adrenaline-fuelled life in the media arts lab

sandy cameron: crossover australia 2009

THE FIRST OF THE NEW MEDIA PROJECT DEVELOPMENT LABORATORIES SPROUTED IN AUSTRALIA EARLY IN THE DECADE AND HAVE SPREAD NATIONALLY TO A SCALE COMMENSURATE WITH THE BURGEONING GROWTH THAT FORMS THE DOMESTIC CROSS-PLATFORM SECTOR. EVENTS SUCH AS X MEDIA LAB (WWW.XMEDIALAB.COM) ARE NOW SIX-YEARS OLD AND INCLUDE PROMINENT INTERNATIONAL PRESENCES IN CHINA, INDIA, SINGAPORE AND SOUTH KOREA. THE AUSTRALIAN FILM TELEVISION AND RADIO SCHOOL’S LABORATORY FOR ADVANCED MEDIA PRODUCTION (LAMP, WWW.LAMP.EDU.AU) HAS A WELL ESTABLISHED AND REPUTABLE ROTATION OF RESIDENTIAL AND OTHER PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT ACTIVITIES. CROSSOVER AUSTRALIA (WWW.CROSSOVER.ORG.AU), A LAB WITH A SUBTLY DIFFERENT FOCUS AND TONE RECENTLY HAD ITS THIRD LOCAL INCARNATION SINCE 2003 IN THE LEAD UP TO THE AUSTRALIAN INTERNATIONAL DOCUMENTARY CONFERENCE (AIDC) AND THE ADELAIDE FILM FESTIVAL.

From a participant’s perspective, Crossover Australia was an invaluable collaborative hothouse unique in the media landscape , a timely primer in current audience behaviour trends in media consumption, and a periodically stressful but ultimately highly rewarding creative exercise.

Crossover director Frank Boyd is a veteran of the creative laboratory process, having run dozens of high-level residentials with partners such as the BBC, Channel 4 and the UK’s National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts. He espouses the frameworks and stimulants for innovation and creativity with gravitas, and together with Sheffield Documentary Festival Director (and former AIDC Director) Heather Croall has successfully transported the Crossover model to Scandinavia and Canada, tweaking it to suit specific genres such as content for children, games and documentary. Three more international mentors plugged knowledge gaps and provided excellent one-to-one and team-based guidance: Matt Adams, the versatile co-founder of digital artist group Blast Theory (UK); Margaret Robertson (UK), a well informed games consultant and journalist; and Sandi Dubowski, an award-winning New York documentary filmmaker.

In the salubrious setting of the McLaren Vale wine district, 20 professionals from an eclectic range of media backgrounds converged with the broad brief of creating prototypes for “innovative interactive digital experiences.” Positioning itself as an accelerated development lab, Crossover emphasises the brainstorming and shaping of concepts rather than arriving with preconceived projects and team structures. Additionally, an explicit aim is to migrate practitioners from “vintage media” into the cross-media realm, or at least introduce them to the conceptual potential of genres and delivery platforms outside their comfort zones. Amongst the selected participants was an award-winning fantasy author, a playwright and a visual artist, blending with digital natives such as a game developer and an artificial intelligence programmer. This mixture of skills served to test the Crossover hypothesis that a good source of innovation is to bring together creative professionals from different sectors.

Crossover is structured into four key phases: an introductory stage that explores the territory of the lab and allows participants to understand each others’ skills; an idea generation phase encompassing a series of brainstorming exercises; the formation of teams to develop some of the stronger ideas further; and finally the pitching of these projects to a panel of funding agency representatives and commissioning editors. It’s an adrenaline-fuelled week.

The introductory phase was blessedly light on the getting-to-know-you theatre sports and more concerned with discussion of current intersections between audience behaviour, modes of delivery and emerging trends across media. Recurring themes included the ‘digital divide’ yawning between the technologically savvy and those unengaged or disaffected, and the issues facing rights exploitation. It was also an opportunity to learn about the complementary skills and personalities of those in attendance, to begin scoping out those with whom you would be willing to work closely as the week progressed.

The idea generation phase signaled the commencement of the lab proper. Using a range of techniques including classic brainstorming and lateral thinking tools, constantly changing teams started creating original concepts for cross-platform projects. For example, randomly selected teams were assigned a genre, a digital delivery platform and a demographic and asked to generate a project to suit the combination. Teams might be served Internet television, comedy and teen girls, and have 40 minutes to devise and pitch a concept to the larger group. Also employed was a useful user-focused design process, where teams each created a very specific, detailed individual audience persona and then came up with a digital project that it would enjoy. The exercises poured forth a stream of ideas of varying robustness, but also generated a palpably exciting environment.

Augmented Reality Games, commercial online software properties and community campaigns making intricate use of social media tools all were pitched, boiled down to fit on an A4 sheet of paper and fastened to the communal “ideas wall.” During the third stage of Crossover, a crucial turning point occurs in which participants select the projects from amongst the 60 or so generated to develop further and present on the final pitch day. The stakes were raised as political manoeuvering was necessary to secure preferred concepts and mixture of personalities. Ideas were teased out, directions tweaked and roles assigned as the projects grew more flesh.

As Crossover builds towards a public presentation the selected projects are developed in the prism of a five minute discussion, and in particular are pushed to address the value propositions enshrined in the Stanford Research Institute’s innovation methodology. What audience need is the project addressing? What unique approach is used to address this need? What are the benefits of this approach? And finally, what is the existing competition to the project? In the last 36 hours of the lab the direction changes markedly from a forum of ideas to the polishing of pitching skills, with some needing more intensive coaching than others. Most of the adrenaline surge occurs in this final phase as the teams are whisked to the AIDC to present to financiers for feedback. Although the presiding panel is aware that the ideas are only a few days old, it’s the potential for embarrassment that hangs most like Damocles’ sword. As it happened, the teams rose to the occasion, with a solid batch of proposals including serious games (projects designed to provide educational and social awareness instead of or in addition to entertainment) and community digital storytelling projects that had benefitted from being fired in the kiln of accelerated development.

The intimacy of the creative laboratory generates an intense atmosphere; the experience of having 20 new friendships progress in rapid-fire fashion created moments of tension and pseudo-melodrama. Fortunately (and perhaps incredibly), this Crossover was seemingly devoid of aggressive egos which made the experience smooth and enjoyable under the circumstances, and a safe and fertile breeding ground for creativity. My sole criticism is that, due to the idiosyncratic nature of the laboratory, Crossover is geared towards developing “concept cars” rather than projects that are ready to go into production; the quest for innovation occasionally leaves pragmatism behind. Nevertheless it’s a valuable exercise, and the networking benefits alone are enough to justify the process. The insertion of a focused business modeling component could add further value to what’s already a high quality and rewarding professional development opportunity.

Crossover Australia, 2009, South Australian Film Corporation, Adelaide Film Festival, Australian International Documentary Conference, McLaren Vale, Feb 15-19;
http://crossover.katalyst.com.au

RealTime issue #90 April-May 2009 pg. 29

© Sandy Cameron; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 April 2009
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