Sunday, November 27, 2011

A Very Public Thank You Note to Our Kickstarter Backers

I just wanted to thank all 143 of you guys for your support. The Kickstarter campaign was a lot of work, and I appreciate everything you brought to the party, from your encouraging comments to your feedback on our interface design to the heavy-lifting, emailing, posting and tweeting you did to promote the BlackBxx: HAUNTED fundraising.

We Knaufs are an obstinate tribe, spoiled-sports every one of us. As my brother, Paul, says, "Show me a good loser, and I'll show you a loser."

As the clock wound down on KS, Team BlackBxx was already discussing options. It boiled down to a) making another crowd-funding run with KS with more hoopla, hype and publicity; b) another crowd-funding run with another site with more hoopla, hype and publicity; c) accept a loan in order to direct the proceeds to closing the gap to our fundraising goal in order to collect the $25,000 already pledged and call it a day; or, d) just call it a day and move on.

As options a) and b) meant allocating more time, human resources and creativity to fundraising rather than post-production, I decided against another crowd-funding run. As for option c), though we are strapped and it was tempting, and it wasn't technically a violation of KS rules, it just didn't pass the smell-test for me. Here I am, ragging on the studios and networks over their ham-handed, shady business practices, and I go ahead and scoop up all that dough by exploiting a loophole in KS's ToS.

Nah, don't think so.

So we opted for d) move on. That way, we could direct promotion and PR efforts into drumming up interest in the merits of the project itself (where it belongs) rather than the means by which we were financing it.

So, suffice it to say, the show WILL go on. If you're still interested in supporting us and staying inside the creative loop, as well as getting updates and first-looks, drop us a line at

Even better, if you want to renew your pledge, you can do that as well here, at the Official BlackBxx Web Site And while you're there, you might want to check out the rest of the site. Oh yeah, and bookmark it. That's where we'll be launching HAUNTED.

And, finally, whether you decide to renew your pledge or not, in return for your early support and encouragement, every single one of the 143 of you will be receiving a free invitation and password to the premiere, as well as lifetime Founding Member status once we launch. But in order for us to do that, we'll need your actual, non-KS email address, so just give us a ping over at

Monday, November 7, 2011

On Icebergs and Jellybeans

I’ve been following online posts—especially that on the amazing Yahoo CarnivaleHBO BBS, and I’ve noticed some misconceptions and concerns regarding what a BlackBxx narrative is.  Mainly, that as an “interactive” format, it might not be satisfying if a viewer chooses the "wrong" path.  This concern harkens back to the creaky old days of “dial up” and the biggest stumbling-block of so-called interactive fiction of the 70s and 80s

In those first attempts, such as the original "ZORK" series, the creators based their models on a "decision tree" in which each branch split into two with every yes/no option, then into four, then eight, until the whole magilla would have to be inelegantly muscled back to the main "trunk" when it became too unwieldy.

While interesting, those early attempts were ultimately unsatisfying, as their form required so much manipulation that they were impossible to deliver without the author's hand being made glaringly visible (and, thus, "gimmicky"). Though text-based RPGs enjoyed some success, they ultimately served as a brief stop in the evolution of what ultimately became MUDs and MUSHs and, finally, online gaming environments such as World of Warcraft.

BlackBxx, however, completely negates the possibility of following the "wrong" path by dispensing with the path altogether. Because, like the medium for which it is designed, the internet, BlackBxx is non-linear.

In more metaphorical terms, a standard, traditional narrative is a trail of jellybeans, while a BlackBxx story is a jar of jellybeans.
The former is experienced in a specific order; the latter, in whatever order the jellybean aficionado chooses (and, yes, I am a lifetime subscriber to "Jellybean Aficionado" magazine). If one chooses to eat only purple jellybeans, the experience will be wholly different from (and, incidentally, no less satisfying than) that of another, who eats all the beans except those nasty root-beer-flavored ones.

