By Mark Harris, October 30th, 2010

Taking some more hiatus from the software side of things, I wanted to continue talking about some filmmaking techniques.

THE LOST CHILDREN is a pretty ambitious story to attempt on a low budget. It has aliens and hidden lairs and a massacre. These things are not easily accomplished on a budget as low as ours. It’s only due to the dedication of my cast and crew, and the help from some friends, that this film is possible at all.

Lessons in art direction

I am blessed to have an Art Director who is an artist in his own right. He’s a perfectionist, not because he’s well paid, but because he takes pride in his work. This film could not have been done without him. We learned a while back that art direction is often the most critical piece left out of micro-budget films. So this post is to encourage everyone to think about it.

Lesson 1: Location, location, location

When you’re able to get hold of good locations, your art direction is handled for you. And in ways you could never ever accomplish on a small budget. We needed an abandoned insane asylum from the 19th Century. We would never be able to fake this. So we had to find one. We wound up using an abandoned prison in Philadelphia.

Prison Cell 1
Prison Cell

All of this stuff was in the place when we got there. The only art direction we added were props specific to our story. But when we got in and saw the location, we realized nothing else would need to be done. We got miles and miles of production value for free. Or I should say, included in the location fee.

Likewise with the location below. Clearly we would never be able to fake or build an observatory. But again, miles of production value built in.

Josh Observatory
Josh at the Observatory

Sub-Lesson 1.1: Cinematography is 50% art direction

Many in the low-budget film community obsess over cameras. They should be obsessed with art direction. If you have budget for either a RED and a so-so art director, or an AF-100 and a good art director, always, always, always, always choose the latter. What you point the camera at in the first place buys you a lot of cinematography. Again, on micro-budget productions this is a way to get more production value out of your budget.

Sub-Lesson 1.2: The city is already art directed

If you are lucky enough to be living and working in NYC, you have the world’s greatest backlot at your fingertips. Permits are free. You can shoot all over the place. On a low budget, you get a lot of production value for next to nothing:

Bklyn Heights shot from an early short
Bklyn Heights shot from an early short

The same lesson can be applied to any city you live in. I know in Ohio where my mom lives, many small towns have some great main-streets, old factories, barns. Use them.

Lesson 2: Be specific

Just as in scripts and acting, and everything else, the choices you make in art direction should be specific to the story. On our set, you could walk into Jared’s office, examine the things on his shelves and desk, and never know it was a movie. Each and every thing in this set has meaning to the character and story.

Jared's Office Detail

This symbol is very specifically designed, each element having a meaning:

K'Taan Symbol
K’Taan Symbol

And this is becoming more important than ever, as your movie may move beyond the screen into other media. There might be some little thing on screen that winds up playing out more in shorts, the website, etc. So you have to know exactly what that thing is. Take the time to make every detail very specific.

Lesson 3: Smoke it up!

A little fog goes a long way. We’ve been using this for a long time. Now fog machines can be purchased at any halloween store. Hell, I got mine at a $.99 store in Brooklyn. They can also be purchased at places like Guitar World. They go for about $40 now, and they will come in sooooo handy.

El Cheapo fog machine from $.99 store
El Cheapo fog machine from $.99 store

Professionals use something called a hazer, which more evenly spreads the smoke. So when you crank up your el-cheapo smoke machine, make sure you have a big piece of cardboard around to waft it into an even pattern.

Now, you can use this fog for a couple of things. First off, it can help make your location look creepy as hell. But it can also be used like the Hollywood people use it, to diffuse light and give depth and atmosphere to a location:

Blade Runner Master of Haze
Blade Runner Master of Haze

Blade Runner is of course an extreme example, but I just saw the hazer used on the HBO show “Bored to Death”. In the Old Town bar. Once you know about it, you’ll start seeing it everywhere. And it’s an effect you can apply yourself for very little money.

Or you can use it just to make yourself look like a bad-ass:

Bad-ass Mark
Bad-ass Mark

Makin’ guts: Practical effects on set

One scene in THE LOST CHILDREN involves a massacre. This means blood and goop and guts. The fun stuff. These things can be composited in after the fact, and I have seen some low budget films do that. But I don’t really have that skillset in house, so it would raise the budget. It was much more cost effective to do these EFX on set.

I had researched a bunch of tutorials on the web, and you can find them too with Google. But the technique I settled on for making our entrails, is this:

1) Get some skin-colored liquid latex and paper towels. This latex can be had from Halloween shops, or of course professional make-up suppliers. But these days, it seems like Halloween shops have nearly everything you need for a film.

