Prepping for the Future with the Vision Machine iPad App

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.

Creative Commons

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.

Here are links: 
And bio: 
Greg Pak is a filmmaker and comic book writer best known for directing the award-winning feature film "Robot Stories", writing the epic "Planet Hulk" and "World War Hulk" comic book storylines, and co-writing (with Fred Van Lente) the fan favorite "Incredible Hercules" series for Marvel Comics. 

Full Metal Jacket Diary: From Book to iPad

Today's guest post if from actor and filmmaker Matthew Modine.  His latest project represents a nice example of  how filmmakers can encourage collaboration from other members of their team and extend their work into new realms.  In this case, even after the death of the filmmaker. While making Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket, I kept a diary. I was portraying a combat journalist, so it made sense to both Kubrick and myself to take some notes along the journey. Sometimes between set ups, Stanley would ask me to read out loud what I had entered in my small cloth-covered book. Being put on the spot like that made me realize that I'd better keep a detailed, accurate, and hopefully, entertaining description of the film's events. Stanley also allowed me to photograph the filmmaking process. No snapshots would do on a Kubrick set. I used my beautiful 2 1/4 x 2 1/4-inch Rolleiflex camera. I made prints of a number of photographs and gave them to Stanley and the other actors as gifts. Once the filming was over, I returned to my home in NYC and put the photos and my diary in a box.

After several years, I began to think about exhibiting or publishing the photos, but only if it would be something Stanley was in concert with. At the time, Stanley had begun pre-production on what would become his last film, Eyes Wide Shut. While he was busy preparing, I was compiling the photos that would be used in my book of FMJ photographs. I had found a publisher, who loved the photos, but felt the images needed a narrative context. So, I began transcribing the diary I had kept while filming. The result of this effort eventually became the limited edition hardcover book, Full Metal Jacket Diary. I only wish I had begun the book earlier so that Stanley could have seen and held it. You see, It was my goal to make it something he would be proud of and possess the integrity of his own work. The first edition of FMJ Diary was limited to only 20,000 laser-etched numbered copies and featured, literally, a metal book jacket. Upon release, it was well reviewed, awarded a prize for its design, and sold out rather quickly. For years now, fans of the film and Kubrick have been asking when a paperback edition might be released. The fact is, I wanted the 20,000 copies to be collector's items and I never intended to publish a paperback version.

Last spring I was gifted an iPad. It's an interesting device. I downloaded a couple of iBooks and different apps. It's pretty cool. I also owned a Kindle, but wasn't enthusiastic about the experience of reading on it. My friend and I were talking about the experience of reading on electronic devices and imagined that if a developer could make the experience more cinematic and interactive, then digital books could take the reader on a unique journey. I realized then, that my friend and I could do just that and the iPad could be the perfect platform to re-release my book. My friend became my design partner and the producer on the FMJ Diary app. Now we are creating an immersive interactive experience which includes not only my text and photographs, but audio, sound effects, and original music. As with the book, it's very important to me that we create something Kubrick would be proud of and want to own.

In August, 2010, we began recording the diary. It was amazing to read out loud. It brought back memories and I realized how much I've changed since the life-altering Kubrick experience. With almost two hundred pages of text recorded, our sound editor really has her work cut out for her. In addition to adding sound effects, I hope to have Stanley's daughter, Vivian, compose original music for the app. She composed the original FMJ score (as Abigail Mead) so it would be great if she completes this part of the audio book experience.

With this FMJ Diary app, I will be including photographs that I didn't put in the hardcover book. We've been looking through folders of scanned photos and sifting through original contact sheets and negatives to find bonus images that will further enhance the app and make it unique from the book. I want owners of the book to have a new experience; one that takes them deeper into what the two-year Kubrick journey was like. What seems amazing is that, Full Metal Jacket continues to be as relevant today as it was when it was first released. Many of my photographs from the film set look like they could have been taken today in Iraq or Afghanistan. I believe Kubrick was saying, with several of his great war films (Paths of Glory, Spartacus, Dr. Strangelove) that war is war. While the dates, uniforms, and places change, the outcome is always the same. Stanley was a peaceful man. I'd say, from my time with him, that he felt that if we could not find a way to solve our problems and our differences with peaceful solutions, the outcome would be, because of the proliferation of more and more powerful weapons, the recipe for absolute disaster.

I'm thrilled to be working on this new iPad app project. You can follow my progress on the new FMJ Diary website (www.fullmetaljacketdiary.com) You can sign up for updates and also purchase limited edition fine art prints of six iconic images (more may soon be added). I will be using this site, along with our FMJD Facebook page and Twitter account to include people in the creative process going forward.

Thanks!

Matthew