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REPORT: The Pixel Lab 2014 Residential Week

In the heart of the Black Forest, Germany, the Pixel Lab's residential week started on Sunday 6 July in the best way possible.

The 32 participants met their 4 group mentors and the 16 other Pixel Lab experts at the Traube Tonbach hotel, where they started their 6-day journey through the world of cross-media, innovation and interactive storytelling, through a combination of group work, one-to-one meetings, presentations and case study analysis.

The programme has been designed for media professionals from any background, to strengthen their skills to develop, produce relevant media products that can engage today’s changing audiences

During the course of the Lab, participants are carefully divided into 4 groups – headed by leading media experts, Sean Coleman, Diana Elbaum, Michelle Kass and Michel Reilhac. Each producer who attends the Lab with a project is then partnered with a media professional with complimentary skills, so 4 project producers and their partners are assigned to each group. 

Much of the focus is on project-focused group work where a variety of highly skilled experts come into the group sessions to work collaboratively with the project teams.

Outside of the group work and 1-2-1 meetings, Power to the Pixel curates and programmes 15 plenary sessions presented by the world’s leading media innovators. This report is a roundup of those presentations.

Liz Rosenthal, Founder & CEO of Power to the Pixel, opened The Pixel Lab by pointing out the difference between a platform-centric and a user-centric approach to idea and project development. “Creatives and commissioners from across the media industries are still, for the most part, platform-focused when developing stories,” she said. “At Power to the Pixel, we take a user- and audience-focused approach to development that involves carefully looking at the people we are communicating with – their needs, motivations and behaviour – before choosing the relevant platform to design an appropriate experience for that user. When developing stories for today’s fragmented audiences it’s essential for us to always be able to refer back the core themes of what underpins our stories and ensure that those core themes and goals are being addressed.” 

The first day of the Pixel Lab 2014 featured keynote speeches by three leading practitioners, Power to the Pixel’s Projects Director, producer and writer Sean Coleman, writer and producer Adam Sigel and story architect and innovator Lance Weiler, who opened the day by sharing his views in a presentation, Empathy, Story and Code

The blurred line between today’s physical and digital dimension and its possible resulting chaos was one of the issues tackled by Weiler during his speech. "We must remember that a storyteller's primary task should be being human rather than computing - said Lance - because what matters is the relationship between us and our devices, the so-called Calm Technology theory". Therefore, the easiest way to deliver a quality cross-media story is sticking to the simple things and establishing an emotional connection with your audience. "Don't mistake complexity for quality - warned Weiler - all you have to do is put people in your protagonist's shoes". He then went on to demonstrate how he achieved this with his latest project Lyka's Adventure, an experiential learning project that uses collaboration and creative problem-solving to put education directly in the hands of children, thanks to an interactive plush toy that travels the world. 

Empathy is also a key concept for producer and content strategist Adam Sigel. In his presentation, Understanding Narrative Techniques Across Platforms, Sigel highlighted the crucial role of human feelings in Alfred Hitchcock's audience engagement strategy for Psycho, eventually defining the film "a multiplatform experience". "What Hitchcock did was redefine a whole concept in order to capture his viewers through narrative - stated Sigel - He altered the original story to include an additional story of a woman who steals money to run away with her man - triggering feelings of anxiety, guilt and chaos in the viewer, who immediately identifies himself in the character". Hitchcock also went on to secure Psycho's successful release by following 4 steps; buying all the original books; preventing people to enter the movie after its start; providing security to avoid riots in the theatres and making his voice recordings play in every lobby. "Hitch was one of the first filmmakers who thought about the user and how people were experiencing entertainment, creating the first movie that had crowds queuing around the block, resulting in the first Blockbuster!" stated Sigel.

Sigel then moved on to break down the 3 recommended vectors for all cross-media projects - Merchandising, Marketing and Community. He then went on to underline that "The first vector, also known as Monetisation, is perfectly represented by Disney, which has become a merging of great franchises taking over almost every kind of product...Transmedia is working when you don't notice it!" concluded Sigel.

The last presentation on The Pixel Lab day was by writer and producer Sean Coleman who used his two projects as examples of the importance of knowing the core of your story; Milli, a series of books, interactive ebooks and an animation series for children and Netwars: out of CTRL, a TV documentary, interactive web documentary, interactive graphic novel and book. All the components of exist in their own right as separate entities but they were designed in the same way, starting from the Story. "Knowing your Story is the main thing when drafting a project, and interrogating ourselves is essential - said Coleman - Do I know my story? What's my favourite character? Who am I speaking to? Are some of the questions we should consider during the creative process.

