Archive for June, 2007

YouTube: The Victorian Edition

Slate.com has a new Slide Show piece up today: What the First Movie Goers Saw.

The piece is an essay that includes 10 short films from the first years of the 20th century.

You can link directly to one of the slide show videos here.

These early films are hard to categorize: Often less than a minute long, they are experimental without being avant-garde (except in one case, which I’ll get to). Perhaps they look oddly modern because of the recent rise of Web video: YouTube has fostered our patience for short clips that would probably look insipid on the big screen, and the spirit of improvisation that thrives on the Web seems alive n the Victorian films, as well.

She writes later:

The novelty of these earliest films, most of which simply offered glimpses of the real world in motion, lasted for about a decade. By 1907, more fictional narratives than documentary scenes were being shot; and by 1915, Charlie Chaplin was using movies to generate a new kind of star power.

I believe the same will hold true of Internet: we will have a period of the “real world” and the documentary, but in time “star power” of one kind or another will take hold.

Go down and look again at the video from Britain’s Got Talent I posted. Notice something: people know when something is better than something else. We actually know when something is really well done — and we respond with approval. (I notice this as a child reading comic books. There was no doubt that the work of Neal Adams, Gen Colan, and Jack Kirby (to name a few of my favorites) was superior to the art of other artists in the field — and I responded with favor to the titles they drew.)

Amateur Hour can only last so long. While I believe that the current “folk art” period of YouTube will always be with us, ultimately the novelty of the new medium and delivery will wear off and people will respond to more professional work.

I think and by 1915, Charlie Chaplin was using movies to generate a new kind of star power.” Chaplin didn’t generate that star-power, the audience did. It was a big thank you for making movies even better than they had been before.

Thus my warning to all the executives around Los Angeles excited about making a killing on “user generated content” (read: “We don’t have to pay actors and writers!”) — This too shall pass.

Some folks are going to come along and make what I call “content-on-purpose.” The same shift that Chaplin created when he took a medium that had been very casual and awkward and brought professionalism, emotion and artistry to bear upon it.

The same thing will happen in a dozen different ways with the Internet.

And at that point the buzz phrase won’t be, “How do you monetize it?” but “Get me the next Chaplin!”

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A Perfect YouTube Moment

What would a web blog be without random moments of strange sparkle that could never happen without the Internet?

From Britain’s Got Talent. (The across the pond version of American Idol.)

Did this clip tell a little story? You bet.

(I actually thought it was a fake mash-edit at first!)

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A New Chance for the Short Form

In the second half of the 20th-century — especially in the United States — the long form of story telling has ruled.

If you were a writer of any ambition, you were a novelist. If you were a filmmaker, you made features. On Television, sitcoms were only thirty minutes, but a “drama” was a full hour.

Many writers who were essayists by temperament (Don DeLillo, for example), often seemed to writing novels because that’s what you did, shoehorning their ideas into the shape of a long form line of action with many characters carrying the water for the ideas at hand. (Raymond Carver notably bucked the trend against all advice that the novel was “real” writer’s work, continuing to ply his trade with the short story.)

Especially with the visual work of Film and Television, the short form really had no means of distribution or a chance to be seen. (Other than repeats of Warner Bros. cartoons on syndicated kids shows!)

But the Internet is about short and punchy — for now, at least. And I’m thrilled by that. I’m an idea guy — but often the thought of having to find the right way to “stretch” a notion into feature length gives me the trembles. Sometimes I just want to dump an idea out, have the audience enjoy it, and move on.

The form for that hasn’t really been viable for a while. But the Internet wants short. People arrive for a quick break. I think we can move beyond “cat playing piano.” But I think it’s important to realize that for a while short pieces can rule — and rule well. It means re-thinking and re-examining what makes “good” story and good structure.

Currently a lot of the more professional work on the Internet is just a long form story divided into smaller pieces. But suspect this is more out of habit of training and experience than purposeful choice.

As I try to sort out what will work best for the Internet, I’m moving more and more to self-contained, short form work. And in the last couple of weeks I started thinking about the writing off the astounding Jorge Luis Borges.

His short works are packed with amazing ideas… But he never stretches them out to full length form. He will write a review of a book that never existed, or discuss an encyclopedia entry of a nation he invented, tell quickly the life story of a man that reveals one fierce spark of an idea or revelation.

