DELF 2005: Bridging the Cultural Divide

The original article was published on the Animation World Network in April of 2005. Please click here to view the article on AWN and to see the accompanying photos.

Cyberport Photo by William Corneli

Cyberport, photo by William Corneli

Cyberport is as futuristic as its name implies. The 24-hectacre digital IT hub on the southern coast of Hong Kong Island is an intricately planned coexistence of gleaming commercial and entertainment facilities with pristine residential complexes surrounded by an organically manicured park-like setting. Virtually every nook and cranny is interwoven with the latest technologies; audio-visual displays pepper the premises, smartcards and interactive kiosks provide an interface to shopping and business, and all flavors of telecommunications are represented. Step into Cyberport, and you step into the future of digital city living. At US$2 billion, this flagship project is an unquestionable symbol of Hong Kong’s determination to become the digital city for the region. It is also an interesting embodiment of the decisions facing the region’s digital entertainment industry.

Through the veins of any digital city course substantial opportunities in content creation, distribution and consumption. It is as vested in offering the goods as it is in connecting consumers to receive them, with a particular advantage in interactive content such as games and interactive television. A well-designed infrastructure can reach beyond local borders into other consumer markets. The same infrastructure can be equally viable in offering international companies the latest tools and technologies alongside trained employees to man the switches. Content creation can often be better served in a high technology environment, where development can be streamlined and distances and time zones cease to be deterrents. But while technology and infrastructure provide some level of universality, content does not translate across borders as readily. Does the digital world offer content creators an edge in the entertainment industry or are story and content truly abstracted from technology?

Mr. Francis Ho of the Government of Hong Kong SAR and Mr. Nicholas Yang of Cyberport welcomed a second forum of international guests to the Digital Entertainment Leadership Forum (DELF) to chew on the issues facing the digital entertainment industry and to shed some light on future paths. As a one-day conference the organizers gathered a solid sampling of digital entertainment expertise across film, animation, special effects, online and mobile games, audio, ITV, and themed attractions. Although the role of digital technology in content creation and distribution was prevalently discussed, the intriguing insights came from the natural juxtaposition of the fifteen international speakers who gave a strong voice to distinct consumer values and preferences from different parts of the world.

Interactive TV and Multiple Platforms

Interactive television (ITV) took center stage as four of the fifteen speakers shared their respective headway into this relatively young market. Frank Boyd, Creative Director at Unexpected Media in the UK, discussed the time spent researching how and why people use technology, and in particular, how and where people use their TVs. In the UK, he noted, TVs tend to be in the living room and in Italy they tend to be in the kitchen. PCs in the UK, he added, are often tucked into a cupboard or in an empty space under the stairs. What begins as seemingly innocuous viewing habits actually leads to relevant questions about the context of use. Are living room viewers watching by themselves or is the whole family tuned in? Which forms of interactive entertainment, therefore, are best suited for an individual and which for group participation? If everyone is in the kitchen, are people too busy eating or cooking to even bother interacting with the TV?

Mr. Boyd’s research with an interdisciplinary group at the Creative Labs has also been kicking the tires of UK audience preferences with varying results. Shows like Spook allow you to train as an undercover MI5 agent. The high production quality of the show and the mystery-appeal of the mission you’ve been given make you all but forget that the interactivity boils down to a simple multiple choice quiz. However, the BBC documentary Walking with Beasts, which allowed switching between four documentaries being screened simultaneously, proved to be too complicated or distracting for the general ITV audience.

Many of the shows maintain very simple forms of interactivity such as voting, quizzes, competitions and games. Justin Hewelt’s company, Broadband Bananas, is an archive of Enhanced TV show titles from around the world. The input relies largely on the remote control and an application runs through a setup box purchased by the consumer. Games such as Bingo and Kino prove popular and certain kinds of casino-like gambling are allowed. Mr. Hewelt mentioned that gambling through one’s television set addressed a more pressing social issue in that typical betting locations were not the nicest places to visit. Reality TV, murder mysteries and music channels demonstrate how far four buttons can take interactive fun. Although setup boxes can provide a wide range of activities, they are still expensive and often have inconsistent limitations in handling color and overlays. Standardization among content providers remains a problem.

By comparison, Robert Chua, Chairman and Founder of The Interactive Channel (TIC) in Hong Kong was clear in stating that the “mobile phone is the best way to interact.” The Hong Kong market enjoys a broad base of internet and mobile networking technologies and it is not unusual for consumers to have phone in hand and PC close by while watching TV. Subsequently, content for TIC is centered around what can be done via SMS, webchat and videocam and the majority of TIC’s offerings are interactive talk shows that allow viewers to debate, vote or discuss topics with the host and guests. Other regions have explored using multiple platforms; Katz Kiely of Just-B Productions presented Australia’s very popular interactive comedy “Fat Cow Motel” which pushes the medium in both story and the viewer’s level of involvement through online, email, voicemail and SMS. But the Hong Kong market seems extremely well suited for such digital diversity.

