Would you be interested in a huge fantasy adventure with love, passion, the living dead, swords and evil magic? How about if it was featured Brian Blessed (Flash Gordon), Joanna Lumley (The New Avengers), and Jack Davenport (Pirates of the Caribbean)? Interested? Good. As with any good movie plot though, there’s a twist. In this case it’s the story behind the film that you should be taking notes on. ‘Death Knight Love Story‘ comes from the mind of Hugh Hancock, an independent Edinburgh based film-maker, and some of the techniques behind the film could well become the norm in the future of movie making.
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‘Death Knight Love Story’ (DKLS) is a machinima film, based in the World of Warcraft universe. Using an off-the-shelf motion capture system, Hancock is able to animate the characters with ease, and have the resulting data rendered into the scenes in the film. It’s a similar approach to big budget features such as Avatar, but DKLS has a few advantages.
For a start it’s slightly cheaper. Secondly, it’s using methodology from the application development world in place of more traditional screen-testing.
“After finishing work on Bloodstone in 2007, I asked myself, ‘what next?” Hancock told me last week after the premier of DKLS. “My answer was motion capture. Around this time Blizzard released their machinima licence which meant using a property such as World of Warcraft would be viable and legal. It was only going to be a short test project to try out the monition capture tools.
“As with many of my projects, the short story veered towards a feature presentation,” Hancock admitted. “During the early production that started in 2009, I wondered why machinima did not get in some big name voice actors. I took a ‘what the hell’ approach and approached an agent. She didn’t say no, in fact she loved it.” And Hancock had his cast.
Self-funded by Hancock’s machinima-based Strange Company, the first part of DKLS runs for twenty minutes, and is incredibly cost efficient, running between a third and a tenth of the cost of a conventional TV production. It has a “mid five-figure” budget covering parts one and two.
While the process of creating the footage is intriguing, there are many lessons to take out of DKLS and the data it has generated for Hancock and Strange Company. The first is the setting ”It’s more inspired by, not inside, World of Warcraft. It’s more like The Piano’ than ‘Lord of the Rings’” Hancock pointed out. The World of Warcraft association led to some mixed feedback from around the world. The fans know their game and it has evolved since 2009, while others look at it and think ‘Fan Fiction’. That leads to a potential disconnect from a number of key demographics.
Add in the lower impact World of Warcraft has in the media today compared to when the project started, pair it up with a meta-narrative, and the film itself has met with muted success online. But the value of DKLS is not solely about the number of downloaded files. To the indie film-maker, the business value generated by DKLS is immense.
Apart from the obvious benefits of having an accomplished demo reel, along with the casting of major actors to legitimise Strange Company, Hancock has a number of significant data-sets he can explore and learn from, including download numbers, online viewing habits, and which Google AdWord campaigns bring in viewers who are ready to sit through the whole film. There’s also the ability to A/B test his theories on landing pages and if they should (or should not) have a movie trailer to advertise the film (turns out that if you are trying to gather downloads, no trailer on the landing page is the way to go).
Speaking of testing, rather than bring in a Movie Analytics company, Hancock utilised a user testing mode, “after all what is this machinima film if not a twenty-minute long web app?” Requesting a certain demographic and running an edit of the film provided data (that key works again) on the appeal of the film and allowed DKLS to undergo a form of screen-testing for a much reduced cost.
All of that added together gives Strange Company a competitive advantage over other film-makers - Hancock believes that DKLS has leapfrogged the company forward around 36 months relative to other companies without the experience he has. While DKLS is a non-profit based title, and freely available online, the investment in the feature has returned a number of key business assets to Hancock and Strange Company.
And Hancock has Brian Blessed playing Arthas the Lich King. Which I’m told plays well in the Peoria of World of Warcraft.
Death Knight Love Story can be downloaded or watched online. Check out Strange Company for more details.