Future of Film: Story Hacks

By Mike Knowlton

What if we applied the popular hackathon concepts of user-feedback and iteration to create a new kind of technological storytelling?

When you hear the term hacking, or hackathon, the first image that probably comes to mind is a handful of programmers staying up all night long, fueled by Mountain Dew and Twinkies, hacking away on laptops at arcane code. But recently hackathons have become a big deal.

TechCrunch Disrupt is one of the most well-known events, and it attracts talented developers, members of the press, ventures capitalists, and new technology companies who open their technology up to these gifted programmers.

Photo courtesy of Mike Knowlton

The format is simple: the idea of a hackathon is to set a fixed period of time for a group of programmers to develop innovative applications using a certain technology. The mindset is DIY and open-source. Done right, a hackathon is a win-win for everyone involved.

The technology companies see what new applications can be created out of their platform. The programmers get to show off their talents and work on something that interests them. And the investors get in at the ground floor when an idea is just a proof of concept. Many new businesses have started out of hackathons.  

Hacking: No Longer Just for Programmers

What does hacking have to do with storytelling and the future of film? Quite a lot, actually. Members of the transmedia community have spoken about the idea of motion pictures as software. Software is complicated to create. So is telling a good story. But they each can be broken down into component parts: wireframes, prototypes, story treatments, a character matrix, etc. By focusing on the component parts, filmmakers can follow a hackathon approach -- and the results can be amazing.

Innovators like Lance Weiler embrace the idea of constant experimentation and talk about "story R&D." A hackathon provides the perfect venue to share your ideas with other people -- and to get immediate feedback. The extremely focused nature of the event naturally leads to an accelerated creation process.

What Is a Story Hack?

A story hack is a hackathon dedicated to telling a story with technology. It is an opportunity to present your unfinished story, and your approach to telling it, to a group of talented writers, programmers, creators, producers, and film makers. A story hack could take many forms -- there could be actual development done or it could purely be based on conceptual conversations.

The old film model was to "hole up" and work intensely on your project. Perhaps you would share the script, at most, with a few friends or mentors for feedback. You would shoot it, edit it, and then take it to focus groups. You might recut a few scenes based on the focus group -- then you would release it to the world... fingers-crossed.

Now we see a more open model (similar to the open-source ethos). A story hack encourages you to take the kernels of your story to a group of people and share it before it is perfect or completely fleshed out. The feedback is immediate and eye-opening. The result is better clarity on the pros and cons of your approach with tangible ways to improve it. 

A Case Study

A few weeks ago my company, Murmur, was invited by Lance to participate in a session called Designing Storyworlds at the Open Video Conference. The goal of the three-hour session was to create an open-ended story R&D workshop that mixed design thinking, storytelling, game design, and hacking. I wasn't sure what to expect, but I was eager to try this new approach. 

We brought a project that was in the very early stages of development. All we had was a loose description of the storyworld, the characters, a plan for production, and our approach for telling it. In this case we are using Facebook as the distribution platform. It will be our next social film and will be developed as a Facebook application.

We presented our story idea to the group along with a few other projects. The room then broke down into smaller groups around the various projects. At this point we showed early-stage screen comps of how the story would be consumed by viewers. And then something amazing began to happen. We got to see how real people would digest our story and the process with which we plan to tell it. 

The feedback was immediate and, often, surprising. A number of assumptions we held were challenged and new ideas were discussed. By being open about everything, we were able to validate some elements of our thinking and identify a number of weaknesses.

But how was it a hack? What came out of it? Since we only had three hours, no actual programming occurred. But many of the topics we discussed in the smaller group were about technical issues. So we left with a list of technical considerations and alternative approaches that we had not yet considered.

Imagine if this were a traditional film  -- it would be like sharing part of your script or the rough cut of your first scene with your audience and asking what they thought about it, and then iterating and refining it.

We also left with direct feedback on our story and how we were telling it. This fundamentally changed our production plan. By sharing it and being open with our ideas we were able to get valuable feedback before any cameras rolled or code was written.

A story hack is a good example of applying the Agile Software Development Model to producing motion pictures. This approach focuses on iterative and incremental creation cycles based upon user-feedback. You adapt and evolve your story, and how you are telling it, based on an ongoing cycle of input and updates. 

The Future

As digital technology continues to form the foundation for the new worlds of film, TV, theater, publishing, and entertainment in general, I believe this type of iterative approach will become the norm. Storytellers can accelerate their creation process by following this proven development model. The open environment and DIY approach sparks creativity and sharing. Following this approach will result in better stories, that are told across various media platforms, that continue to evolve and improve. Time to buy some Mountain Dew.

Mike Knowlton is co-founder and partner of Murmur, a hybrid studio/technology company that creates and distributes social films. The company is a pioneer in this new genre of entertainment. At Murmur he creates original social films and consults with leading brands, studios, and networks on using social films to extend existing properties. He is active in the transmedia community as co-organizer of the Transmedia NYC Meetup. Follow Mike on Twitter @murmurco or on Facebook at Murmur.

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