(Hugh Hancock here again. Charlie's still beating the squamous and eldrich tentacles into malleable literary form, so I'm filling in for a few days. He'll be back soon.)
It's a weird time right now.
That's true in general. It's fascinating watching sci-fi authors like Charlie sprinting increasingly fast to keep ahead of the Bear Of Social And Technological Change. But it's specifically true right now for storytellers of all stripes, from comics artists (which category, somewhat to my surprise after two decades of movie-making, now includes me), to writers, to games designers, to filmmakers (also still including me).
Over the last year or so I've been taking a step back from my previous single-minded pursuit of performance capture and Machinima to get a broader understanding of the opportunities for anyone who wants to tell stories right now. Whilst Machinima has been pretty good to me, letting me travel all over the world, giving me the opportunity to pretend to be a Muppet on live CNN, and letting me tell stories ranging in scale from feature films to experimental arthouse shorts, it became clear to me that the landscape was changing pretty fast and I was probably missing out on all sorts of interesting things. So over the last year, I've experimented with comics, game development, prose fiction, a little bit of app development, virtual reality and filmmaking in many and various flavours.
And it's no exaggeration to say that the world of a lot of these artforms has been upended -- or in some cases entirely created -- in the last decade or so. And the next decade's going to make the last one look comparatively stable.
So what media are going to rise? Which are going to fall? Is VR going to look awesome then fail to deliver again?
I've got no certainties, but I do have some hunches and a lot more information than I had a year ago.
Right now, the world of indie feature films is fucked up.
For starters, the cost of production is in free-fall. We all know about GoPros, DSLR cameras being used on major productions and so on, but it goes way beyond that.
It's less about any single piece of tech becoming cheaper, and more about all the tech starting to interact in ways that do very strange and non-linear things to how films are made.
Cameras are becoming cheaper, sure, but they're also becoming lighter. At the same time, brushless motors and cheap IMUs mean that robot camera stabilisers are taking over from Steadicams for stable moving shots. And all of that means that a shot which used to require a guy who'd trained with a Steadicam can be done to 90% of the same quality by some untrained muppet (me) with a basic knowledge of how to walk smoothly and a magic box that does the rest of the work. And that magic box means that directors can rethink the rest of their shoot too, changing dolly shots (big pile of kit, couple of big hairy grips to work it) into a shot with a gimbal and a $200 self-balanced scooter. But all that might be irrelevant too because who the hell needs to wobble about on a scooter when you can probably just get a drone to do the shot?
Usable ISOs (the camera setting that affects how much light it needs) are shooting up like someone strapped them to a kangeroo with a rocket under it. And that means that our cameras need far less light, which means that the conversation with location owners about how we'll probably burn out all their electrics and is it OK if we park a generator next door becomes "fuck it, we'll just nip in, get the shot and use the ambient light. Two 40W household lights will be fine". But then obviously you don't want the rest of your crew to look like, well, a film crew, so it's a damn good thing that you can buy a perfectly good wide-shot camera that's small enough to count as a 1990s spy cam, right? (The fact that you can literally throw an axe at one without damaging it is a bonus.) You can just use your phone for the closeup shots.
But then you need to make sure that you don't have any big obvious sound gear -- but it's OK, because Rode just brought out a radio mic that frequency-hops on the 2.4Ghz band so you don't need a big-ass tunable reciever and can more or less rely on it to Just Work.
And the set's not quite perfect -- but that's not a problem because set extension tech is getting so good that you can more or less capture your actors and drop everything else you need in the shot in post.
And so on.
No-one really knows where this stuff is going to end up. Lots of grizzled veterans will tell you that it doesn't make a difference, and you still need experts from professions A through Q and kit worth $500,000 to make a decent film. Meanwhile, wide-eyed visionary types will tell you that we're heading toward a world where two-person film crews including the director are not only practical but routine.
(Two people? Luxury! How about a film made with ZERO crew including the director?)
All of this is bloody exciting. But the flipside is that once you've made your film for a budget that would have been impossible a decade ago, you'll find that the next stage has become more, not less, impossible.
The film distribution business is creaking and heaving under the strain of the world's change, and filmmakers are taking the hit hard.
Just the other day I heard the phrase "P&A is the new MG". Let me break that down for you.
