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Power to the Pixel: Crowd-sourced Bards and 'now-thinking'

Yesterday’s Power To The Pixel Forum at the BFI Southbank featured addresses by leaders in the field of digital media, presenting think pieces and case studies about the art, technology and business of storytelling in the digital age.

Power to the Pixel’s founder Liz Rosenthal opened by noting how the industry view of cross-media production has changed. New sources of financing are starting to appear. Although there is still the prejudice to overcome that cross-media is still viewed as expensive marketing or a fad, the general move has been from a model of scarcity to one of abundance.

Today we must try to understand the audience’s needs more than ever. This overarching importance of understanding and serving the audience, based on what the audience wants, seemed to be a theme of the entire day’s sessions.

In the Forum’s keynote address, “Storytelling V: The Audience Strikes Back”, Sean Stewart [pictured] of Fourth Wall Studios explained that there have been five pivotal phases in the development of storytelling through human history: 1.) “Old Blind Guys” (The Bard), 2.) Theatre (Serial Bards), 3.) Books (Scalable Bards), 4.) Movies (Parallel, Scalable Bards) and 5.) the current Digital Storytelling (Crowd-Sourced Bards). Stewart noted that technology is key to driving forward each of these storytelling types. Stewart notes that technology forces us to change the way we tell stories.

The central feature of this “Fifth Era” of storytelling is democratisation via new technology and democratization is a paradigm that is very challenging to the existing media structures. We are used to a having absolute control over the narrative with audiences as passive consumers. Stewart explains that those days, whether we like it or not, are over. “The barbarians are at the gates. If you’re used to being a tyrant, you might want to at least consider shifting to a constitutional monarchy.”

Ingrid Kopp, director of digital Initiatives at the Tribeca Film Institute, shared her thoughts and experience on transmedia - thoughts “that keep me up at 4am”, she said. She has been especially interested, through the Tribeca Institute’s new media grants, in developing and supporting non-fiction cross-media material that addresses issues of social justice.

Of particular importance is to encourage people to create their own socially relevant media and to get away from the “White Saviour Industrial Complex” so common in the world of documentary. She emphasised that hacking culture is the way forward for media, which may include much trial and error as creators and producers try to experiment and expand the form.

“Say Cheese”, the presentation by Paul Tyler, founder of Copenhagen-based Handling Ideas, addressed how technology influences not only the stories we tell, but our very behavior. The technology affects us in subtle, unconscious ways. To illustrate, he asked four attendees if he could take a photo of them, but secretly took a short video clip. Showing the clip revealed all the subtle, automatic ways we respond when a camera is pointed at us, from bunching together so we will fit in the frame to positioning our hands, body, spine in ways most friendly to the technology. We become obsessed with platforms and the devices that our stories will be accessed through, rather than the experience of the users. It is essential that we understand what the user experience is for each technology.

Tyler said we should give up trying to figure out how audiences will interact with future technology. What the technology itself will be is hard enough to predict, let alone the implications of that technology for human behavior. What we ought to devote our energy to is trying to learn how users and consumers are acting right now. “We should say no to future thinking, it’s about now thinking.”

Wayne Fletcher, innovation partner at advertising powerhouse McCann Erickson, offered insights in understanding audience behavior in the digital age, saying we must always try to see storytelling from the audience’s perspective. We must think like the consumer and put ourselves in the shoes of the audience. He recognized this was not always an easy task and that one way to solve it was to look closely at the motivations people have to consume.

Motivational psychology has been Fletcher’s field of study for many years and he has sought to learn what motivates people to consume media. At the most basic level, people use media to connect and disconnect - that is, to connect to their fellows and to disconnect from the everyday stress and experiences of their everyday lives. Media has become so ubiquitous that the absence of it produces trauma.

Fletcher cited a recent study in which a variety of people were asked to abstain from all media for 24 hours. The resulting experience included anxiety, feelings of loneliness and emptiness, and a “missing limb” feeling of having to reconnect to their devices. Fletcher said this increased understanding of the users’ relationship to media will help create greater value in the stories we tell. “In transmedia, we tend to think channel first. We can no longer thinking about stories distributed across platforms but about ideas moving through them. We’re not in the business of creating novelty, we’re in the business of creating value.”

Wendy Bernfeld of Rights Stuff gave an overview of the complexities of distribution in the digital age. Echoing Paul Tyler, she observed “You can’t future gaze until you see the present.” She noted that even in the past few months the digital distribution has been rapidly changing with screens and means of delivery blurring. There has been an explosion of online and VOD distributors, which present challenges to traditional exhibitions deals as well as offering great opportunities for new financing models.

She sees a new role for producers and that producers need to get involved at the earliest stages of development to try to look at different distribution possibilities early on. Films now might be available digitally before, after or simultaneously with their showing on theatrically. Bernfeld says producers should deliberately play with the windows, which can create new opportunities for funding and distribution.

In the first case study presentation, Mahyad Tousi, cofounder and CEO of New York’s BoomGen Studios, offered a look at how story can be explored through what he called “sustainable storytelling”. BoomGen’s latest project, “Operation Ajax”, is a historical piece inspired by the CIA overthrow of Iranian president Mohammed Mosaddegh in 1953. The project moves from graphic novel, to a graphic novel academic edition, a game and finally an animated feature film, all carefully designed to maximize the material and to present different aspects of it to different audiences. The interactive graphic novel has been recently beta tested by junior high school students in Silicon Valley who responded to the interactive elements and dramatic narrative.

Loc Dao, head of digital content at the National Film Board of Canada, gave an overview of the extensive transmedia work sponsored by the NFB and look at some of upcoming projects, which include a collaboration with Guy Maddin and an open source hardware experience called Black Box, developed in collaboration with Lance Weiler.

Producer Peter De Maegd presented a case study of “The Spiral”, the transmedia thriller series which De Maegd has pitched at Power To The Pixel two years previously, and which just concluded to much critical praise. Cally Poplak and Tim Jones of Egmont Press presented a case study of the new multi-media app for the acclaimed War Horse, which features a variety of ways to interact with novel, including historical background, a live performance of the book by author Michael Morpugo and extensive supplementary video footage.

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