By Mark Harris, September 18th, 2010

So in parts 1 and 2, we started working with custom content types, and then moved on to building relationships between our various pieces of data. So now what are we going to do with it all?

Linking Content

Now, we have the makings of a kind of dictionary of our film. We have entries for characters, external blogs, storylines, short films, short stories, etc. One thing we can do is simply make our website the dictionary. This would simply involve writing a new theme, or altering an existing theme to take advantage of the structures we’ve created. The related plugin already provides an automatic “related” section at the bottom of each post, if you want it to. But it might be cool to have things in our content hyperlink to their entries in the dictionary. We could manually create hyperlinks in the body of each post. But that kind of pollutes our data. With what we want to do, we might not always desire HTML hyperlinks. So what about creating our own kind of tag system? This is pretty common. for instance, maybe create a tag that looks like this:


This way, whatever our display mechanism, we can have code that turns this into the proper kind of link for the system. Our data might be displayed in many different ways: iPhone and iPad native views, Android native views, HTML views in either platform, HTML views on websites, etc. So if we’re going to do this, it’s in our interest to keep the data as clean as possible. WordPress already adds certain mark-up to your posts if you use the WYSIWYG editor. But we’ll live with those for now. And in fact, maybe that alone will determine the format of our link structure. We certainly do not want to write another rich-text WYSIWYG editor for WordPress.

I did my due diligence on this one and went plugin shopping again. I found several that do this, but none really to my satisfaction. So I will wind up writing something of my own. I’ve been considering one that combs your content based on the posts related and automatically makes links. But I’m not sure yet if we’re going to want this to be automated or manual.  So we’ll table this for a bit.

Delivering Content

This is where my post on using JSON to serve content from your WordPress install comes in. JSON is a data format. It’s similar to XML in that it’s pretty easy for people to read and it’s structured so that machines can very easily read it. To the naked eye, it looks like this:

"status":"publish","title":"Hector and Celia","title_plain":"Hector and Celia",
"content":"<p>This is the story of two Puerto Rican kids from Washington Heights who are
abducted by the Shadowmen&#8230;<\/p>",
"excerpt":"This is the story of two Puerto Rican kids from Washington Heights
who are abducted by the Shadowmen&#8230;",
"date":"2010-09-03 10:08:07","modified":"2010-09-08 22:52:09",

Now, that looks like a lot of goblygook, but you can see that there is some form to it. So using this, we are able to create feeds that our various devices and platforms can consume. For instance, I’ve written an Android framework which consumes this format, and stores it in the local Android database for use in apps on the device. Say, once a day, or when the user starts up the app, I have a service which call our feeds, gets new content, and stores it on the phone. Then the app can determine what to do with it.

This is nothing new. Most mobile content providers use some kind of feed to get their data to phones. NY Times, Huffington Post, etc. no doubt do something similar with either XML or JSON, or some custom format of their own. But again, one major hurtle I see is managing your data in a Transmedia experience. So using an existing tool like WordPress saves you a ton of headache in writing your own.

But as I also said before, I see an opportunity here to do more than deliver blog posts, an opportunity to use this for storytelling.

Add custom fields called “latitude” and “longitude” to a post and that gives your device the information it needs to present something on a Google map, or in Augmented Reality. Like if you had a documentary about something in New York City, you could use these location-based posts to create an Augmented Reality walking tour of actual locations used in the doc.

Add a custom field with a random date and time stored, and this gives us the ability to make our app look randomly “hacked” or “highjacked” by some bad guy in the storyworld.

Adding other custom fields gives you the ability to add metadata to your posts. Not the most elegant solution, but the possibility is there. I am going to try to talk about Metadata in another post on this topic.


It’ s no secret that plugins can make WordPress slow. The more stuff the application has to do, the slower it will be, and the more traffic you get on your site or feeds, the more load on your server and database, the slower these will be. This leads to problems and can take your site and feeds down. We’re going to combat this with a couple of levels of what’s called caching. In case you’re not familiar, this just means you store a static version of your content on a server so that web browsers hit that instead of your actual server. It makes your site load faster for users, and it saves your butt. There’s almost no successful site that can live without some kind of caching. Interactive things like Facebook are an exception, but I suspect even they do some form of caching along the line. Even a cache that expires every minute can save you thousands of hits on your site if your traffic is high.

Caching Level 1: We are going to employ a CDN (Content Delivery Network), like those offered by Amazon cloud, or Rackspace cloud to store static versions of our JSON. So WordPress will generate the JSON, it will be stored on the CDN, then the mobile apps can grab that static version. For the most part, our WorkPress install is a place to manage data, not to serve data.

Caching Level 2: As I mentioned before, the Android framework I wrote stores our posts, characters, storylines, etc. on each device. Android and iPhones have a small database built in. This means, when the user is interacting with our storyworld, they can be grabbing our data right off their phone, so there is no network lag time. It also means the user can interact with at least some of the content “offline,” where they don’t have a network connection. The feeds to update new storylines, characters, posts, etc. will be called by services behind the scenes.

So, apps on phones will be hitting the server for new data, in our case, maybe several times a day. And they will be getting a cached version of the data from the CDN. So we should be pretty safe to scale this up to as many users as we want. It will get trickier with something like a real time game, but for what we’re starting with, this will serve us nicely.



Mobile apps are fine today, but what about tomorrow?

Zak Forsman wrote a popular post some time back about putting together a VOD portal on your own with a few simple tools (WordPress being one of them). This is really a great thing for Indies. But what if we looked forward a bit. What if it’s true that Google TV and (probably) Apple TV will run apps? They are based on the same OSs as the mobile platforms. Now, what if you had an app that lived on a customer’s Google TV, fed by your WordPress install, and granting access to your storyworld right there on their TV? Same principles as the mobile apps use. You can grant access to this app on a subscription basis, say.

Others have tried packaging films up in apps, by just sticking their films into the apps. I find this to be…well, not a good plan. It’s a static thing, and once you watch the movie, it’s just a lump of uselessness sitting on your phone, taking up space.

I’m talking about the app for your film as a portal to the world of the film. Perhaps the Google TV app will allow the user to purchase the entire film, whereas a mobile app will only have access to shorter content. But the point is that that content can be updated on the fly through your WordPress install. It becomes an ever-changing, living thing, with your film being only one aspect to it.

Of course, if they are sitting on the couch, watching their Google TVs, why not just go to a website version of your world? Sure. Maybe. We don’t yet know how integrated browsers will be in these platforms. So far, these companies seem pretty set on pushing us away from the web browser as a primary means of interfacing with the Internet. In addition to that, making this an app allows you to much more specifically design the interface for the device. Make it more conducive to using with a remote, say. And of course, since you will be sitting several feet away on the couch, the interface elements will have to be larger, so you can see them. Seems to me this would be another benefit of the app version over website version.


Remember last post when I was talking about the “dictionary” idea. Seems like great minds think alike, huh? Stephen Fry’s new app.

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Posted in Storytelling The Lost Children tools and services transmedia

Mark Harris is a filmmaker and technologist in New York City. In addition to producing several shorts Mark is currently working on his first feature film, THE LOST CHILDREN. Mark also runs Gowanus Software, a technology consulting firm in Brooklyn, NY focusing on enterprise and mobile solutions.

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By Mark Harris, September 12th, 2010

Sorry it’s been a couple of weeks, but editing, client work, and wedding plans have eaten up my life. This is part two of a small series I’m doing on how we’re experimenting with Wordpress as a platform for managing our whole storyworld. In part 1, I talked about data types, or custom post types, as well as the UI for creating those. I went on to discuss some of the fields each post type would have assigned to it, and how they would help the functionality of those fields.

As I said in part 1, this is not a tutorial so much as us sharing our process in real time. So here I’m going to show you a mistake.

Building the Relationships in our Data

We’re going to start here with Data Relationships. There are any number of ways to do this, but in keeping with our goals of leveraging as much existing code as possible, we searched for WordPress plugins we might use. And we came up with Related by Matthias Siegel. This plugin allows you to manually relate posts to the current post you are editing.

Plugins Menu
Plugins Menu With Plugins Highlighted

When I got Matthias’ plugin, it only had the ability to relate posts to other posts. Obviously, since we are creating all kinds of other content types, this wouldn’t be enough. So I altered the plugin to give it the ability to relate a post of any content type to a post of any other content type. The whole point of this is that if we now have  a content type called “Short Story,” and another called “Short Film,” and both of those have the same character, we can now create a “Character” content type, and relate it to both the short story and the short film. This way, we can later query our data and report by character, say, and see all of the Transmedia elements a character shows up in.

So now, with my altered version of Matthias’ plugin installed, every post you edit of every content type  has this new section:

Related Plugin
Related Plugin on Post Edit Page

That’s kind of cool. Nice. Simple. Explicit relationships.


