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What's Happening with What We Got: DJ Spooky's Quest for the Commons

Filmmaker Brad Lichtenstein's Blog Moves In

For those of you who don’t know, I’m the director and producer of What We Got: DJ Spooky’s Quest for the Commons. Vernon Reid is the co-director of the project, and Brian Glazer is our producer.

Brad (lt) and Vernon (rt) present the WeJay at the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco.

I blogged about the project on MySpace for a while, but Myspace is overrun with ads and became too annoying. I’m going to try this space out as a new home. You can follow progress of the making of the “transmedia experience” we call What We Got. Here is my first entry.

In June of 2008 I met Tim Kring, the writer and creator of the NBC hit series Heroes, while participating in a Bay Area Video Coalition-sponsored new media workshop. He told me that we are inventing a new form with What We Got. He was talking about the documentary/fiction post-modern sensibility of our film, but the same can be said for the entire project. It’s become what some might call a “transmedia experience”, morphing our outreach remix and share strategy and the storytelling into a single muti-modal force hurtling forward in real and cyber space.

Here is my paraphrasing of wikipedia’s definition of transmedia storytelling:

Transmedia storytelling, also called multiplatform or enhanced storytelling, is storytelling across multiple forms of media. By using different media, it attempts to create “entrypoints” through which audiences can become immersed in a story franchise’s world. The aim of this immersion is decentralized authorship across multiple new media forms like television, movie theaters. video games, the internet, and mobile platforms. By encouraging the sharing of assets and user generated content, transmedia conveys a complex story through numerous media sources.

Since the institute, we no longer think of ourselves primarily as filmmakers. We think of ourselves as content producers. This is a term that Jim Sommers of the Independent Television Service emphasized at one of the BAVC institute’s seminars. And we embrace the notion that we are one set among many storytellers telling the story of the commons. We will enable and embolden others to share that mission through our transmedia strategy to transform viewers into doers who shape the story and join a community working online and offline to name, claim and protect commons.

We have a clear, conceptual understanding for what we are doing. That’s the good news.

That’s the bad news, too.

The bad news, if you wish to call it that, is that we are working hard at the “bleeding edge” of storytelling form, new media, and web 2.0 strategy. Conceptualizing this project has taken far more time that we anticipated. Consequently, we have not met some our key goals. We had hoped to have developed a script, a website, and the plan for our first outreach summit by now. Instead, we have busied ourselves with the work of figuring out how to tell our story of the commons and educating ourselves about web 2.0, shifting our focus from a website to a multiplatform digital strategy to organize our outreach engagement campaign. Whereas we once thought of our storytelling (the film), our remix strategy (the user-generated versions) and the on-the-ground outreach organizing (partnerships and events) as separate but related, we now think of them as one in the same, each a dynamic within a single ecology: a transmedia experience.

In short, we’ve spent more than a year trying to figure out what the heck we are trying to invent for What We Got. Thanks to some invaluable mentorship and the building of a fantastic team, we are making steady progress.

The script writing journey has been at turns exciting and frustrating. What compelled me to think I could write a script for a fiction/documentary hybrid, a kind of post-modern comic book-styled film, as Tim Kring describes it? The script challenges have delayed this project because so much of our fund raising depends on its completion.

What We Got is wholly different from anything I’ve ever done. Every documentary I’ve produced up to this point — and there have been many — consists either mostly of “cinema verité” footage or a combination of archival and interview footage. While storytelling is always a challenge, each successive film has been, increasingly, terra firma. This one is terra incognita. Personally, that is a significant attraction — to do something new. I swallow hard when I admit that it took a full year of attempting to write a script before concluding that I will not be the person to write this film. This conclusion comes after great effort and half a dozen writing retreats with my directing partner, Vernon.

We have amassed a mountain of research and a stack full of real and virtual note cards with potential scenes. We’ve honed our stylistic approach. Now we will turn over all of our work to a writer. In line with our new plan, we are currently vetting a short list of writers and expect to hire someone within weeks. Novelist Jonathan Lethem will help us. A Brooklyn native, Jonathan has not only written nearly a dozen novels, including Motherless Brooklyn and Fortress of Solitude; he’s written a gorgeous essay about the Commons — The Ecstasy of Influence — that was published in Harper’s Magazine last year and included in Paul Miller’s (DJ Spooky) new anthology Sound Unbound. Jonathan’s website hosts a project called Promiscuous Materials wherein Jonathan grants one-dollar licenses to much of the material he’s written, challenging conventional notions of authorship and intellectual property. Jonathan has agreed to help us vet writers and work with our team to shape a script.

