Rupture: An Experiment with Born-Digital Prose

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When I first began writing my short story ‘Rupture’, I didn’t intend to work with artists I’d never met to produce a piece incorporating animated visuals and sound; this collaborative process came about as the project evolved. Initially, I had the fundamental elements of a primarily print-based work: I tapped into an omniscient narrator who had the capacity to access the psyche of my two primary characters, both of whom seemed to be facing emotional and psychological challenges. Specifically, I envisaged a mother figure, Janelle, who was struggling with her marriage and the responsibilities associated with parenting. There was also Jeffery, her twelve-year-old son, who—for some reason to which I was not immediately privy—had developed mutism. As I connected with Janelle and her son more deeply, it became evident that Jeffery’s condition was the result of a traumatic event he and his mother had witnessed: a violent bank robbery. Although Jeffrey was unable (or unwilling) to speak, I discovered that he often chose to draw as a means of expressing himself; thus, it made sense to have the story illustrated. Images, I believed, would add a level of depth and texture to the work, while also providing Jeffery with a ‘voice’ and, therefore, an opportunity to communicate directly with readers. So, almost by chance, the first step towards creating a multimodal piece was taken.

When considering ideas for illustrations (image, style, and composition), I knew I wanted simple, stark lines with a substantial amount of block, contrasting colour. This approach, it seemed, would fit with Jeffery’s age and so lend the story greater verisimilitude. Yet, I also needed the images to be sophisticated and emotive. After trawling the Internet, I found the art work of Baltimore-based artist Joe Maccarone. I reached out to Joe, then anxiously awaited his reply. I heard back a few days later and was thrilled to learn he wanted to collaborate. As serendipity would have it, Joe is also highly accomplished in the field of digital animation. After ‘watching’ some of his work online, it occurred to me that we could use animated visuals (GIF’s) as a means of creating a more immersive reading experience. Joe agreed and began transforming the eight initial illustration proofs into animated image files. At this point—given such files require a computer and/or mobile-based operating system in order to be run—‘Rupture’ entered the realm of born-digital narrative.

Importantly, born-digital works cannot be transposed to another medium without negatively impacting some aspect of their aesthetic or artistic features. Further explanation is provided by the Reading Digital Fiction website:

Rather than existing as a digital version of a print novel, digital fictions are what are known as ‘born-digital’—that is, they would lose something of their aesthetic and/or structural form and meaning if they were removed from the digital medium. For example, they may contain hyperlinks, moving images, mini-games or sound effects. (https://readingdigitalfiction.com/)

The above definition is fitting for ‘Rupture’ which, when confined to the realm of print, loses digital-oriented aesthetics generated by the use of animated visuals and sound. Significantly, the move to an electronic medium opened up a realm of creative possibilities; we were suddenly able to have the images move and morph in a way that might intensify their impact and even amplify meaning. Take Image Four from the narrative, for instance (see below):

Image 4 – Jeffery and his Demons

The above visual accompanies a scene in which Jeffery has been asked by a psychiatrist to draw whatever comes to mind when ‘you think of that day at the bank’. Evidently, the image depicts a wolf-like figure quivering over Jeffery’s shoulder, almost breathing done his neck, so to speak; this implies he is in the process of recalling a frightening presence and/or occurrence. Indeed, the visual is deeply connected to Jeffery’s recollections: the men who held up the bank were wearing wolf-masks to disguise their identities. In this way, the image literally ‘paints a picture’ of Jeffery’s thoughts, providing insights into the source of his internal trauma. The visual is also designed to pique readers’ interest in terms of what happened when he and his mother were at the bank; it works to foreshadow the traumatic and violent nature of the bank robbery, an event that is revealed via a flashback later in the narrative.

