Archive for the ‘Innovation & Creativity’ Category

4 things Kubrick predicted in ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’

2001 a space odyssey kubrick movie

I have been reading a slim volume on documentary-making this week and in it it had a resonant quotation from John Grierson’s wife, Margaret. The book, by the magnificently surnamed Patricia Aufderheide, got me thinking a lot about the film/video camera as a machine.

Intermission: Coincidence No. 669

3 minutes ago I had a text from director Mike Christie (director of the brilliant Jump London) asking whether I was still in Bath as he is going to be there this evening with Brett Anderson of Suede for a book event. I explained I was not in Bath, it’s just that Instagram seems to think my house is located at “Roman Bath” so I now use it as a codename for Home.

2 minutes ago I was double-checking Margaret Grierson’s name and Wikipedia pointed out that, although she was born near Stirling (where I am going later this month for Focus on Scotland to talk about the future of Documentary)  she died in Bath.

…actually, my bad, it was that other “father of documentary” Robert Flaherty’s wife Frances who said it:

“Our problem is how to live with our machines. … we have made for ourselves an environment that is difficult for the spirit to come to terms with.”

She was reflecting on Nanook of the North, Flaherty’s first film, and how the Inuit people, like the Polynesians, had a better balance with their environment and technology.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) famously opens with a sequence of ‘the Dawn of Man’ taking us up to the point where our furry ancestors discovered tools and then morphed them into weapons. Always a fine line between tool/weapon. Even when technology was a bone it was problematic for our kind. The bone is thrown into the air after the first simian Cain & Abel type murder and cuts to a space station turning in the black void.

2001_space station kubrick movie

A third father of documentary was Dziga Vertov. Coincidentally his name (pseudonym) means “spinning top”, like Kubrick’s space wheel waltzing through the darkness. Vertov’s masterpiece was Man with a Movie Camera (1929) which fetishises the movie camera as a machine eye, telling the objective truth. I first came across the film when I was studying Avant Garde literature, painting and film at university. On the other side of the room where I am writing I am charging up my not-often-used iPad ready for a story structure course I am attending at Ealing Studios (which date from 1902) this weekend – 21st Century Screenwriter with Linda Aronson. On the back of my first&only iPad is a quote from Vertov:

I a machine am showing you a world the likes of which only I can see.

The full quotation (in a different translation) is:

I am an eye. A mechanical eye. I, the machine, show you a world the way only I can see it. I free myself for today and forever from human immobility. I’m in constant movement. I approach and pull away from objects. I creep under them. I move alongside a running horse’s mouth. I fall and rise with the falling and rising bodies. This is I, the machine, manoeuvring in the chaotic movements, recording one movement after another in the most complex combinations.

Freed from the boundaries of time and space, I co-ordinate any and all points of the universe, wherever I want them to be. My way leads towards the creation of a fresh perception of the world. Thus I explain in a new way the world unknown to you.

How unbelievably resonant that is of 2001!  the machine – show you a world – freed from human immobility – in constant movement [that whirling space station] – manoeuvring – freed from the boundaries of time and space – all points of the universe – the creation of a fresh perception of the world – the world unknown to you.

Vertov founded one of the first Documentary groups, Kino-Glas – Cine-Eye. This famous still comes from Man with a Movie Camera:

Man with a Movie Camera eye 1929 movie dziga vertov

And this is computer HAL 9000’s eye in 2001:

hal 9000 eye 2001 space odyssey movie kubrick

HAL becomes increasingly threatening but when he dies our empathy turns on a sixpence and we feel sorry for him in seconds…

I’m afraid.
My mind is going.
I can feel it.
I can feel it.
My mind is going.
There is no question about it.
I can feel it.
I can feel it.
I can feel it.
I’m a …fraid.

So the mechanical eye, the movie camera, is it a tool or a weapon? Does it empathise or is it cold as steel?

This is one of the greatest scenes in Cinema:

 

Now those 4 things I promised. I went to watch 2001 two nights ago at the Prince Charles off Leicester Square in 70mm with Enfant Terrible No. 1 (the cinema shows it every so often so well worth taking the opportunity). The projection suddenly stopped just as the glass falls off the table and smashes, near the end. They got it back up&running for the enigmatic ending.

1. The iPad

So this 1968 movie shows two iPads on the table when Dr Dave and Dr Frank are being interviewed for TV from Earth. iPads came out in 2010, nine years after when the movie is set.

ipad 2001 space odyssey movie tablet pc

ipad 2001 space odyssey movie tablet pc

2. Skype

Dr Heywood Floyd makes a video call to his daughter for her birthday.

videophone 2001 space odyssey movie

videophone 2001 space odyssey movie

3. TV Screen in the back of aircraft seat

When Dr Floyd is travelling up to the space station at the beginning of the space section he falls asleep in front of a movie in the shuttle:

2001 space odyssey video screen aircarft shuttle

And here’s what’s great about the internet.

