Those of you already familiar with Daniel Knauf probably know him as the writer and creator of HBO’s brilliantly strange dustbowl circus drama, Carnivàle. Knauf’s newest project is a free, online experience called Bxx: Haunted. (Bxx is pronounced “box.”)
Bxx: Haunted follows a team of paranormal researchers as they spend 32 hours investigating a purportedly haunted house. What makes the story so interesting is the way that it is presented. The viewer is given access to all 32 hours of the investigation on 16 separate cameras throughout the house. That’s 512 hours of footage dropped on the viewer’s lap right from the get-go. As you proceed you get the opportunity to unlock new documents and videos that provide additional background on the events of those 32 hours.
We sat down with Daniel Knauf to ask him a couple questions about Bxx: Haunted and transmedia storytelling in general. So before you jump over to check it out, take a look at what he had to tell us:
MindHut: Why transmedia?
Daniel Knauf: Whenever a new medium is devised, it takes a decade or so for artists to learn how to exploit and master its properties. Plus, from a business standpoint, there are the issues of building realistic revenue models and dealing with monetization. But the simple fact is that money follows eyeballs, and if you create something that engages people, monetization will eventually take care of itself. So it falls to the artists to push the limits of the medium until it begins catching the attention of the audience. At some point, the money-people say, "Hey, look at that line of people standing outside the theater over there. What's up with that?" And that's the point when we can stop building mud huts and start erecting skyscrapers.
MH: Why you?
DK: I was seriously engaged in the online world for a long time before I broke into popular mass media—I remember chatting over a 4800 baud modem! As time went on, I designed a few simple websites, participated in proto-social-networks like MUDs and BBSs. I love the fact that I can directly engage people in a mass-medium with no middleman. One has the freedom of a street-artist, only rather than a few curious people standing around watching the performance, there was this potential audience of millions. I've always been (and still am) engaged with chat-boards, and have preferred to speak directly to my audience through the web rather than the popular press. I love that relationship.
MH: Why now?
DK: I needed a challenge, and needed a break from the grind of pitching series, being paid generous fees to develop them and write pilots, then seeing them shelved due to the random capriciousness of the market. I'd had the box-narrative concept in mind for a few years, and decided to bootstrap a beta to see if it worked.
MH: Are there trans-media projects that you enjoyed before you started Bxx: Haunted? If so, which ones?
DK: That really depends on how one defines “transmedia.” My personal definition would be a format that integrates multiple media, requires at least a minimal amount of active collaboration with the audience, and can be adapted to multiple platforms. By that definition, there’s very little out there other than experiments like www.takethislollipop.com and the ARG work Trent [Reznor] did with Year Zero, both of which are intriguing, but very limited in scope. With Bxx, I wanted to create a replicable format with its own grammatical system like film and music.
MH: You’ve made the point on Twitter that Bxx: Haunted is really just a beta or proof-of-concept, but it’s a pretty darned solid piece, as is. In what ways do you imagine a fully-developed BlackBxx project (like Bxx: MARS) being different?
DK: With Bxx:MARS, we plan on applying all the lessons we learned with HAUNTED to a much more ambitious project. We’ve worked out fixes for a number of technical issues, and have been constantly refining and upgrading the UI. Plus the story will require real-time practical effects, live video feeds into the set. This time, we’ll have 74 cameras and we’ll be shooting in high-def. The story takes place over a 72-hour period, so we’ll literally have to put our cast through training to psychologically equip them to weather the experience, which will be brutal. Once shooting is completed, we will cull a 12 episode companion series. Each episode will condense 6 hours of the story into a standard 53 minutes or so. Once the audience watches an episode, they’ll be able to explore the additional 443 hours of video captured by cams throughout the habitat, plus crew logs, official reports, biometrics, etc. recorded during that 6 hour period.
MH: In a project like this, the dialog must be almost entirely in the hands of the actors, the editing is up to the viewer, and the cinematography is locked, for the most part. So, can you describe a bit about how a story like this is plotted when so much of the storytelling happens in a chaotic, collaborative space?
DK: I could, but if I did, I’d have to kill you. Suffice it to say, a box-narrative is fully scripted, but it is unlike any script you’ve ever seen.
MH: Given MindHut’s readership, I’m betting there are more than a couple folks out there that have an interest in starting up their own grass-roots transmedia projects. Any key lessons you’d be willing to pass on?
DK: Don’t wait for permission. Yes, there are obstacles, but you’ll find in the end that the most formidable hurdle is your own fear. It’s really hard to do something no one else is doing; more often than not, it’s a really, really, really bad idea—like running with scissors or smoking while you gas up your car. But if you can get past the fear of being branded a failure, you’d be amazed at the things you can pull off.
MH: In your opinion, is the increased relevance of transmedia part of a sea change that’s seeing more creators taking control of their own stories, or is it going to be a niche space for small groups to gather around the digital campfire and share tales?
DK: Oh, no! There are a lot of big dogs out there who are desperately unhappy in the studio/network gulag, and when they finally figure out that they really don’t need the middlemen any more, we will see an explosion of brilliant, innovative work that makes the Renaissance look like a senior-center crafts festival.
Check out Bxx: Haunted and let us know what you think of it in the comments.