Imagine an Oscar-nominated director was taking an ensemble of Hollywood A-list stars on location and creating not only a 90 minute feature but also an online experience going live day by day during shooting.
In the age of social media, there’s no doubt you would have heard about such a project, right?
Yet this project did happen.
Exactly ten years ago I was approached by Film director Mike Figgis to build an online accompaniment to his planned feature Hotel. It was to follow the style of his previous feature, Time Code, notable for being a single take of 90 minutes, largely improvised and shot from four perspectives, shown simultaneously on a single screen split into quadrangles.
Mike had always been keen to explore wider outputs of a Film production than the film itself, such as books, photography exhibitions and of course digital. We’d tried with Time Code, but as it was a studio film, we ran into a complete wall. Their people in LA would handle the web presence and in form as typical then as now, they produced something that amounted to little more than an animating billboard. With Hotel, though, it was to be different. There was no studio involved meaning Mike was free to pick and chose his collaborators. Additionally, Channel 4 and FilmFour (still in its first incarnation), saw the web project’s experimental combination of film and online as the perfect opportunity to launch their portal FilmFour.com.
Alongside myself as technical director our team included designer Franki Goodwin, who subsequently became my business partner when we founded Franki&Jonny a couple of years hence and Damien O’Donnell, BAFTA-winning director of East is East. His interest was fired by the challenge of shooting, editing and putting live a short film daily during the production.
From the outset, we collectively knew what we were trying to achieve. This was not a piece of online film marketing. It was not to be just another flashy-Flash animated billboard. Neither was it simply a behind-the-scenes documentary put online, a kind of digital EPK if you like. This was a destination in its own right. Whilst we hoped for a certain cross over of audience, either to or from the film, the experience did not depend on it. We wanted to extend the world of the film; to create an immersive and entertaining experience, only one that would be viewed on a computer screen rather than a cinema screen or television. In today’s vernacular, we certainly created a transmedia project.
During pre-production, precisely what this meant we weren’t sure. We were to have complete, unfettered access to the production and intended to utilise that to the full in the web content. Yet in the spirit of the production, which had no script, we too would improvise and create our content daily.
In order to inform our thinking a little more and to give the whole project coherence, we set up a kind of Dogme-style manifesto for our content:
All material on the website had to be sourced by us on location, be it video footage, stills or audio. All content had to relate to the story of the film, the techniques of filming or the location. All actors had to appear in character. We were to avoid text wherever other material could tell the story. We set ourselves the goal of uploading four pieces of content a day. We designed a basic interface to hold this, laid out to replicate the quadrangle screen Mike had used in Time Code, plus a simple navigation to move between days. Beyond that, the heavy symbiosis with the unplanned and unscripted main feature meant nothing existed prior to shooting.
Now, unsurprisingly, Channel 4 were initially reluctant to release what was then their largest single online spend on a project plan that at that point consisted solely of a simple interface design, but it was the coup of Damien’s involvement, director of what is still one of FilmFour’s highest grossing films of all time, that encouraged them to overlook the impudent web developer sitting next to him waving pictures of a black screen.
There was, however, a caveat. The new FilmFour.com, of which this project was to play a starring role, was not due to launch until May 2001. Filming was in February so we agreed that we would build the content and put it live during production, on another URL, but not tell anyone about it.
So, against all odds, in February 2001, we set off to Venice. It was my first involvement in a film shoot though from experience since I know what a special time this was and that I will unlikely ever encounter the same again. Cast and crew ate, slept and worked together in a small hotel on Venice’s Lido. Despite the names involved; Salma Hayek, David Schwimmer, Burt Reynolds, John Malkovich and Rhys Ifans to name but a few; there were no entourages, no paparazzi, no agents, no lawyers, no PR and no egos.
It more had the feeling of a small theatre troupe and the actors were incredibly giving of their time. For them, it was an opportunity to workshop their characters and seeing the finished shorts just hours later was as beneficial as viewing dailies. They also contributed to the spontaneity by not demanding any clearance – something normally unheard of. Aside from the shorts, we created interactive pieces, animations, slideshows and other bits of video ephemera inspired by Venice in full Carnival swing and the weird and wonderful techniques Mike was pioneering to facilitate the making of a multi-view DV feature.
For five weeks we were ensconced in a derelict attic room of the hotel creating in total 96 pieces of content (those with good mental arithmetic will recognise we didn’t quite hit our goal of four a day, though rules are there to be broken) ranging from a short featuring Rhys Ifans “inventing” the Dogme rules whilst on the toilet to an animation extolling the virtue of gaffa tape.
And we told not a soul about it…
The site was officially launched at Cannes in May 2001 as part of the new FilmFour.com. It was acclaimed critically, gaining a BAFTA Interactive nomination the same year but, even when allowed to shout about it, traffic numbers remained small. A celluloid-centric Film press struggled with the notion of the format (and probably still would), the film itself got just a 2 week run at the ICA in the UK and in an age before YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, it was difficult to spread the word to the digital community.
The site suffered a slow and ignominious demise. It sunk to the depths of FilmFour.com at the end of virtually impenetrable navigation, to a point where it had a URL but no direct way of navigating at all. Then one day, all the video disappeared leaving only the same simple, skeletal framework that we had initially presented to Channel 4.
Tantalisingly, one clip remains online, on Mike’s own production company site. It neatly sums up a lot of what we were trying to do – fuse actors in character with real life and focus on the film’s technical innovations – and have some fun doing it.
We thought this approach of a major digital output of a film production would become common place. A decade later, under the banner of transmedia, there are certainly signs that it may though despite many attempts, we never managed to create the same circumstances again.
What I’m left with is the memory of five exhilarating weeks that gave birth to a company and gained me a group of friends of life. Though I still feel a twinge of sadness that not more people saw the site or maybe will never have the opportunity to see it again.