Question: Which movie is shown during Heywood Floyd’s travel in the Pan Am starship? (posed by a certain Brian Hellekin [it would be a Brian] on movies.stackexchange.com )

Answer: (by Rob Manual who, weirdly I know from my Channel 4 days):

The footage was made specially for 2001. According to Creating Special Effects for “2001: A Space Odyssey” by Douglas Trumbull

The movie being shown on the TV set in front of the sleeping passenger was a little more complicated. Kubrick wanted shots of a futuristic car, and close-ups of a love scene taking place inside. A crew was dispatched to Detroit to shoot a sleek car of the future which was provided by, I believe, the Ford Motor Company. The exteriors were shot in 35mm, but the interiors were shot without seats or passengers, as four-by-five Ektachrome transparencies. Using these as background plates for a normal rear-projection set-up, on actor and actress were seated in dummy seats and Kubrick directed the love scene. Shot on 35mm, this was cut together with the previous exterior shots, and projected onto the TV screen using a first-surface mirror.

There’s a colour photo of the actors and the car at http://www.iamag.co/features/2001-a-space-odyssey-100-behind-the-scenes-photos/

future car 2001 space odyssey

End of answer. Gotta love the Web.

4. AI

AI in the form of HAL 9000 is the big one. Back in ’68 Kubrick and co-writer Arthur C. Clarke captured many of the key issues that are obsessing us today about Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning – “how to live with our machines”, how ‘the spirit comes to terms with such machines’.

dave hal 9000 2001 space odyssey

Dave killing HAL

It was not until Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity in 2013 (which of course owes massively to 2001) that anyone got near Kubrick’s movie creatively and visually. What struck me most about watching 2001 again after so many years (I was about Enfant Terrible No.1’s age when I last saw it) is how resolutely cinematic it is. It wouldn’t play well on a TV screen. In the back of an aircraft seat. On a phone. Pure cinema of the highest order.

Tigress

While it was very sad to hear of the death of Judith Kerr this week, it also felt like the rounding off of a life well lived. To come from flight (in 1933) from the Nazis and the Holocaust in Germany, Poland, France and across Europe (which went out to vote the day after her passing) to a constructive, hopeful and beautiful body of work which gives delight to millions is a story and a half.

I had the pleasure of appearing with her on BBC Radio 4’s ‘Woman’s Hour’, talking about fathers reading to their children. Prior to entering the studio I’d forgotten that the programme was live so it really helped having a calm atmosphere engendered by Judith and Jenni Murray, the host. I can’t recall much about the conversation other than it went well, felt coherent and fluent, not stressful. And Judith was a thoroughly inspiring person.

Of course I read ‘The Tiger Who Came to Tea’ with my boys. She kindly signed their copy after the recording at Broadcasting House.

I have a vague memory of people looking for a historical analogy in it, like the Tiger stood for the Nazis or the Gestapo or something, “It’s about the rise of Hitler, right?” “No” she said “it’s about a tiger. Who comes to tea.”

That Judith Kerr now stands widely as being about turning adversity to living fully, being constructive and defeating the forces of darkness with hope and humanity is as it should be. The family, though surprised, take the Tiger in their stride and find a joyful, united solution to the problems it causes.

I am writing this in the garden of Keats’ house in Hampstead. Up the road in Downshire Hill, opposite the house of Lee Miller and Roland Penrose, is the home of Fred and Diana Uhlman. I met her many years ago to speak about her husband’s work as an artist and their joint role as catalysts of the London art scene before and after the Second World War. Fred came to London in 1936 and became the centre with Diana of a network of artists on the run including Oskar Kokoschka (who followed in the wake of Egon Schiele). This whole area became a home to artists escaped from Nazi tyranny. Judith was the widely admired standard bearer for art and culture’s triumph over the dark side.

oskar kokoschka kunstler und poeten book cover design

The Artist Who Came To London (acquired this week from Black Gull book shop, East Finchley)

Missed Call smartphone doc wins AHRC Award

AHRC Research in Film Awards 2018 at BAFTA

Missed Call, one of my Real Stories Originals commissions, a documentary made entirely on an iPhone X, a story which revolves around smartphones, their media and communications, picked up a distinctive and prestigious award recently. It won the AHRC Research in Film Award for Social Media Short, one of just 5 categories. As veteran documentary-maker (and my mentor) Roger Graef pointed out on the night, it is not often Research gets centre stage and yet it is the vital underpinning of all great docs.