Okay, so once I got Matthias’ related plugin installed and altered, I made some relationships and was happy. Then I realized something bad. This plugin does not make bi-directional relationships. Meaning, when you relate a post on one edit screen, if you go to the related post’s edit screen, the first post is not related there! Wha??????? But nope, I took a peek under the hood and that is in fact how the data model is set up. Bummer. This renders this plugin useless for my needs. I was just about to set out altering it further, when I discovered another related posts plugin. This one was by someone named “Microkid.”

Microkid Related Plugin
Microkid Related Plugin

Not only does Microkid’s plugin include bi-directional relationships, but it also handles custom post types out of the box, and has a more attractive interface to boot. When you install it, each post edit page adds this:

Microkid Related Posts
Microkid Related Posts

As you can see, the interface is very nice. It breaks up the custom content types and shows you how many of each is related to this post you’re working on now. There is a fancy little AJAX search box that allows you to look up posts by name, so it keeps things clean and organized. Nice little plugin. And once again, saves us the work of having to write it ourselves. And the lesson here is that I should have looked a little harder before I focused on the first one.

One thing to note about this plugin is that it has an options panel. And when you add new custom post types, you have to go to that panel and tell it you want to include them in the relatable types.

Microkid options
Microkid options

This options page also gives you the option of showing related posts automatically on your blog, or turning that off and placing them where you want with a widget. Since we’re not really using this for its intended purpose anyway, we turned it off.

Now that we have relationships among our data, what do we do with them? Good question. Well here’s one example besides THE LOST CHILDREN, where this might come in handy.

Neal Stephenson’s new venture is called “The Mongoliad.” This is a “digital novel.” You sign up for a subscription and get new installments every week. But it will also include other media, as well as user submitted content. They have a wikipedia type thing where users can go contribute to the world. And they say if you write something great, it might even make it into Canon. I like this idea, It’s inherently Transmedia. I think it actually has a decent business model about it too.

I don’t know what their back-end is, but it looks like something common. The “‘pedia” has “tags” just like Wordpress, or typepad, etc. But the system I am developing here would pretty perfectly serve their needs. If you go to the “stories” section, you will see they have things called “Content” and “Illustration.” Those are content types. Relationships can be made and so you can sort of generate your own “wikipedia,” or world dictionary, automatically.

And I like this idea. Whether you’re in a world created by SABI, or one created for Hotwheels, I like the idea of spending hours thumbing through a world’s dictionary, then dipping into a story linked off of a certain character bio, sinking into that story for a while, then coming back up to the “dictionary,” thumbing through some more. Or getting into one story, then finding a link to another interesting character and following that. Like, imagine going through the “Fringe” world, then deciding to go off and watch or read some stories about Walter’s past at Harvard. I kind of dig this. And again…is there a business model there? Just selling subscriptions to the world of the story? Low cost. Levels of access and access from anywhere, because you were smart enough to document your world with an online tool like Wordpress? Again, as indie folks looking for the edge, I think this stuff is worth really thinking about.

Though, as the Romans would say: “nihil sub sole novum.” In Andrea’s post on interactivity, I remembered a “novel” from the 80s, written like a dictionary. And beautiful, moving, and subtle.

What I also like about this “dictionary” road, is that it doesn’t have to reduce the quality of any one piece. If a video game is not right for your world, then for God’s sake, don’t make a video game. But I see nothing wrong with cross-linking between, say HEART OF NOW, and a short film about some other part of Amber’s life made by another SABI director. And I think that can be done without violating the integrity of that world.

Continued in Part 3.

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Posted in Storytelling The Lost Children tools and services transmedia

Mark Harris is a filmmaker and technologist in New York City. In addition to producing several shorts Mark is currently working on his first feature film, THE LOST CHILDREN. Mark also runs Gowanus Software, a technology consulting firm in Brooklyn, NY focusing on enterprise and mobile solutions.

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By Zeke Zelker, September 10th, 2010

It’s been awhile! As politicians are heavily campaigning, attempting to add constituents money to their political coffers in return for “favors” or “supporting” their political agenda, there are many lessons to be learned on the fund raising front. Some of which I have done in the past and will be doing in the future.

