michael naimark




World's First Interactive Filmmaker, Prague

Michael Naimark 5/26/98

Last Thursday morning in Prague I met with the "world's first interactive filmmaker." His name is Raduz Cincera and he was responsible for "Kino-Automat" in the Czech Pavillion in Expo '67 in Montreal. Even back then, it was billed as "the world's first interactive movie." Everyone in the audience had a red and a green button in front of them and the results of voting were displayed around the screen. The movie itself was a dark comedy about a man, Mr. Novak, who believes he was responsible for his apartment building burning down, and is structured as a series of flashbacks leading up to the fire. After each scene the film would stop and a live performer would walk onto the stage and ask the audience to vote. Immediately, as if by magic, the voted scene was played.

Cincera was not too difficult to track down. Prague art curator Keiko Sei and the folks at the Soros Center for Contemporary Art had been in contact with him last year when they were preparing a book on the history of Czech tech-art. Keiko called him at home for me and he suggested we meet at the place where he's currently project advising.

The place was the Saint Michael's Church near the center of Prague, built in the 14th century. I had heard this church had been closed for many many years and was used for storage, but now it was swarming with construction workers. Above the door was a banner sign which read "The Saint Michael Story - a Kafka-esque Experience." I peeked in the front and saw a pile of video equipment. A burly construction guy pushed me back and asked me what I was doing there. I gave him my card and said I had a meeting. He went back in ("Mafia." Keiko told me later).

After a short while Cincera came out and greeted me. He must be over 75 years old but is spry and talkative, and wore a colorful tweed sportcoat with matching hat. He said the Saint Michael's Story is a commercial multimedia show about the history of Prague funded by Czech, Austrian, and American investors. The church authorities and the Czech Ministry of Culture were hestitant about this project but wanted to see the church rennovated and active. Cincera was brought in as an advisor "to make sure it's not too Hollywood" he said with a smile.

He offered me a tour. It's due to open in a month, and workers were everywhere. It begins as a walkthrough, first through a series of live video monitors (looking at you) then into the church basement, now converted to an abstract theatrical version of a Jewish cemetery, then a room full of various artifacts of Stalin ("free leftovers" he said with another smile), then a crypt room, then upstairs to the cathedral. The actual rennovation above the basement walkthrough is impressive and authentic, with new wood, brass, pewter, and stained glass everywhere. But the cathedral has a giant framed projection screen above the pulpit, installed in as tasteful a manner as such things are possible. The pews are rennovated and made for the audience to sit and watch the multimedia history of Prague, which will include projection on the screen as well as flames all around and surround sound. After the cathedral presentation, there is another walkthrough intended to be more educational than entertaining, followed by a room with large images of the eyes of Franz Kafka staring out. "Kafka was right" is more or less the final message. "This is intended to be a touristic center" said Cincera and acknowledged his ambiguous stance between art and commerce.

Then he showed me a little attraction he was tinkering with, of which he was very proud. It was a small exhibit off in a corner where several young workers were assembling the wood cabinet. Inside was a large half-silvered mirror at a 45 degree angle with an actual model of a theater stage behind and a video monitor hidden underneath. The effect will be to see the video image hovering ghost-like in front of the little theater stage, much like the "dancer's ballroom" in Disney's Haunted Mansion. "This is one of my tricks" he said.

Kino-Automat was trickery at its finest. There were 10 scenes where the movie stops and our hero, Mr. Novak, would walk onstage live and ask the audience to vote. (One scene, for example, was whether to let in a scantily-clad female neighbor right before his wife was due home.) But there weren't two-to-the-tenth (1,024) pre-filmed options, only 20 (actually 19). At its inception, they decided that such exponential numbers were impossible to produce, and probably not as interesting anyway. So they carefully constructed a story such that no matter which of the two options were chosen, it would end up back at the same next choice. The vote was executed by the projectionist who was toggling between two synchronized projectors.

"It was comedy" Cincera told me. They really wanted it to be funny, a gag, and they really wanted to play with the audience. Cincera went on to say that the beginning of every newly selected scene was a close-up of Mr. Novak saying "You've made an excellent choice. I'm not just saying this. I do this every day and you really did make an excellent choice."

I said that what I liked most about this was how he blurred the edge between actual interaction and the illusion of interaction. He perked up again and said that a couple years ago Czech television offered to broadcast Kino-Automat by simulcasting on two channels. The audience could chose by selecting between the two channels on their own tv set. He said no, that it would be a disaster. They pleaded with him, he said, and finally he gave in and they aired it. People called in and complained. "They felt cheated. I was right. It was a complete disaster" he smiled again.