Ben Nye Liquid Latex
Ben Nye Liquid Latex

2) Get a paint brush and some pretty smooth surface. I’ve seen plexi-glass recommended, but I used a shelf from Ikea. It’s laminated, so will not soak up the liquid latex, yet allows for some imperfections. In all things guts, imperfections are your friends. Paint the liquid latex over your surface. It can be pretty thin. Don’t sweat trying to make it smooth and perfect, just get a good membrane laid down.

3) Then get a hair dryer and blow that stuff dry. Otherwise, you’ll be sitting there all day.

4) When it’s dry it will look like rubber. It might seem like it got transparent, but don’t worry about that, it’s all good. Take the paper towels and roll them up into sort of thin sausages. The length can vary. Again, not perfect is perfect.

5) Once you have the paper towel sausages, put them on one edge of the latex and roll the latex over them, as if the latex is the sausage casing. Roll it up until your paper towels are contained in the latex casing. Use several paper towel sausages so that you get some intersect points, as illustrated in the photo below.

6) Repeat until you have all the guts you need. This can be time consuming, even with the hair-dryer, so make sure to give yourself enough time. I think I spent about 8 hrs making the guts I needed for…2 people. But you can re-use them in several shots, I think. I don’t know how they keep, because we only needed them for one shoot-day.

You can add more layers of latex, if you like. I think we did two per entrail. But the end result looks like this. See how it looks like there are three sections? That’s due to three paper towel sausages.

Latex guts
Latex guts

Now, add some blood mixture, tear open a shirt, and Voila! Actually, I had made a sort of…plastic-bag-bed-gut-holder under the actor’s shirt, so he wouldn’t have to sit there with it on his skin. It also made clean-up easier, which saves time on set. Reads great on camera and gives people a jump. Even on set, people walking into the room would jump when they saw this.

Skulls: Everyone has one, but how often do you get to play with it?

One of our shots involves a pile of skulls. This is one department where Halloween stores will not save you. If they do have skulls real enough to pass muster, they will cost you an arm and a leg. Okay, bad joke. Instead, I found a great website: http://www.skeleton-factory.com. You want bones, they got ‘em. And cheap. Here you can buy skulls of many qualities at various prices. I chose the cheapest, knowing that the fog and the muck, etc would cover up any imperfections. These run $8.95 each. I got 10 for our shoot.

$8.95 life-sized skull
Insert Yorick joke here.

Rip all the hardware off. You will need to sandpaper some ridges, maybe putty up some cracks, spray paint them. depending on how they will be seen. But if you don’t mind putting in a little elbow grease, these are a fantastic solution for the micro-budget filmmaker. Here’s how they came  out in the film:

Skulls in shot
Skulls in shot

Okay, that’s it for now. Send questions if you have them. I am talking to my art director about writing something as well, detailing some more of his processes.

  • Share/Bookmark

Posted in The Lost Children creative collaboration production journal

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.

RELATED
  • DIY DAYS returns to NYC
    Registration is now open – space is limited http://diydaysnyc2011.eventbrite.com On Saturday March 5th, DIY DAYS will return to the New School for a day of… read more
  • Transmedia Talk #4 – Scott Walker on Runes of Gallidon
    Welcome to Transmedia Talk a new podcast covering all things story. Transmedia Talk is co-hosted by Nick Braccia and Robert Pratten and looks to shed light on the topic of transmedia… read more
  • Transmedia Talk #15 – Andrea Phillips
    This show talks about Andrea Phillip's work on a range of ARG and transmedia projects and discusses staffing for participation, developing narrative that allows for participation, editorial control & ethics/responsibilities of producers
By Mark Harris, October 8th, 2010

I wanted to take a break from the software side of things and take some time to detail some filmmaking techniques. As always I am constantly experimenting, and would love to hear thoughts on this. I’ve written other posts on technique, such as Working with Actors, and will continue to add them to the mix going forward. Also, Gary King has added some posts on technique which might really help low budget indies.

I’ve always been conscious of developing the right look for a film. In my film R.P.D.M., I worked hard to show visually the effect of a drug which slows down time in your mind. In EVIE, I came up with different color schemes to represent visually what was happening in the story. All of the main character’s climactic moments in that film are told without words, purely through images and very specific color choices. Even as far back as my horror short BLOODY MARY, the look of each scene was consciously designed along with the DP, Timur Civan. I am bringing the same attitude to THE LOST CHILDREN.

I was in Austin for SXSW, going out for dinner with another filmmaker and a camera guru. The subject of DSLRs came up because the camera guru was speaking about them in a SXSW panel. I told him that I was using the Canon 7D on my feature, and he asked how we got away with that, was it our primary camera. I told him we used it for interviews, and for generating some footage that will later be degraded. The low-light capabilities make it possible to get 1080 HD footage even at night under street lights. And if your goal is to dirty that footage up later, and make it look like “found footage,” then you get quite a bit to work with.