One of the most helpful undertakings in the course of climbing this steep learning curve was producing our first shoot with Paul (DJ Spooky). Motivated by the need to have some media to bring with us to the BAVC producer’s institute, we shot Paul on a green screen in a studio, featuring him in snippets that I think of as “commercials for the commons”. I wrote, Brian Glazer produced, and Vernon and I directed four scenes:

  • T-Shirt – Spooky mixes and grooves as he moves through different commons environments, each of which turns to text on his t-shirt — Who Owns the ___? The blank is filled in by “sky”, “water”, “language”, “internet,” etc…
  • Electric Company – Two Spookys in silhouette sound out the names of different kinds of commons.
  • Copyright – Spooky reads the original copyright act as graphics around him depict the ever-escalating term of copyright.
  • Goose – Spooky is a carnival barker shouting a 17th century poem through a megaphone about punishing the person who steals the goose from off the commons, but letting the greater crime of stealing the commons from the goose go unpunished. He’s accompanied by a remixed chorus of voices while flash animations dance around him.

Producing the shoot taught me an enormous amount about directing this kind of filmmaking, about co-directing with my partner, Vernon, budgeting, systems, post-production technology and tested our newly formed team — especially our producer, Brian Glazer. The shoot confirmed that we will not only work with Brian, but we’ll work with a number of people he brought onto the production and post-production team for this shoot. We learned how much we trust and enjoy working with Brian, a first-rate producer with loads of television (HBO, Sundance Channel, PBS…) and independent movie experience. His experience complements mine. Whereas I’ve worked primarily on PBS indie docs, Brian has worked with larger budgets and with celebrities on shows like Sundance Channel’s Iconoclasts. He also brings to the team a funding and producing network and the skills to help realize our funding goals. Last, but certainly not least, he “gets” the commons and has already been an insightful creative influence on the project.

Making these scenes is my first serious foray into the world of motion graphics, especially using the program After Effects. The creation of these scenes deepened my understanding of how to use motion graphics and animation in our storytelling.

We’ve completed nearly one entire After Effects and animation pass of T-shirt and created a rough cut of the Electric Company sequence. Our plan is to finish these four scenes and release them online through various portals including zoominonline.com and through our WeJay, the online dj mixing console widget we created at BAVC’s producer’s institute. More on that later. This will mark the beginning of our sharing of media for this project.

I predict that we will have a script and storyboard by February of 2009. We hope to premiere the film in March of 2010 at the South By Southwest film festival, followed by a summer of “commons” screenings organized by our partners and each featuring remixed versions of the film and locally determined commons-oriented events. We’ll follow the commons event season with a limited theatrical release and a broadcast on PBS that leads into a season of meetups to motivate continued momentum and activism on behalf of the commons.

One of the most important assets that Brian and Jonathan bring to our effort is the proven ability to engage audiences on a political level without being didactic. Their projects do what we hope ours will do: communicate powerful political ideas that foreground artistry and entertainment over grandstanding to win new audiences. A delicate balance between entertainment/engagement and messaging is crucial to achieving the kind of cultural awareness and protection of the commons that we hope our work will help to catalyze.

We have also added a number of other talented souls to our original team of Vernon Reid, Paul Miller (DJ Spooky), Sam Pollard and myself. Henry Poole is our internet strategist. One of those freaky smart kids, Henry was hacking computers in middle school during the 1970s and 80s, and had already started and sold several businesses before he was old enough to legally drink. He’s been solving tech problems ever since, floating effortlessly between the for-profit and not-for-profit worlds. His currently company, Civic Actions, has built web presences for organizations like Creative Commons and Amnesty International, and a massive human rights media hub online for Witness. The Hub is a participatory website enabling people anywhere in the world to use their cameras, camcorders and cell phones to document and share their human rights-related footage to promote discussion, action and policy change. Henry’s colleagues have figured out how to standardize and handle the uploading and downloading of massive amounts of multiple formats of media in order to make Witness’ The Hub work. This achievement and the rest of his long-view strategic skills and network of talented tech problem-solvers will help us achieve our transmedia storytelling and organizing goals.

