June 8, 2011
This week’s event was a walk on the techside at FlickerLab.
What is FlickerLab?
FlickerLab is the coolest twelve-year-old you know. It started as an animation studio with the goal of making media that matters. FlickerLab has worked with many of the biggest names in media, including several documentary filmmakers (e.g., Michael Moore), as well as some of the marquis child entertainment names, such as Playhouse Disney, Cartoon Network, and Nickelodeon.
The brains behind the operation aim to reach learners of all ages with their funny, engaging animation. Topics range from the more grownup (politics, the environment, whole grain goodness) to the kid-oriented (math basics, problem-solving, frosting).
FlickerLab’s credo is “storytelling and technology for people and planet.” Storytelling is sacred. But FlickerLab believes that storytelling keeps changing. And this is where the Lab’s contribution lies. The group aspires to Children Television Workshop’s triple threat of top notch production, writing, and research. But the FlickerLabRats add technology to this trinity.
FlickerLab produces animation, ebooks, apps, media solutions made to order, and personally customizable media tools. Often these products are direct responses to trends and challenges facing contemporary society, such as the role of women here and abroad or the American educational crisis.
WiCM members witnessed several examples of this work. Notable excerpts included a very entertaining environmental cartoon made for kids in Denmark, a rather daring sex education webisode made for Planned Parenthood, and Sea Monsters, a kids’ show with a math curriculum. Regarding the latter, the interesting wrinkle was the research behind it; based on Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences theory, each sea monster protagonist displayed a different type of intelligence (kinesthetic, spatial, musical, etc.). FlickerLab is recreating play with a smart, thoughtful enhancement. Watermelon is good. Seedless watermelon is great.
FlickerLab is also expanding our understanding of different categories of media. WiCM members saw a draft of a graphic novel product that was somewhere between two- and three-dimensional, somewhere between static and fully interactive. The technological specs of the iPad—the intended hardware—determined the elusive nature of this graphic-ish novel-thing. My point is that FlickerLab’s media scientists carefully consider the capabilities of technology in building their vision. But sometimes an idea fits several different formats…
Transmedia Corner with The Transmedian
Greetings. I am the Transmeeeeedian. I am a mysterious visitor from the far-off land of East Transmedia, where all people can communicate well no matter what format they come from. Your platform-segregated realm is primitive to me, though I am very intrigued by your “Esperanto.”
I have traveled far to deliver this message: transmedia shall change the way your people, especially your young, live their lives.
But transmedia hath its price. Increasingly, your children are using all of their devices at once. Riddle me this, simple monoga-medians: what fate awaits the young souls who media multi-task? You fear the future, do you? Before I part, know this: transmedia is both your destruction and your salvation. Alakazoo!!!!
Right. So that guy was weird. But to answer his “riddle,” FlickerLab is addressing kids’ increasing exposure to media and multi-media tasking with a smart approach. A telling example is The Whistle, FlickerLab’s online destination that encourages kids to lead active, healthy lifestyles. The Whistle is a repository of fitness goals and progress tracking tools. It also offers scripted media and shows, but it’s not an online world meant to trap its members; rather, The Whistle is a docking station where kids can find personal health encouragement and charge up for more offline fun.
But enough chatter. Here’s what blew my mind to pieces: realtime animation. Yes, you read that right. Sound it out. Let the concept descend upon the brain for a second.
Essentially, FlickerLab prepares a library of animated clips ahead of time. They all sync up to each other in numerous combinations. Performers use a video game controller to control the characters and to line up the clips according to the performer’s instant whim. The character’s mouth tracks the performer’s voice when the performer speaks into a microphone. The result resembles a live, animated puppet show, and the animated element takes it to places unreachable via felt and buttons.
This isn’t some intriguing experiment that doesn’t seem to pan out in practice (I’m looking at you, WiCommunistM). Realtime animation presents brand new media possibilities. In one of FlickerLab’s live animated shows in Europe, kids can call in and talk to the show’s characters while the show is happening. Crazy.
And there are further conspicuous advantages. Nelly Nut, a British real-time animated program, is produced for 5%* of the budget of its competitors, and it has earned better ratings (*to be fair, I don’t know if this 5% is based on total cost or per-episode cost, the latter being much smaller because almost all of the costs with FlickerLab’s live animation is incurred in pre-production). FlickerLab is using this technique successfully in Europe, and it’s about to bring it home to the U.S. Even more exciting, this type of tool could revolutionize the lay person’s access to animation. This, WiCM, is sublimely cool.
I haven’t been this blown away by an animated development since I first saw really beautiful flash animation. But putting the real-time animation aside, this was an evening full of excitement and inspiration. FlickerLab left us with a parting thought: we’re finally on time. We finally have the tools we need to exploit the ideas we’ve had for ages. We finally have the technology to confront and solve new problems. The future and the present are converging. Much like Penny’s computer book and the eventual arrival of Apple’s iPad, we are now realizing once fanciful ideas. Pretty inspiring, no?