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The New Media E-volution Has Begun

Filmmakers, advertising and PR creatives tap the communications potential of the Internet

By Michael Fickes

Lens flares and blown-out lighting accent the dance fight in The LXD's
Lens flares and blown-out lighting accent the dance fight in The LXD’s “Uprising” episode.

Have you noticed that content doesn’t change when a new medium comes on the scene? Books, magazines, newspapers, radio and television all present fundamental forms of content: fiction, non-fiction, music, art, games, entertainment, advertising and public relations.

movie industry news Five hundred thumbnails of agency movers and shakers were showcased on haveyoubeenshortlisted.com, designed by TRUST.
Five hundred thumbnails of agency movers and shakers
were showcased on haveyoubeenshortlisted.com, designed
by TRUST.

The Internet delivers the same kinds of content, too. The difference is that the Internet’s immediacy and interactivity make it possible to deliver content in more powerful ways. Three evolutionary projects tailored for the web demonstrate how content creators are mastering the Internet’s potential.

The LXD Boasts Extraordinary Quality
Director (Step Up 2 The Streets; Step Up 3D) and screenwriter Jon M. Chu doesn’t believe that television programs, feature films and Internet entertainment should have quality differences.

“In the future, online will compete with television and movies,” Chu says. “As long as the entertainment is compelling, it will attract an audience.”

The Legion of Extraordinary Dancers (The LXD), Chu’s new online effort, is proving his case. The series, distributed by Paramount Digital Entertainment and launched on Hulu, revolves around stories of an ancient and secretive order of superhero dancers. In this year’s first season, Chu directed five episodes ranging from 7:29 to 13:40 in length and produced 22 clips providing background on the characters.

Jon M. Chu directs an episode of  The LXD, a new web series featuring superhero dancers.
Jon M. Chu directs an episode of The LXD, a new web series featuring superhero dancers.

“Dancers have extraordinary physical abilities,” says Chu, describing the series’ back-story. “Those abilities enable them to tie into energy that surrounds them. When dancers learn to focus this energy, they can use it to move things, and the ability to dance becomes a weapon. The better the dancer, the more powerful the weapon.”

Chu and Director of Photography Alice Brooks shot The LXD at locations around Los Angeles using a RED camera with the new Mysterium X Chip. “It is a full-frame chip,” Chu says. “It can detect more light in darker spaces, and that enables us to play more in the shadows.”

“The lenses were Zeiss Super Speed with a Schneider Classic Soft Filter,” adds Brooks.

Instead of lighting from shot to shot, Chu and Brooks lit the entire location at the beginning of the single shooting day scheduled for most season-one episodes. “We didn’t have time to relight,” Brooks says. “So we used large sources like light through windows. We also used lots of lens flares and blown-out highlights.”

The Fanboyz, three friends who aspire to be recruited by The LXD, show off their talents in an episode of the eponymous web series.
The Fanboyz, three friends who aspire to be recruited by The LXD, show off their talents in an episode of the
eponymous web series.

Brooks managed a full camera crew with a first and second assistant camera operator, Digital Imaging Technician (DIT), gaffer, key grip, best boy electric, best boy grip, four electrical technicians and four additional grips. About 95 percent of each story was shot by Nick Franco using the RED in Steadicam mode.

The full-size crew reflects Chu’s interest in producing material comparable to good television. “That’s the goal,” says Brooks, “to be as good as a television program. It’s all entertainment, and entertainment requires a certain level of quality.”

That, of course, is easier said than done. While good budgets don’t guarantee quality, they make quality possible. And web-based entertainment has yet to evolve a business model that generates budgets comparable to television let alone feature films.

However, one of the innovations that The LXD is bringing to web entertainment is the development of a business model. Chu works with Los Angeles-based Agility Studios (www.agilitystudios.com), a company that produces Internet-based entertainment. “My job is working with a new generation of creatives who understand the Internet and enable companies like Agility to tailor business models to content — instead of tailoring the content to some idea of a business model,” says Agility CEO Scott Ehrlich.

