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Monday, October 3, 2011

A Pet Peeve


It started with a pet peeve. 

It’s always bugged me how dismissive and dumb the entertainment industry has been when it comes to the internet. 

They regard it as a novelty—at best the distant, bastard-cousin of television: Tough to monetize, good for promo and not much else.  Consequently, they utilize it with all the vision and ingenuity of a real-estate agent slapping a big picture of his grinning mug on the back of a bus-bench. 

Occasionally, they’ll attempt something “creative.”  Someone in some swanky conference room says something like, “This internet-thingy, I understand the kids like to play games on it.  We gotta do that—something, ya know… interactive!  Then they spend a couple million on a lame online game nobody plays, or a lame app nobody uses, or a lame BBS nobody visits, or a lame webisode (now there’s a tautology!) nobody watches.

More often than not, they simply upload their movies and T.V. shows—unaltered—to the web and rechristen it as “content.” 

The studios and networks don’t bother to adapt the source material to internet for one simple reason: They don’t regard it as a true, unique and distinct medium in its own right.  They see it as simply one more dot on the unbroken timeline of the human tradition of conveying a narrative; from a story told in a cave, to a play performed on a stage, to a manuscript written by a scribe, to a book printed on a press, to a movie projected in a theater, to a broadcast over the radio, to a broadcast on television, to voila!, a website on a server.

But there is a difference between the internet and all those other media.

A profound difference.

A difference the entertainment industry can’t, or won’t, or doesn’t seem to be able to recognize and comprehend.

An intrinsic difference that not only makes the internet a legitimate, distinct medium in and of itself, but one that utterly shatters the fundamental paradigm of narrative storytelling.

And that is this: We use the internet. 

We don’t “use” books or magazines, televisions or movies, radio or music.  We read; we listen; we watch.  The author actively transmits his or her narrative, and the audience passively receives it.

The internet, however, requires the audience to become active—we click on links, we read, we view, we cut-and-paste, we research, we review and share and tweet and blog and friend and favorite.  Moreover, we do all these things simultaneously in an environment designed for multitasking.

Because if we choose to simply sit and “watch” the internet, it doesn’t do anything.

Now that I’ve finished explaining something in exhaustive detail that is so obvious, so conspicuously self-evident (save, of course, to the peripheral-visionaries who finance the production of entertainment), back to the subject at hand...

So, I thought, given that the internet is a wholly distinct medium, a medium at least as dissimilar as, say, motion pictures are from books, how do I, the storyteller, adapt my narrative to exploit that medium?

First, I had to define exactly what characteristics are unique to the internet, which are, in turn, a reflection of how the audience uses it (so much, in fact, that they call us “users”).  They are as follows. 

·        The internet is pan-media – Content may be transmitted through text, videos, blogs, photographs, audio, interviews, or even biometrics such as EEGs or lie detectors;

·        The internet is multitasking – We rarely have one page, tab or media player open at the same time.  Likewise, we may be performing several activities at once;

·        The internet is impulsive – A click of a link instantly takes the user to content of interest;

·        The internet is concise – Tell us about your life in 140 characters or less.  It’s not as much about short attention spans as it is about all that interesting stuff we can see/hear/read with the click of a mouse;

·        The internet is social – We chat, we blog, we tweet, we post, we share content with others with similar interests;

And, most importantly…

·        The internet is non-linear – We unravel content by impulse, not chronological order, clicking through instantly to what piques our interest, skipping what’s not.

When it comes to storytelling, this last characteristic is the game-changer. 

As a writer, I am accustomed to structuring my story in the order I feel will be most effective.  I determine what elements are relevant or superfluous.  I decide which characters are worth following. 

For instance, let’s say I’m writing a movie about a kidnapping for ransom.  If DELIVERY BOY drops coffee and Danish off at the FBI office, the only reason I will write what happens to him after he exits the scene will be if it supports the central story.  DELIVERY BOY might do all kinds of interesting stuff—win the lottery, pull orphans from a burning building, murder his boss—but if I decide it doesn’t serve the plot, you’re not going to see it.

But what if you were curious about DELIVERY BOY? 

What if you could follow him back to the shop, see him interact with friends and family, lie, love, cheat, hate, suffer defeat and savor victory?  I mean, DELIVERY BOY is way more interesting than that square-jawed lummox, AGENT HOOPER, right?

Tough.

It’s my ball and my rules and my playground, and AGENT HOOPER is the protagonist.  I’m the author; you’re the audience; STFU and eat your popcorn.

But the internet is not traditional media. 

On the internet, you not only should be able to follow DELIVERY BOY, but keep an eye on AGENT HOOPER in a separate window.  Not only that, but you’d have access to material as varied as the ransom note, MRS. HOOPER’s recipe for meat-loaf, the kidnapper’s behavioral profile and vacation snapshots of DELIVERY BOY’s kids.  If you stumble across anything unexpected or interesting, you’d be able to download it, share it with your followers on Twitter, or imbed it on your Facebook page.

Each medium gives the audience access to different set of windows into a narrative. 

A novel can exploit all five human senses as well as the characters’ thoughts, opinions and points-of-view.  A film is limited to what we can see and hear, but its impact on those two senses is much more intense than that of a novel.  A play cannot offer the action, breadth and scope of a film, but compensates with the energy of a live performance. 

Narratives can be (and often are) adapted from one medium to another, but the success of the adaptation is inversely dependent on how thoroughly the source material exploits the attributes of its original medium.  Works such as Alan Moore’s WATCHMEN and Ernest Hemingway’s THE SUN ALSO RISES, for example,  are so perfectly conceived and crafted to suit their mediums that an adaptation can only pale in comparison.

Likewise, a narrative conceived and crafted for the internet should defy adaptation. 

I concluded that the acid test for a narrative developed for the internet could be distilled into the following question: Does it so exploit the unique characteristics of the internet so thoroughly that its full telling would be otherwise impossible?

So I devised a narrative format that would pass that acid test.

In short, the concept is as follows: Capture an event of limited duration with a defined beginning, middle and end that features an ensemble of actors performing scenes—often simultaneously—in separate locations.   Story-related material is conveyed in a variety of media—text, photographs, audio files--and captured in on video in real time with multiple cameras from multiple angles. 

The end result would be a complete record of every incident and character interaction that occurred for the duration of that event—literally hundreds of hours of written, audio and video content.  Every moment and background detail related to the event would be instantly accessible to the user in any order he or she wishes to view it.  Separate scenes—or separate angles of the same scene—could be selected and played simultaneously in multiple windows.

Inspired by the concept’s similarity to the function of airline flight recorders, I christened it BlackBxx. 

Over the following months, I ran BlackBxx past all fellow net-savvy artists—a trusted circle of actors, directors, designers, FX artists and other industry professionals I’ve worked with over the last decade or so.  Not only did they get it, but they were stoked by it.  This was a authentically brand new, absolutely unprecedented form of dramatic narrative.  Virtually every one of them eagerly offered to attach themselves if I could get the project off the ground.

So enamored was I, so thrilled with my fresh, bold, revolutionary idea, I could hardly wait to present it to the powers-that-be.  Surely, they would be impressed with my ingenuity and gleefully shower me with the money I’d need to realize my vision! 

I called my agent.  It was time to set up some meetings and sell BlackBxx.

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