Evelyn Night Vision
Evelyn Night Vision

But the point was this. I said I was no longer in the business of trying to make little cameras look like big cameras. Now, I prefer to embrace whichever camera for what it is and exploit it for that. If I want to shoot something broad and cinematic, I will likely go with a big cinematic camera. When I am shooting on handy-cams, it’s because I am seeking something the handy-cam can give me. For instance, I wanted some scenes shot as if on the night vision you get from some older Sony cameras. So that’s what we shot that scene on. I don’t know how we would have gotten this look in post. I mean, I’m sure there’s some way to get part of it with enough time and skill, but I don’t know if you’ll ever get the eyes right in post without serious efx work. And it’s the eyes I wanted in this shot. I wanted the eerie, otherworldly look night vision gives the eyes. And this supports the meaning of this scene.

This goes hand in hand with the post I wrote about why we chose the non-fiction format for this film. It allowed us to choose cameras for certain looks. It released us from the burden of having to keep up with the joneses in terms cinematography. And hopefully, it’s going to help us stand out some.

I started this journey last year with this post called “Cameras and Camera Tests.” So now I want to give some more on the results of this after shooting this way throughout 2010.

What are our goals?

First off, to create convincing “found footage.” Very often, you will see something in a film that’s supposed to be from a video camera, and it’s quite obviously some cheap plugin. There’s nothing wrong with this in and of itself, if it simply indicates to the audience that this section is “video.” It serves the story. But along with the Non-Fiction format, we wanted footage that might actually pass muster on the web. As in, if you came across a bit of footage on the web, you would have to look at it twice before you realized it wasn’t real.

Secondly, our goals were to create some unique and beautiful looks. Many filmmakers these days seems to define beautiful as one thing; does it look like the movie I saw in the theater last week. I think beauty in images can mean a lot of things. On the other hand, I see many independent films shot on camcorders, where it seems like the filmmakers simply gave up thinking about the look they wanted at all.

Screen Look
Click for full image

This image serves two purposes. First, it’s about what I want as a “surveillance video” image. I am still doing a lot of experimentation with this, but this image is coming pretty close. Secondly, I think there’s a lot of beauty in it. It’s “realistic” in the sense that it’s a “video image,” yet it’s a bit impressionistic too. The cross-hatch pattern and the saturated colors combine to make it almost like a painted image. To my eye, it lends a bit of a surreal quality to the shot. Which again, supports the meaning of this particular scene.

What is your opinion of this shot regarding those two purposes?

This image was created by shooting the actual scene on a 7D mounted high in the room as if a surveillance camera. I zoomed in on that image in FCP. Then played back and shot my HDTV monitor with the 7D again. I could have shot this on a lower res monitor to get a little more accurate as “surveillance” footage, but I like this look and think it’s a good compromise between style and “realism.”

Playing with static

There are certain points in THE LOST CHILDREN when cameras mess up, the image goes in and out, and sometimes go to pure static. There are plugins that do this, but to my eye none of them comes close to the real thing – at least on the budget we’re working at.

Making Static 1
Making Static 1

That’s beautiful.

Making Static 2
Making Static 2

Look at the random “bolts” shooting through that image. Both of the above were created by first running off the original footage as NTSC to a deck. Then plugging that deck into a very old TV. Fortunately, my ever-resourceful art director has everything, including this old TV hanging around, for me to experiment with. ( Next to the TV, that’s the 3 TB of RAID 1 storage where THE LOST CHILDREN lives.)

Old TV
Very Old TV

This TV is so old, that its only input is a coaxial cable. Look it up, youngin’s. That little black box you see on top of the TV has a coaxial input and RCA inputs, so it’s able to connect both to the camcorder and the old TV. In the end, we replay the footage from the NTSC camcorder, to the old TV, and then re-shoot the old TV screen it with the 7D, while jiggling the loose coaxial cable to get the randomized static we want.

This image is not played back as is. But we cut up the static in FCP and add it to the timeline with our “surveillance image.” So that in the timeline, it looks like this:

Static in Timeline
Static in Timeline

We don’t play the footage back as is, because, for the parts of the scene you actually want to see, I think this little TV puts out too low resolution, so I’m worried about how it would look on an HDTV or projected.

I’m not exceptionally concerned about how this film looks on the big screen because I think in the end, the big screen will be a minimal part of our distribution. But it never hurts to do the best you can to make sure your movie will look good wherever. We gave ourselves the added challenge by shooting on many cameras, in many codecs, in many frame rates.

