Commentary

Can An iPad Make You Cry? Well, Yeah, If Bambi's Mom Dies On It

"We have to watch Bambi tonight," I tell my fiancée, who is now accustomed to my offbeat pop culture obsessions. Her typical wry response to my sojourns into obscure silent era animation, exploitation flicks of the '70s and the rural sitcoms of Paul "Beverly Hillbillies" Henning is also standard now. "Are we going to be discussing the 'sub-textual' references and deconstructing the underlying politics of 'Green Acres' tonight -- or just watching like normal people for a change?"

Wiseass.

We need to watch Bambi's new Blu-ray iteration because a "Disney Second Screen" iPad app also dropped this week. This is far and away the most ambitious, smartest attempt I have seen to synchronize first-screen content with a second-screen enhancement. Unlocked with a code that comes with the disc, the app offers a fully synchronized parallel course of content that appears on the iPad as you watch. Original artist sketches, pop-up trivia, small games, and some wonderful interactive flip books accompany the film.

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Apparently, however, after years of watching me dumpster-dive into the cast-offs of American popular culture, my wingwoman draws the line at "Bambi." "I can't watch that," she says. "Bambi's mother dies. I can't handle it."

In fact the way that the Imagineers at Disney managed the second-screen experience in the legendary heartbreaker scene speaks volumes to how smart this project is. Instead of piling on the extras during this sequence, the pace of the second screen slows and all we get is a replica of the four pages of script describing the scene. The Disney Second Screen does what most other second-screen projects haven't done. It knows where your attention will be riveted in certain scenes and doesn't intrude. It suggests an intelligence and even an empathy with what the viewing audience is likely to be feeling at a given moment or when they will be most engaged. No joke. Having an app with a discernible brain and an implied empathy actually made Disney Second Screen feel more personal and endearing. App makers of all kinds might take note of that idea; a mobile "companion" merits the name when it shows the real traits of a personality.

Anyone interested in second-screen programming should cry their way through this sequence and get both the Bambi BD and this app to explore the next level of parallel programming. Disney understands here that a second screen needs to be fully programmed, not just poured on. The most striking thing about the experience is how well-paced the sidebar content is in relation to the main screen. The movement through the complementary material appears to be measured so that the viewer/user has periods where the iPad just ratchets through some light fare, usually concept art that was used for the current on-screen scene. They can be appreciated at a glance so as not to interrupt the experience. But then at intervals a more substantial pod of content will appear that might prompt some viewers to pause the video and appreciate the second screen. One of Thumper's cutest sequences gets a second screen flip book where the user can drag through a frame by frame rendition for the scene in both original line drawing art and final fullcel animation. The second screen not only knows where you are in the film, but like a human commentator appears to be responding appropriately to the scene you are watching.

Generally, however, the app is timed so that the user can drop out of the synchronized flow of content to dwell on a particular pod of complementary information and then tap a button to fall back into what Disney calls the "timeline." A scrubber on the bottom of the screen pops up to let the user navigate back to previous scenes.

Of course a Disney classic like "Bambi" is perfect for an animation fan and parent like me who has seen the movie with his kid countless times already. For such a viewer, the demands of the first screen are not as great.

Which is not to say the Disney Second Screen is all there yet. There continues to be problems with effective synching. The app uses an audio signal to sync itself up in the beginning, but then seems to rely mainly on a timer to keep pace with the film. If you pause the film, the app needs to be recalibrated either by a deliberate audio sync or by manually entering the second screen frame number that advances together both outside the frame of the letterboxed BD view and the app. The app can't detect when the BD is paused or easily pick up the audio on its own. This was a big problem with Disney/ABC's early attempts at syncing TV programs with iPad apps. The app would lose sync when the show went to commercial. I am not sure why audio sync with a known film track is so hard, given the high degrees of audio sensitivity and pattern recognition technology apparent in music apps like Shazam.

As well, the navigation within the synched experience could be a bit better. A few too many things need to be tapped to call up some of the extra content in some areas. The backward navigation is still awkward, so finding your way back to the timeline isn't as clean as it needs to be.

But what is fascinating about Disney's second screen treatment is how effectively the iPad becomes a better home for so much of those Blu-ray disk extras that studios have been trying to pile onto the BD platform to distinguish it from DVDs. When done with a light and well-timed touch, the pop-up trivia and conceptual artwork can weave themselves effectively into the first-screen experience and not feel overwhelming. The main screen experience can remain relatively pure and clean rather than cluttered with parallel pop-up bubbles and such. The big problem so far with second screening is that it suffers from too much content that makes the user feel as if they have to tend the experience. The Bambi iPad app reminds us that the second screen needs to be programmed carefully if it is to be an effective "companion" in the literal sense of the word.

The user-in-control vibe that on-demand platforms and digital interactivity hath wrought can be overplayed when we lose sight of how artistry really works. In most cases, great aesthetic experiences are the product of a strong narrative flow, timing, vision -- a masterful author. I still got choked up on the umpteenth viewing of Bambi searching for his dead mother because it is so brilliantly crafted that familiarity does not blunt its raw power. Sorry, trendy mavens of interactivity. An iPad app is not likely to make you cry. "Bambi" will. And the smartest second screen apps will have enough human companion characteristics to understand and respect how that experience works, and learn to synchronize the art of shutting the hell up on cue.

Just like a good mate. At any rate, my partner is a total mess now, and if I don't put down the iPad right away, I may joining Bambi's mom.

1 comment about "Can An iPad Make You Cry? Well, Yeah, If Bambi's Mom Dies On It ".
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  1. Lynn Klein-rosner from The New York Times, March 4, 2011 at 5:09 p.m.

    No spoiler alert? ;-)

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