CD-ROM feature films let the viewer play director


Tomorrow -- 27 years after a cumbersome two-projector system allowed the audience to vote on the ending of a movie at the Montreal Expo's Czech Pavilion -- the interactive CD-ROM version of a feature film will premiere at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Digitized images of Margot Kidder, Brian Keith and Russell Means in "Under a Killing Moon" propel the action on 25 17-inch screens as viewers make choices by computer. Tapping into the increased storage capacity of CD-ROMs (each of which stores the equivalent of 300,000 typewritten pages or 1,100 floppy discs), the $2.5 million adventure-mystery thrusts people into a 3-D "virtual world" in which they search for clues and influence the course of dialogue and narrative. Though the picture image has yet to equal videotape quality, it is a cut above the computer imagery of the past.

"Technology is now powerful enough so we can show 'acting' instead of cartoons," says Chris Jones, executive vice president of the Salt Lake City-based Access Software, which produced the project, scheduled for an August release at video, computer and retail stores at a suggested price of $99. "We're crossing the line from video games into interactive movies that can be serious contenders in the entertainment marketplace."

While some still fail to see the distinction between an "interactive movie" and a technologically sophisticated video game, the premiere does testify to the increasing cross-pollination between the Silicon Valley and Hollywood -- two parties bonded by commercial symbiosis. The video-game industry milks the recognition value of movies such as "Aladdin" and "Jurassic Park" by offering these blockbusters on a CD-ROM format. Feature filmmakers -- as well as the unions and agencies representing them -- are looking to the new technology to extend the bounds of traditional movie-making and provide new revenue.

"It's the 1990s version of the 1848 Gold Rush," says Michael Prohaska, senior administrator of the Screen Actors Guild's year-old Industrial and Interactive Contracts Division. "No one knows if there's a future there. But everyone's panning for gold."

Last week, Clint Eastwood announced that he would team up to develop a CD-ROM on his life and career, citing the potential of the medium to "entertain and inform." Chuck Norris is beginning production on the first of three live-action video games lined up in a multimillion-dollar deal, following Steven Seagal, who licensed his name and likeness for use in an original CD-ROM project. And, taking a cue from Sylvester Stallone and Wesley Snipes, who shot extra scenes for a "Demolition Man" video game, filmmakers are now trying to amass this footage during regular production schedules.

On the studio front, Viacom New Media is releasing video game versions of Paramount Television's "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine" and the short-lived "Viper." And other entertainment giants such as Sony, Walt Disney and Time Warner have set up interactive divisions in-house.

Still, the new technology also poses a new set of creative challenges. Shooting actors individually against a "blue screen" -- a process through which characters can be superimposed on a variety of backgrounds -- can be painstaking and static. And recording "conversation trees" -- multiple versions of scenes to permit for a variety of interactive choices -- works against continuity and character development.

Some in the industry insist that the "stop-start" nature of the format interrupts the flow and that the public prefers its entertainment spoon-fed. Involving people in video games is well and good, the argument goes, but movies necessitate a suspension of belief.

"People want to be told stories . . . not create them," says a leading developer of entertainment software. "Even writers find the creative process to be work. When was the last time you read an interactive novel? Technology can't create new behavior. It just allows existing behavior to happen more readily."

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