Issue: Volume: 26 Issue: 5 (May 2003)

Cinematic Literature


Broken Saints: Online comic book? Something more? The Webisode's creator foretells the future of online fiction

Brooke Burgess is the writer and director of Broken Saints, a new online narrative he created with partners Ian Kirby and Andrew West.




Q: Is Broken Saints a new art form?
A: I think of Broken Saints more as a fusion of existing art forms; it was a case of building on what we already liked in our favorite media and tweaking it for a unique experience online. It has been dubbed "cinematic literature," which basically means that it combines narrative text, original artwork, music, and film-style effects to tell an episodic story.

Q: What other medium is it most like?
A: The tag "cinematic literature" is a direct nod to cinema and graphic literature (comic books). Rather than try to directly transfer existing media to the world of the Web—like putting movies or full-scale animations in a tiny window—we opted to combine what users were accustomed to finding online. It 'feels' new, but it's really just a slight evolution of traditional forms.

Q: How would you define the story?
A: It's a serial mystery-thriller. Each chapter ends in classic cliff-hanger style, and the story itself weaves long and complex narrative threads that produce more interesting questions once they are resolved. The basic synopsis is that four strangers receive a vision of the apocalypse and are drawn to a city in the Pacific Northwest. Though they are from different cultural, religious, and political backgrounds, their common desire to achieve a greater good unites them against a horrific conspiracy to enslave the masses.

Q: Which genres of stories are best suited to this format?.
A: It can work for all genres, as long as you have a competent team that understands the thematic necessities of each one. Comics have proven that you can be as experimental and literate—or as action-filled and lowbrow—as the material requires. This new format is essentially no different.

Q: What advantages do you have versus working in other media?
A: Freedom of expression and the ability to create independently or in very small teams are definite boons, but the true advantage of working online is content distribution. Many independent filmmakers only ever reach a few thousand viewers, if they are lucky. Exhibiting our work online (and for free) has allowed us to reach millions of viewers globally. And when viewers like the work, they can spread the good word via e-mail to their families and friends who respect their opinion. That's the key with the Web—quality work will attract a massive audience with a 'viral-marketing,' word-of-mouth campaign that essentially costs you nothing.

Q: What are the disadvantages?
A: That's the other side of the equation—the double-edged sword of Internet popularity. You need high visibility and mindshare to achieve anything lasting or significant on the Web, but high traffic equals increased bandwidth fees for site creators. We're just fortunate to have generous fans and some fiscal support locally. Also, when you work in Flash, you're restricted by the power of the user's machine. So we often have to create a lowest-common-denominator experience, which means slow frame rates and lack of user control.

Q: What did you learn that you will use for your next production?
We learned that unlike a typical film or video project—where you can shoot scads of footage and make it all come together in the editing room—we had to know exactly which shots to create and how they would transition within the limitations of the technology. Detailed storyboarding and transition planning is essential from the beginning. Otherwise, you're constantly struggling to force a scene to flow with basic cuts, dissolves, and talking heads rather than being able to use more intriguing combinations of techniques.

Q: What technology advances are most needed to take online cinematic literature to new levels?
A: A unified hardware standard would definitely help. New versions of Flash or other online animation software that manipulates bitmaps and 3D more efficiently would also be ideal. Otherwise, it's simply a case of improving the distribution and delivery mechanisms—the Web itself.

Q: What will the next level look like?
A: Future projects of this nature done by small teams will probably resemble major studio work. It's getting easier and easier for independents to create quality animations and effects-driven narratives with affordable consumer tools. We should see feature-length projects like the Animatrix or Toy Story coming from a maverick team within two to three years. And that'll definitely send some major ripples through the industry.

Q: How will this medium evolve in the longer term?
A: More animation and detailed graphics, possibly in 3D. Interactive elements within the narrative itself, like allowing the user to choose a path in the story or manipulate objects within a scene. Interactive story templates that permit users to write their own tales with pre-made A/V sequences. Subscriber sites with licensed characters (think Spider-Man or Batman) and exclusive side stories from the big publishers like Marvel and DC Comics. These are all possible vectors for the future of the medium.

