Like its television counterpart Planet Earth, the movie Earth is partly a story of the coming of age of digital cinematography. Produced by the BBC Natural History Unit, both were filmed with high definition cameras at the urging of its co-production partners, the NHK and the Discovery Channel. Back in 2001, producer/
Cut to the digital delivery team at BBC Worldwide, the commercial arm of the BBC, which faced the challenge of creating a Web site that would reflect the movie's exquisite look, but do so on a much smaller screen, in multiple languages, with unpredictable bandwidth available in any given country. The result is the Love Earth Web site, whose five-language Web presence includes http://
The design was a collaboration between BBC Worldwide and the firm Poke New York, with BBC now fully responsible for the site's upkeep. "We’re about promoting the film but we’re also about expanding the interest that the film engenders?in wildlife, ecology, and the environment," said Duncan Swain, creative director, digital delivery, for BBC Worldwide. "The site becomes an experience in itself for people who have seen the film and want to take that interest further."
Web editor Vic Grimshaw said that initially, “BBC Worldwide wanted a Flash site reflective of the film's beauty to both support Earth's release around the world, and also produce revenue on its own. Over time, we’ve laid on lots of articles, galleries and a blog, with the idea of enticing people back to the site.” Grimshaw said that Love Earth has gone from a site dedicated to marketing the film “to something more living and thriving, editorially."
The BBC Worldwide digital team currently manages several Web sites, most of which are associated with a magazine. TopGear covers cars and motorcycles. Other "Lifestyle" sites correspond with magazines on food (www.
For Love Earth, the concept took a while to nail down. "We were very conscious of not wanting design elements that were shiny or reflective, that made people think this was something churned out by a machine," said Swain. "We wanted the feeling of a human handprint on what we did. So we went back to some old artistic techniques: collage, layering, texturing and even hand-drawn illustrations. We wanted to illuminate the fact that the site is about the natural world. What we didn't want is what is currently in vogue?which is more the iPhone interface look."
These days, Swain’s team is immersed in revamping the Web site for travel book publisher Lonely Planet, which the BBC acquired last October. In bridging print and digital content, he is on familiar turf, spending his career through 1998 in magazines. "At the moment I’m not convinced that magazine editors always understand the digital platform, so it’s difficult for them to make the right calls creatively, journalistically and functionally, to make Web sites work as they should. It’s a difficult partnership to get right.
"One of the most difficult things is that the Web is incredibly flexible, in that you can publish new content very quickly, but is also incredibly inflexible in that you have to adhere more strictly to a template. So although a magazine can, in theory, look completely different from one issue to the next, Web site changes must be designed and then coded." Swain says that magazine editors have struggled with this transition more than their newspaper counterparts because newspapers rely so much more on text.
Swain began his career with Dennis Publishing, whose titles include Maxim, Monkey, Octane and other testosterone-infused publications. A self-described "film geek," he's a big fan of www.
The agency side: Creating Love Earth
Love Earth was the first project for Poke New York [pokenewyork.
“We were trying to convey the idea that the Web is a much warmer, friendlier and inviting place than it seems to be,” said Tom Ajello, one of the office’s three founding partners. “So we thought what is more warm and friendly and inviting than allowing people to interact with us directly.” From that impulse came a home page (now a subpage) that acts as a virtual reception room. It features a live feed to the agency’s main room with a red couch with the firm’s mantra, “Don’t give up,” hanging above. Ring a doorbell and, if a “Poker” staff member has time, you can have a webcam-to-webcam meeting. Among the conversations that have transpired: job interviews, new business meetings, magazine interviews and conversations with loved ones. Staff have logged in after hours to find people hanging out. The downside, of course, is the nagging bell from curious visitors.
I spoke about the Love Earth project with Ajello and his fellow partner, Aaron Rutledge, the old fashion way: by phone.
- Why would BBC Worldwide, a London client, pick a New York agency?
Aaron: I think it’s that the U.
S. in general is closer to movie production and entertainment properties. One of the original challenges Duncan posed to us in framing the release of the Earth film was in making sure that the Web experience felt very cinematic.
Tom: The Planet Earth series, which we saw here in the U.
S. on the Discovery Channel, was must-watch viewing for anyone with an HDTV. It was a series as much about the new technology as it was about nature. So we knew that the Web site has to make you gasp in the same way that the TV show and movie do. It needs to have a big, wide open cinematic feel to it. Otherwise, it is just going to be another Web site with another place to download wallpaper, not something that pays homage to what the show and movie have to offer.
- But you were dealing with a computer monitor?a much “smaller” experience. How do you overcome that?
- Aaron: We had access to the original source material, which was a big help. By looking through that, we put together a storyboard, then thought about the best way to present this in a way that the experience feels more “high-def” than it actually was. We made some subtle design choices that reinforce that sense, specifically on the film portion of the site. For example, we made sure to keep the navigation towards the bottom, which is reminiscent of a Blu-ray or DVD menu.
- Tom: Some of this is subtle. There’s a Flash layer that serves as background to the wallpaper section of a balloon crossing a cloud forest. If you watch long enough, the hot air balloon travels from the right hand side of the screen all the way off the left. The effect is almost 3D, yet it doesn’t require a lot of bandwidth. Bandwidth was important because the site will ultimately be seen worldwide, translated into five languages.
s a heavy load for any Web site. Was localization a problem?
- Tom: It was a particular problem in Flash. So we made all of the text completely separate from the Flash experience. That separation made the text easy to edit, but made it more difficult to create a tightly designed site?because the text could explode or collapse, depending on the character length. Luckily, we had a big open landscape to work with, but as you can imagine, it was a daunting task.
