In an industrial space located in Pasadena, CA, a small team of artists and craftsmen build effects rigs, test digital multi-camera systems, compose graphics and write computer code; each doing his or her part to midwife the birth of a novel form of narrative drama specifically designed for the internet called BlackBxx.
“I’ve had this concept in my head for two years,” says television writer-producer,Daniel Knauf, creator of the Emmy-winning HBO cult-hit, Carnivále, “I pitched it all over town, and all I got were confused looks.”
Creating a narrative format tailored to exploit an interactive medium presented a number of challenges to the storyteller. “The internet’s main defining point is that it’s a non-linear experience,” says Knauf, “the user instinctively decides what he or she wants to see on the fly.”
Realizing that he would have to devise a format that would accommodate this key characteristic, Knauf found inspiration from an unlikely source: The aeronautics industry. Specifically, the airline flight recorder, or “black box.”
“It seemed like an apt model,” explains Knauf. “Like a traditional narrative, the event itself—the flight—is a story set in an aircraft with a beginning, a middle and an end, all of which is captured on various media by the black box. In the event of a crash, the data can be accessed in any order necessary by investigators to determine why the plane went down. Likewise, I would create a narrative in real time from every possible point-of-view, put it up on the internet, and let each user experience it on his or her own terms.”
As a nod to the device that inspired his concept, Knauf decided to call his new format BlackBxx.
For his team’s first project, BlackBxx: HAUNTED, a supernatural thriller in which a paranormal investigation goes tragically wrong, the entire story is confined to the eight rooms of a suburban house, each covered by several video cameras. The format is similar to reality shows such as Big Brother, but with one key difference. Explains HAUNTED producer, Douglas Hunter, “On Big Brother, the contestants are gerbils in a maze. The whole construct is designed to manipulate them into behaviors that the producers hope will be interesting or fun to watch. In a BlackBxx story, a writer scripts a drama and it’s performed by professional actors in real time. It’s like a 48 hour movie, with scenes set in separate locations, playing simultaneously in all the theaters of an 18 screen multiplex.”
Meanwhile, HAUNTED’s director, Cliff Osmond, and the BlackBxx crew will be at a separate location, remotely monitoring the cameras capturing the action. “No cuts, no retakes,” says Osmond, “The cast will live the story.”
Once production is completed, the entire 800-plus hours of video content will be uploaded to a website and supplemented by background material presented in a variety of media, including character dossiers, video interviews, audio files, coroner’s reports, newspaper articles and other archival material related to the story. Visitors will access the story at blackbxx.com by selecting any moment they wish to see on a time-slider, then clicking on one of 18 camera icons positioned within a floor-plan of the house. “They can simultaneously open as many players as their systems will handle,” says Jascha Rynek, who is designing the site. “They can watch action simultaneously in separate rooms, or even at separate chronological points in the story.”
“Each audience-member,” adds Knauf, “becomes the author of his or her own personal BlackBxx experience.”
Kickstarter patrons who contribute $5 or more will be among the first to gain access to BlackBxx: HAUNTED. “We hope to roll it out on January 1, 2012. The video archive will be password-protected for the first week, then we open it up to the world.”
Knauf and his team hope BlackBxx: HAUNTED will only be the first baby-step in what will eventually be an entirely new form of narrative storytelling.