphor: The Case of Narrative in Digital Media. Game Studies.


Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful