Published on May 14, 2012
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It’s not often, if ever, that one attends an event at the New York Lincoln Center and the host announces: “Please turn your cellphones on!”
That’s exactly how the demos began on Sunday April 29, 2012 for the first ever Story Hack: Beta, an event produced by StoryCode, a not-for-profit dedicated to the future of cross-media storytelling, in partnership with the Film Society of Lincoln Center.
Audience members not only dialed phone numbers, received tweets and texts but were asked to look under their seats for “ID Cards” and swallow capsules filled with sprinkles. Puppets, actors and films entertained the audience as well; and for all purposes, this was considered a technology event!
A Member of Team Awkward Hug shows off a capsule filled with sprinkles, Photo by Emon Hassan
Michael Knowlton, co-founder of StoryCode, emphasized that this kind of transmedia storytelling must be created deliberately, not as a side product, if it is to reach the mainstream and stand on its own. “We can no longer afford to think of narrative content as objects to be stuffed through a static electronic (or analog) pipeline,” he said.
With this in mind, he and co-founder Aina Abiodun created their NYC-based transmedia group a year ago with twenty original members. Since then it has grown to eight hundred plus and the idea for Story Hack: Beta was born.
“We were tired of hearing the same five case studies at every conference that focused on cross-platform storytelling. The challenge is really creating, not talking about it. We decided to borrow something that works really well in the tech space: the hackathon. The “hack” culture doesn’t exist in the entertainment space but we really felt it was applicable,” Knowlton explained.
A “hackathon” is event in which tech folk get together and collaborate intensively for a period of time, somewhere between a day and a week. Hackathons can have a specific focus or be intended for educational or social purposes.
Team Awkward Hug in costume for their hack demo, Photo by Emon Hassan
A new language of dialogue between storytellers and programmers
Brian Clark, CEO of GMD Studios and one of the mentors provided to the teams by StoryCode, explained how the hackathon played out in this storytelling situation. “We wanted to develop a new language of dialogue to get storytellers and programmers to be able to understand each other because their jobs are becoming inexorably intertwined.”
Story Hack: Beta was made up of seven teams of four that spend forty-eight hours brainstorming and executing the hacks seen on Sunday in the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center.
The challenge for the hack was to design a cohesive narrative spanning three or more technological platforms and to execute a single one over the course of forty-eight hours.
The platforms could include mobile, social, live performance, web-based and/or gaming, either console or live.
The narrative part of the challenge asked the teams to focus on the theme “Courage,” as the only storytelling guideline.
The teams were required to integrate at least one of the technology sponsors, Kaltura, Logicworks, Social Samba and Twilio, into an executed hack. (The teams were giving extra credit if they incorporated more than one.)
Finally, all the teams had to creatively use a dress from the brand sponsor, Free People, in their hack. The dress had to appear in the platform executed. All this information was provided to the teams at an orientations session a week before the event and Free People provided all the teams with the dress.
A member of Team US Maple in costume with stack of pizza boxes as evidence of the “sleep-over”, Photo by Emon Hassan
Despite the lack of sleep and crunch-time diet, evidenced by the stacks of pizza boxes and cans of Red Bull in the room, the teams and organizers were all in good spirits going into the final hours.
Middle of the night hijinxs were even going on when another of the event’s mentors, Mark Harris, director of Platform Engineering at Broadcastr, informed the teams late Saturday night that they should all stand-up and move one table down. In true Reality Show fashion, the room had gone dead silent and for a moment the teams looked like they might cry until the organizers started laughing.
Most of the teams had been designing and planning out their project for the entire week. Team Cupcakes and Rainbows had held meetings ranging from an hour to three hours almost every day the week before the event and even shot five-hours of video the day before the hack.
The idea of abandoning their project and picking up that of another team was unthinkable.
StoryCode co-founder Aina Abiodun laughing with Story Hack: Beta mentor Brian Clark, Photo by Emon Hassan
A mix of creative and tech types
Most of the teams were composed of a mix of creative and tech types but one team even “hacked the hack” by creating a storyline centered on them abandoning the event in the middle of the night and venturing into NYC without cell phones or wallets. This left the other teams and organizers to wonder what happened to them.
Creativity abounded with other storylines as well including futuristic dating, lonely animated astronauts, kidnappings and an epic celebration of failures. Each team was given fifteen minutes to demo their hack and most of them included some form of audience participation.
The judges came from diverse backgrounds with Katherine Oliver, the Commissioner of the New York City Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment, Warren Cohen, a programming executive at VH1, Blaine Graboyes, co-founder of Mister Goldbanks, Jed Paulson, Director of Marketing at Free People, and producer and director Craig Singer of Take180/Disney.
Twilio offered a special prize and Harris joined the judges to give out this prize to Team Rodan. Steve Coulson, Creative Director of Campfire, and Josh Shabtai, Creative Director and Emerging Media Strategist at JWT, joined Harris and Clark as mentors to the teams for the weekend event.
One of the technology platform sponsors, Social Samba had three representatives, from three different states fly in to support the teams in working with their technology.
Judges Craig Singer and Blaine Graboyes with a member of Team US Maple, Photo by Emon Hassan
A good storyline and a strong presentation
The idea of stories being created in conjunction with technology, not despite of or as a result of, is the idea behind true transmedia storytelling but executing this proved to be challenging for the teams.
Keeping teams aware of time management, that’s what Clark felt his job was as a mentor: “I think sometimes these teams get into a bunker mode. They have an idea and it keeps getting bigger and bigger. Having someone from the outside helps the team think about time pressure, which is the hardest thing about these story hacks.”
Organizing time was key to a strong presentation and paramount to winning the thousand dollar prize.
Coulson emphasized that the teams had to keep a focus on execution: “I’ve seen great ideas killed through bad presentations, and mediocre ideas win funding with a great pitch. So my advice to the teams was to focus as much creative energy on how they explained their stories, as they did on the stories themselves.”
Graboyes said it well when he spoke of personal taste versus execution from a judge’s perspective, “I’m always looking for something that is very disruptive and stand outs from the crowd; that’s my personal style, but I’m also looking for professional presentations. Someone that bit off exactly what they can chew.”
All the judges agreed they were looking for creativity, good storytelling and strong presentation.
Paulson of Free People was drawn to sponsor the event for its potential to be something original and creative. As for participating as a judge, he said: “I love a well told story, but most importantly, I want to see that the spirit of our brand comes through in a fresh and compelling way.”
Oliver of the NY Mayor’s office said that the city welcomes events such as these, which promote creativity, innovation and networking. As a judge, she shared: “It’ll be interesting to see if any of the teams incorporate a social network like Foursquare and really use the amazing locations available in New York City as part of their finished product.”
Making a city like New York shine and showcasing a brand sponsor’s dress were tests for the team that would be similar to projects they might encounter in the corporate world.
Clark parallels the event to real work: “You have a very narrow time window here which is more realistic in the commercial world. This lets people make disposable work, whereas a lot of storytellers spend a lot of time with the burning story of all stories that they want to tell. A hack event like this doesn’t permit you to do this.”
With the time crunch upon them, all the teams were amazed that Rick Astle of Team US Maple found the energy and time during the grueling weekend to blog about his experience.
The Sunday night demos were live-streamed and Matt Bolish of the Film Society of Lincoln’s Center said countries as far away as Finland, Costa Rica and France tuned in to watch. Video highlights will be available on the Film Society’s website.
StoryCode had to turn away two-thirds of the applicants for Story Hack: Beta in order to keep the event small and manageable.
The winning hack: FutureMate, “a fully immersive storytelling-meets-technology experience”
Team Cupcakes and Rainbows received the Grand Prize for their innovative mashup of story and technology with “FutureMate”
The winning team, Team Cupcakes and Rainbows won over the audience and crowd with successfully executing the required technology and integrating the brand dress but also with resorting to good old fashioned theatricality. FutureMate, as Gyda Arber, Brian Fountain, Allen Hahn and David Gochfeld called their project, involved post-apocalyptic dating with an eye on breeding. Not only was their presentation polished, but their use of puppets and “match-making” with the audience proved that a good storyline and strong presentation are still key no matter what technology is utilized as a platform.
Fountain explained how the team came up with the idea for FutureMate: “It took us around six hours of discussion to find the core idea. We talked about courage and the various ways it can be demonstrated. David had this idea about ‘small moments of courage’ like telling someone you love them. We all felt that was a terrific place to start and began to spider web out from there. We discussed some really extreme scenarios like abductions and hauntings but nothing seemed to click. As I joke I tossed out the phrase ‘post-apocalyptic dating’ and Gyda’s eyes, lit up. “Oh my God, that’s it.” She rattled off a few ideas of what it could be to the group, and within minutes we were all on board.”
Allen Hahn of Team Cupcakes and Rainbows shared: “Seeing what we were able to do together under such extreme pressure, I can’t wait to get a crack at something with greater resources of time to develop narrative and money to put toward tech elements. I’d also like to be given the chance to defend our title, though others should probably get a crack at it first.”
Considering the organizers felt the event was a success and plan on having another one, Team Cupcakes and Rainbows might just get a chance to defend their title.
A member of Team Cupcakes and Rainbows wrangling the NightWalker puppet “backstage” with the puppeteer.
Tags: aina abiodun, brian clark, digital media, event, film, hack, hackathon, internet, michael knowlton, mulitmedia, narrative, story hack beta, storycode, storytelling, team cupcakes and rainbows, technology, transmedia,
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