'P&A', in movie terminology, is 'Prints and Advertising' -- in other words, the cost required to get a film into the cinema, and some marketing budget. 'MG', meanwhile, is 'Minimum Guarantee' -- what novelists would call an 'advance'. In the film world, thanks to the miracle of Hollywood Accounting, the MG is likely to be all the money you ever see from a film. (Both "Blair Witch" and "Lord Of The Rings" technically lost money, meaning the studios didn't owe any royalties.)
So in other words, in the brave new world of film, the advance you'll get from a distribution deal is... the money required to print the movie and advertise it. Which then gets spent on printing and advertising it.
Meaning your total expected income - not profit, income - from that distribution deal is $0.
So go to the brave new world of independent online distribution, right? Well, yeah. Except that the noise level and the difficulty of getting exposure at that point is so high that you'll still lose money. Without naming names, I know of reasonably commercial, well-made, well-reviewed indie movies that have made less than $3k -- against their $50k+ costs, not counting director's time -- on their independent release.
Netflix? They're swamped with filmmakers desperate to get onto their platform. iTunes? Just to get into the store -- with no publicity -- costs over $1,000.
The phrase I keep hearing about filmmaking is "there's never been a better time to get your movie made, and never been a worse time to get anyone to watch it".
Given all that, why the hell am I still working on live-action films? Because the technological change that's happening is just so damn exciting, that's why. The only other narrative medium that's changing as fast as film right now is VR. And where there's change, there's opportunity. If you're making films today the same way that indie filmmakers were making them a decade ago, sure, you're Gonna Have A Bad Time. But if you're trying to do something innovative? Then it's more a question of "test, observe results, repeat".
Television And Webseries
Televison's a refugee camp right now, where half of the hollow-eyed survivors wandering around in a daze are absent-mindedly clutching Oscars.
The growth of Netflix and all its rivals coupled with the sudden muscle of cable in the US means there's a huge amount of money and interest being poured into the TV market. At the same time, after things like Breaking Bad, House Of Cards, The Sopranos, et al, TV has shed its stigma and become the place to be.
Everyone's pouring money into TV: Amazon, Netflix, Playstation, even Yahoo, plus of course all the incumbents. Traditional film companies and even sales agents are jumping into TV-land too. And the same economies I mentioned above in film are also taking hold in TV.
So is it a good place to get into for a storyteller? Only if you're really good at deal-making or climbing institutional ladders.
Currently the money that's being spent is mostly being spent at the top. And thanks to the brain-drain from film, there's no shortage of really well-known people with serious portfolios eager to get their series made.
That means that it's at least as hard to break in as it ever was for a newbie, perhaps harder, unless you're already successful in another medium (books, comics, film), or you have strong contacts with an established Executive Producer or showrunner. And whilst you might even manage to sell your series idea to a production company, there's no guarantee that you'll end up associated with it subsequently.
There's no real 'indie television' in the same way as 'indie film' yet, and my understanding from experts in the distribution business is that even if you self-funded and made a TV-format series, you'd probably find you couldn't sell it.
So what about webseries?
That one way is a bit of a killer, though. They just don't have a viable way to make money right now.
The economics of YouTube and similar platforms heavily favour content that's very fast to create and upload: Let's Play videos, direct-to-camera opinion or comedy pieces, or funny cat videos. At regular YouTube ad prices, even a piece that gets a million views will earn about $2,500, which is great if that took you three hours to make and cost you a fiver, but less good for drama, which is infamously slow and expensive by comparison.
That's true even given the technology shifts of today. Drama -- unless very cleverly scripted -- still requires multiple locations, props, costume, multiple actors, stunts and special effects, complex editing, colour grading, etc. That's exactly why the Netflix / HBO subscription model has been so game-changing -- because it generates a far higher per-viewer revenue stream, it means that TV drama doesn't have to be so mass-audience to survive. And even if you are mass-audience, TV ad prices are 10x what a YouTube creator will get -- making the difference between 'practical to create drama if you're massively successful' and 'not practical at all'.
The few drama webseries that do make a living for their creators survive off either corporate sponsorship, Kickstarters or similar ancilliary revenue streams. Patreon seems like it might be a practical approach for some webseries, but again the high costs of drama make it less viable than for comics (see below).