But using these little bits of static along with our regular footage does a pretty good job for us. The static comes and goes quickly enough that it gives us the illusion that the static is actually in the footage we’re seeing. Combine that with some nice static noise and the illusion is complete. If you want to play with this yourself, FCP Studio comes with some static noises. Also, this site has a lot of sound effects. I don’t think they are really professional quality, so I may not rely on them for final output. But for working with your rough, and for learning, it’s a great resource.

That brings me to the final point about the look. One more reason I avoid plugins is that they are only going to make your movie look like other movies. At least at the level most of us are working now. I’m sure in Hollywood, they have all kinds of insane software for creating these effects. And I’m sure that with enough money, you could do it all in post. But at the low budget level we work, we’re usually limited to retail tools. So I feel like if we depend on those tools, it’s only going to work against us. I’ve seen sooooo many indie movies using the effects you get in Video Copilot. I appreciate what Video Copilot does, but I also think it encourages laziness, and I’m often able to spot it within seconds. Low budget filmmakers like it because they think it makes their films looks like Hollywood movies. But I believe that in the end, you just end up looking like everyone else.

And as I’ve said in a number of my posts, we are working hard to stand out, not blend in. So creating our static the way we did, and using the techniques of shooting and re-shooting on our specific screens and our specific gear will give us a look no one else will be able to easily replicate. And hopefully make us stand out.

The camera guru I mentioned at the top often says something on our filmmaker message board, DVXUser: To paraphrase: “Hollywood is already good at a lot of things. Why not make something they can’t do? That’s the way you can stand out.” Whenever I’m making decisions on how to proceed, I use this as a guiding principal.

Stay tuned, I will soon blog about the fun to be had making fake entrails and shooting a massacre!

  • Share/Bookmark

Posted in The Lost Children editing post-production

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.

RELATED
  • RADAR NYC 6.9.11
    LOOK My Potholes What do you do when there’s a pothole in your street? Try avoiding it? Call the city to fill it in? Effective ideas, though they aren’t especially imaginative. With the help of Claudia Ficca and Davide Luciano, a couple of Montreal-based artists, these folks in several US and Canadian cities turned their potholes into works of art—at… read more
  • Hidden Oras – RADAR S3 ep 26 [vid]
    Hidden Oras began as a live drawing project within various music clubs in Japan before moving to NYC. Shantell Martin an artist and VeeJay armed with her projector, and trusty digital drawing tablet, turns members of the audience into living art. When an audience member steps up against the projector wall Shantell creates a unique and original drawing that engulfs… read more
  • FCKD Mag – RADAR S3 Ep 32 [vid]
    Ryan Watkins-Hughes, founder of the FCKD Mag project, is a deconstructionist through and through. In this latest project, Ryan is making a social commentary on advertisements by purchasing the flashiest, advert filled magazines and altering the covers as well as the ads inside of the magazine. By adding his artwork to the already printed magazine Ryan is replacing the “junk… read more
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.

  • Share/Bookmark

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.

RELATED
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.

  • Share/Bookmark

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.

RELATED
  • RADAR NYC 2.24.11
    Image by Dean Haspiel WATCH Dean Haspiel – The Angel Dean Haspiel’s “THE ANGEL” from Daniel J. Kramer on Vimeo. Yeah, I don’t know about you guys, but my recently single self spent Valentine’s Day at an event called “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now,” a night of speed dating to the soundtrack of the Smiths. But as upbeat and happy-go-lucky… read more
  • Cross-Pollination: the Strength of a Community
    “What’s amazing about where we sit now in a society, we’re global we’re more connected than we’ve ever been before, and we have more devices than we’ve ever had before. This is an amazing time to be a storyteller. I think that inherently, what you’ll start to see is that the next generation of social networking will push more story… read more
  • DIYDays NYC Anita Ondine & David Beard [Vid]
    How is transmedia production and distribution different from film, tv, video and game distribution? Join Anita Ondine and David Beard as they deliver a practical overview of the process of producing and distributing transmedia experiences. From budgeting and scheduling to designing an integrated workflow to the distribution of transmedia works across a broad range of delivery platforms – “How to… read more
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.

  • Share/Bookmark

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.

RELATED
  • Page 1 of 2
  • 1
  • 2
  • >
  • twitter
  • facebook
  • delicious
  • youtube
  • vimeo

Join the WorkBook Project mailing list - enter your email below...

NEW BREED twitter
READ

There are no events to show at this time.

Powered by Lifestream.

Podcast Archive