By Greg Pak I came up through independent film. Then I snagged a meeting with Marvel and spent most of the last eight years writing comic books. Now I've just completed an iPad app version of one of my graphic novels that combines elements of both comics and film. Here are a few thoughts about what inspired me as a filmmaker and comic book writer to plunge into the transmedia world of the "Vision Machine" app project and what I've learned.
Why "Vision Machine"?
A few years ago, Orlando Bagwell of the Ford Foundation approached me with the idea of creating a comic book that would help independent media makers imagine the technological, political, and social changes that will affect us over the next fifty years. As an indie filmmaker, sci fi guy, technology freak, and comic book creator, I was immediately hooked. What resulted was a 80 page sci fi thriller that follows three filmmaker friends as they confront the incredible potential and danger of the iEye, Sprout Computers' latest piece of revolutionary personal technology. The iEye allows users to instantly record anything they can see or imagine, then edit, add special effects, and share it with the world just by thinking about it. Our heroes plunge into a mind-blowing utopia of creativity... and then, of course, the other shoe drops.
With its emphasis on copyright, trademark, privacy, and surveillance, "Vision Machine" let me explore questions that I'm always thinking about as a filmmaker and a citizen of the digital world.
And then ITVS came along and let me take the project to a whole new level.
The Future Is Already Here
New digital technology is already good enough to deliver fantastic storytelling experiences to readers and viewers. I want to be telling stories for decades. So I figure it's a smart move to jump on any chance to create stories that work natively with new technology.
Soon after I completed the "Vision Machine" comic book in early 2011, I began talking with Karim Ahmad and Matthew Meschery at ITVS about the possibility of working together. Our plans eventually focussed on diving into brand new technology by making the interactive iPad app version of the comic book that's now downloadable for free from the Apple iTunes Store.
The iPad allowed us to add a soundtrack, animation, "extras" buttons, and a Twitter feed to the "Vision Machine" comic book. I've seen a few adults unfamiliar with the iPad hesitate when they first open the app. But every kid who opens the app dives right in, swiping, reading, watching, listening. A generation is growing up accustomed to interacting directly with stories on touchscreens. That's an audience I want to win.
A Chance to Tell a Huge Story with a Smaller Budget
"Vision Machine" is a big, fun genre story that would cost millions of dollars to produce as a feature film. The iPad app version cost a tiny fraction of that -- and it allowed me to work with a fantastic composer and brilliant animators, sound designers, and voice actors.
New Creative Opportunities
As a filmmaker, I'm typically putting a movie together with the assumption that my audience is sitting down and watching the whole thing from beginning to end without interruption. But the reality of non-theatrical viewing is that people stop and start programs all the time or have their attention divided by "second screen" activities like live-tweeting. That might be anathema for certain kinds of stories. But it could be a huge opportunities for others.
"Vision Machine" is a story that features a piece of personal technology that creates a cloud of popup windows and augmented reality information streams around its users. So it completely fits the theme and vibe of the story for the app to feature real pop ups that provide additional information and commentary. For example, as you're watching our heroes try out their iEyes for the first time, you can tap on an "IRL" button and see a video of Tribeca student filmmakers talk about what they'd do if they had iEyes. Other extras videos feature internet superstar Jonathan Coulton, tech journalist Andy Ihnatko, and Duke University Center for the Study of the Public Domain director Jennifer Jenkins, all of whom have smart, funny, and sometimes scary things to say about the real world topics raised by the story.
There's No Money in It -- Yet
The "Vision Machine" app was funded by the ITVS as part of its (awesome) sci fi Futurestates program and is being given away for free under a Creative Commons license. So there's not yet a proven business model here for similar independent projects. But a few years ago, I hesitated before "giving away" any of my short films on Youtube. Now a decent number of videomakers have built enough audience to make a living from their Youtube channels. Similarly, someone's going to crack the market for this kind of enhanced entertainment app sooner rather than later.
Using Social to Build an Audience
I've been fooling around on Twitter for a couple of years now partly because it's the comic industry's water cooler and it's just plain fun to trade jokes with fellow creators and fans. But I've also been using Twitter (and Google+) to plug my work and hopefully build readership. Exactly how much of an effect those tweets have on sales is hard to gauge. But in the past year or so, the value of social networking to independent media makers has begun to register in hard dollars. A slew of independent comic book creators have been using Kickstarter and Indiegogo to raise thousands for their dream projects. Kickstarter has become a kind of distribution venue, essentially allowing indies to fund books through presales. And the biggest prizes have gone to those who are savvy users of social networks. In short, building a Twitter following now has a real chance to enable a creator to keep on creating.
So for the "Vision Machine" iPad app, I wanted to experiment with creating a strong social element that could directly enhance the story while readers are reading. The finished app allows users to bring up a live Twitter stream that shows tweets that use the #visionmachine hashtag. So now I can hold a virtual public Q&A or deliver live director's commentary that folks can follow in real time while reading the book.
It's just a first step. But I'm excited about the potential to start a conversation within the work itself that can help build those social networks that may ultimately allow us mediamakers to keep our careers ticking along.
What I'd Do Differently
We designed the "Vision Machine" app as an iPad app, partly because that's the technology I was the most familiar with and partly because the Apple iTunes Store remains the easiest way for non-technologically obsessed consumers to quickly download and try new media like this. But when we debuted the app at the New York Comic-Con, at least two thirds of the people I talked with about the project shrugged regretfully and said they only had Android devices.
If I were to do it all over again, I'd strongly consider building a non-platform-specific web app that anyone could access on any device through a browser. That's a bit less sexy than an iPad app -- and it's a bit tougher to figure out how to make any money from it. But it broadens the potential audience and avoids potential gatekeeper issues with Apple's iTunes Store, which must approve every app it distributes.
My other big piece of advice for anyone considering this kind of project is to separate out art elements from the beginning, if at all possible. "Vision Machine" was created first as a traditional graphic novel, with single layer pencils. But animating requires elements to be separated from the background and the backgrounds to be fully filled in. If you know you're going to undertake this kind of project, separating out elements from the beginning will save you money and increase your creative possibilities later down the line.
And one more thing... "Vision Machine" is a Creative Commons project, which means that you're free to remix or reuse the art, characters, and story, as long as you credit Pak Man Productions and release the material non-commercially under the same license. I'm still figuring out just how to fit Creative Commons into my work and what projects it makes sense for, so I was thrilled when Orlando suggested we use it for "Vision Machine." If you're interested in playing along, feel free to download the free graphic novel and check out the details at www.visionmachine.net.