I could cover a wall with the political meal invites I have received this season from my politician friends. Throw a party, EVERYONE loves a party especially if there’s a good reason. Over the years I have held cocktails parties, sit down dinners and “get canned with Zeke” (parties specializing in amazing canned beers) blowouts to raise funds for various film projects. Some have been successful, others not. The lessons learned: invited cast or a special guest, people need a reason to fork over their money and to get them excited. Know who you should be inviting. Aunt Lulu may not drink canned beer, she’s a draught sort of gal so invited her to the cocktail party featuring vodka X. Get brands or restaurants involved. People can identify with these things and they bring more excitement to the event. Don’t be afraid to ask just make sure there is some sort of return for them on their investment aka booze donation. Send out invitations, via mail, email, facebook events. The way you invite people should be a reflection of the type of event it is. I have raised as little as $380 to over $7,000.

There a couple of crowd funding sites out there where people can donate at various levels in return for perks. I really like indiegogo. They have an amazing tool kit and innovative ways to help artists achieve fund raising success. They’re also approachable and hands on. I plan on using them on my next project which I will be announcing very shortly. A friend of mine is currently using kickstarter for his innovative project the 8mm Film Project. My biggest suggestion; when it comes to crowd funding, give away perks that are unique and worthwhile and have a project that resonates with people. My wife and I were shocked when someone we did not know from California donated $500 to her Hand-Some Journey campaign.

Do not be afraid to ask for money outright. Send out a donation pamphlet describing your project and the different levels that people can support you. Remember fund raising is a campaign it’s an uphill battle and you need as many tool in your arsenal as possible. Be a little bold. If you believe in your project, you are the best salesperson to pitch your project and raise money for it. I have had politicians personally ask me for my financial support and I didn’t get much in return. Go to public events where you might run into people that you sent information to, follow up with them, ASK them.

Often times politicians will call on certain supporters to help them raise money by holding sales: bake sales, hunting trips, car washes, etc. Be different. Hold a Ballyhoo for a Kazoo sale! Sell kazoos outside your local supermarket. Kids will love ‘em and it will drive the shoppers crazy, thirty kids playing their kazoos in the store, imagine the sight. Really there are so many ways to sell things to raise funding.

Every town or city have different resources that could be used to tap into your fund raising efforts. Grants, scholarships, access to public equipment, etc. Make a list of things you will need in your budget and try to obtain the use of the item through your local community. Let’s say you need passenger vans, ask your local YMCA. You need a condor for a shot, ask your township maintenance department. It never hurts to ask and be creative in your ask, always give something in return.

I’m certain there are so many ways that politicians are raising money that we all can learn from. Over the next couple of months I will be writing about how I’m raising money for my next project. I know it isn’t going to be easy but I will share my insights and lessons as they are happening.

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Zeke Zelker – an award winning filmmaker, blends art and commerce in all that he does. His latest film InSearchOf is not only creating buzz about the content of the story line but also for his business techniques. Always creating new revenue streams by blending traditional distribution outlets, adapting others to suit his film’s needs, and pioneering some of his own Zeke has been forging a pathway to profitability. He is currently developing on a transmedia project that will begin unraveling 2010.

By Mark Harris, August 31st, 2010

This is going to be basically a four part series on how we are going to try using WordPress to manage the storyworld of our project THE LOST CHILDREN. I’m hoping to deliver these parts about once a week. Might be a little off, since things with the film are very busy, but in general I am trying to document what we’re actually doing for the film as we go. I wrote a previous post about how to use WordPress to feed data to your mobile apps. In a sense, this is a follow-up to that post. Or more accurately, it is a prelude to that post. In part 3 of this series, I will loop back around to that JSON post and show you how it ties in with these.

Organizing Our Data

The first thing I need to say is I am no expert on Transmedia or ARGs or anything like that. There are many other people who are. So this post is not meant as me preaching The Truth down from on high. This post is meant as an exploration of what I am working on now, in the hopes that it sparks some others’ imaginations. In the interest of us all learning, I’m simply sharing the process we’re going through right now.

The second thing I need to say is that this is not a tutorial, and not something that just anyone can do. I’m actually writing some software for this, and the things I’m talking about here will require more custom software to deliver to users. Eventually, if this works, I will likely write a set of WP plugins to simplify this process and make it something anyone can use. But for now, I believe that ideas are what count, and I think many people will be able to understand the ideas here and maybe contribute some of their own.

Bad Diagram of Data RelationshipsHalf-assed Diagram of Data Relationships

This is sort of an experiment in stretching WordPress beyond it’s original purpose. The goal here is to see if we can use WordPress as a place to maintain our entire storyworld, and then feed that storyworld out to our various platforms; Tweets, Text Messages, Phone Calls, Location-based content, blogs, etc. The benefit here is that all of our data is in one place, it can be queried, analyzed, related, tagged with metadata, etc. Another benefit is that we are using a good deal of free tools.