The second day of The Pixel Lab began with Paul Tyler’s presentation about the importance of context in story development in his talk Content is King, but Context is His Mistress. “Working with Context doesn’t simply mean giving the audience what they want and losing your artistic magic – started Tyler – It’s about finding a way to ensure your magic gets seen”. But things must be clear from the very start of the design process, and mapping its steps can represent the ideal strategy to link Context to Content, thus delivering a quality product to our audience. Mapping user journeys are Tyler’s speciality at his company Handling Ideas, where teams are helped to visualise and prototype ideas and concepts by physically mapping out their ideas onto a table with the help of Lego. 

Paul went then on to compare the audience to the story’s protagonist, both represented by two identical Lego men. “When we tell a story we set a goal which the character will reach through a journey or even more goals, depending on how many inciting incidents and choices we want him to face. The same happens with our audiences, as they are as complex as our characters. This is why we need to ask ourselves questions such as who is my audience made of, what are their interests, when they reach the goal, what can they do? Going into critical thinking early will allow us to understand our project in a context, helping our users complete their goals”.

Further enlightening ideas about innovative storytelling were delivered in Loc Dao’s Lessons Learned In Interactive Documentary where the Head of Digital Content and Strategy at The National Film Board of Canada showcased some of his most successful projects, sharing his very own insights and lessons learned with his listeners.

“Good stories transcend platforms  - our users read, listen and watch all at once. That’s the main thing to bear in mind when designing a documentary like Welcome to Pine Point”. This interactive scrapbook of yearbook photos, film footage, interviews and soundtrack tells the story of an abandoned Canadian mining town that existed for a generation and then was erased from the face of the Earth. As the storytelling gets deeper, the user will be able to feel the profound impact the town had on a generation of children who feel as if their origins were somehow all a dream. Dao subsequently illustrated the developing strategy behind two more of his works, encouraging everyone to try without fearing failure: “Trying means usually failing and that’s how we learn, and we can’t stop learning. It took us a while before we realised that story and script are still the foundation of the work, even in the cross-media era. It’s the best way to get our user straight to the core of our project.” The projects he went on to showcase were Bear 71, an interactive experience, installation and social narrative that raises awareness about the intersection of animals, humans and technology and Circa 1948, an interactive app and installation which allows the user to explore Vancouver in year 1948.

On the third day of the Pixel Lab, games producer and writer Thomas Howalt started the day’s presentations by unveiling the secrets of game marketing, and the free to play model by starting from the basics, such as the Skinner box concept: studying the user’s behaviour with a reward/punishment approach, much like a lab mouse.
Howalt then moved on to analyse the Hayday phenomenon in terms of audience engagement and monetisation. “The right price for a game is what the customers are willing to pay, said Howalt and Hayday seems to have what it takes to breed a high number of superfans in a short time - it’s logical, easy, it rewards the player with soft currency (virtual money) and it’s social - or even better, it gives the user the illusion  while playing with his friends! In other words, it makes people pay for their hobby without even noticing it. You’re ‘Free to Play’ in the beginning, but once you’re engaged with the story, will you refuse to buy more content with your premium currency (real money)?”

Made In Me’s Development Director, Eric Huang then went on to share his experience from the world of publishing, starting from his Disney years and thus highlighting once again the importance of  “story over format”. “The book is the core, but it’s just the beginning – our user purchases a ticket to a much wider reading experience, made of toys, apps, games and general merchandise.”

Then he went on to demonstrate innovations from the publishing world, such as Unbound and Elmer in the Snow: the former being the first crowdsourced publishing platform, the latter a children’s interactive e-book, born from a Mebooks and Save the Children partnership.

We’ve seen how a story can be told by a game or a book, but can it be told by a brand? Rob Meldrum answered the question in his keynote speech. “Advertising is all about telling stories – stated Meldrum – and establishing an emotional connection with the user. The hardest part is getting people buy stuff”. After going briefly through his personal experience in digital advertising, Rob showed his listeners some of the most significant examples of user-centred worldwide brands. “What brands must remember nowadays is making things that people want, rather than making people want things,” concluded Naked Comms’ Innovation Director. “The only kind of evolution a company needs, is the one which puts the user at the core of the idea, with his interests and dreams. No matter how much money you invest on your technical advance, if you forget about your customer you’re doomed!”

beActive’s CEO, producer Nuno Bernardo closed the day with a final keynote speech on cross-media business models. “Why does man love stories? Because they say so much about himself. They help him understand the world, establish social connections and eventually express himself. But today, no story is self-contained to one medium anymore. What we do at beActive is planning how each and every story might roll out on different media, so that we can lead the conversation with the user.” It’s the case of Collider, a science-fiction multi-platform series and game inspired by a graphic novel depicting the last 24 hours of a group of six characters trapped on the CERN campus in the year 2018.

