Apocalyptic series ahead of the game

The creators of Afterworld drew on techniques from television and video games in their groundbreaking multiplatform project

By Rosie Lavan

PROJECT TITLE: AFTERWORLD

SHORT STORY SYNOPSIS: Russell Shoemaker, an advertising executive on a business trip to New York, wakes up to find that all electronic technology is dead and 99 per cent of the human race is missing. He travels back across America in search of his family, narrating his encounters with survivors of “the Fall”. Theories about what caused the catastrophe abound and Russell begins to investigate himself, eventually uncovering the truth and helping shape the new world.

FORMAT: 130×3’ web episodes plus additional online, game and mobile content

PRODUCTION COMPANIES: Electric Farm

STATUS: Project completed

RELEASE DATES: 27 February 2007 (bud.tv); re-released 23 August 2007 on MySpace

THE PROJECT

Afterworld is a computer animated sci-fi series which borrows generically from comic books, video games and even Westerns as it follows Russell Shoemaker’s journey across an America decimated by the collapse of technology.

Creator Brent Friedman first conceived of Afterworld as a television project in 2001 and had secured a meeting in Hollywood to pitch it to a number of networks. That meeting, scheduled for 12 September 2001, never took place, and the project, with its apocalyptic storyline, was put aside.

Friedman considered other ways of developing Afterworld. By 2006, media platforms had changed. With the support of media investor and Hollywood mogul Jeff Sagansky, who was keen to back cross-media content, Afterworld was reworked into a multiplatform series. It was deliberately designed to break new ground, as producer Adam Sigel remembers. “They both [Friedman and Sagansky] thought this could be the beginning of a new era for media.” Announcing the series, Sony hailed the beginning of the “multitainment” age.

A pilot episode was enough to secure sponsorship and Afterworld won a slot on bud.tv, a new online channel developed by Anheuser-Busch. Sony Pictures bought the international rights. Anheuser-Busch provided a budget of some $2 million and Afterworld became the most popular series on its channel. Bud.tv, though, was floundering, beset by logistical issues due to the legal drinking age in the US which prohibited under-21s from accessing the site.

Later in 2007 Afterworld launched again on MySpace and attracted much media interest. In total, 130 episodes of roughly three minutes were made and Afterworld won millions of viewers on both MySpace, where it became the most popular TV channel, and YouTube. Sigel also designed an Afterworld mobile video game which appeared in 2008.

AUDIENCE ENGAGEMENT

Both Sigel and Friedman have worked extensively in video games. They applied the same intuitive tactics which maintain the interest of gamers to the design of Afterworld, combining them with what Sigel calls “structured narrative tricks from TV”. In doing so, they delivered a format and concept which engaged an audience throughout 130 episodes.

Their success is borne out by the figures. Afterworld’s MySpace TV channel became the highest rated on the site, receiving over 1.2 million plays. On YouTube it had over 2.2 million players and each episode achieved over 90 per cent viewer satisfaction.

The aim was to build the compulsion loop, the hook which keeps gamers coming back to the same story or challenge. Uniting strategies from different media generated new possibilities for both creators and audience. “What we did then was we found that the cross-media opportunity allowed us to do things that you could do in video games that you couldn’t do in TV,” Adam Sigel explains.

One such possibility centred on the advanced scientific theories which are woven through the storyline of Afterworld. These theories – explored in extensive background research – would be too complicated to introduce and explain fully in episodes. However, through building a web presence around the series the team were able to incorporate this information in the online diary of the Afterworld hero, Russell Shoemaker. Having Shoemaker piece together the science behind the Fall in his diary entries meant unanswered questions could be addressed for those audience members who wanted to explore the story in greater depth. “Our cross-platform diary allowed us to give these details for our hardcore fans,” Sigel says.

The concept and format of Afterworld made sense for internet users. Short daily episodes – of roughly three minutes – and a storyline which combined sci-fi fantasy with human interest drew viewers in and generated a desire to stick with the story.

A New York Times review following the MySpace re-launch was somewhat disparaging at what it termed the “gumshoe phrasing and clichés” in the Afterworld script, but was incisive about what this meant for the audience. “In any case, this throwback talk serves to make the new medium accessible to viewers unfamiliar with video games and MySpace, an older audience still navigating the transition from CSI or even detective novels to online sci-fi.”

The same review noted that the central character served as a recognisable figure for audiences new to the format. “The show’s producers are right to be patient with beginners, and to use Shoemaker, a middle-aged father, as a model for viewers over 35.”

LINKS

Afterworld on Channel 4

Afterworld: all 130 episodes on YouTube

TRAILERS

Promo trailer

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