What we want to end up with here, is a matrix of our related data, so we can easily know which characters are involved in a which storylines, campaigns, etc., or all of the platforms a certain character is involved in, etc.

There are some various groups out there writing Transmedia software systems right now, with the idea of licensing the technology. I’m sure these systems are far, far superior to what I’m doing. But another goal here is to encourage the lowest of low budget storytellers to think about these things, and know that you too can do them to some degree. Don’t be daunted by your lack of budget. Yes, I have software skills that save me money on a number of these things, but I am also using a lot of free software. Essentially, if you don’t count my time, and say hosting costs and the cost of asset creation, I am spending $0 on this.

WordPress 3.0

Many of you know WordPress as blog software. In recent times, it has grown in popularity to be more like CMS software. In reality, there is no difference between the two, it’s all just organizing data. But WP has added more and more features that can make it useful for far more than just your blog.

In 3.0 WP introduced a couple of very important concepts. The first concept is the Custom Post Type. This means in addition to “Posts” and “Pages” you can now create “Books,” “Songs,” “Dogs.” “Cats,” whatever you want.

The second concept is that of Custom Taxonomies. A taxonomy is just a big word for categorization(which I guess is a bigger word), it’s just a way to group stuff. WordPress comes out of the box with “Categories.” Now you can create a taxonomy called: “Buzzwords,” and then tag your content with Buzzword->Transmedia. That means you can now query your content and look for all of the content that tagged with the “Buzzword,” “Transmedia.” Make sense?

What We’re Using

-WordPress 3.0. This is the newest version of the software and you probably should be on this anyway.

-2 Plugins. So far, I have been doing what I’m doing with available plugins. Sort of. In a couple of cases, I made changes to those plugins for what I needed. But generally, I submit those changes back to the creators and they generally include the changes in their next release.
–The first plugin is Custom Post Type UI by WebDevStudios – allows you to have an admin interface for managing custom post types, then puts those in your admin menu on the left hand side of the Dashboard.
–The next one is Related by Matthias Siegel – allows you to manually relate posts to the current post you are editing. I altered it to call up all post types. Have not submitted this back to creator yet, but will do so probably this week.

Plugins Menu

Plugins Menu

I also make liberal use of what WordPress already comes with: The ability to add custom fields to a post, the ability to add media to a post, like images. This is all built in, saving us untold numbers of hours writing it ourselves.

Data is just Data

So what do we mean by data? A character is data in your storyworld. Their backstory, upbringing, photos, relationships, etc. Locations are data. A storyline is data. All of your content is data. The thing you have to understand is data is just data. A “post” post type is the same thing as a “page” post type as the same thing as a “character” post type, as a “text message” post type. These are all just buckets with different names.

So here is the content breakdown I’m working with for THE LOST CHILDREN:

Post Types available with WordPress install:

-Post – Main Site
-Page – Main Site

These are the types that come with every WordPress install. So I am allowing these to populate the main site: Simple enough. Along with the built in Categories, this allows me to serve up content just like any other WordPress site.

Custom Content Types:

So once we’ve installed the Custom Post Type UI plugin, the left hand nav of the admin screen will have a new option for managing Custom Post Types. It’s at the very bottom. When you click add, you come to a screen for creating Custom Post Types.

Create Storylines Custom Post TypeCreate Storylines Custom Post Type

As you can see on this screen, we are able to determine which standard post fields are available to this new post type. I usually just add them all. You never know when you might need something. You can also choose to mark a custom post type as “hierarchical.” This means that these post types can have parent post types and child post types. This too might come in very handy. So I mark it as true.

Bottom Half of Create Post TypeBottom Half of Create Post Type

Here are the Custom Post Types we’re starting with for THE LOST CHILDREN, along with some of the custom fields that affect their functionality.


    BUILT IN FIELD: Title ( for the character’s name )

    Shadowman – We have a character in THE LOST CHILDREN called a Shadowman. No one knows how many of these there are and they can pop up at almost any time. Our first ARG will be based on these guys. The idea will be that they can be scattered around a city, and you go find them, and figure out what they really are. So I wanted to create a type that represents a character that may not really have a name or an identity of his own, but be available when we need him any number of times.
    CUSTOM FIELD: Latitude
    CUSTOM FIELD: Longitude – These fields make it possible for us to place this character on a map for location-based stuff.