He inked the distribution deal for The LXD with Paramount Digital Entertainment and has broadened the dancers’ reach with performances on the Academy Awards special, on So You Think You Can Dance and with the Glee tour. “The LXD is well on its way to becoming a well-established brand,” Ehrlich says.

Blown-out lighting gives a distinctive look to The LXD's
Blown-out lighting gives a distinctive look to The LXD’s “Uprising” episode.

High Performance Advertising
Every fall, traditional commercial advertising introduces new model cars to the market with spots promoting key features and benefits.

But a lot of information on those subjects doesn’t fit well in a traditional commercial. Not only that, spots for the new model year have historically had to wait to shoot until cars are rolling off the assembly line.

movie industry news SWAY VFX supervisor Aaron Powell helped develop a series of web videos for Ford EDGE before the 2011 model rolled off the assembly line.
SWAY VFX supervisor Aaron Powell helped develop a
series of web videos for Ford EDGE before the 2011
model rolled off the assembly line.

The Internet has changed that. Take the campaign to introduce the 2011 Ford EDGE. Dearborn-based agency Team Detroit asked Culver City, California’s SWAY (www.swaystudio.com) to develop a series of computer-generated short films for the EDGE website (www.fordvehicles.com/edge) some months before the car was scheduled to go into production. Highly stylized and hyper-real, the short films are interactive online demos providing a sneak peek at the new features of the 2011 EDGE, including its interior, exterior, speaker system, Adaptive Cruise Control and Blind Spot Information System.

The agency provided SWAY with raw data from Ford engineers when they finished the basic design. “We used the data to build a computer model of the car that showed how it worked before it was even real,” says Aaron Powell, SWAY’s VFX supervisor.

“We import the data into [Autodesk] 3ds Max [where] we create a wireframe model and apply plastics, car paints, glass and rubber from our proprietary library of automotive surfaces,” explains SWAY executive producer Jason Cohon describing the process.

SWAY created a CG 2011 Ford EDGE for a series of informational web videos before the new model rolled off the assembly line.
SWAY created a CG 2011 Ford EDGE for a series of informational web videos before the new model rolled off
the assembly line.

To create driving scenes, SWAY loads the model into its proprietary Drive-A-Tron driving simulator for real-world physics-based animation. “We specify the performance characteristics of the car,” says Powell. “For instance, we might give the model a 250 horsepower, five-speed engine, with a certain gear ratio and 30 psi in the tires.

“With the Drive-A-Tron, we can show the car doing things that stunt drivers have trouble doing in a real car because of today’s safety designs. For instance, you have to disable antilock brakes if you want a car to come to a sliding stop. In the real world, that’s tough to do. But we can turn off antilock brakes by clicking a box in the software.”

For Ford EDGE, Team Detroit asked for eight videos covering interior design, exterior styling, SYNC technology for electronic devices, the audio system, the flexibility of the interior space and seats, and towing. Two videos covered safety systems.

SWAY created a CG 2011 Ford EDGE for a series of informational web videos before the new model rolled off the assembly line.
CG Ford EDGE interior created by SWAY uses interactive blue highlights to show the locations of the Sony
audio system’s speakers.

One of the videos profiles the car’s audio system with HD radio. The :33 video — the Internet doesn’t impose time limits — follows a single camera as it pans around the interior where 12 Sony speakers are strategically placed. “We took the interior walls off,” Powell says. “Then we created an effect showing the speakers and wiring growing into place, with the finished wall growing and covering the sound system infrastructure.”

An animator and an effects artist created the piece in just over two weeks.

The agency posted the detailed videos on the EDGE website where prospective customers call them up on demand with a mouse click. Without an expensive media buy Ford gains exposure for EDGE at virtually no cost above that of production.

SWAY created a CG 2011 Ford EDGE for a series of informational web videos before the new model rolled off the assembly line.
SWAY VFX supervisor Aaron Powell sets up a shot.

