A story about Dana Atchley

Dana said this was the best thing that had been written about him and linked to it for years so besides being flattered (after all it was just using his words) I liked it too. Dana died in San Francisco  December 13, 2000. Many of the links within this story were still alive for years, now link rot has forced me to the Wayback Machine, holder of all web memories. The Dana’s Next Exit site  ‘died’ in 2014 which surprised me (and immediately made my webservers shudder – are we next?) even though I know that anything you do online is ephemeral.

Photograph of Dana is by Marcus Wardell from Next Exit archive.

About this story
This was written in 1996, when the web was made for 640 x 480 screens, gifs and 28k modems. Page load speed was important, and everything showed the size of the download before you clicked the link.

It isn’t like that anymore. Even your smartphone is higher resolution and connection speed for most of us is no longer an issue, so I feel I need to explain this. I’m fixing the links as I find good replacements.
I would have liked to say goodbye and thank you Dana- so restoring this is my way of doing that. I’ve corrected some spelling but left the text content much as it was. Looking back that far always seems like someone else wrote it and you have to be respectful to him. I smiled at the careful listing of the computer hardware and software (this was written for the online version of MM – Australian Multimedia Magazine). I’ll write something eventually about how our vision of CD based multimedia was subverted by the web. Now your laptop probably doesn’t even have a disk drive of any format.


“How can people remember things if they don’t make movies or take photographs?”   
Chris Marker asked in his film ‘Sans Soleil’ – Sunless 1982

“How do you experience anything if you’re not shooting it?” Dana Atchley 1996

Let me tell you a story about Dana Atchley

It’s a digital story, so it sits well on these pages. It doesn’t need a lot of bandwidth, so you can read it as fast as you’d like.

The main character in this story, is a storyteller himself. (This is a true story, so that sentence is not just a clever plot device). From his name, you can probably tell that he’s an American. Dana is a also a multimedia artist passionate about combining the ancient arts of storytelling with the powerful tools of multimedia technology. He’s an artist, designer, poet, typographer, photographer, film and video maker, he works in San Francisco and his company D3TV produces and consults for an enviable list that includes Apple, Radius, Broderbund, Silicon Graphics, Simon & Schuster and the Coca-Cola Company. He’s also a polished performer, his multimedia theatre presentation Next Exit has been presented as part of events such as, the Cannes Advertising Awards, Macworld, and the Rotterdam Film Festival.

On October 4th to 6th, in the small town of Crested Butte, Colorado (‘where the elevation is greater then the population’) and where Dana has had a house since 1968, he presented the Digital Storytelling Festival. Building on what was an ‘invitation only’ event for about thirty people held in 1995, this year (1996) the guest speaker list could define the cream of the digerati. There were major games producers, creative film and video-makers as well as heavy showing of online and interactive programme producers.

Pulling an event like this together may seem everyday for someone who has been described as “having the voice of Garrison Keilor, the timing of Lily Tomlin and the sensibility of Hunter S. Thompson”, but the story of how Dana Atchley reached this stop on the road, shows a determination and focus that I envy. That’s the story I’m about to tell.

 

It also sounds like more fun then is good for you.

A story should have a proper beginning, this one began with an online search and a link to Dana’s web site. Simple and attractive, it is without what Dana calls, many ‘geegaws’. It provided the e-mail address which lead to a phone conversation in his San Francisco studio, and I talked further with him a few weeks later in Sydney when he was speaking at the Adobe Design Conference. I began by mentioning a quote I liked that I thought would appeal to him as well. It comes from a movie by Chris Marker, (Sans Soliel – Sunless 1982) that asks, “How can people remember things if they don’t make movies or take photographs?” Dana laughed, “I could have said that, but I’d add, how do you experience anything if you’re not shooting it? My uncle gave me my first camera at age seven, a Brownie Twin Lens Reflex and I have every image I have taken since that age, on an increasingly sophisticated and expensive variety of formats. And I never just kept them in boxes. Ever since I was a little kid I made displays, and put them out and shared them”

“It absolutely stuns me when people throw their movies and photographs out. But people do. People die and people clean out their parent’s cupboards and there are people who just don’t like the images. But for me, they define the way I remember things.”