By now, you might be thinking, "That's not a story! That's just a big, messy pile of random events," to which I would reply that sometimes—MOST times, as a matter of fact, in real-life at least—that is exactly what a story is.  It is only in retrospect that we glean meaning from what seemed, at the time, a jumble of unconnected incidents.

Likewise, a BlackBxx narrative is not parsed, but discovered—much like the story of ancient Egypt. Is that story any less compelling because archeologists aren't digging up artifacts in their "correct" order? Take, for instance, that bas-relief of two Egyptians holding what looks like a giant light bulb. One may (and many do) argue over whether it is indeed a light bulb, or a symbolic representation of Ra, or a bathtub with a snake in it. But there is one thing upon which everyone can agree: It is intriguing as Hell and warrants more digging.

And that is why there is no "wrong" way to experience a BlackBxx narrative.

Some writers are story-spinners, while others are world-builders. I fall into the latter camp.  And when world-building, I stick by the iceberg rule.  Because while the audience may never see the 90% that's underwater, they nevertheless have a sense the weight of it supporting the parts they could see.
In a BlackBxx narrative, my job as a writer isn't to "tell" you a story, but to build a world that supports a broadly defined story and make sure all the elements included are germane to the plot and the characters. The only difference is I am not the final arbiter of what will be seen.
You are.
Here's how it will work:
When you arrive at the BlackBxx: HAUNTED site, you will be presented with a page that looks like this:

You then choose a time segment on the slider at the bottom of the page:

You then click on a camera icon to watch what that camera captured during the selected time segment:


Easy-peasy, right?  And now that you've seen one segment, based on the current running time of thirty-two-plus hours for HAUNTED, times sixteen cameras, you've only got 6,143 other segments left to check out, each one adding to the depth of the story.

You'll be able to open as many viewers as your system can handle in whatever order that floats your boat. You can watch two (or three, or whatever) different rooms displaying what happened over the same time segment, or one room during two (or three, or whatever) different time segments, and toggle between each for audio.

As the gecko says, it's so easy, a caveman could do it!

You'll also be able to review all kinds of cool story-related files containing documentary info, video police interviews, on-site FLIR footage, journals, newspaper clippings, character bios, police reports, crime-scene photos, EVPs, etc.

Of course, that's assuming we meet our fundraising goal at Kickstarter which, right now, stands at a steady and very discouraging 30% of what we need to pull this thing off.  So if you want to come and play, help make it happen by clicking the widget below.


Saturday, November 5, 2011

Why Another Freaking Paranormal Deal?

It occurred to me from some of the comments that I’ve been reading around the net on BlackBxx (alarmingly few of them!) that some folks, particularly CARNIVÁLE fans, seem a little disappointed that I would choose to build my story around a paranormal investigation.  Hardly original, I’ll admit, but it was more out of necessity than choice.

You see, when I conceived BlackBxx, I knew that financing it would be extraordinarily difficult.  Since the form is unprecedented, it was impossible to develop a business plan projecting whether it could be done, and how large and what kind of an audience the concept would draw. 

Not only that, but because there’s nothing like it, the concept of BlackBxx is difficult to convey.  I imagine that when Edison invented the motion picture projector, he had similar challenges explaining it to potential investors.  “Gentlemen, I am going to print a series of photographs on a strip of acetate, each slightly different than the last.  I will then train a powerful beam of electric light through it to project the photographs upon a screen in very fast sequential order, which will present the illusion that the subject in the photographs is moving!  Isn’t that just splendid?  I have decided to call my invention the Vitascope!”
Odds are this was gibberish to prospective investors.  At some point, Edison probably got tired of talking it up and just built the damn thing.  And it was splendid!

As one journalist present at Edison’s first public demonstration of the Vitascope (funny, that name didn't stick) at Koster and Bial's Music Hall on Broadway put it, A view of an angry surf breaking on a sandy beach near a stone pier amazed the spectators.”  Hardly a harbinger of AVATAR, but at that point, the actual film Edison exhibited was clearly secondary to the means by which he was exhibiting it.
Our first BlackBxx project, HAUNTED, is similar to Edison’s first big boffo box-office hit, ANGRY SURF BREAKING ON A SANDY BEACH in that it is primarily a demonstration of a new means of storytelling. 