    Short Film – We’re assuming in our case, that any short films will be online, so we will give them a URL.
    CUSTOM FIELD: StartDate

    Text Message
    BUILT IN FIELD: Title ( maybe for the subject field? )

    Phone Call (A phone call you receive in an ARG, say)
    CUSTOM FIELD: URL – Perhaps to the audio file?
    CUSTOM FIELD: Phone Number

    External Blog – In THE LOST CHILDREN, some characters keep outside blogs on the web
    BUILT IN FIELD: Title ( for the title of the external blog )
    CUSTOM FIELD: External URL

    Talisman – in our ARG, you can find certain talismans which help you discover, fight off, subdue and interrogate the Shadowmen for information
    CUSTOM FIELD: Latitude
    CUSTOM FIELD: Longitude – Make it possible to place this object on a map for location-based stuff.

    Storylines In Left Admin NavLeft Admin Nav

    So once you have created these custom post types, you’ll start to see them show up in the left hand admin nav. You can see the highlighted “Storylines” type in the image over there.

    So, I’m still not sure if we are actually going with the idea of a “Storyline,” but it demonstrates a couple of things you can do with WordPress. Another word for this might be a “Campaign?” But I think the central idea is that it is a piece of content designed to last over a certain period of time. So I go to add new.

    The Hector & Celia ARG

    So here I create a storyline called “Hector & Celia.” The ARG we’re creating is about a young man and his sister, who are abducted by the Shadowmen. In the ARG, you will receive messages from Hector, you will chase down Shadowmen at actual physical locations, snap photos of them( through Augmented Reality ), gather talimans to fight them, interrogate them for info, and hopefully find Hector & Celia before it’s too late.

    So this entry simply defines that particular storyline.

    Create or Edit a Storyline

    As I said above, a storyline will have a start date and an end date. WordPress posts already come with a publish date, meaning, you can set something to go live at a certain future date. But there is no concept of an end date. And if we’re doing a “storyline” or a “campaign” we want that. So I am using the Custom Fields capability available to every WordPress post type:

    Custom Fields for Dates

    Okay there’ s a lot of information here. So I think I will cut off part 1 at this point. In part 2, I will pick up with creating other content types and relating them all to one another. In part 3, I will show how we are going to actually send this data out into our Transmedia elements. And I think in part 4, I will start to look at metrics and gathering user responses.

    As I said at the top, this is an ongoing work in progress, what I am trying right now for my film’s launch in 2011. So I welcome any and all dialog.

    Continued in Part 2.

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    Posted in Storytelling The Lost Children transmedia

    Mark Harris is a filmmaker and technologist in New York City. In addition to producing several shorts Mark is currently working on his first feature film, THE LOST CHILDREN. Mark also runs Gowanus Software, a technology consulting firm in Brooklyn, NY focusing on enterprise and mobile solutions.

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    By Mark Harris, August 25th, 2010

    THE LOST CHILDREN is a fiction film, but being shot as if a documentary. This isn’t anything new these days. From the beautiful work of Guest and Co, to the inescapable Blair Witch, to the TV show The Office, this has become a pretty accepted dramatic format. So I wasn’t under any delusions of breaking new ground.

    I wanted to write up an article detailing the reasons I did make this decision, in the hopes of clarifying, both for myself and others, some of the things I’m after with this project. I also wanted to provide this because I see a lot of people choosing the same format, without really thinking through why. I think it deserves some thought.

    Economics of Independent Film in 2009

    When we started this project, our intention was to make a $100K indie feature, shot on RED, and (hopefully) distributed through the usual means. We had the script ready for this production and had gone into pre-production. We had shoot dates set, the cast ready, and we were all set to roll.

    But at the same time, everyone started talking about how distribution was changing, failing, crumbling, etc. And this stuff was coming from so many places, I started to get worried. I had not really thought about distribution up to that point, assuming we would worry about it when the film was done. But hearing all of this hue and cry, I decided I needed to do some research. I put the production on hold and did that. And the conclusion I came to was that we could probably make a good $100K RED film, but it was entirely likely that this film would be lost in the massive ocean of similar films pouring out of every nook and cranny. It’s not hard to have production value anymore. And the lower the point of entry gets, the higher the baseline gets.

