Archive for the 'Storytelling' Category

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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“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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Complicated, Engaging and Interactive

Those three words are often conflated in Internet ideas and products. But they are really three separate things. And I think we have to keep our heads straight about them if we’re going to make content that really works for audience.

The big bugaboo word for the Internet is “interactive.” Everybody in the content provider sector wants “interactive” — if only because they’ve heard the word. Well, okay, and also because the Internet is a very interactive environment. You press buttons, you make choices. You do interact with it.

But we interact with our Television, too. We change channels. We change the volume. We also interact with our DVRs — we set up season passes and choose what content to record and so on.

But you know what we don’t interact with? The content. When we watch a show, we’re sitting there watching a show. We not moving around widgets or pressing buttons. If the show is engaging enough we’re just sitting there watching it. (Mind you, if it’s engaging enough, we’re actually interacting with it on some level — thematically, emotionally or whatever. But we’re not physically manipulating anything to get to the fun.)

I’m not being facile about this. This is a vital distinction. Because for all the bells and whistles New Media can provide, there’s a really vital question here:

“What do people actually want?”

James Surowiecki’s “Financial Page” has an interesting piece in The New Yorker magazine this week. He talks about how designers of new technology often put in lots of bells and whistles into gadgets because they can. And marketing and sales departments love having lots of bells and whistles on gizmos because it gives them more to sell. And consumers love buying products with lots of bells and whistles because it makes them feel like they are getting more.

“But,” Surowiecki writes:

…once we actually have a product, our patience with all those features runs out very quickly. Elke den Ouden found, for instance, that Americans who returned a product that was too complicated for them had spent, on average, just twenty minutes with it before giving up.

The fact that buyers want bells and whistles but users want something clear and simple creates a peculiar problem for companies. A product that doesn’t have enough features may fail to catch our eye in the store. (A cell phone that doesn’t offer a Bluetooth connection, for instance, may be dismissed as underpowered, even though relatively few Americans use Bluetooth headsets.) But a product with too many features is likely to annoy consumers and generate bad word of mouth, as BMW’s original iDrive system did.

Okay. New Media. We can make choose your own path video content. We can make really elaborate Alternate Reality Games. We can make websites so thick in content you’ll never finish sorting through it all.

But at the end of the day, what do people want?

I offer this: Many of the models above are going to be just too complicated. People want engagement, but they don’t want complicated. The fact that our technology allows us to make things complicated doesn’t mean that people want things that are complicated. For that to have happened we would have needed a shift in the way most human beings want to engage with stories — and I don’t think that’s happened. Most people will want a person, or many people working together, to have built something they can sit down and read or watch or whatever.

Cable came along and gave us 500 channels. Too complicated! The DVR exists to save us from that complication.

Alternate Reality Games (ARGs) are really cool. And there will always be an audience for them. And I’ll say again, they are really cool. Here’s a sample webpage from Nine Inch Nails’ Year Zero, an ARG that’s part of their concept album built in collaboration with 42 Entertainment.

avott_index.jpg

If you click on the sample webpage you’ll got to anotherversionofthetruth.com. You’ll see a pretty image of an Americana landscape. If, however, you hold down your control button and slide the cursor over the image, you’ll start “peeling back” the colorful, life-affirming image and find a bleak landscape revealed underneath. Once you wipe away all of it, you’ll discover the image is now a link. If you click on it, you are then linked to chat board where members of a future resistance movement to an authoritarian United States government.

Click on more pages, and you’ll end up on a mailing list where people from the resistance movement email back. Scour web-pages for clues and you’ll find new links to lead you deeper into one web page, email, phone number, audio file after another…

Here’s a wiki page detailing the Another Version of the Truth page, here’s the Forum where characters from the bad future discuss many issues, and here’s a Forum at unFiction.com where many of the players/audience gather to sort out clues and find the next web page or phone number as part of their journey into the world Nine Inch Nails and 42 Entertainment have created.

To move deeper into the “narrative artifacts” that the ARG makers have produced, it is assumed that the players will work together to find and solve puzzles. A certain number of hatch-marks found by one person on a web-page will in turn be revealed to be a fax number by three people working to solve the puzzle together on a chat forum. It’s very interactive, very social, very Internet and very cool.

And when I tell people about these amazing creations and show them the web pages they’re always blown away by the concepts and the specifics. But then I always ask, “Now, in a week’s time will you have pursued any deeper the mysteries of these web pages?” And they look at the cool web pages on their screen and always say, “No.”

(This example was driven home to me one night over dinner. I was having dinner with the development executive of a video-content driven web-site and we were talking about the word “complicated.” And he said, “Do you know about the Nine Inch Nails ARG?”

And I said, “Yeah, I think I know where you’re going with this…”

And he cut me off and said, “It’s really cool, right?”

And I said, “Yes, and…”

And he cut me off again and said, “And when I show it to people, they all think it’s cool…”

“Dude,” I said. “I think you’re stealing my talking point…”

But he drove on, saying exactly what I said, even reaching the point where, after he shows people the cool pages he asks, “And will you be involved in this a week from now?” And everyone says, “No.”)

I think ARGs are great puzzles. But I’m not sure if the emotional and thematic content of storytelling is best served by puzzles. (And that’s a whole ‘nother issue — the tension between game and story.)

I will say that while ARGs (and especially 42 Entertainment) have a well-deserved fan base, I’m not sure if it will ever spread to be a dominant form. The ARG form is engaging and interactive… But it’s also very complicated. For thousands of years audience members have been content to sit around a fire and let someone tell them a story, or watch TV or read a book or whatever.