“My grandfather took home movies, and he took maybe four hours in a life time. People shoot that much videotape pretty quickly now. So the only way you can get your hands around the extensive archives we’re creating is to tell a story.And in doing that we pull pieces out that can be presented to friends and others in a very nice way. “Dana’s stories tell a lot about growing up in New England, and the seaside town of Newburyport, Massachusetts. “In our family if someone yelled “Dana” three generations of heads turned, so there was D1, D Jr., and I was D3.” A significant influence was Dana’s father’s passion for Ham radio, “He talked around the world from his little red Radio Shack down near the beach, using antennas built from 2×4’s and bailing wire”.

“What puzzled me that while his main interest was talking to as many people around the world as possible, all he was interested in was the height of their antenna and the strength of their signal.”

Dana carried his love of image making through an arts education that included the Yale University Graduate School of Graphic Design, (where he studied under no less than Walker Evans, Paul Rand, and Dieter Roth) and began the process of earning a living as a teacher of printmaking and calligraphy. He designed and published work under his own imprint, Stygian Press, and followed his interest in fine art books into producing a documentary called “The Making of a Renaissance Book”.

In 1969 he started what was to be a major turning point in his life and a seminal project in the “Correspondence Art” movement of the time. He sent off invitations to people all over the U.S. and overseas asking them to contribute something of interest, up to ten pages long, for what he was calling the “Space Atlas” . Participants were asked to make 250 copies of each contribution. And in return each of the contributors received two copies of everyone’s work, assembled in a three-ring notebook binder.”Nothing was rejected, which was a very late sixties idea, and nothing was for sale. I just gave every one of the 120 that contributed, two copies, and if people didn’t like it they could turn the page, open up the ring binder and get rid of it or change the order for themselves.

“They show up on the rare book market occasionally, last time I heard they were selling for maybe $300. I have three copies, and one of the things I’m going to do now is create an interactive version where you can look through it and find where people are now, and I’m going to use the Web to do that.”
When the Space Atlas project was completed in 1971, Dana began sending them out. Some he chose to deliver by hand.

 

“Someone said to me that all human kind is divided into settlers and travellers, I’ve always been the latter. All I know is that when I took off at age thirty, in the first of my four vans, listening to Rod Stewart sing Maggie May on the radio, crossing the Canadian border headed south on the road, there was a sense of exhilaration that I’ve hardly felt since.

 

“It’s not that I set out to travel for the next twenty years, it just happened.”

“I started out with a VW bus, doing what I called “Trunk Stops”, where I took out this big Space Trunk. It was filled with slides, videotapes, books and all kinds of stuff”. The images and sound that Dana recorded on his trip were soon incorporated with the Trunk Stops into a multimedia performance called the Ace Space Show. It became a polished theatre piece that took him to colleges, clubs and galleries across North America.

A contemporary description of the show describes Dana controlling multiple slide projectors from a podium console surrounded by the coloured running lights from trucking rigs. Combining narrative, humour, sound and music, the show moved from bent travelogue to theatre, and depended on precise electronic control of lighting, projectors and audio. Dana built or modified the equipment himself (and was to appreciate the ease of control that a computer made in his later work).

“At one point, a double-wide panoramic view of Crested Butte, is on the screen. Within the image, in the foreground, you see a portable movie screen stuck in the snow.”

“The Colorado Spaceman steps in front of the snow scene (and the audience) wearing a hard hat to which a film strip projector has been attached. He reaches up, turns on the projector on his hat, and proceeds to show images on the screen that is within the image being projected on the larger screen”.