Q: What will they offer that other media cannot?
A: Online projects offer a sense of immersion (with A/V aspects that traditional comics just cannot match), discovery, and a built-in network of like-minded people who will evangelize your project for you. The corner comic shop business may be dying, but Web versions of graphic novels will showcase classic and upstart characters and narratives to a hungry global audience. Also, similar to the gaming industry, there's the opportunity to build the work with localization in mind. For example, it's much easier to drag and drop foreign languages into a digital comic template than in the traditional printed format, allowing for these stories to touch even more people.

Q: Do you see it eventually merging with other forms of entertainment? A: The merging of games, narratives, news, and communities is inevitable. Also, most Web entertainment content will eventually be offered through major portals from the chief technology and content providers (Sony, Microsoft, AOL, etc.), whether we like it or not.

Q: How popular could it become?
A: We've proven that there's definitely an audience for this type of content. If the quality bar continues to be raised, and creators take into account the demographics and cultural backgrounds on the global landscape (Europeans and South Americans love this kind of work), then there's no limit to its popularity. In fact, there are already plans to adapt digital comics to phones and pocket PCs, which would be a proverbial explosion in viewership.

Q: What are potential business models? A: A subscriber series for an established creator/studio could work, as well as content updates for phones and other personal media devices. DVD packages of series and content is another viable option in the short term. However, most users still view the Net as a free domain, so there needs to be a deep-pocketed investor, generous supporters of the online arts, or an off-line aspect of the work to generate reasonable revenue.

Q: What's next for the Broken Saints team? A: After the final chapter launches in June, we'll convert the series (with tons of upgrades and extras) to a DVD set. A traditional comic mini-series is also in the works, and there are more than a few carrots being dangled concerning a possible animated or live-action version of the series. Whatever happens, we won't just disappear. You'll see more from the Saints—guaranteed...

The Flash-based animations and effects in Broken Saints are designed for the lowest common denominator of viewer machines. But future projects created by small teams could rival work from the major studios and send huge ripples through the industry.




Q: Is Broken Saints a new art form?
A: I think of Broken Saints more as a fusion of existing art forms; it was a case of building on what we already liked in our favorite media and tweaking it for a unique experience online. It has been dubbed "cinematic literature," which basically means that it combines narrative text, original artwork, music, and film-style effects to tell an episodic story.

Q: What other medium is it most like?
A: The tag "cinematic literature" is a direct nod to cinema and graphic literature (comic books). Rather than try to directly transfer existing media to the world of the Web—like putting movies or full-scale animations in a tiny window—we opted to combine what users were accustomed to finding online. It 'feels' new, but it's really just a slight evolution of traditional forms.

Q: How would you define the story?
A: It's a serial mystery-thriller. Each chapter ends in classic cliff-hanger style, and the story itself weaves long and complex narrative threads that produce more interesting questions once they are resolved. The basic synopsis is that four strangers receive a vision of the apocalypse and are drawn to a city in the Pacific Northwest. Though they are from different cultural, religious, and political backgrounds, their common desire to achieve a greater good unites them against a horrific conspiracy to enslave the masses.

Q: Which genres of stories are best suited to this format?
A: It can work for all genres, as long as you have a competent team that understands the thematic necessities of each one. Comics have proven that you can be as experimental and literate—or as action-filled and lowbrow—as the material requires. This new format is essentially no different.

Q: What advantages do you have versus working in other media?
A: Freedom of expression and the ability to create independently or in very small teams are definite boons, but the true advantage of working online is content distribution. Many independent filmmakers only ever reach a few thousand viewers, if they are lucky. Exhibiting our work online (and for free) has allowed us to reach millions of viewers globally. And when viewers like the work, they can spread the good word via e-mail to their families and friends who respect their opinion. That's the key with the Web—quality work will attract a massive audience with a 'viral-marketing,' word-of-mouth campaign that essentially costs you nothing.