I have never considered these activities “passive.” They’re utilizing portions of us — emotion, thematic content, moral arguments – that don’t makes us very busy, but are engaging all the same. And I don’t think human beings have changed very much, though our technology has.

So, when thinking about online narrative content, ask, “Yes, we can have a lot of bells and whistles. But as a guy or gal hopping onto the internet to engage those part of me that loves a good story, how much complication do I really need, how much interactivity do I really need, and with or without a lot of complication or interaction, how engaging can I be?”

45% of European Broadband Users Watch TV Shows on Computers

This Motorola study surprised me. (And I’m not often surprised by this stuff.) I had always thought that long form content would not work that well on the Internet. How we watch TV or a movie — relaxed, leaning back, settled — seemed perfect for settling in for a while. Computers had more of the feel of jumping around and being busy.

Not so! As the article notes:

The results further strengthen the business models of startups such as Joost, that seek to target a massive potential audience through the use of streamed content over a P2P network, but with the safeguards of DRM and imposed advertising delivery built in.

Just the other day I was at a Kinkos doing some work and I saw a woman waiting for her husband at one of the computer work station cubicles. She had her laptop out and was watching The Scorpian King.

Now, again, I don’t exactly get this. I was watching over her shoulder for a few minutes (I always like to try to guess a movie in as few number of images as possible), and the panoramic shots of the city being sieged lack all sense of scope. At first I couldn’t exactly tell what was happening!

Now, clearly people make the same arguments of moving Film down to the scale of TV. A shot of a horizon in a John Ford western is going to be much more effective in a movie theater than on TV. But you can still see what’s happening.

What happens when you move that down to a streaming video player? Or this: I saw a kid watching the first Pirates of the Caribbean on an iPod. Could he even see the details of the movie? What did an establishing shot of a ship sailing the horizon at night look like to him? Was he watching it for the first time (where a lot of details would have to be lost), or was he watching it again — an on this reviewing certain shots “triggered” memories and facts he knew from previous viewings? (My guess is the latter.)

Clearly, no matter what, I’m an old fogy on this issue. I’ve watched episodes of Heroes on the NBC site that I had missed — but only so I would be up to date to watch the next episode with friends. But I wouldn’t make it a habit. But it will become a habit.

The question on my mind is only this: what sort of content will work best on a computer screen. TV didn’t just port the cinematic style of Film and shrink it down. It built it’s own “language” of storytelling, which depended far more on close-ups and dialogue than Film. The three-camera sit-com is a wonderful invention for TV, but would be dull in a movie.

I expect while people will continue to watch TV and movies via broadband — and in greater numbers — content that is designed to work well and specifically for computer screens will grow alongside it and become dominant. What that dominant content will be — first person video storytelling, Alternate Reality Games, Massive Multiplayer Online games, things we haven’t even thought of yet — who knows?

Stories, Moral Choice, and Resource Management

In a game there are choices.

A player playing a game of Chess can choose to sacrifice a pawn to take a queen, or lose a bishop to protect a rook.

All good games are like this: Whether it’s Monopoly or Tag or Baseball (do I take this pitch or not? Do I run, or not?)

A well-designed video game has choices as well. If I’m playing a First Person Shooter, and I see a health back under a machine gun nest that might save my character during a gun battle, I could choose to go to get it despite the bullets, or I can stick it out and keep shooting, hoping I take out the bad guys before I do. It’s a resource management choice, because those are the sorts of choices that matter for a game.

Now, stories have choices, too. The characters make moral and emotional choices. Take a look at the first minute of this YouTube video. Tony Soprano answers his daughter Meadow when she asks him if he’s in the mob. (After the first minute it becomes a YouTube Soprano’s Highlight Mashup!)

Clearly he’s embarassed by the question. And just as clearly he’s trying to protect her from the very thing that pays for their home and is going to let her go to college. (They’re driving to a college campus for an interview for Meadow.)

King Oedipus has to choose whether to pursue the truth even if it will cost him his comfortable life, Hamlet must decide to pursue murder at the word of a supernatural spirit, Ripley in Aliens must decide if she will risk her life for a little girl she only recently met, and so on.

By the way, I’m not saying all audience members are paying attention to this in an intellectual manner. I am saying that people respond to stories where characters make emotionally and morally engaging choices. The audience doesn’t have to be thinking about this stuff — but they do respond.

Here’s the thing: a game can be designed so that it is only about resource management. But it can also be designed to be about moral choices.

The kind of game where this is most explicit is in MMOs… because there is no “story” the players must follow. Thus, the choices are live choices. What a player does is open-ended and will affect other, actual human beings.

Let’s say that a game is set up where you can choose to have your character be very loyal to the state. You get certain bonuses for serving the state of one kind or another. (And let us say you could have your character be an enemy of the state — and get bonuses in turn for being a rebel. But that’s not how you chose to build your character.)

And let us assume further your character is very loyal to his family. This is a world with extended families, and there are mechanical and practical bonuses to having strong ties to your family.

And let us say finally that the game world shifts and your character’s father is declared a traitor by the state. Suddenly your character has a choice: to defend his father, or side with state against him. That’s an engaging choice because it taps all sorts of moral and emotional buttons in all of us.

An MMO could be rigged with a large matrix set of options about where to put one’s alliances and loyalties. And over time alliances between players and between players and NPCs could shift back and forth. As the player made choice for his or her character, more and more dramatic moments would arise — moments that would be strongly remembered by the player.

Now, one would have to make sure you didn’t derail the MMO with too many options. But it seems to me that this kind of design would allow players to plug directly into the stuff of dramatic action and epic tales. Certainly it seems possible to take the stuff of dramatic narrative and plug it into mechanics of resource management to offer up more color, drama and meaning.