Karen Barley is a horror story told on Twitter with tweets linking out to YouTube videos and photos. It’s the creative brainchild of Kristi Barnett and during its three week run in July earned some impressive stats for a low-budget independent production including almost 700 followers on Twitter and over 5000 words in press coverage plus a spot on BBC TV.
In this article Robert Pratten interviews Kristi about the project’s development and delivery.
RP: You’re a “traditional” movie scriptwriter by trade Kristi so what made you want to write a transmedia story?
KB: I wanted to get one of my stories produced. I’d been writing for 3 years with at that time, not even a short made. I just bit the bullet and decided that using social media would be a cheaper and more immediate way to get an audience for a story. I wasn’t actually consciously looking at transmedia itself but rather the idea of using Twitter as a story tool. I knew no one had tried to tell a story over twitter as a character using other media like videos, photos, weblinks etc. I love twitter and am constantly on it so it seemed natural to me that Twitter could be used in this way. And it is a writer’s medium when you think about it; every tweet is a piece of writing.
RP: How many people were involved in the project from crew to cast?
KB: The total number of people directly involved was 10. The actual crew on the shoot days including cast and myself was 5. So it was micro-budget guerilla film making. I had myself as Writer, Director and Producer; I funded almost all of it. I quickly got in contact with Tim Clague whom I’d met at various screenwriting festivals and after looking at his work in different types of media I asked if he’d be a consultant on the project and story. He gave me some great advice on how to proceed and how to gain an audience and gave me the encouragement to continue and use the story I had. He ended up being an Associate Producer. I then moved quickly into looking for an Assistant Director. Someone that I knew would be creative and technically aware and who also loved the idea of different media. I asked Danny Tate of JellyFish Media to jump on board. He also served as Editor and Sound Designer and was instrumental in making the trailer and behind the scenes video diary (coming soon).
At the same time I was looking for my actors. So I got myself a casting assistant and casting co-coordinator; Matthew Turner and Mark Vella respectively. Then over two days I cast for the two main characters. Gemma Giddings and Benjamin O’Mahony were the actors I chose. They were great and could improvise off script and understand the scenes very quickly and were very intuitive with the camera, as they’d be shooting themselves. They loved the idea of what I was trying to achieve and I think and hope that it was a challenge for them; something very different to what they’d ever done in that they were shooting small video vignettes that only made sense if you read the tweets that went with it. The other actor was David McClelland whom I knew from my writers group. He’s also a technology writer and presenter so he loved the idea straight away. He played Bossman. I also had a Sound assistant, Elise Neola May and a Website Consultant in Anton Russell.
RP: Tell us about the timescales for the project in terms of developing & writing the story, implementing the experience (video production, pre-written tweets, photos) and the live execution.
KB: I came up with the concept of using twitter with a live character about middle of 2010. I finally pulled out my finger and started writing the script in Dec 2010 and finished the final draft in about March 2011; (86 pages). At the same time I was already organising pre production with Tim and Danny. As soon as I was happy with the story and how we were going to roll it out, I started auditioning in April. I cast it in May and we started the 2.5 day shoot in the middle of June. Danny immediately started on converting the files, editing them and then spontaneously and brilliantly made a pre story trailer. I spent two days with him telling him what I wanted but left him to his own devices and so I’d say he worked on all the videos and trailer (and most of the video diary) in 3 weeks. The story went live at the end of June and rolled out for 3 weeks as live finishing on July 16th 2011. So all in all and between me and everyone else having other jobs and working odd hours, the project took 7 months.
RP: How many tweets, videos and tweets did you have per day (or per week) and for how long did the whole story take to unfold?
KB: I kind of just wrote the script as individual tweets. You can see an excerpt of what the script looked like here: SCRIPT EXCERPT As you can see it wasn’t quite like a normal script. I just guessed that each line would be 140 characters (I decided to not use Tweetdeck’s Deck.ly system because I wanted the experience to be as direct as possible; with as little navigation away from the immediate twitter app). I think the total amount of tweets over the 3 week period was approximately between 500 and 600 tweets. That’s not counting the mentions and retweets she did. There were originally 32 videos planned at an allowance of about 1-2mins in length. The length was important because no one tweets long videos; I didn’t want to take up people’s time. They would want to quickly click on the link and watch a short clip to get the plot then move on. We actually ended up adding a few extra videos that I shot myself and some of the videos ended up being less than a minute. All in all the running time of all the videos combined was about 25 minutes. These videos mainly came out during the weekends which are the bulk of where the story plot points take place. You can see that not every day had a video or even a photo. I actually got very aware that I should’ve had a few more bits of media to make up for it and ended up improvising with some of my own personal photos! But I think the tweets themselves were engaging enough, which is where my writing skills come in (hopefully)!
