Friday, April 27, 2012

The Producer's Chair

I am by no means an expert at being the head of a production but I base my ideas regarding the group dynamics of project management on Larry Nemecek's management style when I worked with him on SciFi Studios Magazine, which I call the "Conductor" approach...

When people go to an orchestral recital they go for the experience of listening to an orchestra. They don't go to listen to the piano, the brass section or the clarinet player, they go to listen to the whole orchestra. This means that the orchestra has to perform as a group - they have to be in time and in tune. As the brass fades out, the strings fade in with the percussion giving a subliminal beat to it all. If one section of the orchestra is bad then the whole production suffers. If the percussion is out of time or the piano out of tune, then no matter how good the strings are, the recital will get bad reviews.

The conductor doesn't just wave his baton to keep them all in time - watch him next time. You'll see him point to the lead violinist when it is time for him to start, he'll wave in the cellos when they have to come to the fore and punch a fist to the base drummer when he has to give a roll of thunder. During a practise if any of the sections or players doesn't follow his direction, he'll stop the orchestra, talk to them, maybe get them to run through their section and they will re-start. He'll work with the individual sections and with individual players as required.

This goes beyond talking about the interaction of people in a project, you can include all the resources of a project in this analogy! Imagine that the strings are the visual aspects of the production, the wind might be the audio, the brass is the promotion and the percussion the content, for example the script. Just as the conductor chooses the members of his orchestra, the producer of an animation will choose his animators, his promotional agent, script-writer and voice actors. These are the manpower resources of the project, to which are added the infrastructure resources such as software, special effects, music, etc.

Once chosen the conductor's or producer's job is to maximise the efficiency of every aspect the "orchestra". In the case of infrastructure the responsibility for their efficient use lies with the production staff who use them, for argument's sake we'll say the producer, but for manpower resources - people - he has to work *with* them to encourage them to produce their best. This might require him to give direction sometimes, as in "Jenny, your character is a Klingon warrior - I need more raspy, gutteral lower registers." However he CANNOT do the performance himself, all he can do is help and encourage the performer. Your pianist might be the best in the country, but in the context of this production, he takes his direction from the conductor.

I can't stress that highly enough. The conductor can't play every instrument because frankly that's not his purpose. He's there to lead the whole orchestra to encourage them to give their very best in the performance, to act as quality control by giving them feedback on what they are doing and to give them direction to perform their role in this particular performance. Just as a musician auditions for a spot in an orchestra, a voice actor auditions for a spot in an audio drama and a writer will pitch their story for inclusion in your anthology. They sign on because they want the gig, because they want to perform Bach or Beethoven, it might be because they want to expand their creative horizons, or, if they are a professional, because they want the money. They want to give their best, if they are a pro it might be because they have to protect their reputation, as an amateur its because of the like to play their instrument, they enjoy being part of an orchestra and they want to "push the envelope" creatively.

Performers perform, actors act. This is in their nature, this is what you sign them on board to do. To sign them on and then not allow them to act, to control the lift of every eyebrow, flies in the face of reason. If you want this kind of control then you need to think very seriously about whether you want your project to be a group production or a one-man-show. This is a viable option - Geoff James' Borg Wars is the perfect example - but it is more labour intensive, slower and, unless you are a Renaissance man, there is a very real possibility that an aspect that you are weak in will drag your production down unfairly.

If you choose to make your project into a group endeavor then you are still the prime-mover for the production but you have to learn to delegate work without micro-managing. Give direction and quality control to keep all the individual parts of the production, the performers in the orchestra, working together to deliver the best possible result, but allow the individuals involved to give creative input, respect what they do and give them credit for it on the night.

When I publish a magazine, I work with the individual artists and authors to get them to deliver their very best. If an artist is doing the cover art for a story, I have to make sure the two match - a line art of Kirk in the foreground with Spock looking on will be totally inappropriate for a story which is all about Spock and where Kirk only has a walk-on part. However I can't control the pen that does the sketch, the airbrush that gives it colour or the mind that writes the story, all of these things have far more to do with the success of the 'zine than my editorial direction.

When I write scripts for an audio drama, I'll add a single word to a line of delivery to show how I want the line delivered: angrily, slyly, sneeringly, whispered, with awe, testily. I might give more detailed direction when I hand the lines out: "try to exude strength of character even though totally exhausted" was one I gave one time and astonishingly the VA gave me exactly what I wanted! In fact she added something to it that I had never considered and thus made it that much better! Your cast and crew will deliver more if they are encouraged than if they are ordered.

So whether you are shooting a film, publishing a newsletter or coaching a football team always keep in mind that you are part of a team and that your contribution is simply to keep the group's overall performance on track for achieving your goals by encouraging all the individuals involved to deliver their part to the best of their ability.

They might throw roses at your feet but you have to share every bouquet with your ensemble.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Book trailers - Virtual book covers?

This post came about in most circuitous manner! The idea was stimulated by a correspondence thread on the Self-Publishing Yahoo Group that led to a great article about Scott Sigler which made me update the ol' House L'Stok YouTube channel and make up a playlist of examples to help me crystalise my thoughts on them. These are my choices below, three top-line professional jobs, Scott Sigler's semi-pro and a first-time DIY job.... 

