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How crowdsourcing harnesses the power of the world wide web

Crowdsourcing is a relatively recent phenomenon — a means by which creative projects are performed by networked individuals whose geographic location on the planet is entirely irrelevant. If a contributor can log onto the internet, upload a file, and participate in an online forum, he or she has met the key requirements to participate. Taking advantage of bandwidth improvements for accessing the internet, social networking platform advances, and growing acceptance of cloud computing, crowdsourcing has gained a growing body of advocates and each new project completed serves as a further proof of concept.

With applications in film, graphic design, music, photography, and other creative fields, the remunerative aspects of crowdsourcing still need some further consideration, but no one can deny the approach is gaining ground in the creative world. This technique for digital media creation has roots in open source application development, but current uses are moving in entirely new directions with far-reaching commercial implications.

Amateur photographers have provided an alternative to expensive stock photography through web outlets such as stockxpert and iStockPhoto. Creative services have been turned over to the crowd at crowdSPRING, which acts as a broker between companies seeking design services and tens of thousands of designers seeking projects.

There is even a tee-shirt company, Threadless Tees, that uses designs submitted over the internet and then voted on by the community. The most popular selections are manufactured and added to their online catalog. Threadless has recently partnered with Twitter to print shirts with outstanding Tweets (as determined by voting), such as “In space no one can hear you tweet.” The wisdom (and financial resources) of the crowd can also be used to fund projects. SellaBand unites artists and fans, providing an online platform for music fans to fund album production by those independent artists deemed worthy of support. So far, 21 albums have been released in this unique manner and 33 independent artists have reached their funding targets.

Is it possible to produce a theatrical-quality animated short film using a range of animators — from novice to professional — spread around the globe? Until recently, no one really knew. A groundbreaking project by Yair Landau, under the auspices of his newly formed company, Mass Animation, pushed the boundaries of the crowdsourcing model with the completion of a five-minute animated film, Live Music, which will be submitted for Academy Award consideration. Built on a platform designed by Mass Animation that is hosted on Facebook, the Live Music project drew in more than a hundred animators – ranging from rank amateurs to seasoned professionals — working in a special version of Autodesk® Maya® to produce short animations for the work. Approximately 17,000 Facebook fans actively reviewed animated segments and voted for favorites as the work progressed. The final film (color balanced, processed, and rendered by ReelFX Animation Studios, based in Dallas, TX) was presented at SIGGRAPH earlier this month and will be in theaters this fall.

Ann Marie Calhoun and Steve Vai ready to go during the Capitol Records recording session for Live Music.
Ann Marie Calhoun and Steve Vai ready to go during the Capitol Records recording session for Live Music.
The climactic kiss between Riff, the electric guitar, and Vanessa, the violin, at the conclusion of Live Music.
The climactic kiss between Riff, the electric guitar, and Vanessa, the violin, at the conclusion of Live Music.

The production took place over a remarkably short span of time. The project launched in November 2008. In a few weeks, Landau, former president of Sony Pictures Digital, built the collaboration platform on Facebook, enlisted supporters and talent, created a storyboard and set up recording sessions at Capital Records for guitarist extraordinaire Steve Vai and rock violinist Ann Marie Calhoun, backed by an orchestra, to create the music for the animation.

Animators began submitting their work in December and the open portion of the project continued until the end of January 2009. February was devoted to refinement of the shots and the first couple of weeks in March were dedicated to color and lighting. By the middle of May, a completed version of Live Music was available. Some screenings have been taking place at film festivals, such as the LA Shorts Fest, and selective theaters, including The Laemmle in Santa Monica, with favorable audience responses indicating this unique approach to moviemaking has struck a positive chord among moviegoers. The full theatrical release will be in November 2009.

The web is a fluid place and it’s completely impossible to predict how crowdsourcing will evolve. Animators involved in the Mass Animation project were compensated for their work, with the winner of each week’s community voting for the most popular shot receiving a Dell computer with the new Intel® Core i7™ processor. Everyone whose work was chosen for the film received a cash award and film credit.

In other venues, contributors to crowdsourcing projects sometimes receive marginal compensation at best. The balance between exploitation and opportunity can be fragile and unsteady. But, there is no doubt that the combination of technology, broadband internet access, and creative individuals using computers in far-flung regions of the world will dramatically impact music, movies, art, and other forms of communication in years to come.

Yair Landau
Yair Landau

Interview with Yair Landau

(President at Mass Animation)

Do you see crowdsourcing as a model that will dramatically change independent filmmaking? In what areas do you think it will have the most impact in the near future?
This is just a first step in crowdsourced storytelling. This model will have the most impact in the near future in the gaming space where there is a strong desire for more content and more fan engagement with the game. We are in discussions with a two major game developers to create crowdsourced content (both in-game animatics and cinematics).

Now that you’ve had time to reflect on the process, what do you see changing as you launch the next Mass Animation project? Do you have any details you can share?
We are exploring opening up more aspects of the animation experience to artists. Looking at modeling, rigging, color, lighting and even design in our future projects. Also, we are interested in simplifying the application itself – to make it more accessible to viewers and voters. As to next projects, as noted in #1, we are in discussions with several major game developers (expect to announce one of these projects shortly), exploring other shorts and have begun development of a feature length film based on the Live Music characters.

A statement in the report from the UN Millennium Project, the 2009 State of the Future, described the web as “the most powerful force for globalisation, democratisation, economic growth, and education in history.” Is this too grandiose a statement or does it capture your feelings?
Totally agree with this statement. In 2000, while speaking on a panel, I said that the internet is the greatest medium for distribution of entertainment content ever created. This I still believe to be true. It is certainly the most powerful vehicle for the democratization of creativity around the planet. We developed our music-based love story with an eye towards global participation and our expectations were exceeded. We worked with artists from 17 different countries on our initial five-minute short, Live Music. Armed with just a standard desktop PC, internet access and passion, people around the world can now do so much more in creating the new generation of stories. And, they will.

Track the latest developments of Mass Animation and view clips from the project on Facebook: www.facebook.com/massanimation.

The WIRED article by Jeff Howe that first focused attention on the crowdsourcing phenomenon back in 2006 can still be found at www.wired.com/wired/archive/14.06/crowds.html. His book, Crowdsourcing: Why the Power of the Crowd is Driving the Future of Business, explores both the positive and negative aspects of crowdsourcing.

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