So, much like indie film, it's very possible to make webseries, provided you're willing to put significant amounts of your own money into them and get less than half of it back. Actually sustaining a living making them is... non-trivial. It's not impossible, but it's a pretty bleak landscape.
Games development looks a bit like film right now, but nothing's quite as bad.
Games development tools are advancing, if anything, even faster than film tools, partially aided by the fact that the entire thing's digital.
If you have any interest in gaming as a creative medium, I urge you to download either the latest Unity or the latest Unreal Engine release. They're astonishingly easy to use; you'll be able to create a playable game inside about two hours if you have any familiarity with programming or 3D tools, and probably about three hours if you don't. They're absolute powerhouses of software, powering most of the latest big releases right up to AAA games in Unreal's case. Oh, and they're free. Barring some reasonable royalty agreements, completely free.
There's a huge and very active game development community producing thousands of tutorials on every aspect of game development. I've yet to find a single problem with Unity that I couldn't Google and solve immediately. There are hundreds of art assets and plugins available for very reasonable prices to make almost any genre and setting you want.
On the downside, no-one's yet solved the problem that games projects are subject to feature creep like you wouldn't believe. From regular reading on /r/gamedev, feature creep seems to be the pit trap that swallows about 75% of all indie devs. For storytellers, that's compounded by the bad news that most game genres that are narrative-heavy and still mainstream-acceptable are amongst the most cost- and time-heavy. (RPGs and Telltale Games-style narrative adventures being top of the list).
But again, the really big problem is distribution.
You can forget the mobile market, for starters. Discovery in the App Store is unbelievably bad, and the median number of copies sold for an indie game released on iOS without a marketing budget tends toward zero. The Google Play Store is very similar. And marketing mobile games is brutal -- there are a lot of companies going for a cash grab with huuuuuuuge budgets behind them, a lot more using exploit-based strategies like game cloning, and generally it's a pit fight where everyone else is either cheating or paying professional gladiators, and all you've got is a butter knife and hope.
PC gaming is better, but there too the competition is incredibly fierce, the process of getting into most of the storefronts is deeply arbitrary and generally getting anyone to pay attention is tough as hell.
Some of this is mitigated by the fact that the gaming community is surprisingly forgiving of low production values. Indeed, indie game developers are strongly encouraged to stay away from competing with the big franchises in that way. Provided a game has a coherent art style it can get away with being blocky as hell, 2D and palette-limited, or even deliberately ugly if that suits the gameplay.
If you're very focused, have innovative ideas for ways to tell stories through games without spending too much time on them, and are good at making friends with journalists, indie games are an interesting option for a storyteller right now. But the golden ticket they ain't, and there are plenty of pitfalls. Personally, I'm staying clear; not because of the discovery angle -- I am good at publicity -- but because my projects tend toward feature creep at the best of times, and game dev looks like a hole from which I would emerge 5 years later with a massive beard and a game reliant on half-decade-old technology.
I'm not going to get too in-depth with prose, partially because my prose experiments failed early and partially because, of all of these media, prose is the one where I know there are bigger experts than me hanging around here -- notably our gracious host.
Prose is interesting because it's the only one of the artforms I'm discussing here that has gone through a revolution in distribution but not in creation. Writing a novel doesn't take massively less time now than it did 15 years ago; sure, minor things have changed (I hear some considerable enthusiasm about Scrivener), but it's not like a novel used to take 10x as long to write as it does now.
However, the distribution landscape for self-publishers has changed beyond recognition. From the initial rise of the blog (which we really can't overestimate -- we're talking about ubiquitous, zero-gatekeeper journalism accessible to all) to the ebook and the Amazon Kindle store (which I'd argue are two seperate and equally important advances), prose distribution is the only one of these artforms that has really seen a frictionless, practical self-distribution framework emerge.
It really helps that readers clearly have much less hesitation buying self-published books than they do buying micro-budget films or even indie games. That's perhaps unsurprising: there are a lot less things that differentiate a newbie self-published author from a NYT Bestselling giant. Whilst there are still very important skills involved -- writing style and plot -- there aren't the additional hurdles of, for example, acting, music, sound design, sound recording, editing, colour grading, production design, prop design, costume, makeup, cinematography, camera and lens quality, lighting, CGI effects, practical effects, motion graphics and probably some other things I've missed.
