Hackney Girl Structure

Clip Substitution

Hackney Girl to quote George P. Landow who wrote about it in his book Hypertext 3.0:

'conceives of the film as essentially divided into a significant number of sections... [and] demonstrates that readers or viewers can construct a coherent narrative from small chunks that they encounter in varying orders'.1

In Hackney Girl, the ubitiquous ability to choose different clips at any given juncture creates a bewildering tapestry of textures. For example, you might get a version which has more Jewish themed content than others if you happen to get the Hasidic Jews on Hackney Marshes together with the discussions about my family origins with my elderly Polish neighbour. Then again these elements may well be absent. When watching the World Cup in Istanbul, you will get either an England match or one involving Turkey. This either emphasises old loyalties through my country of origin or new ones through the one of adoption. After Yasemin's departure to Istanbul I am left to remember her by lighting a stick of incense infront of one from an array of eight polaroids. Together they represent different aspects of her personality and also of our shared experience.

Four from the eight polaroids available

Structure and Content

Even with such shifting parameters of nuance, the narrative is still recognisably the same. This is acheived by separating the content from the structure. In terms of application programming this is acheived through encapsulating the descriptions of your data in a different document from its visual representation or interface. In Hackney Girl I used XML or Extensible Markup Language which Flash loads, parses and applies its selection rules before playing back the video and still files.

XML is simply a nested data structure which particularly useful for describing hierachies of order. In effect, XML creates a series of Russian dolls of increasing detail until you finally get to the file to be played. In my schema 'chapters' contain 'scenes' which contain 'shots' which contain 'choices' which may then contain either 'inclusions' or 'optionals'.

Diagram of Hackney Girl content hierarchy

Narrative Arc

Hackney Girl has in fact the three part structure of mainstream cinema in that it progresses from setup to complication to resolution. First we are together in London, then I am left alone, and finally we are reunited again in Istanbul. Hence we always have a story that is not only a journey but a joining together, a separation and then a reparation or resolution. Some narrative events are specifically mirrored. Yasemin's departure is repeated with my own with Ziggy. Scenes taken from a London taxi window are balanced by those from one in Istanbul. The move from London is echoed by the one in Istanbul that concludes the piece.

There are the following nine chapters in the XML file with each of the three main sections of the narrative arc having three chapters each:

  1. Hackney Marshes
  2. Local area and home with Yasemin
  3. Yasemin leaving London
  4. Playing with Ziggy, our cat
  5. Alone and remembering Yasemin
  6. More on local area, Ziggy and my leaving for Istanbul
  7. First days in Istanbul with Yasemin
  8. Scenes in Istanbul
  9. Moving house in Istanbul

The Parameters of Inclusion

Each chapter has between 4 and 23 scenes. Each scene has between 1 and 23 shots. Each shot has between 1 and 36 choices. There are a maximum of 3 inclusions which are played after a given choice video file, whereas there is a maximum of 6 optionals to choose from which may or may not be played. Scenes are marked with a probability of inclusion value. A probability of one means it is always included, whereas a value of three means that there is a one in three probability of seeing it. A quantity value attached to each scene stipulates how many shots are to be selected if the scene is included. Similarly, each shot specifies a quantity of choices to be selected.

Excerpt from Hackney Girl content xml file

In the XML excerpt above chapter six scene one must be played as both have a probability value of one. Scene one consists of eight shots from which a quantity of only one must be selected. If shot one is chosen, you will get the footage from the bakery. If shot two is selected, you get the butcher followed by the first additional clip and perhaps the remaining two if they pass the one in two probability values.


A separate XML file then orders content in sequence of presentation. For example, the first and second chapters can change places to start each version. That means you might start either in Hackney Marshes or at home in the flat. Each chapter has its scenes placed in up to 5 groups of up to 9 scenes. Groups and scenes in them have placement rules. Some can be placed in any order, whereas some are restricted to a specific place (e.g. only third) or up to three different places (e.g second, third or fourth). Some groups are given a probability of inclusion. Some scenes are also labelled so as to be always placed apart from each other.