    Now, I do believe our story is good and unique and multi-dimensional, but I didn’t have faith that that would be enough. We had no name actors. I was a first time feature director. When I looked at it practically, I just thought there were going to be too many things to overcome. With $100K in borrowed money, I didn’t like the odds. I know that’s nothing in movie terms, but…it’s kind of a lot of money to me, when I wasn’t certain I could pay it back.

    So I put the old brainbox in gear and started to really think about what my goals were with this film.

    1. Get through my first feature alive. I actually think this is a laudable goal; to actually finish a feature film that’s coherent, watchable, and compelling. Many first time features don’t even accomplish two of these.
    2. Challenge myself as a filmmaker. Paint myself into some corners and fight to get out of them.
    3. Focus on characters over visuals.

    4. Make the film for an amount low enough that I can afford to experiment with distribution strategies. I feel like this is critical for filmmakers right now. If I try one thing and it doesn’t work, I need to be able to try some others without the pressing need to make the money back. In fact, it’s much more important to me right now to learn what works and what doesn’t than to actually make the money back on this film. As it stands now, I don’t owe anyone anything for this film. It’s paid for.

    “Filmmaking” and Storytelling

    I made a short in 2009, called EVIE. With EVIE, I was still working very much on my “filmmaking” techniques; telling a story visually, manipulating elements to exact certain emotions from the audience. But as I finished the film and screened it at the Downtown Independent in July of that year, I realized I was getting bored with filmmaking. It seemed like everyone was doing it now, and so much of it was just starting to look the same, and there was a part of me that simply didn’t like the act of manipulating those elements to pull up emotions. I think it’s the part of me that needs to examine and think about everything. It’s hard for me to shut up and enjoy a summer popcorn movie if that movie is just stupid, lacking in logic of events or character. I’m just not willing to turn off the part of my brain that wants things to make sense.

    Throughout 2009, I had started to really take an interest in things like mobile, transmedia, alternate entertainment forms. As I looked about more and more, it kept nagging at me that so many independent filmmakers were busy investigating 21st century distribution models, when they should be looking at 21st century entertainment forms. And increasingly, these forms are becoming multi-media. They can use filmed elements, text elements, interactive elements. For instance, while many struggle to get their films on mobile platforms, I find this largely a waste of time. I think we should be figuring out how to make content for mobile platforms.

    All of this led me to decide that I was going to tell the story of THE LOST CHILDREN, as a more multi-media effort. This would be how we would try to differentiate ourselves in the ocean of pretty-good films. There is a LOST CHILDREN film, to be sure. It is told in the form of a documentary, but it follows a pretty standard 3 ACT structure.

    But we’re also working on other ways of extending the storyworld out beyond the movie. There are going to be websites that tell certain aspects of the story. For instance, we removed one whole subplot from the film onto a website. This means the story plays out through the website, through comments on blog posts, through webcam videos, etc.  Likewise, on our mobile platforms, the goal will not just be to put the movie on a phone, but to tell parts of the story through the phone; text messages, phone calls, location-based content, etc. Things only a phone can use to tell a story.

    I came to view what I was doing with THE LOST CHILDREN, more as storytelling, than just filmmaking.

    Filmmaking Exercise

    There’s always been much debate on DVXUser( A filmmaker’s site I frequent ) about how much your gear does or does not matter. For my own viewing, gear matters almost not at all. I would much rather see a good story, well told and acted shot on crappy cameras, than the slickest thing on Earth lacking those same elements.

    I’ve also always been fascinated by documentaries, and their ability to weave stories out of random and found materials. For instance, Ken Burns is able to tell a compelling story about the Civil War with little more than 150 yr old photos, voice-over, and music. I got to thinking about this a lot. See, with my own short films, I had been working toward ever slicker visual styles, trying to learn how to use the camera to build a certain emotion in the viewer, how to manufacture a specific moment for a specific impact. And I like all of this stuff. But I also started to get really interested in this question: What if I were limited to the material I had? How would I tell a compelling story then? Well, the story itself would have to be mighty compelling, wouldn’t it? The story of the Civil War or the Brooklyn Bridge are pretty friggin’ compelling.

    At this point, I went back through THE LOST CHILDREN script, pretty much scene by scene. I was still confident that we were telling a pretty unique story, that we were telling it well. And as I read and re-read it, my confidence grew. And I thought, what if we tell this with only limited materials? It’s kind of the ultimate filmmaking exercise, I think. I’m not sure if they teach this in any film schools, but if I were teaching a filmmaking class, I would probably start by giving them a box of random old photos, and telling them to make a story out of those.