RP: How did you decide which platforms to tell the story across? For example, how did you develop the story and decide which content would be presented textually on Twitter and which content would be a photo or video.
KB: Because the main concept was a character on twitter that people would follow, the idea that her tweets tell the bulk of the story was already part and parcel of how twitter works. I actually don’t think people utilize twitter as much as they can. As such, most people follow someone specifically to read a tweet. Anything else that gets tweeted; e.g. a photo or video or link is a bonus and perhaps not always clicked on. So straight away I decided to market Karen Barley as a movie over twitter rather than trying to get people to believe she actually existed as a real person. That way most people who started following her would know that they are supposed to read the tweets. At the same time as I was writing the script I knew that people would be expecting a certain level of videos to come out but as I didn’t have much money or time or special effects; I had to choose moments in the script that were easier to film and also pushed the story forward. So a lot of the videos at the beginning were character development videos; to get you used to what these two people are like. They were easy to film but essential if people were to form their own opinions on Darren and Karen and hopefully to empathise. The weekends in the story were where most of the videos occurred. They started off as character building videos then gradually they started providing essential plot points and the necessary creepiness. I built the tweets so you knew that each weekend she was supposed to go into the woods and people knew that something may happen to her then. So I was essentially trying to hold people’s attention over these weeks by alluding to the things to come. I would give out her birthday in the tweets in a way that told people they should be around on that date (16th July). But one of my hardest challenges as a writer was to rationalize to the audience why on earth she’d be filming and then actually tweeting this stuff in the first place. I had to give each video a hint of rationalization. So you would have Darren question why she’s filming; you would have Karen’s sense of loneliness play out in the tweets so people knew that she was using twitter for emotional support. And of course her eventual paranoia into what her boyfriend was doing made her want to film as evidence. The actors were great in improvising in the scenes; they would pretend that they were unaware the camera was still on e.g. they did it in a believable way.
I developed the story knowing that hopefully; people on twitter would be using 3rd party apps like Tweetdeck or Twitter mobile on their phones etc. There’s so many. So I was very conscious of how the sound comes out of a PC speaker and a phone as opposed to headphones; (although please do listen to the videos on headphones because it rocks). I wanted the videos to pop out from the apps so chose YouTube which most 3rd party clients had inbuilt players for and Yfrog which I tested on various apps and saw the photos loaded within the app and was more stable than other photo clients for loading times.
I just didn’t want to give any excuse for people to navigate away from their twitter client, because once that happens you may lose your audience due to slow internet browsers and loading times.
In terms of photos; there was about 37 of them in the end and they were the sort of photos most people would tweet; seemingly mundane stuff like eating a pizza or Darren dancing in his underwear. In the forest there were quite a few location establishing shots of Croham Hurst. Part of the story was that her boss had told her document evidence of the history of the area so it gave me a good excuse to have her want to tweet that she’d found bones for example. They were there to provide a visual to a tweet that I assumed the audience would be interested in. So if she tweets, Darren has scratches all over him then I used a photo cos you’d want to see that. I think I should’ve taken a few more than I did for the days that were just tweets.
RP: Before you went live, what was your biggest worry?
KB: From a purely personal level I was afraid I’d not have enough gumption to finish what I’d started. Or something would happen where I wouldn’t be able to continue with the shoot. I have a lot of anxiety in general so this just amplified everything. But I forced myself to continue. I was also worried that my story might not be interesting enough to hold people’s attention as tweets; but Tim gave me great confidence to stick with it. Just before we went live I started to worry that I wouldn’t be able to actually garner any interest in the project publicity wise. I saw that more people (initially) were joining her Facebook profile than the twitter profile and I worried they wouldn’t understand what was going on, because let’s face it; the Facebook audience is different to Twitter. I worried that her profile would be deleted by Facebook for being a character so quickly started an actual fanpage for her which in hindsight is what I should’ve done all along for Facebook. On Twitter there was the concern that people would miss most of the tweets and would they want to go back and look at the older tweets and videos? But at the end of the day I just told myself that this hasn’t been done before so I’m learning too and it’s an experiment to see how people follow a story on these social networks as much as anything else. I just did the best I could to make things easy for the audience.