In each of these, he takes a concept that might be stretched out into an overblown piece of writing or film-making, padded with plot and subplot, and instead gets it down and out the door.

He wrote:

“It is a laborious madness and an impoverishing one, the madness of composing vast books — setting out in five hundred pages an idea that can be perfectly related orally in five minutes. The better way to go about it is to pretend that those books already exist, and offer a summary, a commentary on them.”

“…related orally in five minutes…”

That, right there, my friends, is Internet gold. Because what is so much of YouTube, whether it is lonelygirl15 or Woody Allen now finding an afterlife in small clips.

When you bring in the strange or the weird, as Borges does in his short pieces, you also create something that catches the viewer’s eye. And such a piece would give viewers as a group something to mull over, discuss and argue about (always good for the Internet.)

Since I believe that for a while it will be actors’ faces and words that will carry the day on the Internet (the screens are I think to small for visual detail to carry too much weight), I’m delighted by the fact Borges points they way by speaking about “orally” telling the tale in five minutes.

This, anyway, is the direction I’m going as I prepare material for Disney and other companies that are looking for Internet specific content. I’m looking at the works of Borges, Edgar Allen Poe, H. P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard and other masters of the short form for inspiration.

I think they have a lot to teach us right now.

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“CNN the TV Channel Is No Match for CNN the Website”

I’m just sayin’…

“We’re all pretty convinced that news doesn’t break on TV anymore,” said Eric Bader, senior VP-managing director of digital connections at MediaVest. “Almost everybody across pretty much every economic and age demographic learns of breaking news online, increasingly on mobile.” He points to coverage of Sept. 11 as most representative of the shift. “People didn’t have to channel surf to get to that urgent information, especially if you lived outside of New York.”

(emphasis added)

Advertising Age has the full story.

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“Stranger Adventures” gets THIRD Emmy Nomination!

Last year I was the Head Writer on an Internet show called Stranger Adventures.

If you’d like to know more about the show, here’s the Sales/Promotional video I wrote and produced. You can hear my voice doing the narration… hey, we were strapped for cash and I was at the office! (And it takes a while to load. If you want to watch it, click on the link, turn off your sound, come back here and read a while…. and then go back and watch it.)

We produced three episodes, two of which were nominated for Emmy Awards last year, and the third, Ian Hollister and the Haunted Hospital, was nominated this year for Outstanding Broadband — Drama. (One of the episodes I wrote, Danny Bowles and the Jade Treasure was nominated for the 2005-2006 Emmy Awards for Outstanding Achievement in Interactive Television.)

Stranger Adventures was maybe the best time I’d ever had. Produced by Riddle Productions out of some floor space provided by Red Car in Santa Monica, we were a mix of a tech start-up and micro-budget production company. Everything was fast, cheap and energetic.

The show used many of the ideas I’d been thinking about for a while (First Person Storytelling, the importance of intimacy on the Internet and so on…) and it was great to have place to try it all out.

Chris Tyler, the head of Riddle Productions and the guy who created and developed Stranger Adventures, taught me a lot of great concepts about how to build a long term show for the Internet. (I’ll be addressing some of them, like the need for multiple posts a day and using the web page to build a full environment for content, in future posts).

Since I’m reminiscing about all this right now, I might as well just keep going…!

First, I’m glad Eric Heisserer, who wrote the Ian Hollister script got his Emmy nod. The first time I met Eric and started talking about the show I knew right away he “got it.” A lot of the writers who came in had backgrounds in TV and Film — and getting them to start thinking like writers for short, first-person videos was like pulling teeth. Not Eric, though. He’s one of the smartest guys I know out here in La-La land — a great conceptual writer with a terrific work ethic. And let me be clear: just cause the guy knows his way around the Internet, doesn’t mean he’s any slouch when it comes to succeeding in traditional media. (Full disclosure: I count Eric as an amazing friend, and I am both delighted and envious of all his roaring success!)

Second, I think everyone did a great job on the shoot. As mentioned, we were a scrappy bunch, moving fast with what we had. Hal Long did a great job as the Director and DP. We rented out an abandoned hospital in central L.A., and Hal used the environment to great effect — creepy, but with enough light to make it all visible on the tiny, tiny screen that is the Internet.

