By Saskia Wilson-Brown, October 20th, 2010

We live in a world with immediate access to any content we want, whenever we want it–and a lot of it. With cheap production tools and omnipresent distribution outlets, anyone with a laptop can make films, and a lot of people seem to want to.

Hot on the heels of this expansion in our content supply comes the debate surrounding how best to sort our creative surfeit. It goes without saying that independent filmmakers are going to continue to increase in numbers. Movies are going to continue to compete for audiences on yet more distribution platforms. We – as an industry – thus need to develop good systems to help promote their discovery, and much of the discussion around these systems has centered on DIY distribution and marketing strategies. But there is a fundamental part of the puzzle that is missing, put to evidence by the fact that most filmmakers are having difficulties – still – finding their audience.

Curation has become fundamental to the issue of audience building. Indeed, it can serve a crucial role in corralling attention spans in what Lance Weiler dubs the “digital attention economy”. To that end, a new crop of curators have come to the fore in an attempt to create new access points for filmmakers. But how are their efforts helping to further promote, support and sustain independent filmmakers, if at all?

NEW CURATORS

Among the most prominent contemporary curators is Gavin McInnes, co-founder of Vice and, more recently, streetbonersandtvcarnage.com. A maverick curator/producer hybrid, he is devoted to a simple and intuitive premise: “I basically do exactly what I’ve always been doing: making jokes and picking fights [and showing] stuff I like.”

McInnes amassed a following largely through word-of-mouth while building the Vice platform, and – aware of the value of consistency – he remains loyal to the stylistic idiosyncracies that first informed his success. He also, however, recognizes the audience as his core obligation by placing priority on how his content decisions are affecting them. Alternately stated: “I think it’s important to do shit other people haven’t already done to death. I’ve been accused of being conservative in the past but it’s only because ‘Bush is stupid’ and ’Obama rules’ is flogging a dead horse. Give people something new to think about. As far as I’m concerned, [this] is about social commentary and stimulating some kind of discussion.”

The value he places on his audience perhaps forces McInnes to engage in the dictionary definition of gate-keeping. He has to make choices, and he excludes. Influenced by his online-only practice, where he differs perhaps from the gatekeepers of yesteryear is in his encouragement of immediate conversation, through comments functionality, mostly: “Whenever I see sites without the option for comments I think, ‘You are old and you don’t really use the Internet very much,’ [...] It doesn’t engage people. It’s all about participation.“

With similar intentions to McInness, Jonathan Wells, founder of ResFest and co-founder of Flux (along with his partner Meg Wells) explains his practice as one dedicated to uncovering fresh voices: “I love discovering new talent and really enjoy sharing their work with an audience. [At RESFEST] we sought to expose international work that hadn’t been seen in the US as well as amazing independent work that wasn’t being screened in festivals or on television.”

Wells is very aware of the role his personal preferences play in his selection process, but he also nods to adapting his practice to the needs of diverse audiences:  “Filmmakers who use unusual techniques and compelling storytelling to further their story in a novel way is what I’m always looking for. That said our outlets have different programming needs.”

It is no different at larger institutions such as Sundance. Todd Luoto, a shorts programmer for the festival, defines his group’s curatorial methods as “[to] collect the most interesting, moving, touching, funny, innovative and fresh content out there [...to] show diverse stories and sensibilities. We want to challenge an audience as much as we want to make them laugh or be moved.”

This focus on innovation is tempered by Luoto’s awareness of the inherent relativity of curatorial prerequisites, and again, the needs of the audience: “The criteria can change, and has – in my experience – with regional festivals. Sometimes there are issues that resonate a bit more with a certain crowd or culture.”

Mike Plante, programmer for CineVegas and Sundance (and a consulting programmer for a number of smaller organizations such as Los Angeles’ Cinefamily), yet again confirms the need to balance discovery with audience awareness.

“A good programmer […] goes out and finds those great films that did not send their DVD in. Even for Sundance, there is a lot of outreach to the underground. [...] It’s different for each fest, as to what could show [but] the one thing the film has to do is ‘work.’”

Several areas, then, enjoy mutual accord: The desire to push the envelope, to discover new content, to address the needs of diverse audiences, and to show what is ‘good’. In one sense, this can be heartening for filmmakers – clearly there is a hunger for new films and a number of intelligent well-versed curators to champion them. But this paradigm also relies on one individual’s conception of what makes a ‘good’ film- a truly impossible concept to categorically define. Thus, this enthusiasm for new content can quickly start to feel hollow if no one wants to curate your film into a program.