RP: What was the most challenging aspect of the project in terms of its live delivery?
KB: This is the part where I want to tell everyone it was easy and fun to get the story out but in reality it was one of the most frustrating experiences of my life. If I had to pinpoint THE most challenging aspect, it was in fact the part that I and my website consultant believed would be the easiest: An archive website with all her tweets that was supposed to be updated. I wanted a landing page so people could go there instead of scrolling through her twitter page (and I knew not many people would actually watch the story from the actual twitter website) but we quickly realised there are no widgets that show every single tweet. They only show a few and there’s no scroll feature to keep showing more. The closest we got was Blender which in fact turned out to be very helpful in using the cut and pastes from that. So I dismissed that and decided to create a webpage that I would personally update every day by cutting and pasting her tweets. Well we chose Wordpress to do this and unfortunately it just did not like the formatting that Twitter had. No matter how hard we tried it would publish the site and overwrite the way we set it out. It looked awful. I went to Tripod and found a nice template that allowed for multimedia and best of all it took all the cut and pastes perfectly and kept the formatting. Then suddenly their servers crashed, got slow and stopped saving the pages correctly. I spent up to 2 hours doing a job that should’ve taken 10mins, every night. Even now the saved page is not the same as the final published site you see but it was honestly the best website amongst many free website builders for this job. http://karenbarley.tripod.com/tweets/
Followed very closely in the “I’m going to rip my hair out” stakes was the scheduling of the tweets. I have a full time job where I can’t have my phone on or use a PC (in a TV studio). So there was no way I could tweet live for Karen. I decided to use Tweetdeck as they have a “Set location” feature (even if you’re not there!) and the tweets come out in minutes rather than 5 minute chunks like others. This was essential because she tweets like a normal person, i.e. a burst of tweets to get across what she’s trying to say. So I couldn’t wait for 5 minutes for her next tweet to come out. At the most I scheduled them in 2 minute gaps. Of course you could have two different twitter accounts in Tweetdeck so I could schedule from my own @Pale_Jewel and Karen’s. Well all I’m going to say is for this particular project, Tweetdeck let me down and it’s such a shame as I really do believe their scheduler is the best for transmedia style projects involving Twitter. I can’t even say what went wrong other than the fact that they released a new Adobe Air update overnight and co-incidentally, I lost all my scheduled tweets for the penultimate day of the story and her account was temporarily “lost”. There was also a loss of ability to recreate her Tweetdeck account. Well that was the moment I almost stopped the story as a live event. I was saved though as I did end up using Hootsuite for the last 2 days in conjunction with Conductrr – which was actually pivotal in releasing the videos from unlisted to public to YouTube automatically (and which no other scheduler can do as far as I know). On a minor point, the Twitter-to-Facebook profile app also failed and I used Smart Tweets in the end. I keep telling myself that such big problems are a result of sort of being a pioneer in this level of story release. But actually, these few websites and Twitter-specific applications stated all along they could do these things and when I used them to their utmost limit they appeared to have failed. Having said that… there are so many different ways to use Twitter to tell a story, it doesn’t have to be a live event with a live character. But fair enough it still came out and no one was any wiser to the problems and they still enjoyed it which I’m very proud of.
RP: What kinds of reaction have you had from the audience? I’m thinking in terms of the ease with which they could follow the story, whether there were too many or not enough tweets, whether they wanted more or fewer videos and so on.
KB: I think the level of tweets were about right. I tried to make it like any person would tweet. I tweet quite a lot myself but even then when I look at my tweeting behavior it would be a few in the morning and little bit in the afternoon and most of them in the evening. Karen had a fulltime job. She didn’t like the people in her workplace but she worked hard and probably wouldn’t have been constantly tweeting throughout the day. I just hoped that people would understand although she’s a character, she’s being played as live hence the lack of tweets during her working day.
I think I should have had at least one video per day as well as photos. There were a few days with no media just tweets, which I kind of became very aware of, but budget and hence time did not allow me to shoot more footage. Having said that, I never got anyone tweeting saying “this is boring” or “where’s the videos”. But 3 weeks was long enough as a story to develop the characters and get the audience feeling for them. Any longer than 3 or 4 weeks and I think this format would’ve suffered as people would definitely be asking what the hell’s happening?