“Making a living has been the adventure all along. I dropped out when I was 30, and went on the road and I’ve somehow managed to get by with my vision. In 1968 I stumbled into a beautiful little town in the Colorado Rockies called Crested Butte. It was an old mining town, and is now a tourist town with a ski area and a lot of T-shirt shops.”

“I liked it so much that bought this beautiful old house there for practically nothing. That little old house has financed all my adventures on the road. I’ve gone to the bank over and over to borrow money for motor homes, equipment, gear, this and that. The thing about surviving as an artist wasn’t so difficult, it wasn’t easy, but I had grants, some help and a good network. When I got into broadcast television it was difficult because I had to get almost $100,000 in debt to buy all the gear. That meant I wasn’t doing much art, I was just trying to pay down that debt and that was what the eighties were about. I was learning a good trade, a craft, but in the late eighties I decided that I wasn’t going to do that anymore and went back to my own work with Next Exit”.

Dana recalled a 70 year old he interviewed on the road, “I asked him if he had any good advice for us.

He said ‘Stick and stay, you’ll make it pay. People like to go where other people is, not where they ain’t.’

“Stick and stay, you’ll make it pay, is what it’s all about. My company D3TV still handles the personal work but I’ve just incorporated, and I’m doing digital storytelling projects with much larger corporations, such as one now with Coca-Cola.”.

In the years after performing as Ace Space and producing the Video Postcards, Dana had changed how he wanted to show and control the images. The personal storytelling aspect was there, but in the late eighties he had been able to develop increasingly sophisticated video material on a Quantel Paintbox and a Harry that he was able to use after hours for free. The technology changed his expectations.

“Over the two decades that I have been performing, I have felt constrained by available technologies. Too slow! Too complicated! Too expensive! Too fragile! The solution: …TA DA! … Interactive multimedia!”

Dana’s friends had been pushing him for years to get a Mac and he’d resisted. Now he felt he was ready for it, and for the first time, that the digital medium was ready to express his vision at an affordable price.

The result was a multimedia event called Next Exit.

 

Next Exit spans 150 years of personal and Atchley family archives, and incorporates dozens of formats from daguerreotypes to digital video. These images Dana processed on a Macintosh PowerPC 8500 using Adobe Photoshop, Premiere and AfterEffects and the video was captured on a Quadra 840AV using a Radius VideoVision card. There are Quicktime stories along with original words and music using an interactive interface built in Macromedia Director 5.0 (with Lingo programming by Patrick Milligan).

These are all controlled by Dana on the stage using an infrared mouse, and he can vary the performance as he choses, drawing from a library containing seventy stories. His intention is to create “resonant storytelling within a heavily layered multimedia environment–the medium and the message inseparably one. I am able, on stage, to control the sequence of stories and the pacing of the show. I can seamlessly move from one story to another and have my lighting, keyboard and machine control cues and sets automatically follow. I can pause and continue. I can even offer the audience choices. ”

The show featured at the Digital Storytelling Festival in Crested Butte in October, and Dana presented a condensed view of the show at the Adobe Design Conference in Sydney in September. (Dana was at the AIMIA conference in Adelaide in 1995). He began by talking about how the Next Exit show was structured and (I suspect) was sucked into performing bits of it by the warmth of the audience response. It was a polished mix of the large screen projected multimedia and Dana’s jokes, stories and audience asides.

Funny, personal and calculatedly poignant, it brought real not just polite applause, and a group of new female fans to mob him at the coffee break.

For the second part of that presentation in Sydney, Dana began by swearing the whole audience into a mock non-disclosure agreement. He then showed the prototype of the children’s CD-ROM / online hybrid that his company BIG!Drive had been working on, partly with Broderbund money, for over a year.

