Following the release of Precinct 13, Episode 2 (www.precinct13.tv) early this month, I wanted to take the opportunity to give some insights into how the project was produced, how it evolved from Ep 1 and a few of the various challenges and highlights along the way.
Before anything though, we want to thank the fine people at 13th Street and Universal Networks for their courage and vision to try new things and go on this journey with us. I also want to thank and congratulate the co-producers for Precinct 13; Tim Wilde, Alex Alexander and Michelle Cotterill.
The birth of a new format
Late in 2012, after many discussions with 13th Street, we managed to agree on a new bold idea. This idea was to take the existing marketing budget for 13th Street and instead of buying traditional advertising for the channel, switch this around and create a new interactive murder mystery experience. We called it Precinct 13, a totally original property that invited audiences to solve a murder themselves. To become detectives in Precinct 13.
The results were amazing and we were blown away by the enthusiasm, excitement and engagement of players. Average time spent on site reached as much as 30 mins per session, social platforms tripled activity in the space of 48 hours but most importantly, ratings for the channel itself grew by as much as 22% for the months following the first episode.
For more details on what happened first time around, take a look at the 3 min case study at - http://youtu.be/RsXaq2P9Ttg
Insights from Ep 1
After the success of Episode 1, we knew we wanted to do it again. We also knew that we could learn from what happened and do things even better. While we were really happy with what happened the first time around, there were 3 key elements that we identified that we would change when we produced Ep 2.
a) Build our characters and storyworld from the outset.
In Ep1, we launched the investigation but did not have any broadcast or video content about the suspects and characters until the end of the of the 3 week live campaign. We quickly worked out that our audience did not know or care enough about the characters in the story. In true storytelling fashion, we needed to focus on character development early on in the episode and make these characters be the hook into the drama. Hence for Ep 2, we came up with a new interstitial model of creating 9 separate POV clips from each of the 9 suspects. These are released over the 3 week period and serve to create context for the story and investigation to take place. With over 45 mins of broadcast video in the Ep 2, each character has a lot of screen time to become known (and therefore cared about) by our audience.
b) Create more layers to keep players engaged.
Again in Ep1, we noticed that in the 3rd week, players started to drop off. This was due in large part to not having enough new content that was being released to keep them engaged. Staggering the release of content over a period of time helps to create communal discovery and tension but if it is stretched too far; it will break. Aside from a lot more video content in Ep2, we also created a rich tapestry of supporting websites, mock social profiles and content to keep out audiences engaged over the 3 weeks.
c) Streamline the production process
The first time around, we did our best to ensure that the capture process for the interactive elements did not interfere with the production of the live action components. Ultimately, we realised that this does not really matter as much and they are all assets in the end. What does matter is efficient scheduling to ensure that the crew is being carefully managed to deliver on the requirements. One of the biggest advances for this was in the camera that we used for the capture of the panoramas in Ep2. For this we sourced and hired a SpheronVR camera (more on this below). This enabled us to capture more panoramas in a quicker amount of time, meaning sets can be utlised at almost the same time for both platforms.
Capture of Panoramas
One of the key interactive aspects of the project is the 360 degree panoramas of the Crime Scene and Forensics Lab. In Ep1, we used a Gigapan motorised tripod head with a standard DSLR camera and a long lens. This time around, we used a SpheroCam HDR camera capable of 26 f stops of exposure and a clarity of up to 50 mega-pixel. This camera (pictured on set below), is used by surveying companies as well as hollywood studios for rapid capture of environment data. http://www.spheron.com/media/news-press-releases/detail/sony-pictures-imageworks-use-spheron-cameras-in-latest-vfx-productions.html
The camera performed very well and enabled us to shoot each entire panorama in 10 mins so we could capture the scene as it was just after the last take or in some circumstances in between the takes. This was the vast improvement from the 2+ hours for the previous camera equipment used and meant we could work in with the main unit much more efficiently.
The mobile evolution
In Ep1, one of things that surprised us and the network was just how much traffic we received from mobile devices. We have been seeing it grow over the last few years but last year seemed to be a tipping point with adoption of tablet and smartphones reaching a critical mass. Anyone not thinking about how their sites are being experienced on mobile devices needs to think again. Despite the research for Ep 1, we suspected that mobile was going to be big and ensured that all rich media technology used was cross platform (HTML5 and Flash). However this time around we looked at the site and decided to take it one step further and created a native iPad app to really enhance the use of Precinct 13 on tablets.
Decide for yourself - https://itunes.apple.com/au/app/precinct-13-episode-2/id827842278
This brought up a few interesting questions. Mostly of whether to embed video into the app or not. Embedding all the video content in the app was going to increase the size considerably. Another factor is that the app platform can take up to a week for revised embedded content to be available to users. For a 3 week campaign episode, this is a long time. When considering the potential increased file size (approx 500mb) and the lead times on updates, we decided that having a live app that called the majority of all rich media from the web was the best way to go. This meant that we could make live changes to the videos coming through that would be reflected in both platforms immediately while still giving the homepage icon presence of the app and removing the browser bars on the precious tablet screen real estate.
This is really only the start of our plans for Precinct 13 on iPad. One feature that is included by default in the current app is to broadcast video content from the app to a second screen (TV) through Apple TV. This enables the app to be enjoyed on the home TV by more than one detective (player) and plans exist in future iterations of Precinct 13 to allow all aspects of the app to utilise Airplay (the Apple TV wireless protocol) to create a control interface from the iPad but send the panorama’s, interrogations and suspects statements to the larger second screen.
The importance of a storyworld
Contemplating ‘transmedia’ can be very intimidating process but at all stages, we all need to remember that it is just about storytelling. A good story is paramount in any entertainment project and transmedia is no different. The principles of good storytelling still apply but there are some differences that we need to keep in mind. One of the most important is to think at all times about the Storyworld. One of the best ways to articulate the difference between a story and a storyworld is to revisit Henry Jenkins seminal book on the topic, Convergence Culture (2006).
For Ep 2 of Precinct 13, we demonstrated this storyworld concept by building out the characters of the series even further. We created Facebook profiles for each character which were private and disabled to avoid excessive moderation issues but still allowed us to post on various relevant Facebook fan pages associated with the show. Thereby giving these characters a world and personality outside of the TV interstitials and the website. In Ep 1 we created a fictitious tabloid journalist, Jackson Bridges that had a minor part to play in the later stages of the investigation. This time around he is on Twitter (https://twitter.com/JBridgesReport), has a blog (www.jackson-bridges.com) and plays a key role in breaking the news of the murder and the subsequent investigation (http://youtu.be/GwT0qdBnsbI). While the majority of users of the experience may never see this content, for the small group that do, the result is a deeper and richer storyworld that can evolve and generate new mysteries and stories in the future.
About Precinct 13
Precinct 13 is an original transmedia series commissioned by NBCUniversal for Foxtel’s 13th Street (www.13thstreet.com.au). The series is a co-production between The Project Factory (www.theprojectfactory.com) and Space Gorilla (www.facebook.com/thespacegorilla) and is based on an original concept developed and produced by Alex Alexander, Michelle Cotterill, Tim Wilde and Nathan Anderson.
The experience will be live with the investigation concluding on the 28th of March 2014. Check it out at www.precinct13.tv