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Plot Devices

Using screens and monitors as its primary storytelling tools, suspense web series Cloud Prison - China’s first “screencast drama” - taps into fears of how our personal information is exposed to the darkness that lurks online

By Li Jing Updated Feb.1

We start with a close shot of a computer screen.  

A user off-screen types in a Baidu search for suspense novelist Zhang Yan. Crucial clues are discovered on Zhang’s Sina Weibo page that enable the user to access the novelist’s cloud drive. As the mouse cursor clicks on one document after another, details about Zhang’s private life - his work plans, photos, relationships and contacts - are slowly revealed.  

Released on November 2 on leading video platform Youku, suspense series Cloud Prison follows novelist Zhang Yan after finding an anonymous diary describing a murder.  

Believing it a work of fiction, he publishes it as his own novel, only to become ensnared in a dangerous and intricate scheme. 
Powered On
Comprised of 32, 15-minute episodes over two seasons, Cloud Prison has been called China’s first “screencast drama,” a genre that tells stories through screens, from computers and smartphones to surveillance cameras and dashcams. 

“This time, we wanted to take the traditional cinematic language back to school,” series director Mou Xincen told NewsChina.  

Mou got the idea for a screencast drama when his computer died in 2017.  

To fix it, he contacted an online repair service that could connect to his computer remotely. Mou said he was entranced as the mouse cursor flitted about his computer screen outside of his control.  

“I wanted to know how he’d fix it remotely, so I kept staring at the movement of the cursor, observing when it clicked and when it stopped. As I watched, I realized that I was trying to figure out how the man behind the screen was thinking. Then it came to me that I could tell a story this way,” the 31-year-old director told NewsChina.  

The idea had previously been explored in American cinema with independent feature 0s & 1s (2011) and thrillers V/H/S (2012) and The Den (2013).  

However, Unfriended (2014) is the first feature-length film told entirely through a computer screen. In the story, protagonist Blaire messages her friends via Facebook, Gmail and iMessage, and actors only appear through Skype calls. Made for just US$1 million, the low-budget horror film grossed $64.1 million worldwide.  

2018 marked a milestone for the genre with the release of two American features - Unfriended: Dark Web and Searching, the latter of which saw both commercial success and critical acclaim. It tells a story of how a single father searches for his missing daughter through clues on her laptop only to learn secrets his daughter has kept from him. The low-budget thriller (US$880,000) raked in $75.5 million in the worldwide box office.  

Released on the Chinese mainland in December 2018, Searching was the highest rated horror/thriller of the year on Douban, China’s leading media review website.  

That year, screenwriter Ye Xiaobai planned to write a new drama following the success of his debut mini web series Breaking Up. Based on his own experiences of unsuccessfully shopping around his first book, Ye conceived a story about a failed writer who comes across a flash drive containing a diary, publishes it, and is sucked into a vast, dark plot.  

“Zhang Yan discovers a diary that divulges a real murder and then gains fame and fortune from publishing it. Later the diary’s owner finds him and starts to blackmail him - all of this unfolds on the internet. After watching Searching, I was tremendously inspired and realized that this screen-based storytelling format perfectly suited the story I was about to tell,” Ye told NewsChina.  

He quickly completed the drama’s outline and wrote five episodes.  

Series producer Wang Ying said the show fills a gap in Chinese filmmaking. “I was quite confident about the project, as the genre was still an untrodden field in China,” Wang told our reporter.  

Video-sharing platform Youku quickly took on the project and recommended director Mou Xincen, who came to fame in 2018 with his debut The Classification of Spirit, a popular sci-fi thriller web series. 

Still from Cloud Prison

Shots in the Dark
As screencast dramas do away with conventional storytelling and cinematic language, producer Wang Ying and Youku were concerned about whether viewers would take to it and offered a compromise: adopt screen-based storytelling cut with more traditionally shot scenes.  

Mou refused. “We were determined to do it, and considering that we wouldn’t get much funding, we thought we might as well take it to the extreme and thoroughly explore every possibility to see how far we could take the format,” Mou told NewsChina.  

The project took 20 days to shoot and another seven months for post-production, a normal schedule for the genre. Searching only took two weeks to film but two years in post-production. The film’s director Aneesh Chaganty told CNET that editing sessions often involved more than 30 layers of video showing everything from moving browser windows and text bubbles to on-screen widgets. Most movies have three to four layers.  

Mou told our reporter that they had planned to work with Bazelevs, the Russian post-production company behind the screen-capture technology used in Unfriended and Searching. But with a total budget of 10 million yuan (US$1.5m), Cloud Prison was forced to do it all in-house.  

“Since it was our first time making a screencast drama, everyone in the production team was feeling it out as they went. It was quite difficult to completely separate ourselves from the conventional drama mindset. So it took a lot of time for us to coordinate and refine the details,” Mou said. 

One of their greatest challenges was creating the road map scenes that help drive the plot.  

With the story set in the fictional city of Guanshan, Mou brought in engineers from China’s navigation service provider AMAP to digitally map the city.  

The process took more than two months, Mou said, during which engineers and the production team struggled to coordinate.  

“They were mainly concerned about the practicability of displaying the fictional city on the app, but what I cared about was whether the audience could visually understand the map, and whether they could focus on the information and clues it showed,” Mou told NewsChina.  

The task proved more difficult than the director imagined. After the engineers constructed the city’s framework, the production team attended to the details, including the name, location and function of every street, store, building and landmark.  

“It was way more exhausting than building a physical set,” Mou said. “But since the map is integral to the story, if it wasn’t convincing enough, the sense of involvement and reality we established might collapse.”  

Still from Cloud Prison

New Angles
The unconventional visuals and storytelling in Cloud Prison create a gritty texture of reality. Compared with Searching and the Unfriended franchise, which both use computer screens as the primary narrative tool, Cloud Prison also broadens the palette with mobile phones, satnav, dashcams and hotel surveillance cameras. 

For instance, a scene where character Zheng Xiong saves his sister inside an elevator while on a video call with Zheng Yan was shot entirely on a smartphone. However, it was a process of trial and error.  

“It’s too easy to mess up with crew there when the actor turns 360 degrees with the phone, so we had to be somewhere else,” Mou said.  

Instead, Mou took advantage of the phone’s “shared screen” function and watched the streaming video from a tablet off-set. “As we couldn’t rely on Steadicams or Easyrigs, we were really going to extremes in a rather headstrong way,” the director said.  

Besides a sense of reality, screen-based formats provide a unique way of dropping details and hints, giving audiences a stronger feeling of involvement and participation. This constant stream of details is designed to keep audiences on their toes.  

To the careful observer, protagonist Zhang Yan’s computer screen reveals that he is a fan of authors Arthur Conan Doyle, Francis Foucault and Keigo Higashino and loves to watch suspense films like Unfriended: Dark Web and Searching, which he posts about on microblog site Weibo. 

Romance played a large part in the original screenplay. After Mou joined the project, he and writer Ye Xiaobai cut most of the romantic scenes to focus on the suspense.  

Mou said that conflicts between characters should be taken to extremes, otherwise the built-up tension would eventually fall flat “like a balloon leaking air.”  

The series was rated 7.6/10 on Douban, a relatively high score for a domestic television drama. 

“The show completely breaks the limits of traditional film vocabulary, takes down the walls between different domains - fiction, social media and livestreaming - and merges them into a new genre of suspense drama,” Douban user “Kelly Wu” commented. “Screen suspense films and dramas keep alarming people to how social media exposes everyone to the public. Today no one can live without it, but the question is: ‘how do we protect our personal information?’”