The Earth dissolves into a ripple of colour. Discs of marbled paper expand and open on to a shimmering seascape over which a lone seagull swoops. Then, with a sudden whoosh, the camera plunges into the water and a strange, seal-like creature swims across the screen.
“What is it to be a non-human life form on Earth right now?” asks the narrator, soundtracked by ambient electronic music. You may recognise the voice as belonging to the actor David Tennant and, by the end of his reading of J.M. Ledgard’s essay, you will know that the strange creature is in fact the dugong, an endangered member of the Sirenia marine mammal family that is being “struck down by the Anthropocene” — the age of man — as quickly as “the flash of a sword”.
The story of the dugong may be watched, listened to, and read through a new mobile app called Alexander. Quietly launched last November, Alexander is a digital storytelling platform that fuses audio, writing, and film formats to intriguing effect. It was created by Cameron Lamb, an Australian film producer whose credits include Kumiko the Treasure Hunter (2014) and Wim Wenders’ Submergence (2017), which helps explains why the platform is already crammed with prestige actors.
Bill Nighy, Vanessa Kirby, Dan Stevens and Helena Bonham Carter are among the many names to have lent their voices to the project. New talent has also joined the throng, with Normal People’s Daisy Edgar-Jones reading Around the World in 72 Days by Nellie Bly, and The Crown’s Emma Corrin appearing in full 17th-century regalia as Frances Howard, Countess of Somerset, in the short film accompanying Wife, Witch, Poisoner, Whore by Katherine Rundell. Celebrity voices are “super important” for Lamb, who feels the project needs “actors who can take you on a journey, and make you feel like you’re in that place with the writer”.
The idea for Alexander dates back to 2018, when Lamb spotted an opportunity to combine high-quality visuals with narrative non-fiction. Interest in long reads and podcasts was booming, and Instagram had the world hooked on beautiful images. Lamb says he wanted to build a mobile-friendly “home for non-fiction” that boasts the kind of high-production-value visuals more usually associated with fashion houses promoting their brands on Instagram. Named after the ancient Library of Alexandria, the app aims to showcase new informative and aesthetic content, released every fortnight, for $3.99 a month, or “as little as the price of a coffee”.
Ranging from 50 seconds to three minutes in length, the films “set the tone” for the narrated long reads, which are an hour long. The original target listenership for the app was frazzled, time-poor commuters; now the makers hope to attract housebound listeners through their transportative global themes: the history of civilisation and a discussion of life’s simpler values in Small Antelope Horn (written by theoretical physicist and author Carlo Rovelli); a Syrian exile relating his experience of spending Christmas away from family; the tragic deaths of mother and son mountaineers Alison Hargreaves and Tom Ballard; and Murder in the Year of the Pig, which tells the story of two brothers who went on a mass-murdering rampage through China during the 1980s, written and read by the academic Xiaolu Guo.
“For us it’s very important to have a diverse international lens, and not just from the usual media hubs of New York and London,” says Lamb, whose team scouts stories from the Middle East and Africa, Asia and the US in particular. Dugong, for instance, takes the listener-reader on a journey from the islands of the Torres Strait to the Gulf.
Yoking the app’s three elements is The Toggle, a function that enables users to flick between text, audio and film almost seamlessly. For Lamb, who is dyslexic, it was important to be able to press on a word in the text and listen to the audio. Mostly, though, he “wanted to find a way to go in and out of the story without interruption”. There are no in-app advertisements, which would cloud an experience that is already competing against a world of distractions.
Look Studios, a New York-based creative agency, produces most of the visuals, while independent directors as well as established artists — including Russ Murphy, a collaborator on many of Thom Yorke’s music videos — provide crisp cinematography and contemporary animations. Though thematically each film and story is distinct, their treatment — colour, tone, pacing — forms a cohesive “library”.
The effect is pleasingly tactile. The adaptation of Jonathan Freedland’s essay Seasick, for instance, read by Richard E. Grant, is a palimpsest of colour scribbles and jagged magazine pages that are continuously ripped away as if to reveal the heart of the subject — the perfect visual metaphor for the concept of “post-truth” and questions ushered in by the new millennium. “What happens when culture loses its memory and truth can’t be trusted?” Freedland asks.
Authors and journalists, including Valeria Luiselli, Chigozie Obioma, Helen Mort, Hannes Grassegger and Booker-winner Douglas Stuart have contributed exclusive content for Alexander. Freedland says of the writing experience: “Seasick was one of the first pieces to appear — I had no idea how it would look, or how the app would be designed, so I wrote it with a conventional page (or screen) in mind. It was only late in the process that I was told Richard E. Grant was to read the audio version. I’m thrilled by that; he’s a brilliant actor. And writing to be read aloud is a good discipline — the ear can be rather less forgiving than the eye when it comes to writing.”
While some texts can be a little clunky in places — “He footsteps into the house”, reads one description — the cumulative effect is a kind of cerebral chic. The question is: whom exactly is it for?
Alexander mirrors the growing trend of bridging the old world and the new, in this case enlivening traditional long reads through a slick digital medium. Its lack of an advertising campaign speaks to its word-of-mouth, exclusive nature, reminiscent of a trendy members’ club.
The pandemic has halted many film and television productions, prompting interest in the still largely uncharted waters of digital storytelling; from live streaming platforms such as Twitch, to multimedia long-read apps such as Atavist, which enables users to “tell the whole story with blocks of video, sound, slideshows, charts”, and Twine, “an open-source tool for telling interactive, non-linear stories”.
Also gaining attention is the sound industry. Audiobook juggernaut Audible, along with Calm, the meditation and sleep app, have garnered impressive acting talent too, their popularity a testament to screen-tired eyes eager for new stories — which Alexander certainly provides. But not all is positive on the content front: the demise of short-form platform Quibi after just six months last year illustrates the challenges facing straight-to-mobile streaming services.
There’s no doubt that Alexander is beautifully presented. In a time of endless social media feeds, when reality is stranger than fiction, such zeitgeisty but nostalgically rendered content could take off in a big way. But it could equally remain as obscure and mysterious as the dugong; a thing to be chanced upon and marvelled at only fleetingly.