AHRC Research in Film Awards 2018 at BAFTA Sophie Morgan Channel 4

Channel 4’s Sophie Morgan revealing the winner

The award was presented at BAFTA to director Victoria Mapplebeck and her teenage son Jim, the protagonist of Missed Call, by Channel 4 presenter Sophie Morgan (Rio Paralympics 2016).

The following day Victoria and Jim appeared on ITV News in this item about children reconnecting with their estranged parent – video is at the bottom of this page (click here).

itv news report missed call documentary

AHRC Research in Film Awards 2018 at BAFTA Sophie Morgan Channel 4

Real Stories hits 1m subs

real stories one million subscribers documentary channel youtube

Here’s an update by Little Dot Studios Co-Founder, Andy Taylor, of the progress of this online documentary channel for which I have been commissioning the first original content.

This week at Little Dot Studios, we are celebrating a major milestone. Our documentary channel, Real Stories, has hit 1 million subscribers.

Real Stories is only two years old, but is now running at over 700,000 views per day. It’s become a major success in a small window of time, leading to big projects and investments in the brand. But the launch of the channel was not the product of strategy reviews, business cases or investment committees – it was a small number of employees from different departments who developed their insights into ideas, and then had the initiative to see them through.

The history  

Two years ago, our ContentID team – the team overseeing YouTube’s copyright management tool – kept telling us that documentaries were big on YouTube. They were ‘claiming’ over 40,000 television shows for our production, distribution and broadcaster clients and kept finding that full-length documentary content was attracting significant viewing. In came our Insights team, who pulled all our viewing data and put videos into different genres: comedy, kids, entertainment, factual/documentary. The data showed that factual was the second-most viewed genre in our portfolio (after pre-school kids). There was an opportunity to create a genre-specific YouTube channel for full-length documentaries.

This was a novel idea at the time. Most people at this point still viewed YouTube as a short-form platform for ‘viral videos’ – certainly not the home of premium, long-form documentaries. But the data was on our side, so we opened a page called Real Stories, and our partnership managers went to all our clients to see if they would license us full, one-hour documentaries for use on YouTube. Within 3-6 months we had around 1000 documentaries.

Two years later, we have a phenomenal success story, all born from data, insights and people not being afraid to put ideas forward. A brand that didn’t exist two years ago and a channel for which we haven’t yet produced an original video now has 1 million subscribers. And we’ll pay out c.$1m to our partners this year. The prospects for 2018 are exceptional.

The evolution:

In August, we committed to two initiatives. First, to launch Real Stories on Facebook. It was always going to be tough because the brand is unknown on the platform and we have long-form content, while the platform demands short, snappy videos. 4 months later, Real Stories has over 200k Likes and achieves 200k views almost daily. On good days, it hits 1m views and has hit highs of 10m a day. We re-edit and repurpose one-hour docs for the Facebook audience and have licensed content from Vimeo and other platforms to bolster the content output. One of those videos has done 6m views. We’ve also run competitions and ‘live’ broadcasts to experiment with the Facebook algorithm. 

Second, we’ve been commissioning Real Stories ‘Originals’. We’ve brought in Adam Gee from Channel 4 (where he headed Factual Commissioning for All4) and within 4 weeks he’d signed off nine commissions. These commissions have gone to a range of new, emerging talent – different voices to the usual with a huge platform on which to tell their stories. We’ve subsequently signed off a further two and they’re all now in production. They’ll go live on Real Stories in January and, with a bit of luck, we’ll then be able to sign off more films.

Looking forward:

Looking even further forward, in Q1 2018 we’ll be launching Real Stories as an app on iOS, Android, Amazon Fire, Roku and other devices in the UK, US, Australia and Canada. It’ll be a ‘beta’ launch to learn about these new platforms and to continue to build the brand beyond YouTube. For us, it’s another step into the unknown for a brand that keeps pushing us out of our comfort zone.

4 things I love about Peter Gabriel

On Friday I bumped into an old colleague at BAFTA, Tom Dolan of the Government Digital Service, who said he’d spotted me coming out of a Peter Gabriel event the other day. Which reminded me I’d been meaning to write this, it was majorly inspiring. The event was set up by The School of Life and centred on Peter Gabriel being interviewed by philosopher (and bit of a fanboy) Alain de Botton. PG came across as humble and connecting. The setting was The Emmanuel Centre in Marsham Street, just behind Channel 4 yet I’d never suspected that behind the modest door lay a massive, magnificent circular church auditorium. In the queue I bumped into an old C4 colleague & friend, Jan Younghusband, then Commissioning Editor for Arts & Music at C4, now Com Ed for Music & Events at the Beeb. Also Mike Christie, director, whose work includes one of my favourite shows during my time at the Channel, Jump London. (My other favourite is one of Jan’s, The Cost of Living featuring the DV8 dance company.) Mike’s a one for interesting buildings – I recently watched his modernist architecture series From Here to Modernity which inspired me to go back and look at the Isokon building in Hampstead.