Anne-Marie Mackay, who has helped so many careers in town it’s crazy, led the shoot with amazing grace and aplomb as the Executive Producer. I still feel bad she ended up on the headsets as the Script Supervisor… But as I said, we were roughing it! (When I wasn’t answering continuity issues about the weeklong plot, I was upstairs doing script re-writes and weaving in the puzzle/clue elements that arrived from Chris Tyler each morning!) Ann-Marie, who came from the world rock videos and commercials and sees the Internet as the new “It” knows how to pack a lot into small space, work with limited budgets on the fly and how to tap really talented people to get great work done. Watching her keep things moving was a great lesson every day.

And, of course, Joshua Gause, our amazing creative director, did an amazing job with his Flash team designing the web pages that housed the videos and email and all the Flash animations and puzzles…

And the Flash team, of course, and Amy and Donna Lee… And now clearly I’m gonna go on forever because I don’t have time to talk about how great everyone was. But it was a great experience and everyone was great.

Third, I remember when we were shooting Danny Bowles….

One day we had just wrapped up a shoot at Wacko’s in Los Feliz. As always, we were working with our micro-crew, and about to rush out to a new location to scout the next day’s work. As I jump in my Wrangler and rush up Vermont Avenue I pass another shoot going on… There are 20 star-wagons, countless grips, teamsters and so on… And the first thing that flashes in my head is, “What pussies…” It just seemed so much compared to the off-the-cuff and mobile crew I’d just been working with.

Right now features strike me as those old supercomputers from decades ago — monstrous things that fill an entire room and you couldn’t move if you wanted to. Not only in terms of equipment and crew sizes but aesthetics as well.

Most people think there are different “genres” you get to play with. But the truth is, Hollywood movies (and most TV shows) are kind of done. The blueprints are in place. You know what you’re shooting for any kind of movie, and the makers and the audience judge you according to how well you get near (or fail to get near) that target.

The Internet is wide open right now. Not just in terms of production values, but what the form and the content is. I believe that we’ve got a chance here to make things no one is going to see coming — and people are going to love it.

I’m not making any claims for Stranger Adventures being art, by the way. People were always coming up to me at the office and on the set saying, “You know, this show is pretty goofy.” And I’d say, “It’s a game show with a story attached. We can’t do that much. We don’t want to do that much. Think of it like the A-Team. Did it explore the human condition? No. But it delievered great network TV a lot of people liked. That’s what we’re doing — we’re delivering the right content for this kind of show.”

But as for the rest of the Internet, there’s a lot more to make, a lot more variety. A million people watching a show regularly would be a hit. That’s a niche audience — but a niche audience can support some amazingly compelling content.

That’s what I’m aiming for.

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The Habit of Fun

The New York Times ran a piece on girls dressing up their dolls online called, “Doll Web Sites Drive Girls to Stay Home and Play.”

Here’s the opening of the article:

Presleigh Montemayor often gets home after a long day and spends some time with her family. Then she logs onto the Internet, leaving the real world and joining a virtual one. But the digital utopia of Second Life is not for her. Presleigh, who is 9 years old, prefers a Web site called Cartoon Doll Emporium.

The site lets her chat with her friends and dress up virtual dolls, by placing blouses, hair styles and accessories on them. It beats playing with regular Barbies, said Presleigh, who lives near Dallas.

“With Barbie, if you want clothes, it costs money,” she said. “You can do it on the Internet for free.”

Presleigh is part of a booming phenomenon, the growth of a new wave of interactive play sites for a young generation of Internet users, in particular girls.

Millions of children and adolescents are spending hours on these sites, which offer virtual versions of traditional play activities and cute animated worlds that encourage self-expression and safe communication. They are, in effect, like Facebook or MySpace with training wheels, aimed at an audience that may be getting its first exposure to the Web.

Most of the Web chatter was about whether or not girls should be doing this at all, encouraging girls to have play dates and general hand-wringing. In general it was decided this was A Bad Thing ™ *.

But the point is this: It’s happening. If you had told someone a hundred years ago that most people in the country would have their eyeballs glued to images on a small box broadcasting game shows and soap operas for 2 to 6 hours a day, they would have called you nuts.

Is humanity worse for Television? Are we doomed? I have no idea. I do know most people seem to like to distract themselves, don’t like to think too much about matters at hand, and enjoy shiny pictures.

The Internet only provides new means of doing this.