Q: What are the disadvantages?
A: That's the other side of the equation—the double-edged sword of Internet popularity. You need high visibility and mindshare to achieve anything lasting or significant on the Web, but high traffic equals increased bandwidth fees for site creators. We're just fortunate to have generous fans and some fiscal support locally. Also, when you work in Flash, you're restricted by the power of the user's machine. So we often have to create a lowest-common-denominator experience, which means slow frame rates and lack of user control.

Q: What did you learn that you will use for your next production?
A: We learned that unlike a typical film or video project—where you can shoot scads of footage and make it all come together in the editing room—we had to know exactly which shots to create and how they would transition within the limitations of the technology. Detailed storyboarding and transition planning is essential from the beginning. Otherwise, you're constantly struggling to force a scene to flow with basic cuts, dissolves, and talking heads rather than being able to use more intriguing combinations of techniques.

Q: What technology advances are most needed to take online cinematic literature to new levels?
A: A unified hardware standard would definitely help. New versions of Flash or other online animation software that manipulates bitmaps and 3D more efficiently would also be ideal. Otherwise, it's simply a case of improving the distribution and delivery mechanisms—the Web itself.

Q: What will the next level look like?
A: Future projects of this nature done by small teams will probably resemble major studio work. It's getting easier and easier for independents to create quality animations and effects-driven narratives with affordable consumer tools. We should see feature-length projects like the Animatrix or Toy Story coming from a maverick team within two to three years. And that'll definitely send some major ripples through the industry.

Q: How will this medium evolve in the longer term?
A: More animation and detailed graphics, possibly in 3D. Interactive elements within the narrative itself, like allowing the user to choose a path in the story or manipulate objects within a scene. Interactive story templates that permit users to write their own tales with pre-made A/V sequences. Subscriber sites with licensed characters (think Spider-Man or Batman) and exclusive side stories from the big publishers like Marvel and DC Comics. These are all possible vectors for the future of the medium.

Q: What will they offer that other media cannot? A: Online projects offer a sense of immersion (with A/V aspects that traditional comics just cannot match), discovery, and a built-in network of like-minded people who will evangelize your project for you. The corner comic shop business may be dying, but Web versions of graphic novels will showcase classic and upstart characters and narratives to a hungry global audience. Also, similar to the gaming industry, there's the opportunity to build the work with localization in mind. For example, it's much easier to drag and drop foreign languages into a digital comic template than in the traditional printed format, allowing for these stories to touch even more people.

Q: Do you see it eventually merging with other forms of entertainment?
A: The merging of games, narratives, news, and communities is inevitable. Also, most Web entertainment content will eventually be offered through major portals from the chief technology and content providers (Sony, Microsoft, AOL, etc.), whether we like it or not.

Q: How popular could it become? A: We've proven that there's definitely an audience for this type of content. If the quality bar continues to be raised, and creators take into account the demographics and cultural backgrounds on the global landscape (Europeans and South Americans love this kind of work), then there's no limit to its popularity. In fact, there are already plans to adapt digital comics to phones and pocket PCs, which would be a proverbial explosion in viewership.

Q: What are potential business models?
A: A subscriber series for an established creator/studio could work, as well as content updates for phones and other personal media devices. DVD packages of series and content is another viable option in the short term. However, most users still view the Net as a free domain, so there needs to be a deep-pocketed investor, generous supporters of the online arts, or an off-line aspect of the work to generate reasonable revenue.

Q: What's next for the Broken Saints team?
A: After the final chapter launches in June, we'll convert the series (with tons of upgrades and extras) to a DVD set. A traditional comic mini-series is also in the works, and there are more than a few carrots being dangled concerning a possible animated or live-action version of the series. Whatever happens, we won't just disappear. You'll see more from the Saints—guaranteed.
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