Since I had no idea whether BlackBxx was technologically feasible, I decided to create a story that would suit the format without presenting too many production challenges.  And since I’m financing the project out of my own pocket, it had to be delivered at a cost that wouldn’t bankrupt me if it failed to draw an audience.
Thus, the simple tried-and-true ruled the day, and I chose to write a paranormal investigation story to test the concept.  BlackBxx: HAUNTED is, by every definition, a beta version of the BlackBxx storytelling format, created simply to determine whether a.) it is possible to do; b.) there is an audience for it.

We’ve already answered the first question. 
We shattered a lot of significant obstacles.  For instance, I needed a scripting format which would support a number of different scenes, many performed simultaneously, over a 48-hour period of time (try finding that one in your version of Final Draft).  And we had to formulate a means by which we could rehearse the cast, which involved no less than an entirely new way to approach the characters.  And we had to build a reliable multiple camera system that would not only deliver picture and sound over the full two days, but output the content in an editable format.  And about a hundred other equally difficult challenges.

Nevertheless, we managed to get the picture in the can, though I still wish we could have shot HD (maybe next time).
As for the second question, we won’t know whether anyone will watch until we premiere it.  But I can tell you, though the raw picture and sound were far from top notch, everyone who was on monitors in that RV was completely mesmerized by the content we were capturing. 

I remember a few minutes in, saying to one of my producers, Douglas, “This is oddly compelling.”  An hour later, we were completely hooked, bouncing from one camera to the next to get audio. 

As one of the few people on earth who has actually seen what the BlackBxx format can deliver, I can tell you it is utterly immersive.  You literally cannot take your eyes off it!  Friends and family who popped by the RV “for a minute or two” found themselves hunkered down and watching for hours.

We weren’t directing.  We weren’t producing.  We were watching.  And believe me, that is something that rarely happens on a film-set.

And when it does, it’s magical.
This was way more awesome than ANGRY SURF BREAKING ON A SANDY BEACH!

So if you’ve decided not to back BlackBxx: HAUNTED because you’re disappointed in the subject-matter, consider this: You are not helping me make HAUNTED...

… you are helping me make BlackBxx. 

Even now, my mind is spinning with the potential stories that could be told once the format is a proven success—BlackBxx: MARS; BlackBxx: IRAQ; BlackBxx: 9/11; BlackBxx: TITANIC; BlackBxx: ZOMBIES; BlackBxx: IWO JIMA; BlackBxx: ASSASSINATION.
BlackBxx: (dare I say it) CARNIVÁLE?

The Kickstarter campaign got off to a great start—$20,000 raised in just the first 4 days—but it appears to have stalled out.  We only have 14 days to reach our funding goal, so if you haven’t made a pledge, please, please please, take a leap and help BlackBxx happen right now by clicking on the widget below

By the way, the morning after Edison’s fabulously successful demonstration of the Vitascope, the following appeared in the New York Times:
"[Mr. Edison] has bought, for about $5,000, two ancient, but still serviceable locomotives and a several dozen flat cars. He has built about a quarter of a mile of railroad track in a secluded spot, not far from his laboratory. In a few weeks he will start a train from each end of the track, and will run them to a crash... all the incidents of a train wreck will be caught by machines stationed at short intervals near the track."
Ooh.  BlackBxx: HEAD-ON…

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

And away we go...

Just recovering from the shoot.  My God, what a journey...

Spent three days setting up the house.  We mounted six high-end/IR videocams in locked positions covering a 3 bedroom suburban home at an undisclosed location.  Permits?  Hah!  Permits are for straight-arrows.  This was a guerrilla operation from top to bottom.

We wired the cams to our custom-made DVR (aka "The Monster").  This baby's cutting edge; we actually had to push our start date due to the Japanese tsunami!  Seem this monster requires a very rare, very specialized graphics board in order to process all that content streaming through the pipe without dropping a single precious frame.  Probably should have checked the unit for radiation...