 

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1. He’s ever curious

This video was shown which blew my mind. It’s an ape learning to play the keyboard through its own exploration. At c.1’48” you can see it discovering the octave. PG is just a few feet away harmonising in the background.

 

You can see the set-up here:

 

Now (a) I love monkeys and (b) I reckon we’re just bald ones so this was guaranteed to appeal: the notion of communicating with our simian cousins through music which, as PG pointed out (a PG Tip) is the most direct and non-rational of art forms. As Walter Pater put it:

All art aspires to the condition of music

i.e. to that direct to the heart&soul unmediated non-material nature.

 

2. He’s a great collaborator

Kate Bush & Sinead O’Connor are two that particularly stick in my mind…

The Don’t Give Up video by Godley & Creme.

Blood of Eden

 

3. He was great looking

Captured particularly well by Robert Mapplethorpe – I remember this shot jumping out at me at a Mapplethorpe exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery (?) because of that white V and the downward eyes.

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Peter Gabriel by Robert Mapplethorpe

 

4. He has an open mind

Whether it’s his championing of world music through his Realworld label and WOMAD festival or his embracing of interactive digital technology (and apes) he has a most admirable and inspiring openness. When I won the very first Interactive Entertainment BAFTA Award in 1997 with the MindGym team the main nominee we beat was Peter Gabriel’s Starship Titanic game made with Douglas (Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe) Adams. It felt very much like the young upstart had triumphed. His work with Amnesty International. His campaigning for South Africa in the wake of Steve Biko’s murder. His wide-ranging interests and boundless enthusiasm remain an inspiration to young upstarts across the globe.

 

 

Bowie: The Next Day

I’m sure many people are feeling Bowied out by now with all the media coverage and social media outpourings but I still want to capture the moment (not least for myself), and book-end a sombre day with the reflections that have bubbled up in the last 16 hours on a truly great man.

David Bowie

One Bowie

{This is a picture from one of my old posts (hence the odd caption – I can’t recall the context) but I really love it, so…}

Like many people I immersed myself today in Bowie’s music – drawn initially, of all the 25 long players (studio LPs), to Station to Station (it was interesting where my heart took me when push came to shove). And then to Blackstar because he wouldn’t want us looking back too much. And on to Lodger because …well it got me thinking, why does that one resonate? – it was a moment when he had a significant impact on my life…

1979. I was mainly into punk. One evening I was at home laying across my bedroom floor listening to a radio show on Radio 1 called something like Conversations with Bowie. I think I may still have a recording of it on cassette tape in a drawer somewhere. During the long (two part?) interview, centred on the making of Lodger, his newest record, he mentioned an artist who was making a big impact on him around then but was largely unknown at the time. Egon Schiele. I’d never heard of him, and I knew a fair bit about art (for a 16 year old). He was very little known in Britain then. What Bowie said struck me and I made a mental note which I followed up…

Egon_Schiele_zelfportret

Thin White Bloke: a Bowie-like Egon Schiele

Fast-fwd to four years later >>> I won a travel scholarship (the Morrison Grant) from Girton College, Cambridge to study Egon Schiele’s work in Vienna. It was a significant landmark in my growing up, helping consolidate my interest in art and Modernism as well as providing a colourful independent travel adventure. Thank Bowie for that.

Another Teutonic moment: Exactly this time last year I went to Berlin with Enfant Terrible No. 2 (who loved it – the cafes, the wandering about, the whole vibe). On one of our flâneur sessions we stopped at a big record shop and I came across a box set called Zeit of Bowie’s Berlin period – Low, Heroes, Lodger and the live double LP Stage. I bought it as the perfect souvenir of a beautiful trip. I’m going back this coming weekend (apposite timing given today’s news) with Enfant Terrible No. 1. He was playing Bowie in his room at Bournemouth University last night, pulling a semi-all-nighter for an essay, pretty much when the star light was darkening over in NYC.

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Father & Son

And on the subject of family members, our cat is called Ziggy after Bowie’s Ziggy. I was looking for a pair of names for our pair of cats and the one that found favour after a social media call-out was Ziggy & Stardust. (Her hair’s even better than Bowie’s, well worthy of her name.)

My director showreel when I first went freelance was to the soundtrack of Sound and Vision. I can’t hear that song any more without seeing some of those pictures including an underwater swimmer shot by DoP Jack Hazan (Rude Boy, A Bigger Splash) and Martin Luther King delivering his I Had a Dream speech from within an H shape (which represented the word Hearing).

