Web Content Corner With Jenni Powell: David van Eyssen Interview

Monday, 10 October 2011 11:30 Written by  Jenni Powell
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Web Content Corner With Jenni Powell: David van Eyssen Interview

David van Eyssen is an online artist who was ahead of his time. He began experimenting with interactive storytelling before there was technology that even existed to house his ideas. He produced the high- profile web series 'Circle of 8' in 2009 with Paramount Studios, which is the first (and I think still only) web series I saw a billboard for (and it was HUGE) at Hollywood and Highland. His new project, 'RCVR' is airing on the extremely popular online juggernaut Machinima and is racking up views with it's high-production value and X-Files-esque sci-fi storyline. Like van Eyssen's other projects, it once again integrates cross-platform storytelling in order to giving some audience members opportunities to dive even deeper into the world of the story while others can simply enjoy the 6 episodes of the show's first story arc.

I had the chance to interview van Eyssen via e-mail, where he shares with iamrogue his unique background and experiences working in the web space. Be sure to check out the first 5 episodes of 'RCVR' on Machinima, with the finale episode of the first arc airing online next week.

Jenni Powell: Can you give us a background of your career, especially your work on web content?

David van Eyssen:
I started out as a sculptor and painter in London in the 1990s. I became interested in the idea of audience participation which led, over time, to a love affair with interactive media. After a stint developing CD-ROM games, I moved to LA and began directing commercials and music videos while continuing to experiment with interactive media. In 1996, I directed a series called “Passenger” that allowed users to select characters and explore their backgrounds, as well as scenes that occurred “off the edges” of the primary story. You could also select items of clothing or products featured in the episodes and “click to buy”. But we couldn’t get it financed because broadband hadn’t taken root in the US and the distribution of what we called “rich media” at the time was impractical. But, somewhere along the line, the notion that interactivity empowered brands and users – if you struck the right balance – became part of my approach to getting new media projects made. Two years later, at the outset of the internet boom, I found companies who wanted to take these ideas into the mainstream and were willing to finance a new model of entertainment. One of these was Digital Entertainment Network, a company that has a storied place in internet history but that adopted a number of my ideas and developed one of the first interactive advertising and video distribution platforms in the world. DEN’s collapse didn’t deter me from believing that the internet was truly the medium of the future. And it didn’t seem to deter other companies, particularly brands and ad agencies, from seeing the web’s potential. I’d partnered up with two commercial producers to develop interactive advertising when the ad agency, Fallon, approached us to partner on a range of brand initiatives, producing/directing demos for name brand clients in the hope that pitches would convert into campaigns. That led to the work we did on BMW Films’ “The Hire” which, in turn, unleashed massive interest in the web as a video platform, and as a marketing tool. At that point, I had the opportunity to raise private money and develop my own projects, which is what I chose to do.

JP: What was the inspiration for ‘RCVR’?

DE: Looking at the world around us, thinking about how much change we’ve witnessed even in my lifetime, and trying to understand where transformative thinking comes from and why there’s been so much of it over the past hundred, hundred and fifty years. Genius is a fascinating subject. We revere and revile it.

JP: Some viewers may not know that there is an extended world built around the episodes themselves, many of which focus around conspiracy theorist Alvin Peters. Tell us a little bit more about that and why you include those elements?

DE: Media can be tyrannical. Movies, TV shows – even books – don’t really invite a response. Of course, we all respond internally, privately. But traditional media isn’t set up for a reaction or a conversation despite the fact that art works best when it activates a social reaction. What happens on the web, or in videogames, for example is very different. When video is distributed online, it’s usually seen on a computer. It’s not “dumb content” any more. It’s the opposite. It’s seated in a social and interactive medium. So I felt – instinctively, I guess – that we should build out an experience that mirrored that difference. As a storyteller, I always ask myself what happens “off the edge” of the rectangle — the page, the stage, the screen — before the curtain is drawn back on a world, and after that curtain is closed again. How can I go deeper into the world of these people I’ve been following for weeks, how can I become part of that world – even for a moment? Creatively, that’s an exciting idea of course. But I think that, for a certain group of people, asking them to embark on a journey into secondary narratives, becomes a natural extension of their role as “users”. Those people see themselves as members of an audience – which is essentially refers to a group of people who listen to you as the “storyteller”. This group sees themselves as part of a conversation – with you, with what you make and with other people who share the same need for dialogue. There are millions more of these individuals online today, and I’m trying to build something for them. Even if they represent five percent of the audience that watches the series today, the trend is moving towards more interaction, not less.

JP: ‘Circle of 8’ was distributed through Paramount Digital. How did the working relationship differ to Machinima, who is distributing ‘RCVR’?

DE: Machinima is a studio without the legacy issues most studios face. They’ve built their business on the web. It’s in their DNA. Studios and networks have to deal with the web as a third platform, after theatrical and TV. So when it comes to producing for the web, businesses like Machinima have an  intuitive understanding of their audience – what interests them, how they behave around online entertainment. I’ve said it before but, to me, the future of entertainment is going to built around “user experiences” not the traditional, fairly limited model we’ve become accustomed to. Users want to interact – with the content and each other – and that breeds a different way of telling stories, and a different set of values for producers and audiences. It takes a very progressive, open-minded company to grasp that concept because it’s inherently frightening if YOUR commercial and creative expectations are built on a linear, non-interactive foundation.

JP: What advice would you give first-time web creators who are interested in making relationships with companies like Machinima?

DE: Are there any first-time web creators? People are constantly creating using every possible device and using the web to distribute what they’ve made. The threshold to becoming a creator – and this isn’t a value judgment – is lower than ever because the production and distribution technology is now widely available. So the question isn’t “Can you make something?” but “What can you make?” In the end, because we all want to connect on a human level, I think the question is “What can you make that will move people?”.

My belief is that, if you can answer that question, you will be drawn to distribution and financing partners who share your vision. To make that vision a little clearer, it’s often helpful to produce a pilot or sample — which is what I’ve done in the past.

JP: What’s next for you and ‘RCVR’?

DE: I can’t answer that question definitively. It could be a second season on the web, a web-TV hybrid or, at the right time, a feature. RCVR was conceived as a transmedia story so different aspects could exist simultaneously on TV and on the web. But, as you’ve gathered, I don’t believe it should reside on TV as a strictly linear experience. There’s a deep world “off the edge of the rectangle” that I want to continue to explore. We’re also building a highly interactive app which I think will excite fans of the series.

Web Content Corner is an IAR exclusive column where new media guru Jenni Powell discusses online trends, and speaks with the most important creators working in the industry today.

Jenni Powell has been deeply involved in innovative online communities for several years, dating back to the cult Internet series Nobody's Watching (over 40M views) and later becoming a central figure on the web video breakout lonelygirl15 fan community. This led to her creating the fan-favorite parody series lonelyJew15, which landed her a job at lonelygirl15's production company EQAL. She has a strong background in production working with Upright Citizen's Brigade (UCB) A&E's Deadliest Catch, and Lifetime's Lisa Williams Life Amongst The Dead. Online, Jenni has worked on many popular web series such as the smash Microsoft-sponsored hit The Guild, Streamy Award-nominated With the Angels, Poor Paul, The Crew, and Comedy Central's Atom.com standout The Legend of Neil. She freelance writes for popular web entertainment site Tubefilter News and consults on and produces various transmedia entertainment projects around the web, such as the ghost-hunting comedy Bumps in the Night, the No Mimes Media 10 minute transmedia experience Webishades, and the Atom.com series Video Game Reunion. She is also the Staff writer for DeFranco Inc., which is headed by YouTube influencer Phillip DeFranco.

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