New Tool for Storytelling and Marketing
Santa Monica-based production company Tool of North America (www.toolofna.com) responded to the release of Apple’s iPad last spring by producing “Touching Stories,” a series of four interactive, live-action shorts that allow viewers to touch, move, shake and turn the screen to seemingly control the outcome of each story. Available as a free, downloadable app, the series leverages the interactivity of the iPad to expand the ways directors tell stories and illustrates the potential of branded consumer experiences.

Tool directors Sean Ehringer, Tom Routson and Geordie Stephens each made their own film; and Erich Joiner and Jason Zada collaborated on one.

“In ‘Jerry and Sarah,’ Ehringer enables the viewer to affect the lives of the characters on screen,” says Dustin Callif, digital executive producer for Tool. The video includes 25 touch points a viewer can use to manipulate the couple’s behavior. If a viewer touches the magazine on the coffee table, Sarah will pick it up, slap herself in the face and, with a stunned expression, ask the camera, “Why did I do that?” A shake of the iPad makes her fall off the couch. A flush of the toilet makes Jerry cry out as his shower turns scalding hot.

Ticked-off character Jerry
Ticked-off character Jerry “breaks” the iPad glass in one of Tools’ “Touching Stories.”

“You mess with them until they realize that you are somehow causing these bizarre incidents. Jerry gets a golf club and swings it at you, and the piece ends with the image of a cracked iPad screen,” Callif explains.

Like straight commercials, interactive pieces begin with a concept and script illustrated on a storyboard. “Next you find interaction points that make sense within the story,” Callif says. “For instance, at this point, you can shake the iPad and the story will go in one direction. If you don’t, then the story will go in a different direction.”

The assets for “Touching Stories” were shot with a Canon EOS 5D Mark II HDSLR and edited in Apple’s Final Cut Pro. Domani Studios in Chicago and New York (www.domanistudios.com) programmed the videos’ interactivity and created the iPad app.

Shooting the Jerry and Sarah episode of Tool's touching stories for ipad.
Shooting the Jerry and Sarah episode of Tool’s “Touching Stories” for iPad.

Then Tool turned to its longtime PR company TRUST (www.trustcollective.com) to get the attention of the top creative minds in advertising during the Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival.

“These stories were so different than conventional content that we wanted to find a different way to showcase them,” says Adam Fine, TRUST’s founder. So the company devised a multipronged guerrilla PR effort that included designing the website haveyoubeenshortlisted.com with a gallery of 500 thumbnail faces and hyperlinks of leading advertising influencers. TRUST staffers manned the campaign’s Twitter feed and engaged with Cannes-related Facebook pages driving traffic to the website and creating buzz.

During the ad festival contenders were whittled down in phases, their photos blurred out and hyperlinks deactivated. TRUST peppered shortlisters with mysterious email with the goal of deepening the mystery. “It was hard work, but we kept them engaged the whole way through the campaign,” Fine recalls. “We would write to them using a disguised email address, and they would write back.”

Tool director Sean Ehringer, left, with actors portraying Jerry and Sarah in iPad's touching stories.
Tool director Sean Ehringer, left, with actors portraying Jerry and Sarah in iPad’s “Touching Stories.”

Once the 15 pre-selected winners were finalized, the TRUST team tracked down each one in Cannes and surprised them with a free iPad preloaded with the “Touching Stories” app. Equipped with still and video cameras on the ground, the staffers captured the deliveries and posted them on the campaign site which had been redesigned to showcase the winners.

TRUST points out that just as social media and devices such as the iPad offer new sets of tools to tell stories, these channels challenge and empower PR firms to bypass traditional media outlets and directly engage the target audience.

Fifteen years ago, early adopters could see that the Internet was going to become a powerful medium. What it would be able to do was unclear, but the lens is clearer today. As a medium, the Internet is evolutionizing media content of all kinds from Jon M. Chu’s high-caliber The LXD on the entertainment side to SWAY’s Ford EDGE informational videos and Tool and TRUST’s innovative marketing efforts. The Internet is set to offer new and numerous opportunities for producers, directors and DPs to join the e-volution.


December 7, 2012