The last Bowie moment that comes to what is now a somewhat weary mind on this grey day is not either of the occasions I saw him play live – 1983 on the Serious Moonlight tour in Grenoble (we had fun because he was clearly having fun) and 1985 at Live Aid – but set in a North London exam room as I sat my O Level English. We had to write a creative story and mine was ‘inspired by’ (for which read ‘an unsubtle rip-off of’) Please Mr Gravedigger from his first LP (David Bowie of 1967), simply transposed into prose with lots of fancy adjectives. I got an A. I went on to do A Level and S Level English, then literature subjects at university, bringing us back to Girton.

Another half-thought emerges: as I approached those A Levels I grew heartily sick of school and spent the second half of the second year of 6th form in my dad’s house (not where I grew up) shacked up in a bedroom with two things for comfort: a pile of Jane Austen books and two Bowie cassettes: ChangesTwoBowie and Rare. I did no work, just read that pile and listened to that slightly off-beat pair of compilations. All the exam shit worked out fine and it was a suitably intense teenage moment.

Just four and a half moments of different scales where Bowie had a benign and positive influence on my life. There are many others, many associated with particular records or songs – from Let’s Dance in a small bedsit in Chambéry, Savoy when I first cut the umbilical cord from home (at Boulevard des Capucines chez les Pachouds) to V2 Schneider on the jukebox during a Baltic educational cruise aboard the SS Uganda) – many moments of intrigue, delight and inspiration from someone who ultimately is a true genius and by all accounts (many today) a real mensch.

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I & eye

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Big Ones

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Little Ones

Happy Birthday Charlie

124 today and never bettered

charlie chaplin filming

My Olympics: Isle see you (and raise you one)

The Moment

When I got to work this (Monday) morning and everyone was talking about the Opening Ceremony I was struck by how long ago it seems – it was only on Friday night and yet a lot of water seems to have passed under the proverbial. It was exactly a week ago that I sped down to Stratford after work to watch the first full Technical Dress rehearsal of the ceremony thanks to a last minute ticket courtesy of London 2012 digital boss Alex Balfour. I was bowled over by what I saw and heard. It was clearly designed as a television event – you could sense many of the camera angles to come – so I was more than happy to experience the real thing via that medium five days later. I found the structure very interesting too – it seemed to revolve around an iconic moment right in the middle – the coming together of the five Olympic rings in a shower of steel mill sparks. We did not see the other iconic moment at the end – the lighting of Thomas Heatherwick’s 204 petal fire flower – which shifts the structure to something more balanced across the whole event. Danny Boyle’s Isles of Wonder proved to be a panoramic vision of what and who this country is, was and will be. It had a natural diversity and balance – ethnically, generationally, geographically, culturally – which reflect the greatness of Britain.

I’ve thought for a long time that Englishness (I’ll switch perspective for a moment) is characterised by these four things in particular:

  • Eccentricity – we always have been an odd, outlandish bunch: the world will think so all the more now (no bad thing), with the striking contrast with Beijing 2008’s bombastic opening ceremony which I wrote about back in July 2012 in this very blog here
  • Humour – we have a sense of humour that undermines authority, sometimes in a self-deprecating way (but different from New York humor in that regard)
  • Tolerance – basically these isles have tended to absorb other peoples in a constructive way
  • Creativity of a particular hard-edged brutal sort – I’ve written about this elsewhere in this blog, Creativity being one of the two the main themes, but to reiterate I believe the combination of Norman refinedness and Saxon warrior tendencies has brought about the kind of culture where a beautiful feminine dress is finished with a pair of DMs, that constant undermining of the conventional.

Danny Boyle’s ceremony was infused with all of these: Eccentricity in turning a sports stadium into a bucolic world from the past complete with farm animals and rugby players, that very eccentric game created when some maverick picked up the ball and ran with it; Humour well captured in that modern day Chaplin, mute and recognised the world over, Mr Bean, dreaming of Chariots of Fire (yes, it pains me to bracket him with Chaplin but there is that common universality) and in getting the reigning monarch to be shoved out of a helicopter to make her entrance (I loved the quotation in The Telegraph the next day: “With the words ‘Good evening, Mr Bond’ the Queen secured the monarchy for the next thousand years.”); Tolerance in the easy racial mix of the whole cast and story-telling, like the modern phone-centric romance of the Digital Revolution sequence, as well as the inclusion of the choir of blind, deaf and other children; and of course Creativity in every fibre of its being. I’m not a huge fan of Boyle’s films but I can’t really fault anything in his conception or direction on this occasion – real vision and insight.

Whilst writing this I had a quick look back at that blog post from the time of the Beijing Opening Ceremony and it read as surprisingly precient:

In 2012 to follow these people making a spectacle of themselves, partying to the tune of the Party, London must be itself, tune in to its idiosyncratic, eccentric, spirited creativity (one thing that cannot be manufactured); its rich mix of cultures and peoples; its unique, particular, genuine handmade in Britain talent; its individual dreams which thread the tapestry of its Jerusalem spirit.