The contrast in viewing and interaction preferences between UK and Hong Kong audiences was interesting to see. There is no doubt that the way people are consuming television is changing and that the digital space is expanding the possibilities by putting customization and choice in the hands of the viewer. Katz Kiely, who also runs a festival focused on future entertainment, noted that people will do unexpected things when presented with new technology. This provides a glimpse into consumer inclinations around the world. The same base technology can evolve very differently when shaped by the needs and wants of various societies.

Nowhere is this more prevalent than in the online gaming market in China. Visionary Keynote speaker, Jun Tang of Shanda Interactive, stated, “online games are a cultural business,” and cited their huge success as a convergence of various influencing factors. Online games provide an alternative to the few entertainment choices available, where state-owned media is limiting and trips to the movie theater are expensive. Moreover, there is a strong internet cafe culture that has developed within 19-to-26 year olds who are still single and enjoy the “stickiness” of the virtual social community. And where the reality of piracy in China dooms most PC games to failure, online games flourish with a solid business model and network security. Broadband is growing substantially and many types of games, from MMORPGs to casual games, are offered to reach the widest consumer base.

Shanda Interactive’s success speaks volumes for online content delivery that meets social demands and capitalizes on these converging factors. The company’s peak concurrent users (PCU) reaches an impressive 1.9 million and they alone are responsible for over half of China’s direct online expenditures in 2004. They fully control their own distribution and payment modes. One of the keys to maintaining customers shared common ground with interactive television’s subscription models. Once users had amassed a certain amount of personal content – treasure or virtual character status within an online game or favorite shows recorded onto a subscriber’s personal video recorder (PVR) box – you would lose all that personal content if you cancelled your subscription.

Digital Tools and Digital People

Conference attendees were treated to a number of stunning clips in two panels on “Content Evolution” and “Content Creation.” The first panel, moderated by Russell Flannery of Forbes (Shanghai Bureau), focused on audio and how digital tools have enhanced audio production for games and films. All three speakers, including John Griffin of Dolby Tokyo, Frankie Chung of Hong Kong’s Centro Digital Pictures, and Michael Hedges, academy-award winner for sound mixing on The Lord of The Rings: The Return of the King, touted the creative freedom and incredible flexibility that new digital platforms provide. Audio tools have advanced the art of sound mixing to new levels and clips from Kung Fu Hustle and The Lord of The Rings, showed the depth, intricacy and characterization that can now be achieved. John Griffin noted that one of the challenges for game developers is the expectation to match the quality of audio to that of film production, a goal that Onimusha 3, a console game from Capcom, seemed to achieve quite well. With production deadlines looming Michael Hedges claimed one major technology kept the schedule on track. With recording sessions happening on one continent, and sound mixing on another, the speed of the internet allowed recording session output to be transferred quickly for immediate feedback and integration.

Although digital tools play a large role in streamlining and enhancing previously tedious or lengthy production tasks, it is obvious that their influence is reaching into the creative process. Dan Sarto from Animation World Network (AWN) observed that digital tools allow for new artistic styles to emerge as evidenced by films like Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow and Sin City. Pascal Herod, founder of Duran Duboi in France, showed a beautiful clip from Enki Bial’s Immortel, which used the “digital backlot” technique to combine live actors in front of a green screen with computer-generated (CG) characters. Visual technologies allowed the director to create a moody, illustrative world where characters transform into mythological creatures and gravity and reality are defied throughout. In a similar vein, Frankie Chung stated that the film industry in Hong Kong had established its own culture in visualizing the Kung Fu movie in a very comical way, and digital tools helped them realize the effects. Indeed, the extremely stylized actions of the characters in Kung Fu Hustle have a mythical and cartoony feel that complements the director’s comedic style.

The second panel, moderated by Michael Logan of The South China Morning Post, broached the topic of talent and content as the differentiating success factor. Bill Bishop, CEO of Red Mushroom in China, stated the importance of creative talent. “Good game designers are like movie stars,” he said, and the name of a key creative talent can often have more bearing in the market than the company brand. Certainly, in the digital entertainment world, success comes to those who understand the potential of the medium and can creatively bring it to life. Yet it was also emphasized that successful innovative content had to resonate with consumers, and as digital entertainment offers more opportunities for self-expression and the ability to define and create their individual experience through interactivity and personalization, companies who truly understand what people want and why they want it will make an impact in the industry.