The next visual to appear in the story not only works to illustrate the scene of an unfolding counselling session attended by Jeffery, Janelle, and two psychiatrists, but also to deliver a multilayered message. (See Image 5):  

Image 5: Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing

When the above image file runs, the face of one of the psychiatrists transforms intermittently into a wolf, symbolising Jeffery’s ongoing anxiety, along with the tendency of wolf-like men to haunt his psyche. If this image were static, it would not represent Jeffery’s thought processes with the same degree of emotive impact and thematic resonance as that achieved via the GIF. Hence, it can be argued that animation adds a layer of complexity to the visuals; it allows them to transmit a sense of heightened emotion and immediacy, while also prompting readers to search for deeper meanings.

As I viewed the complete catalogue of animated visuals set to accompany ‘Rupture’, I wondered what other digitally-oriented features could be utilised. How else could we provide immersive aesthetics designed to enrich the reading experience? This led me to consider the incorporation of music and sound effects, or, more specifically, to have each GIF accompanied by an individual soundtrack. Another Internet search followed—this time for a music composer/sound engineer. During my investigations, I stumbled across Stu Campbell’s award-winning webcomic ‘These Memories Won’t Last’. I observed how, as I scrolled, the music changed, deepening the sensory experience while echoing alterations in setting and scenario. After perusing the ‘credits’ of the webcomic, I discovered the composer and sound design artist responsible for the soundtrack was a gentleman by the name of Lhasa Mencur. A quick Google search led me to Lhasa’s website. I fired a message through cyberspace explaining the nature of my project and, again, waited. Lhasa responded promptly and, much to my delight, said he was happy to come on-board.

In composing the tracks for ‘Rupture’, Lhasa deployed sound design techniques previously used in his commercial sample libraries (which includes sound for video games) to create looping ambiences with minimal memory footprint. He produced a total of eight music-based soundtracks—one track for each GIF—all of which have been optimised for HTML5. The industrial ambient feel of the music is intended to reflect the narrative’s serious, sombre tone, as well as amplify alterations in mood and tension. In addition, carefully constructed sound effects kick in at certain times, lending yet another layer of drama and texture to the narrative. Ultimately, the soundtracks complement the animated visuals in such a way as to bring the storyworld to life for readers, intensifying their immersive experience. To complete the narrative’s audio features, Lhasa worked upon an audio narration (where I read the story aloud), which has been over-laid and synchronised with the eight soundtracks mentioned above. The audio narration function ensures that visually-impaired site visitors can listen to the story, as well as the music and/or sound effects associated with different scenes and visuals.

As the project proceeded, it became evident that I would need somewhere to ‘hold’ and display the work— i.e. a website. I contacted a few web programmers, but found the cost of their services to be prohibitive. Then, acting on a hunch, I emailed Shekhar Kalra, a computer science lecturer at the Royal Institute of Melbourne Technology. Shekhar graciously agreed to organise a small group of fourth-year RMIT computer programming students to build the Rupture site under the supervision of Amir Homayoon Ashrafzadeh. The students —Dae Yong Kim, George Hanna, and Jiajun Zhu—constructed and coded the website using the Heroku platform, an integrated data service system designed to deploy and run modern applications. The students designed all aspects of the site, including its full screen layout, the dynamic (moving) homepage, and colour scheme. They also established internal links that lead to separate webpages associated with Teaching Notes for the story and a list of creative credits.  Finally, the students embedded the GIFs into the site and ensured the soundtracks were correctly matched to each image which, as I have been informed, was not a particularly easy task.

The finished product is a work that incorporates different communication modes, prompting readers to deploy skills associated with multiliteracy—as we all do when accessing and navigating the digital medium. If you’d like to immerse yourself within the multimodal aesthetics of ‘Rupture’, then head to http://rupture.net.au/story. I hope you enjoy the experience.

Dr Eileen Herbert-Goodall is a published writer of fiction and non-fiction, as well as an experienced editor. Eileen is the author of a cross-over novella titled The Sherbrooke Brothers. Her second novella is due for release in late 2019. She holds a Doctorate of Creative Arts and teaches creative writing at the University of the Sunshine Coast, Australia.