Excerpt from Hackney Girl order xml file

In this XML excerpt chapter eight is always positioned in eighth place as it's position value is seven and confusingly computers start counting from zero. Scene groups one and two can be put in any order in the chapter since their place value is 'free'. Both groups have three or four scenes, with the third and fourth in group one being interchangable. The second group is only played fifty percent of the time because it is marked as optional with a probability value of two.

Internal Clip Variation

Additional types of variation are also contained within some of the video clips themselves which all end in a photographic still. The clip that ends all versions of Yasemin telling you to 'get out of here' ends in one of six possible stills, each with a different background colour treatment. Some of the black and white clips shot in Hackney Marshes use different coloured overlays internally to produce effects reminiscent of the tinting used in the silent era of film such as D.W. Griffith's 1915 The Birth of a Nation. The clip below is a kind of aleatorical microcosm of the entire work. It displays various texts created by Ziggy as she walks across the keyboard and then presents a freeze frame of them with different coloured backgrounds.

Hackney Girl movie clip showing internal variation

Special Cases

Special provision is also made for certain clips to exclude each other if one is selected. For example, if Yasemin says she is going to give up smoking in chapter one, you won't hear her saying the same in chapter two. In fact the structure is entirely malleable allowing also for the certain inclusion of particular clips if need be. Hence, whatever version you get, you will always hear Yasemin describing herself as a 'Hackney Girl'.

Presentation Grid

The three by three grid adds another important dimension of visual variation. Placement on it is semi-random in that it fluctuates between a maximum of between five and eight screens, and a minimum of between one and three. When the maximum is reached the new screen minimum is calculated with two clips taken away (although never the clip just seen) and another placed until the minimum is reached. Then the new maximum is set and the screens populate again one by one. Each group of scenes starts with one that contains a series of up to twenty seven stills from which a range of between two and four are selected and displayed onscreen. This clears some room in the tabula rasa and sets the scene for the next peculiar concatenation of movie clips. The total effect of this is to emphasize visually the new and often startling juxtapositions of imagery. The whole screen becomes a kind of mosaic of recent memory. It records your trail through the labyrinth of choices.

Media Dataset

This algorithmic approach to editing makes maximal use of the media taken. It thus tends to reduce the shooting ratio or the quantity of material to be included in proportion to the amount recorded. Typically in documentaries this can be as much a fifty to one. Editors trawl through the footage in an effort to create a story that meets the dictates of the producer, director or general expectations. As a consequence, in non-linear inclusive types of work there is a substantial amount of extra work required to process all the possible footage. So in Hackney Girl although a single version may consist of 150 or so media files, there are 1200 such files that make up the entire media dataset. Each item also needs logging within the larger taxonomy of the narrative framework. In this way the media set becomes resolved into increasingly refined sub-groups and purposes.


Aristotle in Poetics when delineating the basic concepts of plot, describes what he calls determinate structures:

'So the structure of the various sections of the events must be such that the transposition or removal of any one section dislocates and changes the whole. If the presence or absence has no discernible effect, it is not part of the whole'2

Hackney Girl applies this law by way of constant transgression, freely substituting its units to effect dislocation along its narrative chain of events. It also challenges concepts of what can be considered 'the whole' as what is included is under constant renegotiation. Even if the entire dataset of imagery were taken as the whole that would still exclude the infinite varieties of order both as a sequence and as a visual gestalt on the three by three grid. Nor can any given sequence be given priority over another. No director's cut is allowable or even relevant within this fluid form. In fact, since no two versions are identical, any two viewers may compare notes but without the certainty of knowing exactly what the other has seen.

The rules described here regarding selection, order and presentation when taken individually are simple enough. Collectively, however, as they interlock and modify each other, they become rich, complex and unpredictable. The net effect of this is to create an emergent form of narrative where its outcome appears greater or at least different from the sum of its parts.


  1. Landow, George P., Hypertext 3.0 p255-7, Johns Hopkins 2006
  2. Aristotle, Poetics p13 Penguin Classics trans. Malcolm Heath