I even got the opening song right – that beautiful rendition of Jerusalem which really should be our national anthem (or the English one at least). That child’s voice, and children throughout the event, were included with a genuine warmth and respect.

What was brilliant about the whole thing was how, despite the regime under which it was created, it raised an almighty finger to the Tory establishment and other right-wingers (including the US of A) by showcasing the NHS, the workers who built this country (and the Olympic Park itself, forming the honour guard when the torch finally entered the stadium), Johnny Rotten and the Pistols, Tim Berners-Lee who gave everything away in a very non-Capitalist way, ravers, lesbian kissing, volunteers, the works – all this, without aggression and in good spirit, plugging in to the energy of creative ideas and imagination.

It also captured the intergenerational aspect of the Olympics perfectly, no more so then when transferring that flame from the elder statesman of sport that is now five-time Gold Medal winner Steve Redgrave, via a generation of highly accomplished British Olympians who mentored and selected them, to the 7 emerging talents who carried those distinctive perforated metallic torches (one of which I’d seen from a few feet away two days before as it jogged across my manor by Victoria Park London N3) to light the petals of the cauldron which rose and were united in a single flame in a perfectly judged moment of symbolism.

On the Friday of the Opening ceremony I did my first shift at the Main Press Centre as a Gamesmaker (London 2012 volunteer). That I was working there is testimony to the narrowness of my skills – you didn’t apply for any particular job, you told them what you could do and they assigned you to a role, so I got the website and related social media. I woke up that Friday morning, in another well judged moment of symbolism, at dawn – excited like a child. And like a child I got on my bike (after first having driven it in the back of the car to Stamford Hill, site of my own raving in my 20s at Watermint Quay by the canal) and cycled along the self-same canal in the deserted early morning to the Hackney Wick corner of the Olympic Park. I clocked on at the MPC in good time, joined in the bell ringing at 8:12 (All the Bells by Martin Creed) and then got to it. Seb Coe wandered in during the morning to watch the Jacques Rogge press conference on our telly. He wandered in again exactly 24 hours later  the morning after the Ceremony. He looked tired but content. (I’d had only 4 hours sleep myself, and I’m a basket case without at least 16.) I took the opportunity to congratulate him (his speech alone must have been nerve-wracking to a global TV audience of that magnitude) and talk about the reaction so far. He was delighted with the UK press reaction and felt that international coverage was equally positive. We then talked for a bit about what the approach signified for the future of the country, how it was emblematic of the edge our unique British creativity can give in a world dominated by huge populations and their cheap labour. What a telling comparison between the conscripted soldiers making up the serried ranks of the Beijing ceremony and the volunteer health workers and the like who populated the Isles of Wonder.

4 things I learnt from The Story

tim wright and rob bevan

Tim Wright tests his sense of balance

Today I spent at the excellent The Story conference at Conway Hall, Red Lion Square, organised by my fellow Commissioning Editor at Channel 4, Matt Locke (a labour of love on his part). The theme was stories and story-telling – little theory, no money talk, just narrative and tales about tales. So what I learnt…

1) The best conferences (like this one) have only two outputs – Inspiration and catalysing Connections between people.

2) The best comic books have a layer of history, a layer of mythology and a layer of contemporary relevance as evinced by Sydney Padua‘s Lovelace & Babbidge. She showed the development of  their new adventure Vs The Organist which combines Victoriana with Orpheus & Eurydice with proto-geekage. Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen has a similar combo, a bit more literary, and it’s top of the tree for me. (Talking of trees, the frames in the new story where a band of monkeys break into Babbidge’s office and drag him off to the underworld gave me a sudden flashback to a game we played as children with plastic monkeys, something I hadn’t thought of for decades- there’s so much buried in these memories and imaginations of ours, and connection, especially surprising connection, is the key to creativity.)

3) The best stories combine profound emotion and humour. My old friend and colleague Tim Wright stole the show with his Harrison Fraud story. It’s about a mad time when he tried to convince his business/creative partner, Rob Bevan, that Harrison Ford wanted to work with them. The comic story of facial hair and faked letters was punctuated with insights into Tim’s marital struggles, recounted with an unflinching honesty. That willingness to confront difficult themes head on – as demonstrated equally in Tim’s wonderful In Search of Oldton project which has its roots in his father’s tragic death – is what raises his stories to special heights. Tim and I worked together on the writing of MindGym back in 1996, a game about creativity, Rob worked on it too programming and designing  – it was a landmark project for me, drawing me into the world of non-linear story-telling and interactivity, and I learned a wealth from Tim’s methodical approach to scripting. I remember sitting with Tim in a bar in Clapham Old Town, asserting my dedication to film-making and that I’d be giving up this interactive thing before too long, not really my bag. 14 years down the line and here I still am.

