Afterworld Interview with Brent Friedman Part 1
The YouTube sensation and highly-anticipated Afterworld is scheduled to launch its website during the week of May 14-18. With this launch, fans and viewers will now be able to engage in interactive elements, enjoy additional story content and they can also expect new daily episodes. YouTube currently has the first 10 episodes (of 130 total) posted on the Afterworld TV Channel, and the reviews from a usually skeptical community have been remarkable to say the least. For those of you who don’t know, “Afterworld” is a sci-fi series centering around Russell Shoemaker, who wakes up one day to find out that 99.9% of the population has disappeared. There is a clear mystery element to the series and the visual style is something the creators call “American Animé,” a blend of 2-D backgrounds and 3-D characters utilizing minimal animation. It truly is a unique series with very little else on the net like it (with the exception of “Broken Saints,” which co-creator Brent Friedman credits as an inspiration).
Recently, I had the pleasure to speak to Brent Friedman about his series. Brent comes from a multi-platform background of film, television and video games. Some of his credits include the NBC series “Dark Skies,” the New Line feature “Mortal Kombat: Annihilation” and the recent EA game release, “Command & Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars.” And now he makes the leap into the rapidly-growing “Intertainment” category. I was especially thrilled to speak to Brent, because he had interesting insights not only about “Afterworld” and the creative aspects of the series, but also the business side of online videos and the trends we should expect to see.
One key advice he gave to us filmmakers is that we should focus on the intellectual property (aka IP) rights of our creation, and worry less about the various internet distribution rights. Brent shared an example of the importance of IP rights by telling the story of “Broken Saints.” Initially, Saints was a low-budget Flash-animated series with no distribution strategy. But once it was on the net, it became a legitimate “viral” cult hit. By the end of its run, “Broken Saints” had become popular enough that the Canadian government subsidized the DVD release, which to date has sold more than 100,000 units (at $60 each) for Fox Home Video. In other words, owning the IP rights to “Broken Saints” is where the creators really saw a payoff. A good concept/story will find its way into other mediums, where revenues have potential to be more lucrative than on the web. So just remember to keep those IP rights.
At the end of our interview, Brent was nice enough to give me some advice for my own series “The Hayley Project.” First, he said to keep production costs low (which by the way, is easy since I don’t have money). Second, he re-iterated how important it was for me to have my whole plan laid out before we launch. If I’m fortunate enough to have a third party interested in the series, I need to be able to explain where the series is going and what I want to do with it. Basically, having a well-laid plan/vision conveys professionalism and third parties will respect that more. Finally, he recommended that the series is the way I want it before I jump in (similar to what Larry Meistrich told us at the Synergy meetup). I told Brent that I was eager to launch in July, partly because of the mass clutter I see coming in by the end of this year. But given where I am today in preproduction, I knew pre-production was going to be rushed to meet this deadline. His advice was to wait until Hayley is completely ready to go. Good content will find an audience on the web, even if there’s more clutter. Taking his advice, “The Hayley Project” is delayed for an August or September release.
Well, that’s the intro. On to Part 1 of our interview. Today, Brent will discuss the creative aspects of Afterworld. Tomorrow, we’ll revisit and talk about the business side. Enjoy…
AYP: Thanks for your time, Brent. Why don’t we kick things off with you telling me about Afterworld.
Brent: The premise is simple: a man wakes up in NY to discover the world has inexplicably changed overnight. 99.9% of the population has disappeared and anything using electrical energy is inoperable. The story follows this man, Russell Shoemaker, as he walks home to Seattle in the hopes his family has survived, stopping along the way to gather clues that will explain the mystery of what happened.
AYP: Afterworld is unique and engaging. What elements make this series work in your mind?
Brent: Honestly, I think the novelty is a big part of its initial success. After that, I think the story itself plays on the fears and fantasies of most people. The style, for those who are willing to let their imagination fill in the details, I think is provocative in that it’s different. Also, I think we cast Shoemaker’s voice perfectly – everybody likes to hear a good story if it’s well told, and Roark Critchlow does a brilliant job with the narration.
AYP: How was the concept for Afterworld conceived?
Brent: Having worked in film and TV for so long, I wanted to try telling stories in a different medium. In particular, I wanted to tell an epic story in small, daily bytes. And I wanted to make the episodes part of an immersive, communal experience similar to an MMO, where the story springs from a persistent universe which lives online. My goal was to create the convergence of TV and videogames. And with the help of my good friend and co-creator, Michael DeCourcey, I think we are close to achieving my goal… something that won’t really be apparent to anyone else, though, until our website comes online this week.
AYP: Tell me about the main character and what about him spoke to you as a writer/creator?
Brent: Through Shoemaker I wanted to explore my own fears of survival in a world without the order and structure of society, my own dependency (if not addiction) to technology. And, most importantly, I wanted to live vicariously through Shoemaker as he learned how to survive in the wilderness.
AYP: How do you plan on making the series interactive if it’s daily?
Brent: The series will be interactive in small but potentially significant ways. Firstly, we are going to encourage fans to send in photos of their homes, neighborhoods, cities with reasons why Shoemaker should visit their area on his quest. Some of the specific regions the story will pass through have been left unspecified, leaving an opportunity use fan photos as our backgrounds. Also, we will have continuing storylines (updated weekly) for some of the supporting characters Shoemaker interacts with on his trek. Most of these storylines will be “locked” and generated by the writing staff, but a few storylines will be “unlocked” and open to fan fiction. The best supporting storylines will be woven into Shoemaker’s main storyline towards the end of Season One and on into Season Two. Lastly, there will be occasional opportunities to communicate with our characters through our unique message board – The WordWall. This will be a nexus point between the real world and Afterworld, where characters post messages to other survivors intermixed with the best fan postings re: ideas for new technology, new government, new justice, etc. Again, the best ideas will work themselves into the storylines at some point.
AYP: What do you want people to know about Afterworld?
Brent: This is not something we are making up as we go along. We truly have an epic story to unfold, not just through the episodes but also through the additional online content found in Shoemaker’s journal, the “B” storylines and even easter eggs hidden within the episodes themselves. That’s right, we will eventually be making a casual game out of our episodes. Sort of a timed scavenger hunt where players must find and click on items hidden within the episodes themselves. There will even be an ongoing leaderboard.
AYP: What can you tell us about where the story of Afterworld is heading?
Brent: We have the story worked out for three, 130 episode seasons. Whether we get to produce a second or third season will be dependent on how the first season is received. Suffice to say, though, that the story is going to carry Shoemaker home by the end of Season One, then onto a much larger, global adventure in Seasons Two and Three.
AYP: What would be considered successful for you? (viewership goals, cult status/word of mouth, more exposure?)
Brent: The greatest success would be is some creator in the near future sited “Afterworld” as their inspiration for some new groundbreaking form of Intertainment, to borrow a term from you.
AYP: What Internet series online do you watch? What have you learned, and why do you think some succeed and others fail?
Brent: One of my primary inspirations for Afterworld was the online series “Broken Saints.” Three very talented guys in Vancouver produced that show for basically no money over a period of several years. With no advertising or marketing, they created a viral phenomenon that opened my eyes to the potential of this medium. And “Broken Saints” was no simple story. It was deep, complex and very simply animated in Flash. But people responded to the story – that was the takeaway for me. While I admire the professionalism of a show like “Prom Queen,” I’m more interested in telling stories that would not work on television, and telling them in a unique format and style.
AYP: Check in tomorrow for the second part of our interview, where we focus on business, production, and the online video industry.