What “Tree Of Life” Teaches About Movies In the Age Of Smartphones

Is it possible to make movies that work just as well on smartphones, tablets, and TV as they do on the big screen? Interaction designer Jason Brush thinks so.

What “Tree Of Life” Teaches About Movies In the Age Of Smartphones

Lawrence of Arabia — there’s a film where certain things in it are just not going to work on your iPhone,” Jason Brush says. But what if it could? What if there were a way for filmed narrative storytelling — aka cinema — to somehow bend, flex, shrink, and expand to fit whatever platform or device you chose — and still feel like an appropriate, satisfying experience? Brush, Executive Vice President of User Experience Design at Possible Worldwide (who also holds an MFA in film directing from UCLA), calls this idea “elastic cinema.” And not only does he think it’s possible, he considers it absolutely essential for any filmmaker who wants to remain relevant (and employed) in a world where theatrical runs are only a part of how movies get financed, distributed, and seen.


Brush calls this idea “elastic cinema.”

Brush’s inspiration came partly from his irritation at how more and more feature films seemed to be made to look more like TV shows. “I quite liked [director] J.J. Abrams’s Star Trek, but his Mission Impossible 3…there were so many closeups! It didn’t feel like an action movie; I thought it would work much better on TV,” Brush recalls. “That got me thinking about how it’d be wonderful to have a narrative experience that actually feels cinematic in the theater, and televisual on the TV, and webby on the web, but it’s still all the same story.”

[The impressionistic jump cuts and non-linear structure in Terence Malick’s Tree of Life might be a good template for movie-making that would work well on very small screens]

And it’d make much more sense from a business perspective, as well. “Filmmaking hasn’t responded to the fact that the mode of distribution has fundamentally changed, forever,” Brush says. “Most filmmakers would love to have everyone see their movie in a theater, but that’s just not how it goes anymore.” People watch movies on TV, TV on the web, the web on their phones, and every permutation thereof. “But watching media on your phone is much different than on your TV, which is much different than in the theater,” Brush says. “Elastic cinema” asks: Why not design the film in a way that it can transform to fit each of those distribution platforms (and make more money), rather than — like Lawrence of Arabia — be an amazing experience on one of them, and a disappointment on all the rest?

It sounds fanciful, but some mainstream filmmakers are already exploring the possibilities. Brush cites Olivier Assayas’s critically acclaimed film Carlos as an innovative example: Assayas and his collaborators shot and edited the film as a multipart TV miniseries, and then repackaged a two-hour version for a theatrical run. “It wasn’t just about lopping out whole scenes or storylines,” Brush says. Indeed, Assayas redesigned the theatrical version from the ground up out of the same raw materials: re-editing scenes, restructuring the plot, even changing compositions and pacing from shot to shot.

“Assayas talks about how hard it was to make one movie that works, let alone multiple versions that work just as well,” Brush says. “But a lot of that is because we have no models for this yet. It’s going to take a lot of experimentation.” Filmmakers who attempt to make “elastic cinema” stories will have to take the “user experience” of different viewing contexts into account right from the beginning, he says, and “think about the means of distribution as part of the creative process.”

“Filmmaking hasn’t responded to the changed modes of distribution.”

In that regard the auteur of the near future will need to be a total “experience designer” — not just a storyteller who hands the finished film off to a distributor. Brush cites Christopher Nolan, who shoots key setpieces in his Batman films in IMAX, as a director who “is already in this process of anticipating about how to design his movie to fit a certain platform, to make the experience of the movie different in one context compared to another.” And Terrence Malick’s highly anticipated Tree of Life has a website that makes a bold step in the “smaller” direction, presenting Malick’s enigmatic visuals in a nonlinear collage that takes the impressionistic experience of seeing the film and translates it to the browser.


Many filmmakers see this fragmentation of their art “with fear and loathing,” says Brush, “but they’ll be more creatively empowered and able to make a living if they engage with this stuff instead of fight it. Thinking critically about where and how people see the film is traditionally something that producers think about, but the directors need to as well. The experience of cinema has to be designed in a way that it hasn’t been in the past, because the modes of distribution were fixed, and now they’re fluid.” Whoever the next Spielberg, Fellini, or Kubrick turns out to be, you can bet they won’t be muttering about how terrible their masterwork looks on a tablet compared to a theater. They’ll have imagined it both ways from the start.

About the author

John Pavlus is a writer and filmmaker focusing on science, tech, and design topics. His writing has appeared in Wired, New York, Scientific American, Technology Review, BBC Future, and other outlets.