Howling wolf - Festival International Nouveau Cinema Nouveaux Medias Montreal   Awarded the Montréal New Media Award 2003
for breaking new grounds in non-linear filmmaking

Office Voodoo - an algorithmic film with a real-time editing engine

(2002) Michael Lew / Story Networks / Media Lab Europe

Office Voodoo is an interactive film installation for two people.

It tells the story of Frank and Nancy, two bored Irish officemates, condemned to spend their lives in an office. This infinite film is an algorithmic sitcom inspired from Sartre's play "Huis clos", crossbred with an office life simulator.

Two physical voodoo dolls, that represent the protagonists, can be manipulated in order to change the emotions of the characters in the film. It is a social laboratory where the viewers can experiment on the influence of emotions as initial conditions in any social interaction. As viewers get skilled manipulating the dolls, they can control the emotions of Frank and Nancy, and see what happens when : Frank is cranky and Nancy is hyperactive ? Frank is horny and Nancy is depressed ?

The interactive film is made exclusively of real lens-based footage shot with real actors, but it runs on a real-time editing engine that fluidly assembles the film shot by shot as one watches it, while respecting the conventions of continuity editing.

The installation is built as a little immersive wooden house for two people - a cross between a confessional, an arcade game booth and a kinetoscope parlour.


Shown at :

MIT Media Lab
Boston, MA, USA
May 19-21, 2002

BAFTA interactive award jury
London, UK
September 11, 2002

Darklight Digital Film Festival
Dublin, Ireland
September 20-22. 2002

Streaming Cinema 3.0
Philadelphia, PA, USA
February 21-23, 2003

Siggraph 2003
San Diego, CA, USA
July 31, 2003

Montreal International Festival New Cinema New Media
Montréal, Canada
October 9-19, 2003

Basel, Switzerland
November 21-25, 2003


Video : About Office Voodoo (Quicktime - 10'14'' - 35 Mb)

Technical Publication :
Office Voodoo : a real-time editing engine for an algorithmic sitcom. M. Lew. In Proceedings of SIGGRAPH 2003. (pdf - 1p - 30 kb)

Installation architectural concept :
Voodoo 1 (version 1, wood and aluminium) (pdf - 7p - 1.4 Mb)
Voodoo 2 (version 2, very dense expanded polystyrene) (pdf - 4p - 2.1 Mb)


Press :
Now viewers can play with TV emotions, by Jan Battles, The Sunday Times. September 8, 2002. Ireland.
Die Hölle is ein Büro, by Markus Hammerschmitt, Telepolis. April 4, 2004. Germany.
Pure Genius, by Stephen Kingston, Orange magazine. May 1, 2004. UK.
Digital Universe with L.A. at its center, by Holly Willis, LA Weekly. October 28, 2005. USA.
Voodoo So Well - Michael Lew's involving cinema, feature by Holly Willis, Release Print. November/December, 2005. USA.

Television :
Evolver, [TV]
Independent Film Channel Canada [TV]
Schweizer Fernsehen DRS [TV]


With advances in compression standards and faster, larger hard disks, the film form is finally freeing itself from the inherent linearity of the celluloid or tape substrate, as it becomes chunks of data that can be retrieved instantaneously. This explosion of the film medium is redefining our approach to narrative filmmaking and over the viewer's control of the time flow and the plot. In the attempt to carry on the tradition of mimetic storytelling with real actors, this piece brings together the craft of cinema with automated editing techniques, trying to replicate in new media semiotics what 1920s soviet filmmakers like Kuleshov did to film with montage. Here, the knowledge of the editor is represented in the machine, and the rules are scripted according to user interaction. As a filmmaker and a programmer, the author is telling a story not only with audiovisual media but also with computer code.

As French surrealist author Raymond Queneau pointed out, today rhyming does not have to happen so much at the level of the text, but it can happen at the level of the narrative, where situations rhyme. This is such a piece, in the tradition of ars combinatoria, where you can see the same situation happen in different emotional setups.
With no beginning and no end, this infinite film breaks with the classical aristotelician and judeo-christian notion of beginning/middle/end in narrative and its non-linearity calls for more cyclical ways of telling stories than those rooted in the linear nature of human language. The structural form of this piece parallels with its content : commenting on the endless repetitive nature of office work, it shows Frank and Nancy locked in a Sysiphus model, repeating the same meaningless and abstract office computer operations. Frank and Nancy represent the tragedy of modern humans who earn their living by spending their life in a room ; under the straitjacket of their civilized adult behaviours, commanded by triumphant rationality, they are actually puppeteered by their animal pulsions.

When viewers are confronted to interactive film experiences, a first common thought, if the interactivity is placed at the level of the plot, is to make the actors do all the things they have always dreamt of seeing them doing. Office Voodoo plays very literally on this fantasy, by allowing viewers to drive the protagonists into extreme states of sex, euphoria, anger or depression. The ethical difference with traditional viewer-story relationship is that here, the viewer has a responsibility in what happens. Besides, by letting each viewer control a specific character with a specific doll, interesting phenomena emerge in the process of identification between viewer and protagonist. It is not unfrequent to see viewers of Office Voodoo becoming embarrassed of the behaviour of the character they're controlling, as if betraying their own unconscious desire ; some visitors even found some situations unbearable to watch, whereas they would probably have not with a traditional film.

Designing an interface for interactive film is a particularly difficult task, because of their tendency to break the flow of the narrative and to be too extraneous to the world that's on the other side of the screen. The intent here was to design an interface that would bridge between the real world and the fictional world. Imaginary characters have a life of their own ; they have an ongoing existence in the world of ideas, call it virtual or spiritual. Religious objects have the property to be naturally viewed in our culture as interfaces between the spiritual and the tangible, that is why voodoo dolls where chosen as interfaces to control the characters. The other interface is the phone – viewers have the business cards of Frank & Nancy and can call their office number. These interfaces were very successful in the sense that they reinforce the suspension of disbelief – they create an illusion of life that adds credibility to the autonomy of fictional characters. This endeavour connects with the attempt to recreate artificial life or to make believable automata or synthetic creatures. In that same line of thought, a possible setup for Office Voodoo is to put the real actors in a separate room, with live cameras that would feed into the editing engine, in such a way that recorded and live action would be indistinguishable : this would be the video equivalent of a Turing test.



Conceived, written, built, directed & programmed by Michael Lew.
Office Voodoo was a research project conducted in the Story Networks group at Media Lab
Europe under the direction of Glorianna Davenport, MIT Media Lab.

inspiration: Glorianna Davenport
software architecture: Stefan Agamanolis (ISIS)
electronics research: Cian Cullinan
interface consultation: Sile O'Modhrain

installation architecture : Antoinette Schaer & Christian Scheidegger
installation design : Edson Butron

Patrick McEnaney is Frank
Jennifer Keappock is Nancy

Production manager : Katie Lincoln
Director of photography : Patrick Jordan
Camera : Andrew Edger
Sound : Shane O'Neill
Casting assistant : Ben Piper
Make-up : Aoigie O'Neill
Production assistant : Charlotte Comyns
Boom operators : Stephen Davy, Ilan Lew, Ian Oakley
Making of : Arianna Bassoli
Graphic design : David Wall, Joelle Bitton, Marije Kanis

Thanks to the film department of the Dun Laoghaire Institute of Design Art Technology.



For more information about Office Voodoo, please contact <lew at media dot mit dot edu>.