- Aaron: We ended up working with the BBC’s content and translation team to help them understand some of the design restrictions. Say we had an area of content that was five lines long in English, but seven or eight lines long when translated into German. We would work with the localization team to get the translation down to five lines, maybe not with a word-for-word translation, but close enough so that the site kept its visual integrity.
- Another concern was how lower bandwidth might affect the user experience, making it less “cinematic.” If the video takes too long to start or the audio drops out, that affects how people perceive of content. So we put a lot of work into making sure that, regardless of your bandwidth, the video would start as soon as possible, even if that meant degrading the video quality.
- Both of these sound like challenges in designing for a worldwide audience.
- Tom: Exactly right. Ordinarily, you create an experience for a certain demographic with a single language and a specific technology base. Here, we had just the opposite sort of challenge: no set demographic, language, or bandwidth. So the challenge is to give a comparable experience no matter where you are in the world.
- Aaron: To help with bandwidth, we’ve partnered with Akamai to make sure that the videos are available from servers across the world.
- One of the most striking parts of the Love Earth site is the tracking of animals via a Google mash-up. Where did that idea come from?
- Tom: From almost the beginning, we knew we wanted to do something with tracking because one of the key features of the movie was its focus on three main characters?the elephant, polar bear and whale. Representatives of each species were tagged with a GPS, so this was a matter of porting the data onto a Google map. The idea helps transform the site, because you realize this isn’t just promotion for a movie.
- This data wasn’
t specifically part of the movie. Where did you find it?
- Aaron: We worked with the BBC and some of their original documentary makers who had access to some raw GPS tracking information. But due to conservation reasons, we didn’t want to make it available in real time. The last thing we would want is for someone to hop on a boat and actually find the whale because they knew what GPS coordinate it was. Or go out to Africa and find a specific elephant. Time-delaying turned out to be one of the bigger challenges. We ended up doing something that resembles how a TiVo operates?the tracks are recorded, and then played back on a delayed basis.
- Where did you go from there?
- Aaron: We looked at a couple of different mapping solutions and chose Google Map mostly because it was very well documented and supported rapid development. I applaud Google for making these tools widely available. We just loaded up the Google Maps API code, then worked with BBC’s technical team to store and secure the GPS data. From there, it’s just a matter of fetching the GPS coordinates recorded over time, time-delaying it, then translating the GPS coordinates into Google Map point coordinates. The satellite imagery, of course, was all provided by Google. We did create some of our own iconography to show the point-to-point travel of the different animals. And we ran into a complication where the polar bears, for example, were shown walking on water, because the satellite imagery of the ocean didn’t match the actual migration. So we had to do some time-shifting to make sure everything was in synch?but all-in-all, it wasn’t that difficult.
- Tom: This is one of the few examples I know of a mash-up being used on a commercial Web site. Most mash-ups are done by individuals who are more or less experimenting with the technology.
- What other technology did you use or consider for Love Earth?
- Tom: We experimented with HD video in Adobe Flash 9. We thought this was a big opportunity for us to create something in Flash that we thought hadn’t been done before.
- Aaron: We never used it, unfortunately. We did test full-screen Flash HD but the plugin was released midway during our development cycle, so it wasn't viable to launch with for BBC.
- What do you think the future is for HD on the Web?
Tom: It’s very bright. For example, Vimeo’s HD Channel [http://
www.] has several beautiful examples. vimeo. com/ hd
- Aaron: We are experimenting with HD cameras around the office, and then watching them on a wide screen with a Flash projector?and they look beautiful. This is just the sort of technology that we’re interested in. The goal is to figure out how to create a higher quality Web experience without tying up all the bandwidth with one specific video.
- Tom: For Love Earth, we combined medium definition video with 3D graphics, photography and Flash animation to give the feeling of a wide screen and movement. The creative problem is in orchestrating all the content together so that it feels like one big full HD experience. To me, that’s where the fun is.
- Aaron: Over the past year with Poke, we’ve noticed that the creative challenges are becoming increasingly more technical, while the technical problems need to be solved in creative ways. We’re trying to keep our head at that intersection, where the creative and technology meet.
- Love Earth faces the usual marketing site challenge: how do you keep people coming back?
- Tom: We discovered early on that people were interested in how the film was made: how long a cameraman would wait for a shot, the risks taken, and the equipment used. We decided that each of those stories needed to be told. The GPS tagging, the log book of updates from the tundra, and other dynamic elements are all there for that purpose. It creates organic content that search engines will see, as well as viral content that people will pass around. And the more of that kind of rich experience you put into a site, the more time people are going to spend with you. The question is always: what’s valuable? Most movie sites pretend the value is in sound and motion. We think it is partly that, but also a site’s educational value. We aim for somewhere in between.
- Aaron: You can see the same evolution in DVD extras, some of which contain not just trailers for the film and behind-the-scenes footage, but multiple commentaries and production notes. Over the last several years, consumers have come to expect that the brands they love will be there whenever and however people want them. Which means that consumers today are all a bit geekier, a bit smarter, than they were a decade ago.
- Which means there’
s a danger of underestimating the people who visit?
- Aaron: Many entertainment brands are guilty of just creating simple “shiny objects” for people rather than giving them valuable content. To me, that’s both a challenge and an amazing opportunity.
- That may not be a technological breakthrough, but a philosophical one.
- Tom: Exactly. I think the philosophical problem is the harder to overcome.