Doctoral studies

Making an interactive film for a doctoral thesis enabled an exploration of the tensions between following or resisting storytelling conventions

Filmmaking, due to its logistical and financial challenges, encourages a conformity to storytelling conventions to ensure commercial or critical success. Michael Keerdo-Dawson, who today defended his doctoral thesis at Tallinn University Baltic Film, Media and Arts School, discovered that the inclusion of interactivity in film’s development process allowed for more diverse storytelling possibilities and exposed his desire to move away from the very conventions he was trying to uphold.

Michael Andrew Keerdo-Dawson

Through artistic research, Michael Keerdo-Dawson’s PhD highlighted and then reconciled a key tension within his filmmaking practice. Writing and directing a psychological drama, The Limits of Consent, Keerdo-Dawson used interactivity as a method of creative disruption. The result was a film with a branching narrative, where the audience makes choices which lead to a variety of distinct endings. By making the film in this way, Keerdo-Dawson found that he was compensating for the disruptions interactivity brought about by trying to maintain storytelling conventions. Ironically, in this process, more boldly unconventional narrative possibilities emerged. Effectively, Keerdo-Dawson’s attempts to make the interactive film conform to film storytelling conventions resulted in the partial abandonment of the very same conventions.
Filmmakers are often encouraged in their education to embrace storytelling conventions. For example, there should be one protagonist driving the film’s story through a three-act structure. Following these conventions maximizes the filmmaker’s chances of commercial or critical success, giving them the opportunity to make more films in the future. In their embrace of these conventions, filmmakers often reject other possibilities such as anti-drama—that being any narrative act which moves the filmmaker away from these conventions. This rejection, broadly, limits what films can be, the stories they can tell, and the ideas they may express.
Interactivity splits the film’s story and offers the chance to create multiple narrative trajectories and endings within one film, giving greater opportunities for filmmakers to experiment with the form. Keerdo-Dawson argues that to resist conventions and push the boundaries of film narrative, filmmakers can adopt multi-linear devices which shift the film’s story away from these conventions.

Filmmakers then have the chance to examine their instincts outside of their conformity and acknowledge which tensions their artistic choices highlight, and which tendencies they are resisting. In Keerdo-Dawson’s case, interactivity exposed and highlighted his tendency for anti-drama and allowed him to make a film where traditional and unconventional narrative trajectories in the same film. 
As one of the first artistic research PhDs from Tallinn University and the Baltic Film, Media and Arts School; Michael Keerdo-Dawson’s thesis showcases the potential for doctoral-level artistic research to consciously draw attention to and recognize such tendencies from the filmmaker’s perspective and, in that recognition, open up further filmmaking possibilities.

Michael Keerdo-Dawson defended his PhD thesis "Drama & Anti-drama: The Intervention of Interactivity in the Story Development Process for a Narrative Film, The Limits of Consent" on 21 June at Tallinn University. Thesis supervisors were Dirk Hoyer, Associate Professor at Tallinn University and Craig Batty, Professor at the University of South Australia, opponents were Marsha Berry, Associate Professor at RMIT University and Rafael Leal, PhD.