4) The best fiction is less strange than truth. The day was rounded off in style by a besuited David Hepworth, he of The Word and Smash Hits, who told a lovely circular tale of the passage of wisdom from father to son to grandson via a bespoke tailor’s in the Yorkshire village he grew up in. It involved the coincidence of a suit being made for him unknowingly by the tailor who had made his father’s suits. It reminded me of my wedding ring. I wear two rings – the wedding ring my wife gave me in the top O of the OXO Tower by the Thames when the O X and O were all floor-to-ceiling windows and the tower was still a building site, and a plain silver ring I bought from a stall in Camden market several years before. To cut a long Irish story short it turned out that the posh jeweler in Gabriel’s Wharf and the Camden stall holder were one and the same person from Inishowen in Donegal (where my wedding ended, 60 miles down the road from its start point in Derry). This stranger than fiction coincidence came to light one day when I was chucking out old chequebook stubs and I found the £10 cheque I’d bought the silver ring with. Recently I’ve had another such experience where I came across the same person (Pippa Harris of Neal St Films, Sam Mendes’ business partner) through two totally different routes – one starting off in a novel I was reading, The Great Lover by Jill Dawson; the other through judging the RTS Single Drama Award for work – the true-life story weaving through all manner of themes from Rupert Brooke to Wikipedia. It’s coincidences and dynamics like those that make life worth living.

I had a quick chat with David Hepworth on the way out about the merits of The Word podcast (very good for jogging I said, great for repetitive domestic tasks he countered) – it’s the very best on the Web, a chat with friends over the kitchen table. Leaving the period lobby, it felt great to have spent the day in Conway Hall with its radical, left-wing vibe. It was here that I took my first published photograph – one of  Gerry Adams and Ken Livingstone that appeared in An Phoblacht, the Irish Republican newspaper. But that’s another story…

barrel of monkeys

Monkeys test your sense of balance

We all scream for Two Screen

Today’s Broadcast exploring Two-Screen Experiences with reference to Surgery Live and Embarrassing Bodies Live

Two-screen TV: terms of engagement

11 February, 2010 | By Robin Parker

Broadcasters are finding new ways of attracting the growing number of people who surf the web while they watch TV. Robin Parker taps into the world of two-screen entertainment.

Broadcasters and producers looking to hold on to the communal experience of TV are increasingly turning to the very threat most readily associated with fragmenting audiences.

The web is fast becoming the place to bring an extra dimension to, and make money from, live TV viewing by capitalising on many viewers’ habit of peering at the set over their laptops.

Reasoning that viewers are talking with their peers on social networks and Googling shows, broadcasters want to own the space – and find ways of harnessing this conversation to inform the content of their programmes.

To date, ‘two-screen’, as the trend is known, has been dominated by live web chats to support ITV franchises such as Dancing On Ice and The X Factor, which attract up to 20,000 people a time, and play-along games for shows such as The Apprentice and Four Weddings.

But players in this field forecast an acceleration of interest this year and expect the forthcoming General Election and football World Cup to take the trend to new heights.

Last week saw former ITV exec Jeff Henry launch an ambitious ‘live linking’ service that sent viewers of Five’s US drama Num3rs to 160 websites featuring material relevant to the unfolding narrative.

This week, Channel 4 takes this development to its next logical step with its first ‘one-screen’ interactive experience: a live web show spin-off of Embarrassing Bodies.

Some might argue that enabling a web audience to interact with the show by asking questions and to vote in polls is merely a 21st-century extension of radio and TV phone-ins, but C4 crossplatform commissioner Adam Gee argues that this is reductive.

As Embarrassing Bodies Live unfolds, the studio feed will be dictated by the volume and nature of viewers’ questions, photos and comments. “Our one rule of thumb is that if the interactive element could be done on a digital channel or a radio phone-in, it’s out,” he says. “Those are not networked conversations and they’re not personalised.

“What separates the men from the boys is to take an existing behaviour, such as on Twitter, and spring-board off that into a conversation that has impact on the editorial.”

The web show is the culmination of 18 months of experimentation conducted by Gee, much of it involving Twitter. The highest-profile case, Surgery Live (see box below), became Twitter’s number one trending topic when it aired last May. Another, Alone In The Wild, was, says Gee, an “asynchronous” two-screen experience that opened up the production process before the show aired. It enabled a networked conversation – but one that excluded Ed Wardle, the isolated figure in the series.

Gee believes simplicity is best and thinks two-screen is effective for shows with “a certain wallpaper quality”. He adds: “If Big Brother were starting now, it would totally be in this territory.”