So what are they? I mean, obviously they are promotional pieces to entice the viewer to read the book they promote, but *how* do they do it? If we know this we can assess what is needed to make an effective book trailer.

Traditionally, promoting a book was the job of the book itself, its physical "packaging" if you will - the cover, the spine, back cover and dustcover flaps. These were where you would get the promotional blurb about the book, the author and the series or fanchise that it was a part of.  This sent me off on a tangent defining my thoughts on book covers and, since it is vital to the artistic direction of our books, I've posted the result on our deviantArt account, "On Book Covers"

What struck me the most was that, of the elements that I mentioned - cover, spine, back cover and dustcover flaps - only the front cover exists on an eBook! Now, you can do a lot with a cover, identify the fanchise, the genre and make a unique statement that can draw the reader, but there is a lot that you've dropped. What about all the material that was covered on the back cover? Often you'd get a continuation or wraparound graphic from the front, two or three paragraphs of promotional text and icons that would show the trademarks, copyright, age classification, prequel/sequel info... A relic of the hardcover, the inside back flap was the domain of information about the author, usually presided over by a cheesy photograph. All of this information was there in the reader's hands when they picked it up from the bookshelf. How is an eBook reader going to get that kind of in-depth information?

Could a video book trailer take their place?

[To be Continued]

Saturday, April 7, 2012

eBook 101

What, I hear some of you say, is an eBook? Some people have very specific ideas and swear allegiance to one "flavour" ar another however I take a broader view by saying that ePublishing covers the electronic publishing of virtually any written works on the internet. What do they look like? What can you do with them that you can't do with a Newsgroup, forum post or blog? Why, in other words, should an author go to the bother of publishing his work as an eBook at all? There is no shortage of general commentary on the advantages - and disadvantages - of ebooks on the internet. There are specific cost benefits, author incentives, and the big debate at the moment is (to oversimplify) whether the retail price of eBooks should be artificially inflated to be the same as the hard copy or not - they are definitely more environmentally friendly!

How does all this affect the fan fiction community? Cost considerations mean nothing to us because we can't profit on any Star Trek works. What we can take from this is that eBooks are coming of age! They are no longer an immature technology, replete with a half-dozen different formats competing on hardware exclusive platforms - reminiscent of the wars between Apple and Microsoft or VHS and Beta. Today we have a technology that has become accepted not only by the great unwashed but the chic, the rich-and-famous and the tech-savvy. People are now looking with envy over the shoulders of those who are flicking through their iPad as against the "what-a-geek" sneers I used to get when I read stuff on my iPaq years ago.

What we have is a whole new frontier to explore, a new readerbase.

Specifically, this wide acceptance of eBooks means that fan fiction writers can now list their books right alongside those of professional writers! Maybe not on the same websites, you'll not get your fanfic listed on Barnes & Noble or Amazon, but there is no reason why we can't have them listed on similar amateur fiction sites. Production-wise we are on pretty much an even playing field, unlike the traditional printing industry, where making a book requires printing and and binding equipment that is beyond the grasp of the amateur (or is it?). With care and attention, you can create an eBook that looks exactly the same as the eBooks made by professionals!

How do they compare to the pdf books that we published in 2008? I'll be honest with you and say that eBooks are not as pretty. The 'page-turning' reading applications like Issuu are to my mind, the closest thing you can get to the experience of reading a book on a computer.

Have a look at "The Black Gate", a book by Richard Merk, part of his Banshee Squadron fan fiction series. Richard has whole-heartedly thrown himself into making eBooks and it is only fitting that we use one of his books as an example of what we are doing.

The heart of your eBook library is, like any library, the way that it is organised. Think about what a public library has to do. They get all sorts of new media in, they prepare it for distribution, catalogue it then lend it out to the general public. Your eBook library needs to do exactly the same thing and, although I will be the first to point out that there are other good options out there, I use Calibre to do it. Calibre is a freeware, open source software program that acts as an eBook organiser and reader. It is available for free download from the creator's website and, once installed, you are led to the heart of the system which, as user interfaces go, is pretty much self explanatory.

Firstly you add books to it. These can be of any one of a dozen different formats ranging from plain text (txt) through rtf , html and pdf, to a couple of the larger eBook platforms, such as the Mobipocket file formats, and what is fast becoming the defacto standard, ePub. Once they have been 'registered' and 'catalogued' on the system, they appear on the main screen as a list in the central screen with the "metadetails" shown in the right hand screen. When it is on the system there are a number of cool things you can do with your books but, to keep things simple, let's just look at the main purpose you are going to be putting this to - reading your books. It couldn't be simpler! Point and double-click on the entry on the listing or click the listing and then "view" (the magnifying glass) on the toolbar. This will open a viewer to suit whatever format the book is in.
What's the use of a library unless you can read the books though? Once a new eBook is imported into your library you can open up a viewer to read it no matter what format it was originally in. Your book also has a neat title page with a table of contents in a separate window on the left hand side of the screen which you can close down when it isn't needed. Regular users of Adobe Acrobat reader - the ubiquitous reader of the pdf format - might point out that it too has a window that acts like a contents with screenshots of the pages that can be opened down the left hand side of the screen. But can a pdf remember your spot and open there when you close your book up at the end of your session? Can you change the size of the font and still get word wrapping within your screen without navigating around what is in effect a "big picture". Can you set it to night reading mode, annotate the text, check a dictionary...?