    I’m also reminded of the comment Jack White made in It Might Get Loud. He says he likes old broken guitars. He likes making the process hard, forcing himself to fight the instrument, and wrestle a sound out of it. He thinks that pushes him forward as an artist. This idea just shot through me like a lightning bolt. And I realized I had been applying the same to THE LOST CHILDREN. What if I not only shot it like a documentary, with shaky cams and all the rest, but also actually shot some of the footage badly? Meaning, what if I had to go through some crazy post processes just to extract the image from the footage, as you might have to with found footage? What if I made it hard on myself?

    Maybe it’s because movies are so hard to make anyway that people don’t think this way. Or maybe it’s because people are so focused on career and the business side these days, that they are too afraid to do anything but what’s accepted.

    I joked with my girlfriend, an artist herself, that I had a confession to make: “I think I’m a video artist!” Which is funny because I am typically so critical of video art because so much of it lacks both discipline and basic mastery of the tools.

    I became obsessed with this idea and spent the next several months re-working the script. Same story. I simply looked at how to tell the story in a different way. And I decided to be very strict about it. Meaning, if there was no valid reason to have a camera in the scene, then I would have to figure out some other way to tell that scene. Maybe it’s a voice recording. Maybe it’s a person re-telling it accompanied by photos. But if there was no real reason for a camera to be there, then that scene did not get shot.


    There’s another thing I like about documentaries, which is their purpose: to make you think about a subject and/or potentially do something about it. This is not the primary purpose of a fiction film. Certainly, some fiction films have causes and purposes associated with them, and the filmmakers are using the film as a way to raise awareness about those, but the primary purpose of the fiction film is to suck you into that world and take you on a ride. To make you forget what’s going on outside of that world for that hour and a half ( or increasingly, 3 hrs ). I started to realize that I love the purpose of documentaries. This is just kind of how I’m wired. I love reading, I love knowing how things work. I love history. I love thinking about things. But there was always something in the back of my mind nagging me and telling me that this was the road to a boring-ass film.

    Then I saw my friend Vern’s latest play: “Lenin’s Embalmers.” In Lenin’s Embalmers, the characters regularly step out of the action and speak to the audience. After the play, over beers, I asked Vern why he had made this choice, and he said he was working with a “Brechtian kind of thing.” And that’s when it hit me. This is why I’m doing this.

    I started in theater, so of course I was well aware of Brecht and his theories of theater. He often employed conventions which would intentionally remind the viewer that they were watching an artificial thing. And he did this for the very same reasons I like documentaries; so that the audience wouldn’t get so caught up in the emotion that they forgot to think about what they were seeing on stage. He intended the audience to maintain some measure of distance. Again, this is typically not the purpose of a fiction film.

    Holy moly, what if this movie sucks???

    I don’t know if documentary makers go through this, though I suspect they do, but the problem with shooting the way we did, is that you have about a million hours of footage. And you have to make that into something worth watching. In the past, I was a storyboard Nazi. I had the entire movie drawn out as a comic book ahead of time, so shooting it was largely a technical exercise; make sure you get the performances and the shots, and it’s going to be really hard to screw it up.

    I’ve been editing THE LOST CHILDREN since about June 2010. And I’ve been one nervous mofo this whole summer. I’d dread looking at the edit for fear that it was as bad as I feared. But invariably, every time I did go back to it, I was drawn in, and it wasn’t so bad after all. When people asked how it was going, I would respond with: “I don’t think it will suck too badly.” Then I couldn’t take it anymore. I had to have some manner of validation. I sent an extremely rough draft of ACT I to a friend I could trust to be honest, and I had one question for him: “Should I just jump off a bridge right now?” His answer was without a doubt “No.” He felt like I had something there. Whew! But honestly, I didn’t completely believe him until this past week. I took off from all client work and secluded myself in my office to edit full time. I tightened up the first act and just about all of the second, and even moved into the third. And for the first time since we started shooting, I am honest to God excited to show this film.

    Our goal right now is to have the project ready for the world by Jan 2011. That includes Transmedia content, mobile apps, and the completely finished film.

    I’d say after that I am taking a vacation, but I know that’s just the beginning…

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    Posted in Storytelling transmedia

    Mark Harris is a filmmaker and technologist in New York City. In addition to producing several shorts Mark is currently working on his first feature film, THE LOST CHILDREN. Mark also runs Gowanus Software, a technology consulting firm in Brooklyn, NY focusing on enterprise and mobile solutions.

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