Norman Lear came on board over a year ago as a creative consultant. Needless to say, Norman has legendary producing and storytelling advice to share. I’ve leaned on him during the process of finding a writer to help.

We have not hired an outreach staff, yet…but we had an opportunity to meet a very talented young woman, Mattie Weiss and at one point hoped that she might begin this part of the work. Mattie is currently the director of Campus Camp Wellstone at Wellstone Action in Minneapolis. We were simultaneously fortunate and unfortunate that this hire did not work out. Unfortunate, because Mattie is a proven talent in organizing youth and savvy in the use of technology and grassroots techniques. Fortunate, because we weren’t ready when the opportunity was presented to us. Since that time we have restructured our outreach approach, and, hence, the job. We’ll likely hire an outreach director and staff in February of 2009.

From the beginning, we have talked about having a robust online presence and the goal of going “viral” with our media. In the months since this grant was approved we have learned what that really means — our journey to understanding our project as a transmedia experience.

I must single out participation in the Bay Area Video Coalition’s (BAVC) Producer’s New Media Institute as transformative in the development of our transmedia strategy. The Independent Television Service sponsored our attendance. We spent 10 days working with web developers, game developers, designers, Second Life experts, mapping experts and other talented folk re-imagining public media strategy. While we wrote in our proposal that we want our project to be “viral” and to build community through online sharing and remixing, we actually figured out how to make those goals a reality in the hive of BAVC’s institute. There we not only worked with all of the talented mentors — some of whom we’ll continue to work with — but also worked together as a team (Henry, Vernon and me from points East, West and Midwest) in an environment that breathed into us a heightened state of productivity. The crux of our strategy is to de-emphasize a single address on the web (a website) and to focus on portability, being everywhere and anywhere on the web by using applications and widgets and by using networks to grow communities concerned with the commons. To this end, we dreamt up our WeJay, a remix and share widget that we prototyped at the BAVC institute. It’s a “toy” that can live anywhere, Facebook, Myspace, the iPhone. It could really make “viral” a reality.

What the WeJay does is simple, which is its beauty. Tony Walsh, a game developer based in Toronto, was key in pushing us in that direction. And the style that complements its “toyness” was the result of hard work by designers Abigail Rudner and Laura Hilliger. Creative Commons organized a focus group to test our WeJay prototype.

The WeJay is a widget we call a “toy.” Our goal was to make something fun that promoted the experience of the commons through direct engagement. The WeJay is an online DJ console that enables users to scratch media, change its backgrounds, change it’s soundtrack, just by moving a cursor across it’s face. It invites you to play with media. Delve deeper into its modes and it is a powerful tool that allows for video, audio and background remixing, downloads and uploads, sharing and publishing to and from networks like Flickr and Facebook, and naming through tags of commons: water, sky, language, internet, etc… Most powerful, perhaps, is the social graphing of all derivative works. We can gather the network of authors using WeJay media (the bank of which grows as users use it) and push them toward commons actions and outreach events, most notably our 125+ screenings of different versions of What We Got. I have attached a keynote presentation that demonstrates the WeJay. We are working hard to launch the WeJay on the iPhone, followed by Facebook.

Of course we will still build a website, and there will be other widgets and applications to come. The WeJay is the first, expressive of the commons in form and function and making our project real by putting our commercials for the commons out there.

We have already begun to work with outreach partners. Corporate Accountability International supplied advice and footage about the commons of water for our commercials for the commons. The Long Now Foundation informed our ideas for the commercials for the commons through their Rosetta Project’s effort to preserve the world’s languages, and, thus, traditional and indigenous knowledge. We have attended numerous gatherings and conferences on the commons, forging valuable relationships with people and organizations connected to every commons one can imagine. Indeed, the people behind the site you are on right now convened many commons gatherings that have helped us develop our ideas. The next gathering for me is the International Association for the Study of the Commons in England where there will be plenty of opportunities to network with a global array of commons protectors. Our short list is a long list of nearly 250 organizations with which we hope to partner. This will provide our outreach director and team a guide and set of relationships when they begin their work.

I welcome your thoughts, comments and ideas. Thanks for reading.