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The Boundaries of Low-Budget Film
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Each year, new developments become more accessible to low-budget filmmakers. Some of these developments give filmmakers powerful tools, which they may or may not choose to use efficiently. (For example, Magic Bullet Looks can craft a truly amazing look for a film if skill, patience, and creativity are applied to its use. However, if you just slap its presets on things to make them "cool," you will usually come up with something that looks unbelievable and chintzy.)

Separate from technological improvements are sociological changes. Ways in which people regard Independent films, patterns in which they look for new media, and backlash against Hollywood's missteps can all impact the audience's availability and hunger for new content.

However, the most recent thing that's been brought to my attention is a truly hybridized amalgamation in culture and technology. While you can see this concept in numerous areas, the one that has become extremely important to me and some of the work we're doing on Depleted is in the area of AR (Alternate Reality) experiences. While this is an area that has truly grown in recent years, it's something that has very antiquated roots.

Before there were video games, there were paper role playing games, where people could pretend to live and exist in other worlds, most often science fiction or fantasy worlds. People who might live somewhat banal lives IRL (in real life) could become powerful sorcerers or notorious star pirates in the game world of their imaginations. Despite the thriving world of this community, few people truly explored the concept of using the attraction of this idea in other areas. (Oh, sure. People would make video game adaptations of these paper role playing games, but that shows about as much innovation as making a film based on a stage play.)

It really wasn't until a little film called The Blair Witch Project started making waves in 1999 that the idea of pulling fans and spectators into the mythos of a film world began to appeal to people. With the internet still in its infancy (and shell-shocked after the first dot-com crash), the creators of the Blair Witch Project had teamed up with Artisan to create an enticing online mystery surrounding the disappearance of the three youths the film was about. Through carefully revealing details about the world to select websites and horror fans, they were able to create an alternate reality that people gleefully joined in on. Despite the fact that producer Mike Monello admits that they probably only had as many as 1000 truly passionate fans, these fans behaved like a word-of-mouth PR cyclone that caused the $16K film to soar to over $100 million in ticket sales. (It might have gone farther than that if the filmmakers and actors hadn't admitted that the "disappearance" the film dealt with was only a "ruse" shortly after the film was released. It's my belief that this sabotaged the magic of this alternate reality before it grew to the potential it might have otherwise achieved.)

In the past decade, as more and more people have moved "to" the internet and more work has been done on social sites like mySpace, Facebook, YouTube, LinkedIn, and Twitter, the logic of taking this intertwined society into the area of alternate reality becomes more and more compelling. (For more traditional explorations, one only has to look at the extremely popular World of Warcraft game and 2nd Life site.) When tied to logical film franchises, this can be a way to make something greater and more encompassing than it could have been otherwise.

Because of the number of mysteries around the disasters before the Fall and the extremely covert characters in our film series, Depleted, it's made a lot of sense to start exploring the concept of AR elements in this world. As a number of the characters are trained code breakers and forgers, in the near future, this will allow us to hide cyphers (encrypted, visual, and aural) throughout the website, films, and world. Unlike some ARG experiences, these codes and mysteries are not an end unto themselves. Rather, those who decode the secrets will get truly exciting glimpses into this world, clues about upcoming story twists, and even get the opportunity to have controlling positions in the community around Depleted. (Eventually, people will be able to associate themselves with the kingdoms, tribes, and sects that have arisen in Depleted, at which point their ability to interact could go from having online wars for territorial control to creating pacts for mutual survival to engaging in invention and trade to become wealthy after the Fall.)

As I and our marketing team (made up of Sheri Candler, Ross Pruden, and Scott Walker) work on these elements, crafting the story for our fans to get the most enjoyment out of this world and this experience, I've been able to run into other innovators in this field. One company realizes the importance of game based mechanics even in non-game entities and is creating game-style rewards for films and properties who are fully exploring AR architecture. This can mean that interaction from fans can earn them hidden pieces of swag from the film or truly powerful abilities and permissions in the world of a film. Other companies are hard at work on Geocaching elements, by which fans of a film can find secret trinkets and tokens hidden in different parts of the world with the help of GPS equipped cell phones. Done properly, these AR elements can transform fans' interactions into a full blown quest.

With all these options, the door is wide open to what alternate reality can mean in the future of micro-budget film! To further inspire your creativity, I'll leave you with an imaginative thought. Suppose that Star Wars: A New Hope hadn't come out in 1977. Rather, it came out in 2010 and, just as in 1977, it became immensely popular. However, George Lucas released the film with some solid AR components to it, so that people could truly become a part of the story.

Shortly after the film was released, one of the new Star Wars fans in LA noticed that one of the pictures on the Star Wars website was excessively large. Suspecting that the picture hid another file, he downloaded the full size picture and ran it through a favorite steganographic software which revealed a QR code that had been hidden in the data of the picture. As he didn't have a smart phone to read the QR code with, he called his buddy to bring over his iPhone. His buddy comes over, scans the QR phone, and finds GPS coordinates and a riddle. The two friends get in their car and drive to the coordinates, which happens to be a cantina that could easily have been George Lucas' inspiration for the Mos Eisley cantina. The riddle leads them to an alley behind the cantina, where they discover a small pipe fixed into the ground. Inside the pipe, they discover a tube with an Imperial symbol on one end, with a QR code woven into the center of the crest. When scanned with the iPhone, the code reveals two things: 1) a website URL and 2) instructions to take one of the trinkets from inside the tube. Inside the tube, they find 10 circular discs that look like they have QR coding on it, but it's incomplete.

Taking one of the discs and returning the tube to the pipe, they try the URL in the iPhone, but find that it requires that they access the site from a full size computer. With that, they drive back to one of their houses and use the desktop computer to go to the site. Once there, they find a password blank and, below it, an incomplete QR code with a circle removed. Realizing that it's the same size as the circle they found at the Dresden, they tape the circle to the screen and scan the now complete QR code with the iPhone. The code yields one word, "senator." Confused, the two type the password into the site and are taken to a hidden database full of codes and cyphers that reveal how a senator named Palpatine rose to become Emperor, his secret plans for a new Death Star, his corruption of a brash Jedi named Anakin, and his master plan for exterminating the rest of the Jedi. You can see how effective and exciting such a campaign could be, especially since only 10 people would be able to gain access to the information!

As always, it's an exciting time to be a low-budget filmmaker!

God Bless,

Jeremy Hanke
Microfilmmaker Magazine

JeremyHankePicture The director of two feature length films and half a dozen short films, Jeremy Hanke founded Microfilmmaker Magazine to help all no-budget filmmakers make better films. His first book on low-budget special effects techniques, GreenScreen Made Easy, (which he co-wrote with Michele Yamazaki) was released by MWP to very favorable reviews. He's curently working on the sci-fi film franchise, World of Depleted through Depleted: Day 419 and the feature film, Depleted.

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