The fourth day’s presentations focused on legal and licensing aspects of new media. “Ideas are free as the air – stressed Christoph Fey, leading entertainment and copyright lawyer firm Unverzagt von Have – a single idea doesn’t give you any copyright protection, and what’s more is that the entertainment business is all about creating, buying and stealing ideas. So the question is: is an idea really yours?”

As an experienced mediator of disputes arising out of claims of plagiarism, he finally reassured the participants about what they will always be free to use: “Facts, ideas and themes are at your disposal, as well as old works for which copyright has expired and creation methods – Picasso made some cubist paintings, but he didn’t own the Cubism!”

Daniel Boehnk, entertainment lawyer and new media licensing expert from DB Rights Worldwide LLC, reviewed the changes in digital windowing (TVoD, SVoD, Catch-up SVoD, AdVod, EST, DTO), trends in exclusivity and evolving cross-platform business models (traditional pay TV, free TV and OTT). He then went on to give an overview on the proliferation of new media devices and platforms, new windowing and multi-channel distribution possibilities as well as social media marketing trends.

The final session of the day gave a unique opportunity to hear from commissioners who are leading the way in backing new types of entertaining products, audience engagement tools and cross-media projects. Each speaker briefly introduced the range of projects they finance and discussed the challenges around backing innovation.
Presenting commissioners were; Alain Bieber, Project Leader, ARTE Creative; Voyelle Acker, Director of Web, New Writing and Transmedia, France Televisions; Milena Bonse, Commissioning Editor, ZDF’s “Das kleine Fernsehspiel”, ZDF Online; Stephanie Lang, Department Manager, Digital Content Funding, Medien – und Filmgesellschaft Baden-Württemberg mbH (MFG).

The 2014 Pixel Lab’s plenary sessions closed curtains with Michel Reilhac, who concluded with a philosophical round up of the residential week, joined by around 30 film and media professionals from the South west of Germany. In an eloquent presentation at drawing lessons learned and tracks uncovered from the week, Reilhac focused on a key concept in the history of evolution, Experience. “Experience is story and story is experience – said the transmedia expert – For example, walking in the forest down the hill with a burning torch in hand like some of us did last night may be an experience, but if we take into consideration the whole Black Forest context and this amazing week at Traube Tonbach, it all becomes a story which we will carry inside for ever!”. After dedicating a round of applause to the Traube Tonbach Hotel staff and owners who had created the most idyllic surrounding and experience for The Pixel Lab Residential Week, Reilhac concluded by encouraging the participants to always be creative and welcome change into their lives, eventually quoting a Chinese proverb, “When the winds of change blow, some people build walls and others build windmills”. 

The 16 Pixel Lab Producers then went on to present their projects in front of the whole Pixel Lab group and the visiting media professionals from the region, followed by a drinks reception and the closing night party up in the hotel’s hillside cabin in the forest.

With its wide range of activities and intensive programme, The Pixel Lab residential week stands somewhere between a high-end summer camp for the producers and an intensive care unit for their projects, ultimately setting itself far ahead of any other development programme in the cross-media and innovation field.
The Lab’s collaborative sessions and individual meetings with the tutors, their constant mentoring and the networking and exchange of ideas among participants, allowed each producer to take giant steps in the development of his or her project. Over 6 days, The Pixel Lab participants wrote or even re-wrote their project road maps from scratch thanks to the invaluable insights and know-how of the experts.

This was all from residential week of The Pixel Lab 2014, but the adventure isn’t over for those producers attending the Lab with a project, as they are currently receiving distance mentoring from July – September with their group mentors, before heading to London for the final workshop and to subsequently present their ideas to a jury of international industry experts in an attempt to win The Pixel Lab Prize.
Good luck and see you in October!

The Final Pixel Lab Workshop takes place in conjunction with Power to the Pixel: The Cross-media Forum, the company’s centrepiece event, taking place 7-10 October 2014 in London. For further information visit Power to the Pixel’s website.

(* Photos by Reiner Pfisterer)


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