Does the discriminative aspect of curation, then, create insurmountable problems for filmmakers? Is there something nonetheless to be gained?

THE CURATOR’S DILEMMA

General consensus in the DIY movement holds that exclusion is not to be tolerated -and contemporary curators are well aware of this issue. Luoto, for instance, is the first to admit that “[Curating] movies is a subjective art”.

Compounding the issue is the scarcity of openings in curatorial programs, as Brent Hoff, editor and co-founder of Wholphin DVD wryly explains. “We only have so much space on a DVD and viewers only have so much time to watch movies… This is a problem of time itself and it affects all aspects of life.  We can’t do or see everything there is to do and see in life.”

“On the flip side, it’s that limitation which gives a [platform] its prestige and identity, as no filmmaker probably wants to screen at an event that selects just about everything and anything” furthers Luoto.

Indeed, any experience wading through unfiltered content shows us that we benefit from some sort of qualitative exclusionary practice. Yet, paradoxically, no one wants to be excluded. Therein lies the curator’s dilemma: How do you serve filmmakers while simultaneously shutting them out?

SOLUTIONS?

One solution around this problem are processes such as online aggregators and crowd-powered tools (evident on websites like Digg.com). Indeed, there is no shortage of spots for exhibition on the internet, and the usage levels for this model are very high- certainly higher than attendance at festivals or screening series. But, by moving from an individual vision towards automated processes favoring the intelligence of the crowd (or the targeted information provided by data), and by excluding the peculiarities of personal taste, these solutions run the risk of creating some supremely ineffectual and dull content discovery experiences– what Jaron Lanier calls “the blandest possible bible”.

The advantage, of course, is that crowdsourced or aggregation models can provide a way past the gatekeepers, for filmmakers. But, they do so by erasing real connection. Further, lacking the ability to contextualize content, these solutions ultimately do filmmakers a disservice by placing their work alongside (and therefore equal to) random internet ephemera. A thoughtful short film about a family’s Christmas is placed on equal footing with a home video of a kitten playing with Christmas wrapping paper. Vute as kittens are, this is typically not the company an independent filmmaker wants to keep.

Thus the individual curatorial model finds itself ever more relevant in our current landscape simply because it can contextualize work in way that algorithms cannot. As Lance Weiler puts it, a trusted (and informed) individual voice is the most effective recommendation engine: It most powerfully activates its audience’s faith in the content it is endorsing. Supported by their knowledge of the independent film landscape, these curators search out, draw parallels and contextualize content in a way that allows for better connection with the audience, and can program films that others might brush off.

Wholphin’s Brent Hoff confirms this, saying that as much as he’s had to exclude content, he’s also “found and chosen things other people have passed on.” Luoto furthers: “It’s not just about selecting safe films that everyone in the audience will love, but constructing a lineup of stories we really believe should be seen.”

These curators become advocates for the content they believe in, their exclusionary practices notwithstanding, in a way no algorithm can emulate.

CONCLUSIONS

The unavoidable but alarming curatorial subjectivity – compounded as we have seen by the scarcity of space on any given platform – may possibly yet be further counterbalanced by an increasing profusion of those platforms. This, of course, serves filmmakers by creating ever more opportunities to connect with new audiences in a meaningful way, as we have seen, through tight and thoughtful film programs. The increase in what Jonathan Wells calls ‘boutique platforms’ can help complement a film’s lifespan – shepherded to new groups and sub-cultures by trusted individuals who understand their audiences’ needs.

Although independent curators cannot yet pretend to the reach achieved by aggregation-based internet properties or by some of the larger festivals, they can still perhaps make up for the relative paucity of their audience numbers by the greater depth of their influence. Individual curation, inevitably, works with a simple goal: To present film that counts. If all is done right, the audience will have a better chance to find and connect to those films.

Instead of decrying the gatekeepers, we should all be trying to emulate them.

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Posted in Storytelling audience festival promotion

Saskia Wilson-Brown has a background in fine art, curation, film festivals, TV and production design. She works as a producer, strategist and advocate; supporting initiatives such as DIY Days and Slamdance Film Festival (among others) while running a guerilla screening series called Cinema Speakeasy. She is currently in production on her first feature doc.

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By Zeke Zelker, October 18th, 2010

Times are tough, listener-ship is down and Clarence Lindeweiler needs to come up with a plan to save his struggling alternative rock radio station, WTYT 960. Clarence’s plan is to host a billboard sitting contest, where four lucky contestants have the opportunity to win, “a beautiful mobile home and nine-sixty hundred dollars”. All they have to do, is be the last person to survive, living on a billboard.

