How Motto Makes 1 + 1 = 3

Now & Next is highlighting some of the National Film Board’s most innovative projects in a series of collaborative articles. A complete case study on the creative process behind the Motto project described below is available on the NFB blog.

At the very genesis of Motto, Vincent Morisset stated that his ambition for the interactive digital project was “to explore the notion of what creating really means.”

At the end of a three-year-long creative process, in collaboration with the NFB, the creative director of the AATOAA studio unveiled the fruit of their labour on a website accessible exclusively by mobile phone. Motto plays freely with an infinity of possibilities on an ever-expanding web, where users are invited to become co-creators. So, buckle up as we go behind the scenes of an adventure out of our minds.

My selves and myself

Participants are invited to contribute to the experience from the moment they land on the mobile website where the story of a ghost named September unfolds in six fifteen-minute chapters. The story itself is revealed through a multitude of short videos, from here and there, sometimes abstract, sometimes matter of fact.

September is elusive, even for a ghost. Sometimes male, sometimes female, seemingly inspired by both the Pharaoh Akhenaten and the spirit of February in the Light Boxes by Shane Jones.

In addition to this thematic thread, users can add anonymous images from their daily lives, including dancing toes, opening doors, cups of coffee, and what have you. Some of the videos are then integrated into the experience of future users.

But is anything but an instant project. According to Motto producer Marie-Pier Gauthier “the project defies internet time as we know it and consume it.” Individual user contributions do not immediately appear in the experience [DV3] [DV4] as they do on Motto contemporaries TikTok and Instagram. That’s because on Motto, there’s intentional dead time between uploading and appearance.

At the root of the project is Vincent Morisset’s goal of creating an interactive experience like no other, one that challenges the vision of the viewers by including them in what they see.

A wall-through-wall adventure

So, what exactly is Motto? And what were stages they had to go through to finally complete it?

Motto is a hybrid narrative “on the borderline between documentary and found object art,” according to Morisset. The end result is a mélange inspired by a variety of platforms and media, including the Snapchat app, Being John Malkovich, the work of Agnès Varda and Italo Calvino, and even the website.

“Right from the start, the idea was to give as many people as possible the opportunity to make short videos and using their intuition to create links and connections between them,” said AATOAA’s Caroline Robert. Despite the common threads visible in the first moments of the adventure, the precise format of the work is subject to an endless series of modifications, the culmination of continuous brainstorming, testing, and feedback.

Gauthier explains why this creative process without preconceptions was one of the reasons she was drawn to Morisset’s approach. “We’re sympathetic to his artistic approach because we prefer a solid starting-off point that raises multiple questions instead of ready-made answers for creative processes that come with no surprises,” she said.

Among the questions that come up is how do you support an experience like this? The objective was to transform the solitary use of the mobile phone into an experience that can link users so they can produce collective content together.  

Video captures organized in categories. Credit: AATOAA/NFB

1 + 1 = 3

A number of challenges emerged during the conceptual phase of the project. First off was how to build up an initial bank of images massive enough to allow users to explore various potential narratives and develop the right formula for telling a story, one that moves the story forward and that spurs users to put their creative hats on. That daunting task fell to Caroline Robert (the visual artist in the AATOAA trio) and Vincent Morisset, who got to work making their personal archives available for the project. 

They also added, on a temporary basis, videos gleaned from YouTube and the internet in general to the collection. But even that, of course, left them well shy of infinite possibilities. “The sheer quantity of content the project required was one of the major difficulties we faced,” Gauthier said. “As producers we weren’t going to veto user choices, but we did have to draw the line somewhere since we didn’t have the budget to buy all the audio-visual content in the world.”

They also found a couple of treasure troves that could be accessed to feed the voracious need for content: the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa and the Neues Museum in Berlin.

The second major challenge was to assign meaning to all the images, to strike the right balance between an AI-defined algorithm and precise editorial decisions. While their experiments in artificial intelligence did open up some avenues, they also revealed its limitations. “We didn’t have as many moments of grace as we were hoping for,” Morisset said. “What we got in 80% of the cases was quite humdrum, and certainly not interesting enough to use. It appears that poetry is still safely lodged in human hands.”

So, in the end, by using a mix of technology and editorial determination, they succeeded in producing an updated version of the Koulechov effect, where randomly selected clips and photos (previously identified and grouped into image families) become inputs into the creation of new meaning.

And finally, it was necessary to ensure that users enjoyed a perfectly fluid experience, without ever feeling they were overtaxing the technology. “You had to make it so that everything was understood without needing a tutorial,” said programmer Édouard Lanctôt-Benoît. “To get there took a continual stream of back and forth between trio members and an endless barrage of tests, trials, and evaluations until we got it right.”

Draw September Txt 1024x942 1

Controlled concidences

The format of the experience and its myriad adaptations and transformations involved a writing feat of gargantuan proportions. Novelist Sean Michaels joined the creative team once the project was well underway with the task of writing to a defined, but flexible, evolving format.

Morisset is doing his best to leave the field wide open, so the writer has as much freedom as possible in deciding what story to tell. The many technical breakthroughs that helped to shape the project still limit Michaels to some extent. And it will certainly take the AATOAA trio’s phenomenal capacity for adaptation working with the right formula to pull it off.

Gauthier is confident it can be done. “Sean has managed to tie everything together, developing the narrative thread that was missing,” she said. That thread incorporates the idea that all the images that pass by are in fact just memories. Because the idea of absence is central, the character of the ghost, September, then assumes its full meaning.

In the end, it was a communal philosophy of interconnections that led the team to the answers they were seeking. The programming shapes the writing, which in turn influences the design, which guides the contributions of individual users. The work is not designed to ever be completed but destined for infinite rebirth, and depending on the way Sean Michaels is inspired, the context in which participants find themselves influences the way the story is told.

AATOAA creative director Vincent Morisset’s utimate objective is to get users to think about random choice in slow motion. “Get out your mobile and log on to,” he said. “Shoot what you see without filters. Get centred on the subject. Be brief. Be different. Be yourself.”

Joseph Elfassi
Joseph Elfassi is a writer and journalist, working in television, print and radio. He is particularly interested in scientific, tech and social issues. He was born in Boston, raised in Paris and Montreal, but it was in Rouyn-Noranda that Joseph discovered his true passion for culture and creation.
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