Content Creator of the Month is a new project from Copia. Each month, we’ll profile a new content creator who is doing interesting and compelling things, often using the internet in innovative and powerful ways. Here is the very first instalment…

A few weeks ago, a couple of friends friends were tweeting about an incredible new YouTube video in which some people created a “real life first-person shooter” and hooked it up to Chatroulette, Skype and Omegle. Random people on the services were transported into this game, which they controlled with their voice. If you haven’t watched it, find ten minutes to check it out (or just 5 if you speed up YouTube to 2x speed). It is incredibly detailed, and awesome beyond words:

My first reaction was to marvel at how much effort must have gone into setting all of this up. I had initially assumed the “game” couldn’t go very far beyond the tiny room where it started — but it goes much, much further. My second thought was about how hard it must have been to coordinate all the sounds, effects and movements (even while recognizing that the final version is cut together from the takes that “worked”). Thankfully, the people behind it — Realm Picturesalso put together a behind the scenes video that reveals the inner workings (and doesn’t make the original any less magical):

I started looking into the team, and realized I actually knew a bit about them, as this is hardly the first time that Realm Pictures has done cool stuff online. Years back, while based out of their home in Devon in the UK, these guys filmed their very own zombie flick called Zomblies, which they posted for free on YouTube. For a bunch of “amateurs” (at the time), the production value is amazing — they even got someone to donate time in a helicopter, allowing them to film aerial shots. But there’s another important piece of the story: while they were making the film, Realm Pictures was also using the internet to build up a community of people who were interested in the process, with their daily blog about the work acquiring a big following.

David Reynolds, the founder and creative director of Realm Pictures (and the voice in the first person shooter above), told me that “building a community has always been instrumental to both our process and our success with projects thus far.” The community has followed them from project to project, such as the team’s next giant undertaking The Underwater Realm, a series of five short films with large segments taking place underwater — an incredible challenge for any filmmaker, let alone relatively inexperienced independents. The team originally tried to use wires and a green screen, but realized it just wasn’t realistic enough. Eventually someone donated a special casing for a camera, allowing them to actually film underwater (mostly in a local public swimming pool). Here’s the first of those films (and they also have a behind the scenes video):

In order to make that movie, they also embraced another useful online tool, Kickstarter, to cover some of the production costs, eventually raising over $100,000 (they had sought $60,000). While Reynolds is supportive of crowdfunding, he does worry that it may be peaking, and that “the bubble is beginning to burst, as now it seems that everybody and his dog has a Kickstarter campaign.”

One of the things that struck me personally about Realm Pictures is their ability to create visually amazing narrative film projects on relatively small budgets. For many years we’ve been debating the question of “the $200 million movie,” in which traditional Hollywood studios keep asking how they can continue to make movies that require such huge budgets if people are unwilling to pay to watch them. And yet, as we’ve seen over and over again, technology and basic creativity are enabling the creation of incredible movies for a lot less. Much of Realm Pictures’ work shows how that’s possible. Still, Reynolds has talked in the past (notably in an interview with Kevin Smith) about being interested in doing a much bigger, Hollywood studio-funded version of Underwater Realm, which he estimates will cost somewhere in that $200 million range. So far, studios haven’t been willing to pony up — but Reynolds insists there are lots of fun projects the company will be working on, even as they hope they’ll one day be able to create that underwater epic.

Throughout these projects there’s a strong thread: building a community and bringing it along for the ride. Reynolds tells me this is very important to how they’ve been able to succeed and, at the same time, give back to those who have supported them:

It is a practice we hope will always continue through our career, and at the same time give back to the community which has supported us by giving back in the form of a transparent insight into our work and things like the free tutorials we have released on our YouTube channel.

Reynolds points out that, in the end, none of this matters if the content isn’t great, and that’s always been the key: create great content for your community. Without that, the community won’t last either. This is the combination that we’ve seen work for so many successful creators today. Creating great content is always at the core, and building up a loyal community around it helps spread that content and open new doors.

In terms of this latest video, which went viral super fast (I first saw it when it had about 3,000 views, but now it has over 7 million), Reynolds says it was just a fun project that they did in a weekend, with “one practice run, with a member of our team on a Skype call… to check that the system was working, and then straight into finding strangers on the internet.” They ended up doing about 50 runs, with the few players who completed the whole “level” taking about 20 minutes. This is one of the first really “interactive” film experiences I’ve seen where the interactivity fits right in and doesn’t feel forced (though of course now everyone is just watching instead of playing — but watching how others interact still feels kind of interactive). Reynolds points out that they’re really just taking what makes video games so engaging, and moving it to video.

Oh, and Reynolds also notes that they’re now working on level two of the game, so stay tuned (and maybe start using Chatroulette, if you want to play!)

You can read below for my whole interview with Dave Reynolds of Realm Pictures, our very first Content Creator of the Month.

You guys have a pretty long track record of building up your fan base through the internet and forming real connections with your fans, starting with Zomblies, through Underwater Realm, and to this latest project. It appears that has paid off time and time again, often in astounding ways, such as getting someone to give you free helicopter rides in Zomblies, or the special underwater camera casing for Underwater Realm. How important a role do you think building up a community has played in your success?