I had to build up the tension as any movie would but in a slow burning way. I chose to do this in order for story/character development to take place and to quite frankly give us more time to build the audience. I’m not a marketing/PR guru and didn’t have over a year to plant posters and make fake websites and fake news reports building up interest for Karen. I had about 2 months at the most to get her that audience and even while the last week was happening she still had people following. So to have this style of story happen any quicker than 3 weeks would’ve not felt right for the audience members. In fact between Facebook and Twitter she ended up having just over 1000 people. Those were the people that stayed with her throughout the 3 weeks. That’s 1000 people who at some point engaged and watched the clips and some of the tweets. More audience than I’ve ever had as a writer. She had loads more follow but they dropped off, probably because they didn’t realise she was a character and wondered why her tweets were just a tad strange. I have to say just while we’re here that the comments I got and reactions I got to the story after it finished was fantastic. You can see some of them here.
RP: Do you have any feeling for the demographics of the people that followed the experience? I’m wondering if you found there were more men than women or more younger people than older?
KB: I really don’t know how to gauge the statistics of the audience at this stage other than to physically go through each Twitter follower and Facebook friend and make assumptions. I felt as though gender wise there was an even balance. I had females and males interacting and replying to her and loving the story. I thought that horror was a male genre so perhaps the transmedia attracted some of the female audience. Once again I’d be guessing but the Twitter followers seemed to be mid 20’s upwards. The Facebook friends, well many of them were word of mouth friends from my own friends and were a wide range of ages. They did not interact as much as twitter followers. But I knew some were reading the tweets at least because I’d get a few “likes” etc. The audience for Facebook as I explained is a different dynamic and that’s mainly because of Facebook’s tendency to siphon out news and information from your friends. Basically, you won’t see everything a friend posts on their wall because there’s a setting in Facebook that stops that from happening and not everyone knows how to turn it off. I knew that but I feel that each transmedia project should try and incorporate every platform in the hope it will reach an audience.
RP: Would you have liked to have built in more opportunities for audience participation?
KB: Yes. I actually thought of ways to make the interaction better but it would’ve taken so much more planning, time and money. I wanted to shoot alternative scenes with the actors and alternative endings. Then guide the audience into choosing what Karen and Darren should do via the tweets. Then based on the majority I would choose a scene. Like one of those “Pick a Path” books. I also thought about running another Twitter account from the perspective of Darren or even the Other Darren at the same time. My God, I don’t want to think how I would’ve made that happen, lol. Maybe someone else can have a go. J
RP: What advice would you give other writers about writing for Twitter?
KB: As I mentioned Twitter is a great writer’s medium – more so than any other social networking site just because we are always writing our tweets. And we tend to add a bit of flourish to the tweets so whether intentional or not we are being creative on Twitter. I wanted to incorporate the multimedia aspect by using the video and photo uploading features as well as ability to post links. I think if you can find something to write about on Twitter that will capture people’s imagination then people will follow – even if it’s just a blog or diary. Why not make a documentary-style blog using Twitter? “Diarize” what’s happening to your character and post videos as well. Can you imagine Borat being a Twitter character first of all? I can. These are some of the ways that Twitter can work creatively. If you want to market and promote a 60min story that is just one video and you’re bypassing distributers to get your audience, you can do that too. It does take a lot of promotional work but as I said to the BBC, there is an audience online waiting to be entertained so why not use it.
RP: What’s next for you?
As always I’m writing and trying to finish a sci-fi feature screenplay (with elements of horror of course) . That was put on hold for Karen Barley.
And I’ve just had my first ever piece of writing produced by someone else. It was a short for Virgin Media Shorts called Superheroes Anonymous. We’re hoping that it will make it through to the finals so that we can get funding and get CuckoO produced – a short I won an award for and we have a great team really passionate about getting it made. I’m also slugging away at promoting my writing and trying to sell my work. I’d love to repackage Karen Barley in a way that will appeal to distributers and producers so I may look into putting a kit together with the media on it and perhaps rewrite the script as a feature for a “found footage” type film. It’s all in my head these ideas and I’m just so glad and happy that Karen Barley and transmedia gave me my first opportunity to get one of these ideas out of my mind.
Posted in cross-media social media transmedia video