Would I be generalising if I said that pdf is pretty but not flexible and eBooks are practical but not as pretty? What has been your experience?

Fan Produced Books? Oh! The humanity!

A fan book? Shock! Horror!

What did you just visualise? A hard back novel or a mass market paperback with your name on it, on a bookseller's shelf right next to Pocket Book's latest offering? Dream on buddy! Just to clear the air, I'm not talking about producing something for sale, that would be a clear breach of the copyright laws and as such I would encourage you to report such a thing to Paramount or Simon & Schuster. No, I'm talking about an author who would like a copy of their book to sit on their bookshelf at home, maybe a few copies to give away to friends and family, the local Trek fan club... I can hear the snorts of 'Vanity Publishing' springing to the lips of many to which I shrug and say, why not? Who amongst us is without ego? Where it has gained a justifiably questionable reputation - dare I say, bad press? - has been because in the past the only way that traditional printing was viable was in commercial quantities of at least a couple of hundred units per print run which were a large expense up-front sending many people broke.

Modern technology has spawned Print On Demand (POD) publishers who do exactly what the name implies: they will print one or any number of copies of a book on demand. They have no massive logistics of printing, shipping, storage and selling, because they are usually offered online, paid for with electronic funds transfer and delivered by mail. Unfortunately, although I see no substantial, ethical reason for not doing so, the current stance of most POD publishers such as Lulu is that they class all fan fiction irrespective of quantity as a breach of copyright and will not print them.

So what are your choices? I assume there are a number of printers, especially small local printers, who will see the reality of the situation that the world of Intellectual Properties will not crumble and The World As We Know It will not fall because of your fanfic and will print it for you. Whether you will be able to find one who can do one as a one-off job rather than a print run of 200, I'm not so sure.

Alternatively, you can publish it yourself. You can print it out in folio A4 / US Letter (ie printed in landscape and folded in half vertically) as a 12 page "booklet", sew them and bind them. Yes, I'm serious, it can be done by amateurs! It's not easy, probably on a par with skilled woodwork or needlework, but it can be done.

...or you could think outside the square.

For example, when is a book not a book? When, for that matter, is a film not a film? Although we call them fan films, they're not shot on celluloid like Ben Hur or Casablanca was nor, with a few notable exceptions, will you ever see them on the big screen of a cinema. Likewise audio dramas are really a subtly different thing from radio plays (I could wax elloquent on that subject).

You could, for example, publish them as an eBook.

What's missing from Fan Productions?

In the five years or so that I've been reporting on fan productions we've come a long way! Fan films have matured from the shakey beginnings that their producer's would have us forget to productions that in many ways rival their professional counterparts. Audio dramas have given a new lease of life to a form of media that had been relegated to a historical curiosity - the radio play. Animation perhaps more than any other form of media has amazed me with the way in which it has empowered those with the creativity and talent to produce some astonishingly good shows.

Look at where they've come from, where they are now and where they might end up, how has this happened? What it boils down to for me are two things: society and technology. Modern attitudes are swinging towards the "me generation" - what can *I* do or what can *I* get out of it - and this is being reflected in modern, mass media with the explosion of reality shows that we see on TV and the way that citizen reporting on blogs and Youtube is taking us to 'ground zero' of the worlds trouble spots. In this respect, it is technology that has become the liberator. New technology has made available to the average wage-earner of western society a range of tools that were the exclusive domain of the professional ten years ago.

The expense of the equipment involved for example was one of the things that held back amateur cinematography, freed by digital, high definition cameras now available at a fraction of the cost, a situation that is paralleled by lighting and sound recording equipment as well. In the case of animation, it was the sheer magnitude of the task involved in doing traditional, hand-drawn cels that balked amateurs. For them the revolution has come in the form of computer software packages that allow one person to create two and three dimensional images that before were the result of a production line of artists. Many of the computer generated special effects that before only Spielberg could afford can now be created by 'Everyman'. Parallel advances have been made in the spread of expertise and knowledge that was once only acquired by working one's way up through the appropriate branch of the entertainment industry.

However none of this would have had the same effect if amateur producers could not get their work seen or experienced by others. The cost of maintaining a TV or radio network is phenomenal, as is the infrastructure involved in movie theaters. Once again, it was technology that came to the rescue by the creation of a new distribution network, the internet, which has become the defacto distribution network that connects and binds us together as a culture and a society.

Fans are riding this wave of technology to new heights - fan films, fan audio dramas, fan animation - however there is one component of the mass media market that we have not assailed: fan publishing. Where there are fan film-makers there are fan films, where there are fan voice actors there are fan audio dramas but although there are probably an order of magnitude more fan authors...

Where are the fan books?