November 30, 2016

What can the #mannequinchallenge teach us about cinema?

It's the latest video craze to sweep the internet, and like similar trends (anyone remember the Harlem Shake?) the format has been used in a wide range of applications. Everything from shameless self-promotion to attempts to raise awareness of social issues has been communicated through the #mannequinchallenge.

After viewing several of these videos I was consistently impressed at how well the participants were able to hold their positions. Some of the more highly produced videos even included specialized props, costumes, and sets for the occasion. Although these are generally user-generated videos and are not meant to be "cinematic," I found that nearly all the #mannequinchallenge videos shared several important things in common with well-made cinema. It is therefore my hypothesis that the success of the #mannequinchallenge can be partially, if not entirely, attributed to some very important cinematic techniques that keep audiences watching films and television.

1. Story First

This Dog Just Won the Mannequin Challenge is definitely a clickbait headline, but it's also very important insight into the success of a video. When video trends start, viewers are willing to click on links simply for the novelty, however after a few views that novelty soon wears off and viewers want more. This is where story makes a big difference. Simply following a trend is not enough to engage an audience, but telling a story within the conventions of that trend will naturally engage viewers.

In the case of the video above, viewers aren't clicking on the link simply because it's a #mannequinchallenge video or because they like dogs, they're reacting to the story on which that video is built. People's curiosity is piqued when they hear of a dog doing something usually done by humans. That curiosity drives them to ask the "5 W's." Who? What? When? Where? and Why? (Remember these from middle school?)  The search for the answers to those questions is what makes story the most successful tool for audience engagement. When a video answers those questions, the viewer is rewarded with a feeling of satisfaction.

A good film, be it narrative or documentary, has a story that engages the audience the same way. It plays within the conventions of a different format but the underlying reasons for its success are the same. The audience is curious about characters and their motivations, they're curious about the worlds in which the story takes place, and at the very least, they're curious about series of events that make up the plot.

The success of the #mannequinchallenge videos is primarily due to the stories told by the content creators that made them.

2. Production Design > Image Quality

The majority of adults in the western world own a smartphone, which means they have access to a video camera at all times. Smartphone cameras are far from the most technologically advanced imaging devices available but their proliferation has made it possible for anyone to create popular moving image content. Successful content creators have ignored the limitations of their phone's image quality and instead focused on good production design to enhance their stories.

Let's look at another #mannequinchallenge video starring a dog (Hey, we're living in the age of sequels and remakes, right?) What sets this video apart from the last one is the clever use of production design, especially the shot of the dog with the Doritos. Things like that pull the audience into the story and enhance the overall quality of the video.

Now imagine if the creator of that video had spent all their money on a RED Weapon and a Steadicam operator. Imagine if they had gone so gear-crazy that they didn't even have enough left over for a bag of Doritos, it would have ruined the key moment of the video. Sure it would have been a very high quality image, but it would have come at the expense of what made the video memorable.

3. What's Seen is as Important as What's Unseen

In my opinion, this is is what makes the #mannequinchallenge work so well. Cinema is an art form, unlike other moving image formats like news or sports, cinema is more about presentation than representation. The art behind cinema is stagecraft, it's smoke and mirrors, it's slight of hand, it's obscurring just enough of the truth to allow of maximum suspension of disbelief and total immersion in the story. The #mannequinchallenge achieves this both in its technical conventions and in its implementation of story.

There's a legend associated with the production of Jaws, where Bruce, the film's animatronic shark, kept breaking down, which forced Steven Spielberg to re-write several scenes. This meant that the shark would have significantly less screen time than originally planned. What was originally seen as a negative consequence of technical limitations became one of the film's greatest assets. Both audiences and critics have praised Jaws for its suspense, most of which would have been lost had Bruce been working flawlessly. Because the shark remained unseen for so much of the film, the danger became much more ominous, and when the shark was finally revealed it was both scarier and more satisfying for the audience.

In the case of Jaws, because so much of the film does not feature the shark, the human imagination is left to fill in the gaps between story beats. The human imagination is the world's most effective storytelling tool, and when leveraged properly by filmmakers, can increase the quality of a film considerably. Think of a visual gore-fest like the Saw franchise versus a psychological horror masterpiece like Silence of the Lambs. There's a reason people enjoy the latter more, even after 25 years.

In the #mannequinchallenge videos, so much of the story is untold that the viewers' brains work overtime to compensate. What we see is a moment in time, a journey through a still image that raises more questions than it answers. We don't meet the characters, we don't know their origins or relationships, all we know is what we see. The stronger the video communicates its story, the more questions we as viewers ask while watching. What we don't know makes the video more engaging than what we do.

It may seem silly to try to find cinematic influence in user-generated web videos, but some of the reasons those videos work are some of the same reasons that make feature films successful.

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