Virtual Studios
by J.R. Mooneyham

Do you want to make movies, video documentaries, or other multimedia presentations, but haven’t the time, skills, equipment, money, and actors to do so?

Surprise! All you really need is a story or plan to start-- if you go the virtual studios route.

Virtual Studios refers to a strategy for breaking up large multimedia projects into chunks suitable for a multitude of small, independent groups or individuals to prepare, with a central coordinator being responsible for final editing and assembly of the parts into a presentable or marketable whole.

In your own Virtual Studios effort, you would play the role of that coordinator. You would be responsible for:

1. Making contact with a group of potential contributors
2. Providing your potential contributors with the basic story or plan at the heart of your vision, as well as the terms of compensation(if any), and the specific requirements for each type of contribution you’re looking for.
3. Examining all contributions as they come in, selecting those that best fit the criteria given by you to the contributors in the original specifications.
4. Doing yourself what cannot be gotten from contributors in acceptable quality or quantity.
5. Editing and tying together the selected elements into a finished product.
6. Marketing and/or distributing the completed work through its intended channels.
7. Crediting and/or compensating your contributors in the manner agreed to at the start.

Finding contributors

How do you go about finding contributors? The same way you’d look for willing participants for any other sort of team effort. First, get the word out to all your friends and family about what you intend to do, and what you’re looking for, and encourage them to tell others.
Next, you might try advertising. Small, well worded classifieds in newspapers or magazines might do the trick. You could also post notices in online message boards such as those maintained by America OnLine (one of the larger computer network services).

Don’t place your ad until after you have something to show any respondents. That is, have an inspiring presentation of your proposal ready to send to those who show an interest in your ad, before you actually run the ad.

Some enterprising individuals in the past have done more than merely located willing partners in a venture this way-- they’ve also financed the venture in this manner. How so? By first placing great classified ads in newspapers and magazines which offer free information to those who call or write in. The advertiser would then send a brief presentation to the respondent, outlining their basic vision, and offering a much more detailed and exciting sounding information package, with perhaps a few other benefits as well, for somewhere between ten and fifty dollars. Some of the extra benefits frequently extolled in such ads include hefty discounts for the respondent in the eventual purchase price of the work, once it’s completed.

The $10-$50 fee, of course, pays the printing and postage costs for both the free information packet and the larger presentation packet, with any extra that’s left over being applied to further research and development on the project described in the literature. As the project moves along, you update your literature to reflect the changes.

A similar strategy might be used for certain Virtual Studios projects. Buying your way into an existing incarnation of this mechanism through the classified ads seen in magazines like Popular Mechanics or Popular Science could give you valuable insights into formulating your own plans in this vein. However, you must take care you do not unintentionally mislead respondents in any way, thereby abusing the method and perhaps getting only legal worries for your efforts.

The Virtual Studio Model

In dividing your project up for prospective contributors, it could be helpful to view the endeavor from the perspective of its various multimedia components. On the page following this one is a graphic depicting the different elements involved in something like a feature film.

In this model we approach the film in layers, similar after a fashion to the layers available in HyperCard and other Mac multimedia authoring programs.

In our model, proceeding from front to back, the various components are:

1. Foreground special effects. These effects are those occurring in front of or atop a scripted scene. In a star wars type scene a laser beam emanating from a phaser in someone’s hand towards the direction of the audience might require placement in this layer. This layer could be one of the most difficult to hand off to a contributor, since it often requires choreography of actor’s movements to mesh with the effects added later to the scene.

2. Sound effects. The entire sound track for the project may be categorized as a single layer, unlike the more complex elements of foreground and background special effects. Sound effects may be one of the easiest jobs to delegate to another.

3. Foreground and characters. Here would reside all the acting, stuntwork, costumes, and full-size sets and props within the film. In some cases this layer of the project may also encompass backdrop duties as well, as in the case of projects you prefer to have done 'on location'. For example, for some exotic storylines you might hope you can get the foreground, characters, and backdrop all from the same group in Paris, France, or Tokyo, Japan. The logistics of such on-location production wouldn't entail much more work than those for less exotic efforts, unless language translations were needed in communications. This layer will obviously comprise one of the most important elements in many projects, requiring a person or group capable not only of motivating a number of folks into believable performances, but also dressing them and supplying the props required to fulfill the role.

4. Background special effects. These effects are those which take place behind the main focal point of a scene, and should be more easily done by a contributor than the foreground effects mentioned earlier. One example of background special effects would be the crash of the Marines’ landing craft behind Ripley and her team in the film Aliens. The crash scene consisted of the actors jumping for cover behind rocks in a foreground set, while a fiery crash of a realistic model was laid in behind them via video editing. The end effect was spectacular. Background effects may usually be far looser in terms of actor choreography than foreground effects, since the effects generally occur at a much greater perceived distance from both viewer and actor, allowing considerable leeway in what direction the actors are focusing on at the time.

5. Backdrop. The Backdrop can literally be simply a two dimensional picture, or an open view of whatever stage is being used by the cast, such as the interior of a building, city streets, or plain countryside. If you have access to good artists, especially airbrush artists, in the making of your project, your backdrops can easily rival those used in major motion pictures.

6. The story/plot/dialogue/script/vision. The story is the platform which supports all the other elements, and is crucial to the project. In extreme cases you could do without everything else but the story, and still entertain your audience-- that's precisely what novelists do.