Building a community has always been instrumental to both or process and our successes with our projects thus far. During Zomblies we felt it was important to produce a daily blog update and engage directly with our audience and followers. We took this a step further during the Underwater Realm where we created much more in depth weekly blogs, and ultimately our followers became amongst the first to really support our Kickstarter when it launched. It is a practice we hope will always continue through our career, and at the same time give back to the community which has supported us by giving back in the form of a transparent insight into our work and things like the free tutorials we have released on our YouTube channel.

You’ve said in the past that while there was some debate, you eventually decided to release the entire Zomblies on YouTube for free. Do you think that was the right decision? And why? Is that choice part of what made Underwater Realm possible?

It was definitely the right choice, it was far more important to us to give the film away to our followers and the people who had supported us, of which definitely translated into the backing the Underwater Realm had. Zomblies was never intended to make profit, it started out as a small fun project made for the love of filmmaking and would have felt disingenuous to start charging for it.

You were able to raise over $100,000 on Kickstarter for Underwater Realm. Obviously that helped, but what are your general thoughts on crowdfunding as a model to fund creative works these days?

Obviously crowdfunding was instrumental to our success in The Underwater Realm, and helped us out a lot there as it confirmed to us that we had a concept that people were really willing to buy into. However, I feel that the bubble is beginning to burst, as now it seems that everybody and his dog has a Kickstarter campaign.

Beyond Kickstarter, you’ve made use of lots of online platforms – especially YouTube and Vimeo, and now the unexpected choice of ChatRoulette. How important have these and other platforms been to your success? How do you strategize when using them?

The important thing to us is not the platform being used, but creating great content that people want to watch.

Throughout all your work, you’ve shown an astounding ability to create really incredible productions, with tremendous production value, on tiny budgets. Do you have any wisdom to share with other content creators about how you went about doing what many probably thought was impossible before you guys showed it could be done?

I think the most important thing is that, as you’ve said, we look at the things that many people think will be impossible, and see something that we’ve got to figure out how to make possible. We’ve got a great team here at Realm who are amazing at coming up with creative solutions to make impossible things happen!

On to the latest project: How did you come up with the idea of doing a live first person shooter via Chatroulette, and how much time did it take to prepare/practice all of that? How many “games” did you have to play before you had enough material?

The idea has been floating around for a long time; years ago we strapped a webcam to someone’s head and got people on Chatroulette to control what they did, but recently we’ve been thinking about how cool it would be to take that to the next level and have the strangers controlling a live action video game character.

We did one practice run, with a member of our team on a Skype call to HQ, to check that the system was working, and then went straight into finding strangers on the internet!

We did about 50 runs throughout the weekend, from runs that lasted less than a minute, to players that took 20 minutes to complete the game.

Were the reactions of the players in the video you published pretty typical? What other reactions did you get?

The video shows pretty much the whole range of reactions, but there were a few other ideas that players had, such as “climb the tree to hide” or “try to jump over the fence” that didn’t make it into the final montage (both of these ideas resulted in the player being killed by the zombie hoard!)

How do you feel about the reaction to the video? Did you expect it to go viral so quickly?

We have been completely overwhelmed by the reaction to the video. We hoped the video would get some good interest, but never expected anything of this magnitude!

The video says, “Chatroulette version,” but you mention that you did it on Skype and Omegle too.. Does that mean we should expect more such videos soon?

This video contained reactions obtained from players using all three platforms, we just chose to use the word Chatroulette in the title as it is most recognisable to viewers and allows people to immediately understand that we were talking to random strangers online.

That said, Level 2 is currently in development, so watch this space…

This was one of the most fascinating attempts at truly interactive video I’ve seen in a long time. People talk about “interactive” video, but their imaginations have mostly been limited to things like “voting in a theater.” How did you guys come up with the interactive elements beyond just mimicking standard FPS video game play? Do you think that there are other ideas for people to take from this in terms of how to make entertainment more interactive?

The parts of video games that have always stuck and been memorable are the ones that have a high level of interactivity and player choice. Combining these with full real control of a person we felt made for an even more exciting experience, and if the trends of modern video gaming is anything to go by, what people want is that greater level of interaction so entertainment seems to be heading in this direction.

Have you thought about letting people pay to play this or future such games? (I bet there would be a lot of takers!)

We feel like a lot of what made this resonate with viewers so strongly, was the fact that they were completely random players who had just stumbled upon this game online, and making people pay to play would make the experience less special somehow.

You guys also do a lot of “behind the scenes” videos of your work. What made you decide to do this, and what role has it played in building your community?

With projects as ambitious as this, people always want to know how it was achieved, and we enjoy being able to share how we solved “impossible” problems, and some of our indie filmmaking tricks that allow us to create high production value effects using creative but simple solutions.

When planning this project, we knew that lots of people’s immediate reactions would be “This must have been faked”, especially with regard to things like the graphics and sound all being done live, and having a behind the scenes video would also show people that it was really possible to create this whole experience live.

How do you come up with ideas that you think will become hits? Is it mostly gut instinct or do you have some way of getting feedback before you start a project?

Completely gut instinct! As a team we chat through ideas, and if we get excited by them then we figure that they’re worth making.

Do you have any general thoughts on business models for content creators today?

For me, it’s not about having a good business model, its about creating great content that gets people excited and that people want to watch.

You’ve talked in the past about trying to get a large amount of studio money for a much bigger budget underwater production. Has there been any movement on that? If not, are you still looking to do that?

Obviously our passion still lies with narrative filmmaking, and we have a number of projects at various stages of production. The Underwater Realm is still very much something we absolutely want to create, but also excited to see what comes our way between now and then!

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