One of the biggest concerns amongst web content creators is that branded entertainment will destroy artistic expression as product integration increasingly compromises story and vision. However, producer/directors Alex Johnson and Lance Weiler of the Workbook Project (WBP) are attempting to do just the opposite with RADAR, which premiered on yesterday on Babelgum.
RADAR, produced by WBP Labs, is a weekly three-minute, made-for-mobile and web series that goes behind-the-scenes of innovative projects and events across different creative disciplines. Season Two highlights include episodes about the live art event Art Battles, 3D printing startup Makerbot/NYC Resistor, performance artists Undetermined Measurements and Mark Horowitz’s Google Maps Road Trip. Johnson, a former interactive strategist at Adventure Pictures and advertising agency Deep Focus, is taking the lessons she learned there and using them to support and showcase cutting edge work. In the case of RADAR, the brand is the art itself. Says Johnson, “My background is in branded content and in advertising, so it’s really working with the contributors to put their product on a pedestal and ask ‘How can we help you?’”
By contributors, Johnson means the subject of each piece. RADAR refers to them as such because each is integrally involved in the making of their episode. By treating each subject as a collaborator, RADAR directors are able to go deep behind the scenes of the creative process, share material with the contributors and work out the best way to showcase the group or event. Explains Johnson, “Rather than being reportage or news, where we just cover something that’s happening, we try and talk to the contributors and figure out how do we take this to the next stage in terms of representing what they do in an interesting and visually engaging way. And sometimes that’s actually putting on an event ourselves or helping them do that.”
The series is a good example of WBP’s belief that artists should be working and collaborating in genres and media formats other than their own. Just about a year ago, Babelgum approached Weiler and Johnson and said it was interested in doing some film-centric content with them. The duo proposed RADAR, which though relevant to filmmakers, had a more expansive outlook than traditional film content. Plus, it would take advantage of Babelgum’s mobile platform, which was another priority for the distributor.
“What we came up with in terms of the sort of sweet mini-stories was really based towards mobile pass around,” explains Johnson. She envisioned people hanging out in bars, passing their phones around, sharing RADAR stories on the spot and then heading off to attend them. She adds, “For me it was really important that it felt very, very inclusive so that if someone watched this on their cell, they felt they could either tweet that person involved, email them or go see them in a very easy way.”
Weiler and Karol Martesko-Fenster, General Manager and Publisher of Babelgum FILM, have known one another for close to twenty years, so once they solidified the concept for the series, a deal came together quickly. WBP presents the potential subjects to Babelgum and they do a quick review. After approval, WBP has final cut. Babelgum provides a minimum guarantee, which is essentially a pre-buy of worldwide Internet Free on Demand (IFOD) rights. They have a four-month exclusive for online and mobile, and then non-exclusive rights in perpetuity. After the advance has been recouped from advertising, Babelgum and WBP split the overages 50/50. WBP keeps the rights to the final pieces, but Babelgum gets carried in perpetuity via the “produced in association with” credit.
Says Martesko-Fenster, “The traffic patterns and the high quality of RADAR, along with the exploring of the creative process, is what made it easy for me to sign up for a second season of RADAR.”
Last season, Johnson directed all of the episodes herself, but this season she has taken on the role of creative director, overseeing a roster of dynamic helmers. Season Two directors include Leah Meyeroff (the upcoming Allison Anders executive-produced film Unicorns), SXSW award-winner Ry Russo Young (You Won’t Miss Me, Orphans), and Webby Award winners Ryan Bilsborrow-Koo and Zachary Lierberman (online series The West Side). Johnson is looking forward taking advantage of each filmmaker’s unique style and flair to up the aesthetic ante of each episode.
Of course, this is flair on a budget. Due to financial constraints, each piece shoots for just one day. Often there are multiple locations (15 is the RADAR record) of different types involved. The directors and crew have to be flexible enough to go from covering an event to shooting an interview to shooting recreations. And sometimes being quick on their feet comes in handy in unexpected ways, such as when they got chased down by the police when shooting an episode about street artist Aakash Nihalani. Though permitted for the street, they were shooting on the first deck of the subway…which was apparently NOT part of the area covered by the permit. Lesson learned.
Often, documenting process can be difficult due to its nebulous nature; therefore a key part of the RADAR production routine is a one-hour interview with each of their contributors. “A lot of people consider that a long time for a three-minute piece,” says Johnson, “but that’s where we get what we need. Towards the end of the interview, you usually get those magic moments where people are really starting to open up about their process.”
Additionally, Johnson developed a comprehensive curatorial checklist that aids the team in evaluating candidates for the series. Questions they ask as they are determining whether to cover something include: What kind of relationship would we have with the contributor? Can the project be represented visually? Does the project have an online/offline overlap?
This last question has become increasingly important to WBP. After Season One, WBP put on a “RADAR Experience,” in which many of the contributors participated. The Bambi Killers and Eclectic Method performed, and they held a 15-minute Dr. Sketchys where drawing pads were handed out to the audience and a model posed. Says Johnson, “We’re all about creating this network of roboticists and doctors who do radiology art and flash mob organizers and artists and musicians, so that’s why we do the RADAR Experiences. We do the live versions of the content in the videos, and bring everyone into the same space to experience it. There is this very natural extension of the community, and hopefully that fosters more work between them.”
Johnson is excited by the feedback she has so far received from Season One contributors. Several people have included the pieces in their press kits, and some have gotten additional work through the exposure provided by RADAR. Johnson reflects, “I hope what we sort of provide is that we create something where they have this piece of branded content that helps them. Even though they are all well established in their own right, it’s good to have this video that represents them. We’re very lucky in that pretty much everyone we’ve worked with has come back and said ‘You captured this exactly, you get what we’re doing.’”
Photos courtesy of WBP.
Tamara Krinsky is an actress, journalist, new media producer and regular contributor to Tubefilter News. She has appeared in web series such as Back on Topps and The Shaman, along with a variety of film, TV & theater projects. As a reporter, she focuses on entertainment, science and tech news. She hosted the weekly tech show THE SPOTLIGHT for TomsGuide.com, was a correspondent for PBS’s WIRED SCIENCE, and was a Webby honoree for the independent film series AT THE FEST, which she produced and hosted. She is currently the Associate Editor of DOCUMENTARY Magazine. In addition to her adventures on camera, Krinsky became intimately acquainted with the business of web video while working for 2.5 years at the entertainment marketing firm Crew Creative, where she strategized and produced online content for clients including the Discovery Channel, TLC, Warner Independent Pictures, Picture People and Overture Films.