Of Content and Licensing

A holy grail of content creation is to become a licensed property that moves freely between media and merchandising and is adored (and purchased) by consumers regardless of where it lands. Licensed properties were mentioned throughout the conference. Bill Bishop stated that the trend in the game design business is to license an established property, a trend shared by just about every other medium including television, mobile phones and film. John Griffin from Dolby remarked that licensed music is becoming prevalent in game development over in-house compositions, adding that the same licensed audio as in the film version is often used, such as with The Lord of the Rings game.

But crossing the magic threshold from new content to entertainment staple is a difficult task made even more arduous by the entertainment industry’s inclination to simply rehash what has worked well in the past rather than take risks on the new and unproven. Even successful licensed properties don’t always transfer well to other cultural regions or to the global market. Indeed, the cultural distinctions in the kinds of digital entertainment consumed seem remarkably counterintuitive to being able to globalize content. Dan Sarto of AWN pointed to Spirited Away as an example. Although the film fared well in the U.S., it came nowhere near matching its phenomenal success in Japan. Yet other properties like Pokemon and Spiderman seem impervious to cultural partiality.

Although he spoke just after lunch, Dan Sarto served more as an end-of-the-day summation of the industry’s consistencies amidst its fickleness. He offered sobering yet revealing snapshots of the digital entertainment kingdom. Echoing the comments on licensed properties, he emphasized the industry’s desire too see creative IP cross-pollinate various media. He remarked that television is one of the toughest markets. In this realm content is incidental and the power of a property to generate licensing and merchandising tie-ins is what makes or breaks a series. The mobile market is just beginning to see these benefits and many are leveraging branded characters to lure customers into the market. Animation and Direct-to-TV or Direct-to-DVD content have big tie-ins to retail, and top-selling titles are often based on existing franchises such as a popular comic book or graphic novel. Undoubtedly, new material has to withstand stiff competition from recycled content, but this made Dan’s resounding message to the audience even more relevant: if you do end up breaking the mold and creating a new entertainment experience, hang onto the creative intellectual property.

The most positive message in Mr. Sarto’s presentation was his very first statement: “Entertainment is a necessity – it is integrated and woven into our social framework.” And with that insatiable hunger to feed, we as digital entertainers have hope.

Story Story Story

Michael Logan chaired a panel on the “Multimodal WOW Experience” and admitted having to look up the definition of “multimodal.” Likewise, the majority of us in the audience probably had little idea of its meaning, but there was no denying what a “wow experience” is after. Both panelists are innovators in their respective fields and offered insights into what sets their work apart.

Gary Goddard is a leader in themed attractions and his U.S.-based company, Gary Goddard Entertainment, adapts licensed properties into unforgettable experiences. Their goal has not been to recreate what the film accomplished but to pick up on elements that resonate the emotional charge of the original experience. He cited his working motto of employing the four E’s: Engage, Excite, Entertain and Enlighten. He added that an important aspect often overlooked is to fully immerse the audience, who should be caught up in the story and unaware of the technology surrounding them. A “wow” experience is created when you exceed the audience’s expectations.

American Magee is one of those movie star game designers whose name alone can sell the title. He left Electronic Arts shortly after the success of “American Magee’s Alice” because he felt they weren’t interested enough in telling stories, preferring instead to rehash typical game genres. He started a new company, The Mauretania Import Export Company, as “a giant black box of content” that hires concept artists to focus on IP creation and then finds homes for the subsequent output.

In light of all this innovation, the moderator wondered, how do you make content sustainable? “The Big Idea,” Gary remarked, “is to tell the right story in the right medium.” And American added simply, “Good stories are ageless.”

Digital City

The Hong Kong government is making great strides to become the digital media hub for the region. There is a strong desire to use the digital infrastructure to nurture local talent and develop original creative IP, but interest from international companies looking to capitalize on government incentives also means promising business as a location for outsourcing. Pascal Herod from Duran Duboi enthusiastically stated, it was not just the tax breaks and the lower production costs but the “energy of people willing to work” that appealed to his studio. Moreover, a media hub’s ability to straddle both digital and cultural divides could prove to play a pivotal role as the east and west look for ways to reach each other’s respective markets.

Fortunately, the future of digital entertainment does not appear destined to become a homogenized landscape devoid of culture and character. The distinctive tastes of consumers all over the world make it virtually unthinkable, and the perspectives and insights of the fifteen speakers at DELF seemed to confirm it. Living in a digital city means that we can be entertained anytime and anywhere, and the competition for our attention span will be widespread and constant. Therefore, it is the story and the experience that will have to stand out.