Where it goes wrong, he says, is when too much “unmoderated noise” renders the content incoherent, citing Bad Movie Club, a Twitter experiment backed by the likes of Graham Linehan and Phill Jupitus, in which followers watched the same movie and tweeted their thoughts as it played.

Thirst for information

In the spirit of DVD audio and text commentaries, Henry’s TellyLinks.com is the latest way to feed viewers’ thirst for more information. At launch, it acts like a micro-Google, connecting viewers with external links providing everything from information on an actor to background news stories and details of a show’s setting.

In time, it hopes to sell these links, enabling an advertiser to reach some viewers of regular shows such as the BBC’s Top Gear. Last week’s launch saw the site crash under what Henry says was “overwhelming demand”, which his team is trying to address.

Similarly, Maverick recently provided a Twitter commentary to HBO Iraq war drama Generation Kill as it played out on C4, in which followers of the hashtag #gk were offered definitions of about 60 technical military terms per episode, plus background context on the war that linked through to sites such as Channel 4 News.

The idea came to Maverick’s head of new media, Dan Jones, when he watched the show in the US. “While I loved it, it was hard to follow all the dialogue and I was looking up stuff online after each episode,” he says. “We designed a glossary that you could, if you chose, ignore most of, but you could look whenever you wanted to check something.”

The audience for this was in the mere hundreds but they were, he says, “really engaged”.

Maverick has also started working with talent on this, using Kirstie Allsopp’s love of Twitter to get the presenter to link to craft courses and contributors’ sites during the transmission of Kirstie’s Homemade Christmas.

Financial incentives

“It’s low cost and this casual engagement becomes financially worthwhile as you’re directing people to advertising-supported sites like C4’s 4homes. com,” Jones adds.

Meanwhile, having pioneered simple play-a-long tools for The Apprentice, Come Dine With Me and Living shows such as Four Weddings, digital specialist Monterosa is also eyeing the commercial opportunities.

“Some of the biggest brands are measuring their marketing spend by engagement,” managing director Tom McDonnell says. “In shows with commercial breaks, there’s a huge opportunity to reach people waiting for shows – and games – to come back on.”

He believes the games reward viewer loyalty and help a pre-recorded show feel ‘live’. While less than 1% of the audience played along, as much as 80% of these watched every episode. Moreover, he says, “it’s about giving the broadcaster an authoritative role in viewers’ behaviour. Channels like Living have to feel interactive.”

Mint Digital has, under its own steam, developed its own play-a-long game – a fantasy football variant called Football 3s – and is now discussing with ITV how to exploit it for the World Cup.

Product manager Utku Can Akyuz believes the tournament, along with the election, will be the testing ground for two-screen, but feels it will remain a minority interest in the short term.

“I don’t want to go down the path where the only way to watch a show is with a second screen,” he says. “It’s a challenge for writers and producers to create hooks for it without being too overt.”

Another challenge, he says, will be adapting the experience for timeshifted viewing. Mint is prototyping a debate tool that time-indexes each comment made through a broadcast, then overlays them on a show on a catch-up site such as iPlayer so that viewers watching later can get a sense of the experience.

He also wants to finesse the feel of two-screen. “We’re looking at how to design it for peripheral vision – using colours or sounds so you can see things change, but you can decide whether or not to look down at your laptop.”

Which begs a bigger question: with Project Canvas on the horizon, bringing interactivity to the TV set, will two-screen have had its day? Players in this space think not, arguing that the peculiar mix of a personal and shared experience will live on.

“A lot of TV viewing is done with more than one person in the room,” says McDonnell. “Wouldn’t it be pretty annoying if dad was obscuring the TV just to play a game?”

SURGERY LIVE
C4 OPENS THE DEBATE

Windfall Films’ week-long Channel 4 series Surgery Live, which covered live operations from a surgical theatre, was the first significant and deliberate attempt by a UK broadcaster to involve Twitter and Facebook in shaping the editorial. Backed by a Wellcome Trust grant for online development, it asked viewers to become virtual students and tweet the questions and comments they would give if they were in the room with the doctors.

“It was a digital media literacy opportunity,” says C4 cross-platform commissioner Adam Gee. “We couldn’t assume people knew how to use Twitter, and this helped get them acquainted.”

More than 10,000 questions and comments arrived via Twitter and Facebook over the course of the week and the best got to the surgeon within two minutes. By the final night, it was Twitter’s biggest trending topic in the world and the Facebook group counted 5,000 members. Given that the show itself was only accessible in the UK, this was no mean feat and Gee counted surgical students, doctors and health charities among the interested audience who continue to discuss the issue online nine months on.

“It was a great opportunity to experiment,” Gee concludes. “It amplified what was going on and we took some real steps forward by initiating a broad range of debates on medical issues with a community that developed in a completely organic way.”

[Article reproduced courtesy of Broadcast]

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