BIG! Drive is what the Magic School Bus series would be like if the Bus was highjacked by a Zippie version of the Merry Pranksters. Using an interface of a driver’s view of the superhighway, BIG! Drive combines drawings by cartoonist Bruce Kleinsmith (aka Futzie Nutzle), Dana’s Quicktime video road movies, and original music that’s selected from the push-button radio. Objects must be found at roadside stops, but what makes this game different and promises unlimited play and educational value, is that it combines a Web browser and e-mail program.The plan is that the game would have it’s own Web site, ( the prototype site used in their demo’s was actually online when this was written) integrated with and adding to the story. It would link the movies and animation on the CD-ROM with actual Web locations. The online component also offers the potential for interaction, winner’s rewards and further levels of adventures, and provide short Shockwave downloads that appear as interactive billboards along the route. The group hope to subsidise the ongoing project via advertising banners and promotions integrated at the roadside stops.

The concept neatly involves all of Dana’s themes of evolving communication, journeys of discovery and his excitement for storytelling via the Web. It may be just those reasons why he’s had trouble finding a publisher for it. It has an individuality in an environment where, as he explained “if it’s not going to be another Myst it’s too expensive for publishers to take chances”.

When we were talking about the road as a metaphor, Dana explained his attraction for it as,

“The road connects things, the road has the potential of the continually changing viewpoint, a different driveway every night. The only thing about the road that is frustrating, is that it would be terrific if you could turn a corner and really be in a different place. On the Internet you can do that with a simple link. Click on a URL and you are in some fantastic place you never imagined”.

When I asked about the Storytelling Festival, Dana’s enthusiasm became even more infectious. The event pulls in many of the different threads of his life, much as BIG! Drive does, and involves the teaching work he has been doing in workshops at the American Film Institute and with his friends, Joe Lambert and Nina Mullen.“I’m never able to spend enough time in Crested Butte and that was one of the compelling reasons to put the Digital Storytelling Festival together there. Last year at the Festival we created a live website and had some QuickTake cameras and facilities for people to put together Web pages very easily. This year we will do the same and the impact of the Internet as a format for personal storytelling, is something that I find inspiring.”

“I’m very interested in the notion of personal myth-making. We’re seeing a lot of that on the Web. People say there’s so much goddam garbage out there, well, there’s a lot of garbage in life, but here you can look at something, discover things that you never imagined and if you don’t like it, you are just one click away.”

“This a technology that can impact everybody, it’s an incredibly egalitarian technology . A lot of people complain about the bandwidth or HTML, that it’s just stuck as pictures and text.

Pictures and text are what we’ve been doing as a Western culture for the last five hundred years!

We’re used to that and the problem is that the more complicated we get, the fewer people will be able to do it, but right now anyone can publish on the Web”.

“Can you remember when the Encyclopedia Britannica salesman used to come to the door, the promises he made? And how he talked your parents into these great big massive volumes that were out of date pretty quickly, but kind of magic to explore.

Well, this is everything the Encyclopedia Britannica salesman ever promised and more.”

And he’s right. It is.

Well, thanks for listening. You are sure to hear more stories about Dana Atchley. (He’ll be back in Western Australia soon, filming for a project for CocaCola ). If you get the chance, to see him perform or talk, don’t miss it. You don’t get to be a Digital Geezer without picking up a few tricks and a bit of digital wisdom, but that’s another story.

Fred Harden 1996

Other links to follow from this story.

Adobe have a slideshow of small images and text of Next exit
SanFrancisco Digital Media Centre and Joe’s Diner.
There are Quicktime clips of Dana’s video stories on his web site http://www.nextexit.com.
I found much of the ‘encounter experience’ writing on the ’96 Digital Storytelling Festival website too cloying. I guess it’s not having taken part in what obviously was a ‘warm and sharing time’. Much of that warmth came from Dana. It also seems every event has groupies. By far the best (and most matter of fact) reports are the two by Scott Rosenberg (from Salon) for Friday and Saturday.

All images and some of the quotes are from Dana’s web sites and used by permission. All details of BIG!Drive are copyrighted by BIG! Drive Associates, LLC., and if you believe that it’s a great concept (like I do) and want to discuss publishing it, please contact Dana.