Two weeks ago we announced our next project, a transmedia project based around the movie Billboard an Uncommon Contest for Common People!. I warned everybody in attendance that they could shape the course of the project, be a part of it, be immersed in it or simply be entertained by it when the finished movie comes out. I guess I should warn you too. This is what has transpired thus far.

The day before our announcement we launched our indiegogo crowd funding site. Our site outlines what the project is about, how the funds will be used, a description of the perks that we’re offering and details on how contributions can be tax deductible through our fiscal sponsorship with Fractured Atlas. Check it out, donate and please give me your feedback.

Prior to the announcement we sent out press alerts to 20 news organizations in the area, in fact twice, two days leading up to the announcement and the day of. We sent out invites to about 100 people to join us for the big news. Well, it poured down five inches of rain that day but we still had twenty people show up and two people from the press. While I was discussing the project live, people at the office where emailing out press releases. Why did we feel it was important to make an announcement? The project is inspired by a real contest that took place in the early eighties in the area and we need local supporters, a.k.a. funders, to help us make the project a reality.

We’ve learned that press begets press. Press also builds credibility with potential supporters, which can help a lot. The press that we have received, has resulted in over 130,000 impressions for the project thus far, which savvy businesses could have already been capitalizing on. A buzz on the street helps too when you start making phone calls to people, but it doesn’t exactly equate to dollars. We’re attempting to raise 10% of our budget locally.

We feel by having 10% of our budget in place, will also prove to those people who are on the fence of support, that the project has some legs and carry them over to the other side of support.

That is my focus for the next couple of weeks, to seek out some local brand sponsorships before I go national with a press campaign. I may look for someone who would be willing to match donations dollar for dollar for a given amount of time up to a certain dollar amount. Maybe you or someone you know could help us achieve our goal?

Stay tuned…

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Posted in INDIE FILM CAPITALSIM Storytelling audience crowdfunding transmedia

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.

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By Mark Harris, October 5th, 2010

So blah blah blah how do we sustain, how do we distribute, blah blah blah. But I’ve come to a realization lately. Well, I’ve come to admit a realization. Many many micro-budget Independent Films just aren’t very good. Maybe if they were better, some of these other problems would be easier to solve. I’ve heard this from many people in the Indie-Film-o-sphere, but usually in blog comments that offer little more than snark.

So I’m going to try to look at the problem and break it down some. We’re always dealing with these things in THE LOST CHILDREN. And be warned, most of the lessons come from Hollywood. Because though they often make really bad choices, they typically know what they’re doing.

What happens next?

What happens next? This is the number one thing we need to strive for. Soap Operas could last decades by effectively posing this one question week after week. How many of us actively focus on this question? Working through post on THE LOST CHILDREN, it’s always, always on my mind. At the end of every scene, at the end of each act, I’m constantly asking: “Will they want to know what happens next?” If that one question isn’t in the air, you are left to founder on ambiguous things like your “voice” as a filmmaker. Which probably isn’t original. Or even worth listening to.

Right now my fiance and I are almost done with Season 3 of Mad Men. Last night we finished an episode that was so good, we had to stay up and watch the next one. We had to know what happened next.

I remember finishing The Wire, Season 1. I got Season 2 in the mail from Netflix. I put it in at about 11PM. I could not stop until the season was done, about 7AM the next morning. I had to know what happened next.

I had the same experience with Buffy. Finished a season, and ran out to Tower at midnight to get the next one. Had to know what happened next.

I know these are all TV shows, but I think the same rules apply to films. The last time I think I had to know what happened next in a film, was No Country, Inception…I can’t remember the last time I felt this with a micro-budget independent film. Primer?

I think there are exceptions to this. I actually found The Watchman movie pretty compelling, though to a large extent it was slow and moody. I felt like the film gave me the same experience the comic had. It allowed me time to ponder the ideas presented. And I think that was part of it structure. Intentional.

But for the most part, I think we really need to be asking: “Will the audience want to know what happens next?”

Characters

This should need no explanation, but it took me so long to learn, I figure others may not get it yet. It’s not about you. It’s not about your vision. It’s not about the filmmaker. Nobody cares about you or what you have to say (which is probably not original or unique anyway). It’s about the characters. They don’t by any means have to be “likable,” but they do have to be compelling. Some of my favorite characters ever are scumbags, or at the very least massively flawed: Walter White. Don Draper. Scorpius. Vic Mackey. Omar Little. When was the last time an indie created characters like this? Are we working hard to create compelling, memorable characters?