Let’s say all you had to begin with was a novel, or story. To expand the impact and appeal of your tale, you could add well done illustrations. To add still more, illustrate the entire work, turning it into a graphic novel or comic. The next step up would be including animation, to obtain the dynamic, attention-getting presentation level of a Saturday morning cartoon. Go up another rung and you’d be using high end computer graphics, as opposed to human illustrators. Go still further, substituting living actors and real props for two dimensional imagery, and you’ve got a motion picture. Put your work on computer disk and make it interactive, and you have the mainstream entertainment of the early twenty-first century.
Any project you undertake that attempts to be more than just a text-only novel or story is a prime candidate for the Virtual Studios strategy.

The All or Nothing Requirement

One of the most important aspects of this sort of production is that any contributor wishing to have a shot in the completed project must submit their selected portion in toto-- a sample won’t do.
While this requirement puts a great burden on some of the contributors, it is essential for this type of enterprise to work. Why? The chances of getting the same actors together again to play full length versions of roles they portrayed in a brief sample clip perhaps months before decline substantially over time. Many of your contributors will be wildly inconsistent in their results, making small samples grossly unreliable as gauges of overall quality. The only practical way to compare efforts is to do so with complete competing versions of the same element in front of you. Parties doing special effects may make major changes in equipment that change the look of their work drastically from one small piece to another-- requiring a complete layer from each player minimizes such fluctuations, as everything tends to be done at once.

Specifying the formats you require

Will you be able to accept standard VHS video tapes for those types of contributions? Or would you rather receive QuickTime compatible files? Do you want stereo sound tracks on standard cassette tapes, or in a particular data format on floppy disk? Is there a standard data compression scheme you'd like all contributors to adhere to? Can you accept some backdrop still imagery in the form of 8-bit Canvas 3.5 files, or do you need them in a different file format?

Before putting out the call for contributions, you must determine what form of contributions you require in order that you may easily and quickly assemble all the pieces into a common medium, once you have them.
Important considerations here include:

* What multimedia software and hardware will be available at the service bureau you expect to use for the more high-end tasks required in final assembly and editing?

* What hardware/software platform will you personally have access to over the life of the project? This may include your own system and that of friends, family, and possibly even the workplace, in some cases. College students might have access to certain school resources significant to these endeavors.

* Be realistic in your plans. An ambitious multimedia project could require anywhere from months to years to complete; and going the Virtual Studios route will likely only increase the total time required, due to the decentralized nature of the work involved, and the lead time required for gathering potential contributors in the first place.

After the winning contributions are in hand

Once you have the winning elements in hand (or in some cases, before), it’s time to work out some agreements with the relevant contributors.

For details of legal contracts, please refer to a respectable lawyer or other reliable source-- here we are only listing a few items that might be unique to a Virtual Studios project, and are not attempting to advise you on the specifics of a full legal contract.

If you yourself are a poor negotiator, you might should find someone better to help you in these matters.

You should lay out up front what contributors should expect in the form of compensation for their efforts, if any.
If your project is to be a non-profit documentary on world hunger, then your invitation should make it clear you want only contributions for which contributors can expect nothing more than screen credits in the finished work.

Provide a clause allowing contributors to attempt to finish the project on their own, if you are unable to do so yourself within a set period of time subsequent to selecting that contributor’s piece for inclusion. In this clause be sure to arrange for some sort of compensation for yourself, in return for providing the story and perhaps other aspects of the total work involved. You might also attempt to retain some degree of creative control-- though you must keep in mind your position will have weakened considerably by the point such a clause might be invoked. This clause would only be fair to your contributors, in the case something on your end fell through and they felt capable of carrying on themselves. Plus, if it turned out you were personally unable to see your vision through to completion on your own, wouldn’t you still want it to proceed anyway, if possible?

Completing the project

Once you have all the parts in hand, and suitable contractual agreements made with the winning contributors, how do you put all the pieces together into a finished product?
You have three options here, depending on the extent of your own personal equipment, experience, and time:

1. Take your materials to a suitable Service Bureau, and over a period of days or weeks tie them all together into a complete package.

2. Turn your materials over to a fully equipped and experienced professional contractor in this field and have them put it all together for you.

3. If you’ve the time, equipment, and expertise on-hand, perform the final editing yourself.

Marketing the project

At present, this could turn out to be the most daunting part of the entire venture. You should definitely put much consideration into this aspect of the job long before seeking out contributors, as without successful marketing, no one will profit from the project.

Fortunately, if your project ends up being disk-based, such as on CD-ROM, you’ll have the good fortune of being a new kid on an even newer block-- so new that virtually everyone and everything is welcome, unlike other, more traditional channels, where you find it difficult to intrude on established relationships between theaters and movie studios, etc., etc.

As we here at FLUX are newcomers to the market ourselves, we cannot presume to give you much instruction in same. All we can do is advise you to seek out new contacts and learn everything you can about the business-- then experiment until you break into the big time.

We hope the concept of Virtual Studios helps you launch that dream project you’ve been harboring in the back of your mind for years now...•

The above article(s) come from and make references to a collection copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002 by J.R. Mooneyham (except where otherwise noted in the text). Text here explicitly authored by J.R. Mooneyham may be freely copied and distributed for non-commercial purposes in paper and electronic form without charge if this copyright paragraph and link to the timeline ( are included.

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