Sunday, November 1, 2009

On the RADAR: mini-documentaries on maxi-subjects that challenge (& frighten)

Just as the way we watch movies is changing -- Blu-Ray, streaming via computer, iPhone or one of those Netflix boxes (though some of the folks who own these have not yet managed to set them up properly) -- so is the content of what we watch changing, including its length. One example is RADAR: a series of very short documen-
tary films that seems just about perfect for our current Ritalin-heavy, attention-deficit times.

Lasting between three and five minutes, each tiny segment -- dense with information but easy to understand and view -- introduces us to people and their ideas for modern living. These include a girl group, a kind of web-comic enterprise, a comedy/musical duo and a human-interaction artist (four of the dozen subjects from last season) or -- coming with the new season -- silent performance artists dressed in bio-hazard suits, a self-sustaining eco-habitat that floats, and a battle between painter-type performing artists for a place at the gallery. In fact, Jason Bitner’s Cassettes from My Ex -- a new book that hit retail shevles last week -- had its own segment during Season One of Radar's web series.

For someone like TrustMovies -- who's used to spending at least an hour or more watching narrative films, documentaries or the occasional cable TV show -- sitting still for only around four minutes seemed initially very odd. And yet, the fact that each one of these little "shows" managed to pull me in -- making me want to find out more about the subject at hand, as well as getting me to consider how what I had just seen fits into our "new world" -- might mean that the people in charge of RADAR have a grip on something important and current.

As I worked my way through eight of these spots (five from last season, three from this), I grew increasingly interested in speaking with the folk behind the series. So their helping hand, Brian Clark at the New York PR house Falco Ink, arranged an interview.

The duo behind RADAR is composed of Alex Johnson (shown left) and Lance Weiler (below, right), co-creators of RADAR and co-founders of WBP Labs. Ms Johnson, who hails from London, directed the entire first season of RADAR and is the creative director of the second season ("I oversee the roster of directors," she tells us) and also acts as curator ("I find the projects that we end up doing"). Mr. Weiler has produced all the RADAR episodes so far and directed two of them for this current and second season. He also founded The Workbook Project, the parent company of WBP Labs and RADAR.

My first remark to both parties concerns how well each episode of RADAR seems to fit the tenor of our times. "This absolutely makes sense to me," notes Alex. "The episodes were very much designed with that in mind. I have a hybrid background. Both Lance and I come from this interactive world. I've worked with New Line, Universal and Sundance on interactive marketing -- studying human behavior when interacting with technology to find out how to make content that appeals to people -- on their own terms. And I also have a background as a filmmaker, so I think I know what a good story is, what kind of characters we want to go after, and how to look at it all from the advertising and interactive perspectives. I believe that three-to-four minutes is a perfect time frame when you are watching, particularly if you are watching while you are moving from location to location, viewing these on your way to work on the bus or something. Filmmakers need to think about how their content can be consumed in differing ways: while mobile, in the living room, in-flight, even theatricals."

Has RADAR been sold you sold to in-flight, we wonder? "Not yet -- but we're in talks right now," says Alex.

"What's interesting to us," explains Lance Weiler, "is that RADAR works very well as a short- form 'burst' of content – a chance to see somebody's creative process in action. We try to capture the project and how it works. Certainly, that lines up very well with current changes in audience perception. People are watching things as news but are also engaging with things in more social ways. RADAR fits that need. And a think that I lot of our success is due to Alex's curation."

When I tell Lance how well -- and in such a short viewing time -- RADAR has captured its subjects, he explains that the subjects themselves feel this way, too. "People have used our clips about them to raise money for other projects, toward book deals, and in lots of ways. I think this is a testament to our work."

Does the twosome plan to continue RADAR is a similar format? "We've spent a lot of time focusing on how to create this kind of content so that it can be replicated and still remain interesting," explains Alex. "But we're also concerned with how to evolve it, while sticking to what it is – which is why people watch it. We plan to carry this on indefinitely as a show. The people that we cover -- and so far, we have not worked with anyone who has not been pleased with the result -- say that we really have captured what they do and why. We're also striving to make these more inclusive. So that people can watch these and say, 'Wow – I am now going to do something like this: join a group, or do something creative that I've always wanted to do'."

"Actually," adds Lance, "our goal right now is to place RADAR in different cities in different countries, and we're in that process currently. We also offer off-line RADAR: letting people experience what RADAR is, and trying to bring these to life in a real-world setting, creating a sense of community. We'd like a combo of online and offline, a creative discovery engine: finding the creative project and engaging with them. Maybe finding future collaborators, too!"

"We want to have this crossover between interactive and storytelling," Alex notes. "Whatever we do, there is always going to be a transmedia element. Always story-based, but the stories now are being told in different ways. And they are being consumed in different ways, too."

When we ask how this whole process first began, Lance takes us down his personal Memory Lane: The fellow has already made a couple of narrative feature films of note: The Last Broadcast and Head Trauma. "Both, he explains, "were fiercely independent and DIY and were self-distributed all over the world. I had an offer to do a book about this experience, but decided to turn it down to do The Workbook Project instead. I wanted to see if I could beat that book advance in terms of money by releasing this information for free on the web. And that's what I did."

How would Lance describe The Workbook Project. "It's a kind of open, creative network to facilitate this democratizing of all of this. We’re in a Paradigm shift right now, where everything is changing: movies, television, books, newpapers, music. Film and TV came of age in the last century; now we live in a real-time world. Even considering how much all this has being driven by consumption, entertainment and the creative process has not been able to keep up and meet this new need. So now everybody is their own media company. With RADAR, the general idea is to say: These are some amazing projects, so take a look.

"I think the real key here is Alex' curation, which really makes the series work. I strongly believe that the next wave of discovery, the actual work, is going to come from strong curation. Right now, bloggers like you and others are filters for things. People respond to your recommendations and opinions. What Alex does becomes a filter for the series. All this makes engaging creative work and aids the community in ways that we had not even expected."

Using all this for entertainment purposes is one thing, but what about the dissemination of real news? With newspapers beginning to disappear, how will the world get its facts about what's happening? "Some of the things -- like news -- in the future will be balanced in a kind of community-based way," Lance predicts. "Crowd-sourced. This is faster than reported news. If anything, it may not be so much about making larger, traditional outlets respond in some particular way, as now reporting things that used to not be covered at all. I think there is tremendous opportunity with journalism and publishing for some real innovation. It’s a matter of behavior and understanding what is community-based and where is the filter. Things will come down to the filters. I am a strong proponent of looking and saying what is going on in other industries and how can these apply to what I am doing. The Workbook Project is based philosophically on open sourced software -- with amateurs and professional working on code and building new business models together. In this way, suddenly, a small firm like Linux is actually competing with Microsoft, but with barely a portion of the larger firm's resources."

Seems to me Alex and Lance are onto something (onto a lot of things, actually). To discover for yourself what RADAR offers -- the series second season has just premiered via Babelgum, the group that recently brought us Sally Potter's Rage -- click here and begin browsing....

(The photos above -- with the exception of those of
Alex and Lance -- are from the individual RADAR episodes.)

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