Sound was always a challenge.  We decided to go with mics covering every camera and channelled through a big ole stack o' graphic equalizers.  Once we were under way, babysitting the levels would be impossible, but Bryant, our audio wiz, figured if it was dirty on one mic, he'd have 15 other tracks to choose from to clean and filter it in post.

We then hardwired the whole ball of wax to monitors in this gigantic RV we had parked out front. Very comfy and stocked with goodies.  That is, until we found out we couldn't jack into the house-current.  Freaking rental company forgot to throw an adapter in the cup-caddy.  No A/C unless we ran the generator. 

Did I mention we were shooting this thing out in the freaking desert?

The cast arrived late Thursday.  We all sat down at a local Mexican place for an early wrap-party, as it was a dead-cert we'd all be too destroyed for a proper wrap-party after the shoot.  Everyone was jacked; terrified and excited at the same time.  Who's crazy idea was this, anyway...?

Oh, yeah.  Mine.

We briefed the cast on all the dos and don'ts--at least all the ones we could think of.  Kind of tough to consider every contingency when you're doing something that's never been attempted before. 

At 6:00 PM PST Friday evening, Cliff would be calling "action," and two days later, on Sunday, he'd be calling "cut."  Barring a catastrophic technical failure or medical emergency, the cast would be playing the story for as much as 48 hours without interruption.  There was no such thing as "off-stage," unless you counted the hall bathroom, which we had rigged with a little cardboard flap for privacy (sorry, folks, you'll have to wait until the Germans do this if you had your hearts set on watching actors poop).

What if the cops showed up while we were shooting? 

My producing partner, Art, had a stroke of genius (or was it just a stroke?).  He told the cast, "If the cops drop by, just stay in character and brazen it out; remember, you're a paranormal investigative team testing new equipment.  We've got a note from the homeowner that says as much.  Hopefully, we'll be able to intercept any po-po before they even make the front porch."

We all went to the hotel and tried to sleep.  Yeah, right.  I tried counting sheep, but I ended up counting all the things that could go wrong...

The actors would be preparing all their own meals and eating on set, so the next morning, I doled out cash like George Jetson to all the actors so they could grocery-shop for the food their characters would eat.  The crew went up to the house to board up all the windows, finish painting our "additions" to the interior and put final the touches on practical effects with our FX-guy and all-around renaissance man, Jon. 

At 5:00 PM, we were still having issues with the FX, so we called the cast and told them to hold on.  At 7:00, we shuttled them up.  But damn if those pesky effects weren't giving Jon trouble until 11:00 PM.  Cliff was getting very hot; his actors were losing focus, becoming "too comfortable" in the house. 

Finally, at 11:30 PM, Cliff called "action."

Then, it was a trip down the rabbit-hole. 

24 hours in, it occurred to me that I might be killing my actors.  I knew I was killing myself.  The trailer looked like a meth-den, cluttered with fast-food containers and Styrofoam 7-11 coffee cups.  My crew and I had gone slightly mad. 

Between the SFX and practical FX, the cast was fully engaged and delivering my story-beats like clockwork, but the intensity of the effort was burning them up.  I started redlining stuff out of my 2nd act and frantically delivering direction via text-mail, where it became a game of telephone as the cuts and schedule changes were discreetly relayed among the actors.

Then there was the weird stuff: Objects moving and SFX that we hadn't rigged.  For instance, the cast was mightily impressed when we made a pot fly off the counter.  Only "we" didn't make a pot fly off the counter.  With all the energy crackling in that house, I wouldn't be surprised if the cast had generated some parakinesis.  I haven't been able to check the tapes, though.  Maybe they hallucinated it...


Anyway, it was around 11:00 AM Sunday morning when Cliff called "cut."  After over 30 hours of continuous shooting, we only had to do one pick-up because of a blown lighting FX cue.  Unbelievable.

A handful of pros captured something incredible.  Now it's on to the crucible of post to see what we got...