Non-fiction text is sufficiently easy to turn into money that it reaches the hallowed ground of actually being a plausible, investable business plan. I funded my last big film project from the combination of a non-fiction info site that I founded and another on which I consulted.
Fiction is, still, harder than that. Most obviously, we've still not really figured out how to market fiction direct to consumers outside the comparative slam-dunk of 'you like this author, so here's another book by her/him'. I've been helping M. Harold Page market his "Shieldwall" novel recently, and even given the fact that I speak and consult professionally on online advertising for non-fiction, it's a tough sell.
In other "con" elements for prose, Amazon's discovery tools are the best of any store for fictional media, by a long way, but they're also not perfect, by an equally long way. And the field's increasingly crowded with new authors -- but the same's true of all these media except, perhaps, Virtual Reality.
But overall, prose fiction is probably in the best shape of all the artforms I've mentioned here.
Sadly, I just don't get on with writing it. My prose fiction attempt crapped out at 4,000 words. Twenty years of working in visual media appear to have wired me to need pictures. So I moved on...
The new frontier!
There are two huge problems with VR for a storyteller at present.
First, not that many people have a VR headset.
Secondly, no one has the faintest idea how to tell stories in VR. Well, OK, that may be a slight exaggeration. We have the faintest idea how to do it. We just don't have anything beyond that.
I've been experimenting with Virtual Reality since about 2 months after the first Oculus Rift developer kits became available. I participated in the first Oculus Rift Game Jam, creating a game whose visuals are the very definition of the phrase "programmer art". I've even worked in Virtual Reality creating sets for non-VR films, for my last animated film, Stone And Sorcery.
I still don't exactly know how you'd tell an effective story in the damn thing.
I think that 3D stereo cubemaps might have a significant part to play (and if you have a access to a VR headset, btw, I highly recommend checking them out), but beyond that I got nothin'.
However, there are heavyweights working on solving that problem. Oculus themselves has a dedicated team working on the problem. And Hollywood directors like Alfonso Cuarón are looking into the Rift for storytelling, too. Someone's going to crack it, and soon.
And aside from that minor detail, VR's an excellent environment for a storyteller right now. It's super-hip, so getting press coverage isn't hard. It has a massively enthusiastic community who will actually seek your work out. And if you make something really cool, John Carmack will review it and tell you what you could be doing better.
There's even money in it. Whilst, as previously noted, there aren't many people with a VR headset at present, the people who do have one are (a) rabidly enthusiastic and (b) have disposable income, by definition. Several VR apps, including the ubiquitous porn start-ups, are definitely posting revenue, although I don't know how profitable they are right now.
Oh, and VR experiences aren't even that hard to make. Unity and Unreal both work natively with the Rift -- it's essentially no harder to make a Rift game than to make, well, a game.
Overall, the future's bright. But it is still the future -- a stable medium it ain't.
Which makes it rather exciting.
And so we finally come to comics. Why the hell am I making a comic, exactly?
Well, quite a bit of it comes down to less-practical issues of vision and the nature of the medium (which I'll go into more detail about tomorrow on my own blog) as well as the fact that my unique background lets me cheat several aspects of the comics production process egregiously. I don't think most people are using a $50,000 motion capture system to make comics.
But comics are actually in a very interesting place right now.
They're about halfway between film and prose in terms of revolution of creation. 2D art has changed a lot in the last 15 years, thanks largely to a little program called Photoshop, but we're not in 'complete revolution, burn all the books' territory.
Nonetheless, comics creation has become fast enough that it's practical for a single creator to produce an ongoing narrative -- in some cases, a pretty epic one.
And in terms of distribution, it turns out that comics are very well suited to the Internet as a form of delivery.
I'm more enthusiastic about webcomics than I am about Comixology-style digital comics. Comixology itself has a self-distribution program, but its lead times are startlingly gigantic: three months or so to get a comic into the store, with infamously stringent requirements that often result in submissions getting knocked back a bunch of times. And once you're in there, it's another digital store, with similar discovery problems to the Apple App Store.
Webcomics have a discovery problem, again, but there is some help in the form of Project Wonderful, an advertising agency that's pretty much dedicated to comics creators, and a generally enthusiastic community. The comics subreddits, for example, are actively welcoming of comic author self-promotion, something that's not true at all of most of the other medias' subreddits.