As the rating slide continues at the networks, as cable stations continue to get ratings that bottom-tier network shows would love, as kids move from expecting to get their entertainment from Club Penguin, I think everyone should take a breath and realize that The Habit of Fun is changing.

The Habit of Fun is what I call what people think is fun. There are a million ways to have fun. But we can only have fun so many ways. There are only so many hours in the day. And novelty inspires us to drop one kind of fun and migrate to another.

It’s hard to imagine, but once upon a time people had to get used to watching Television. It took time for the networks to develop effective programming. It took time for people to buy TVs. It took time for people to get in the habit of showing up to watch TV. It took time for a critical mass of audience to make talking about one show or another at the water-cooler a given part of the day.

Now, there will always be Theater. And there will always be Movies. And there will always be Television. But I think it’s important to look at what’s happening with kids, because they are the audience that in 15 to 25 years will be defining what the future of entertainment is going to be about.

And I think it’s clear that what kids are doing is finding their entertainment on the internet. There’s more stuff. It’s on 24/7. It’s social.

I was talking about all this with a friend, and she said, “No, not really. Because parents have a big influence on those habits.” I thought to myself, “No, not really. Kids influence kids on this stuff much more than parents.”

And then in the New York Times article I came across this:

Regardless, the sites are growing in number and popularity, and they are doing so thanks to the word of mouth of babes, said Josh Bernoff, a social media and marketing industry analyst with Forrester Research.

“They’re spreading rapidly among kids,” Mr. Bernoff said, noting that the enthusiasm has a viral analogy. “It’s like catching a runny nose that everyone in the classroom gets.”

Kids will migrate to the Internet because that’s what other kids are doing. It’s that simple.

I know many adults will view this as sad, strange or unfortunate. A horrible denigration of attention span. Or whatever. But it is going to happen. And as they get older I don’t think they’re suddenly going to say, “Well, now it’s time to start watching TV or go to Movies.” They’re going to say, “Well, what else is here that I want to look at?”

Children simply will get used to the idea of going to their computers first before turning on a TV or going to a movie. (This doesn’t mean people will stop going to large, face-to-face social events. More on that in another post. But in short: people like people.)

What’s particularly interesting to me is that what we consider “entertainment” will most likely change, too. The verse play vanished with the arrival of the printing press (we moved from verse to pros — and there was no going back). The sitcom arrived with the roller-mounted video camera.

We are so used to seeing “storytelling” these days through fourth-wall, actors on a sound stage that we forget that once upon a time theater ruled the earth, and later the novel. Each of these forms of storytelling had very rich traditions and techniques very different from the “make it as real as possible” traditions we no expect from TV and Film.

As we mine the Internet for new ways of engaging an audience, I expect we’ll find fascinating methods of engagement that don’t look at all like TV and Film. Entertainments like World of Warcraft and Disney’s new “Pirates of the Caribbean Online,” a new massively multiplayer online game based on the “Pirates” movie franchise might confuse older folks, but it won’t confuse a generation of kids growing up on it.

Microsoft’s Xbox Live depends on this. And in a bold move (or maybe not so bold!) FASA Studio’s new Shadowrun game is being release only as a multiplayer online game–there will be no single player version of the game you can play alone.

I believe audiences will expect this kind of entertainment in the future. There will be plenty of variations on this idea, but I think a couple of people interviewed in the Times article have it right:

Sherry Turkle, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who studies the social aspects of technology, said that the participants on these sites are slipping into virtual worlds more easily than their parents or older siblings.

“For young people, there is rather a kind of fluid boundary between the real and virtual world, and they can easily pass through it,” she said.

For some children, the allure of these sites is the chance to participate and guide the action on screen, something that is not possible with movies and television.

“The ability to express themselves is really appealing to the millennial generation,” said Michael Streefland, the manager of Cyworld, a virtual world that started in South Korea and now attracts a million users a month in the United States, according to comScore, a research firm. “This audience wants to be on stage. They want to have a say in the script.”

(*A side note here: It always amazes me how naive most Americans are about the variety of ways of life that exist in their own nation. Some people commenting on the article said essentially, “Of course you get the neighborhood kids to play together face to face.” It took some folks who live in both rough urban areas and low-density rural areas to point out that life for some folks is not as simple as that.

The fact that kids can play safely inside with other kids without having to let them wander out into high traffic areas or without negotiating long drives seems to have escaped folks who live in the suburbs as A Good Thing.)