Use the Red Letter Media smell test for characters: Ask people to describe your characters without using their looks, clothing, or profession. I’m working on a web series now for next year, and this is probably the single more effective tool in our writers’ toolbox.

Writing and acting

Just like it says. One of the biggest issues with micro-budget film is the belief that just having access to cheap gear means you know what the Hell you are doing. You don’t. And out of all of the things you need to do to make a film, it seems that writing and acting are the ones people think they need the least skill in. Many micro-budget films shoot scripts that are…to say the least, underdeveloped. People think that just because they can type, they can write. They think that just because they have some (probably not original) idea, they should just run out and write it down and make a movie. We often had the same issues at the DVXFests. People would come on the board and say things like: “Script done in 3 days!” yes, your script sucks. And no I don’t even have to read it to know that. Because if you wrote it in 3 days and your name is not Epstein, you didn’t spend enough time on it, and are probably not even aware of which questions you need to be asking. If this is your first micro-budget feature and you have never written a feature before, you should spend at least 1 year on the script. At Least.

I find it painful to watch the acting in many micro-budget films. Often you don’t have access to professional actors to begin with. And on top of that, you may not know how to direct them. Meaning, you haven’t learned the actual, demonstrable skills a director needs to do his/her job. Do you know what an objective is? Do you know what actions are? Can you communicate your needs to an actor in these terms? Do you know how to get an actor to do nothing? Do you know what that means? When you have very experienced professional actors, you can sometimes let them go their own way. Meaning, if you don’t know how to direct, they will still be able to turn in a pretty good performance, because they know how to break down a script, figure out actions, etc. But with inexperienced actors, if you don’t know how to direct, you’re in trouble.

As we work on our film, I am constantly applying this test: I watch a real movie, a Hollywood movie or TV show with professional actors. And then I ask myself: “Does the acting in my movie/scene look like that?” If the answer is “no,”  I know we have a problem. You should always be holding yourself up to the best work you can find and asking: “Is it as good as that?” Always.

Feedback: focus groups

This term I’m sure, causes many an indie to sprout hives and die. But it will save your butt. I encountered this first in the indie film world when Zak Forsman invited me to be a part of a focus group for Heart of Now. I was no stranger to feedback. I had long participated in DVXUser short film competitions. And those generally led to a lot of good feedback from filmmaking peers, mostly on technique. And in the software world, I had led teams and held code reviews. But with Heart of Now, it was the first time I had been invited to an actual focus group for an independent film. I think I was pretty honest with my feedback. I tend to be pretty objective about work, including my own. Zak then screened Heart of Now for about 50 people who weren’t friends, past collaborators or “fans.” And this is critical; showing it to people who don’t know you and have no stake in your success. Absolutely critical.

When we started THE LOST CHILDREN, we made a series of small videos representing parts of the story. You can see them on the film’s site. They are right at the top of the home page in that little rotating carousel. Before embarking on the actual film, we created these and showed them to a focus group. Then we asked them a series of questions. We used that data to alter the script. It’s not about pleasing or pandering to an audience. It’s about trying out your material and seeing if you are even being clear. Do people even understand what you’re talking about? Do they get the points you’re trying to get across? Do they find the characters compelling? Are they with you for the ride?

We are fortunate enough that a small group in LA is putting on a rough cut focus group for us later in the year. And we are doubly lucky in that the audience (hopefully) will be made up of people who don’t know us. We did this in the example I mentioned above too. We asked friends to send us people who don’t know us. People who have no interest in our success, so will hopefully let us know if we just wasted their time. Again, critical to the process, I think.

I encourage everyone to do the same. In fact, I ‘m brainstorming ways to create some safe review processes through NEW BREED.

Let’s all make better movies.

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Posted in Storytelling The Lost Children creative collaboration editing

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 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:

[CHARACTER=12345]CHANCE STURGES[/CHARACTER]

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":"ok","count":1,"count_total":1,"pages":1,"posts":[{"id":1659,"type":"storylines",
"slug":"hector-and-celia","url":"http:\/\/desperatecomfort.com
\/site\/blog\/storylines\/hector-and-celia\/",
"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",
"categories":[],"tags":[],
"author":{"id":2,"slug":"mark","name":"mark",
"first_name":"","last_name":"","nickname":"mark",
"url":"http:\/\/","description":""},"comments":[],
"attachments":[],"comment_count":0,"comment_status":"open"}]}

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.

Caching

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.

POSSIBLE MOBILE APP DIAGRAM

POSSIBLE MOBILE APP DIAGRAM

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.

P.S.

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.

D’Oh!

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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