Webcomics enable extremely rapid experimentation. I was able to test out a webcomic idea in about 5 hours last year -- all the way from 'have idea' (admittedly from an existing project) to 'publicise and get viable, interesting feedback'. That's incredibly powerful, and something that's missing from almost all the other media I've discussed here.
And the audience for webcomics is, quietly, absolutely gigantic. Even if we discount the popular comic strips as opposed to ongoing narratives (Penny Arcade, Dilbert, et al), the audience for top serialised-narrative webcomics like Homestuck is in the order of multiple millions a day. To put this in perspective, a webseries that gets 1,000,000 viewers for its premiere episode across all time is a huge success. A solid number of webcomics see 100,000+ page views a day -- more than you'd expect by the usual inverse square law rule.
( I suspect a lot of the size of the audience is down to one simple fact: unlike movies, TV shows, or even games, it's very easy to consume the latest page of a webcomic at work. )
The combination of rapid development time and the large audience makes webcomics unusually practical from a financial perspective, too. Just on an advertising basis, larger webcomics are doing numbers that will generate at least a modest income. The webcomics community is leading the charge on alternative support methods like Patreon, too, and there are quite a few comic creators on there clearing $3k+ per month.
So, strangely, it seems that comics, which most people involved in them regard as an almost inevitably loss-making proposition, ended up looking to me like one of the, if not the, best propositions of all the available media in the 2010s.
And that's why Carcosa, my ongoing webcomic happened.
Given this is Charlie's Blog, I can't possibly leave things at a statement of the present.
So, where are things going to be in five years?
Firstly, I don't think that the 'film is scr000d' situation is going to persist long-term. Right now it feels like we're in a classic Warren Buffet "be bold where others are fearful" situation. One large player moving in with a competently executed, low-friction independent movie marketplace would change a lot, and I've no doubt that will happen.
I do think that the movie world is going to change beyond recognition. In the medium term, (independent) film is probably going to look a lot more like the book world: films are not going to stop getting cheaper and faster to make, until $6,000 is an average or perhaps even unusually high budget for a indie feature-length production. Studio films are likely to go a different way - several people are predicting a massive crash in the studio world in the near future when a couple of tentpole blockbusters fail badly, and I'm inclined to think the odds of that happening are good.
The sheer quantity of indie features being made right now - 10,000+ a year or more - also all but guarantees that we'll see an E.L. James style breakout hit from the truly indie film world in the near future; probably more than one. We're already seeing an erosion in the power of the 'movie star', and I suspect that's going to continue, too. We may even see a dramatic turn against the prejudices against low production value: that has already happened a bit with the "Mumblecore" movement, and the rapid evolution of film on the Internet may end up taking the entire aesthetic of the medium in a very strange direction where some things look very slick and others very amateurish.
I'm less than convinced about the long-term viability of the feature format, because it's dependent on the cinema as a long-term cultural artifact. As films become cheaper and faster to make, I can see short films returning as a financially viable medium -- if we get to the point where you can make a short in a day, then the YouTube model starts to make sense.
I think that the culture at large is going to wake up one day and realise just how big webcomics have become. With Homestuck and Questionable Content already starting to push into TV-sized audiences, webcomics look to be the next artform to suddenly break out of the 'nerdy subculture' ghetto and into mainstream culture, in as much as that term means anything.
Finally, VR is either going to fail utterly or be huge, for values of 'huge' meaning 'bigger than the mobile phone'. I don't think it's possible to overestimate the impact of the first genuine reality simulation. We'll figure out some way to tell stories in it, but it might be that those stories are necessarily interactive in nature. Alternatively, we might end up discovering that actually, hovering like a ghost in the middle of a dramatic scene is a surprisingly natural way to view drama. Games are already discovering this: several of the most popular Oculus Rift titles are actually third-person, not first-person at all.
But regardless, VR isn't just a game-changer -- it's a reality-changer.
Alternatively, it may be that VR fails and the second horseman of the VRpocalypse, Augmented Reality, ends up being the real winner. That's certainly what Microsoft are betting on with their Hololens.
At which point, the best guide I could give to the future of entertainment would be to say "Have you heard of this guy called Charles Stross? He wrote a couple of books a few years ago that you might find interesting..."
Agree? Disagree? Think I've missed something key? Let me know below.