Mobile Video -- Didn't We Do This Already?

As mobile developers, major studios, and countless start ups struggle to find just the right video forms for mobile, I have to ask myself -- why bother? Can't we just drill into the mountains of short form, small size content the Web has been generating for nearly a decade? Isn't the vault already full with entertainment content no one ever saw?

Back in the day of TheDen, TheSpot, PseudoTV or even the early AtomFilms, for that matter, the fledgling Internet was all about birthing a new art form. "Webisodic" fiction, online reality shows and soap operas, the renaissance of the short subject, and the new venue for animators -- all this and more were promised by the new Web.

The problem, of course, is that no one really watched. Sure, there were pockets of fans who stuck with Flash epics like Broken Saints, now available on DVD, or the NBC experiment in parallel TV/Web programming, "Homicide: Second Shift." But generally Web video programming languished as Americans lurched towards broadband adoption. Arguably, it is only in recent years that our longstanding lean-back posture towards video entertainment started adapting to the lean-in circumstance of the PC desktop. And even now it is still unclear what forms of online entertainment will get traction. I am not willing to bet the farm that YouTube is the ultimate expression of an Internet video aesthetic. Nor do I think that on-demand "Heroes" episodes will define the Web medium or even mobile, for that matter.

History suggests that every medium goes through a process of seeking and finding some unique endemic format that really propels the platform forward. Early silent film was a mishmash of documentary, vaudeville and pompous translations of literary classics. With D.W. Griffith's "Birth of a Nation" and Charlie Chaplin's early Mutual shorts, however, the medium located its chief attributes: psychological intimacy and physical action. Radio could have gone in many directions in the late '20s, but by the early '30s the theatrical parlor room comedy of manners (the zany sit-com) found a new home in the first medium to come into our living rooms. Early TV (pre-1955) had all the antic energy of vaudeville (Milton Berle and "I Love Lucy") until it settled into two decades of blanded-down programming that was as uninteresting and thoroughly American as the consumer culture it was selling. Every medium finds its signature formats in historical circumstance and the technical attributes of the platform. Film moved, but it was the chase scene and the pratfall that turned the technology into art. Radio talked, but it was the sharp-tongued, rapid-fire banter of "Fibber McGee and Molly" and Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy that gave the technology a point.

So, it is understandable that early experiments in mobile video are trying to find this medium's endemic strengths. As much as I disliked them, the Fox "mobisode" experiments with "24" and made-for-mobile reality shows were noble, maybe necessary, failures. Pouring last night's prime-time news clips or random YouTube snippets into VCast may be important object lessons in what not to mobilize.

Marshall McLuhan, to whom we can attribute pretty much any idea, used to say that every new medium appropriates the material of the last but then evolves its own forms. I hear from mobile developers that stand-up comedy clips are the closest thing to a bona fide hit on early mobile video services, but I am guessing that this, too, is more a placeholder until something else comes along. MTV seems convinced that mobile means young and (wait for it...) edgy. A couple of years ago they demoed a made-for-mobile series involving a character whose head kept falling off, rolling down stairs, getting into traffic, and such.

Did I mention that D.W. Griffith and Charlie Chaplin were the breakout hits of silent film in the 1910s?

At any rate, beheaded hipsters notwithstanding, mobile could do worse than to sample the vault of lost Web video. I expect that mobile entertainment will not only have to be short form but also small form and simple form. Flash animators on the Web understood these aesthetics long ago. The constraints of low bandwidth enforced a lot of artistic discipline from which mobile media could learn. Firms like Mondo Media ("Thugs on Film") and series like Broken Saints used broad panels of color, medium shots, and limited animation to communicate efficiently in a small frame at low bandwidths to short attention spans. Tim Burton's foray into Webisodics, Stainboy, used simple line drawings that held up well in Flash and lower res screens. And anyone else remember the very good "God and Devil Show," which was a centerpiece of Warner Bros.' aborted entertainment portal? It was extremely clever, and the sheer topicality of it and "Thugs on Film" kept me coming back for a while. The Aardman Studios' "Angry Kid" series is arguably the best Web series ever made. It is all about a character who communicates his meaning in pure oversized visuals and gestures that use the small frame beautifully. But how many of you have been to AtomFilms to see it?

My point is that much of the technical and aesthetic experimentation in mobile entertainment may already have taken place in a Webisodic format that never took hold on the medium for which it was intended. To go back to history, a lot of time and money gets spent trying to squeeze the last medium's successful formats into successes on the new medium. But it is just as likely that we should look to the failures of the previous medium when planning the next. D.W. Griffith was a terrible playwright and a worse actor until he discovered film directing and scenario writing. Milton Berle and Lucille Ball had mediocre film careers in '40s Hollywood until their talents flourished on early TV. PseudoTV and The Spot pretty much sucked on the Web, but...

Okay, there may be a hole or two in the theory.

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