For more than a decade, I’ve been involved with the Digital Content Lab at the American Film Institute, as both an advisor and supporter. The DCL, as it came to be known, was where Apple‘s Quicktime technology was launched, among other technologically important milestones. A recent winner of the Technical Achievement Award at the Machinima festival, the DCL was responsible for the deployment of such groundbreaking tech as the mobile interactive apps for WARPED, the Planet Illogica digital artist support network, and the development of the Federally supported ITVS initiative (funding a wide swath of indie films), among others.

This has been a relatively discreet enterprise, known and loved by all of us in the digital media and entertainment industries, but not much of a self-promoting organization, at least when compared to many other non-profits in the entertainment and media industries. This seems, ultimately, to have been to the organization’s disadvantage, as the AFI DCL will apparently be closing its doors shortly, to ostensibly go in to “hiatus” – a direct result of funding shortfalls.

I won’t digress too much into the whys and wherefores of this situation, only to suggest that – like many non-profits today – I suspect that the AFI Board kept focusing too much on large sponsors, and too little on grassroots individual donor channels. The game of fundraising has changed, but for some reason many of the players are still way behind the ball…Social network fundraising demands a commitment, and I wonder whether that commitment was made in support of staff efforts to adopt new models for revenue generation…

When I think of the extraordinary influence that the DCL has had over our industry’s technological advancements, I wonder whether such undeniably admirable enterprises as the ETC or IPG Emerging Media Lab will be able to step in to the breach left by the DCL. These other organizations, impressive as they are in their respect, carry with them their own agenda that inevitably color the value of their offerings. Even though the DCL presented one or two projects of less than astonishing creative, business, or technical merit, the lab’s overall output was nothing short of groundbreaking, game changing, paradigm shifting, and ultimately socially impactful. Under the guidance of Nick De Martino, Anna Marie Piersimoni, Marcia Zellers and, most recently, Suzanne Stefanac, the AFI DCL has left an indelible mark on multiplatform landscapes of entertainment and media production and content delivery.

Those of us who have had the pleasure of attending DigiFest, The Digital Content Festival, the Enhanced TV Workshop, or other DCL gatherings, retain fond memories of all that has been accomplished there (If you would like to share some of your memories, feel free to leave your thoughts on their Facebook Page, at “The AFI Digital Content Lab”).

For a fully interactive roster of the AFI Digital Content Lab’s projects over the years, click here

Sources say that there still remain efforts to keep the Institute’s annual DigiFest event afloat. In the meantime, expect an official announcement about the Lab in the next few weeks. Who knows, perhaps this article and others will encourage people to step in and save the day..? Stranger things are happening.

—UPDATE—2:00pm, Friday, March 11—

Here is a partial list of AFI DCL projects, since 1999:

1999…………………………………………………………………………………
• ACADEMY AWARDS (Telecast)
• EDDIE FILES (PBS)
• EXPEDITION 360 (Discovery Europe)
• FROM A WHISPER TO A SCREAM: THE HISTORY OF IRISH ROCK (A&E)
• LIQUID STAGE: THE LURE OF SURFING (PBS)
• News Center 4 NIGHTBEAT (KRON-TV)
• SPACE STATION ODYSSEY (Discovery Networks)
• TALK SOUP (E! Entertainment)

2000…………………………………………………………………………………
• AMERICAN FAMILY (PBS)
• BLIND DATE (Universal Worldwide Television)
• DAY ONE (Granada Television, Granada Entertainment)
• EXTREME RIDES (Discovery Channel, Discovery Channel)
• MUSIC FROM THE INSIDE OUT (PBS)
• PERFECT CRIME (Wegelius Television [Denmark])
• ROMAN EMPIRE (PBS)
• THIS FAR BY FAITH (PBS)

2001…………………………………………………………………………………
• ACCORDION DREAMS (PBS)
• ARLI$$ (HBO)
• CALLAWAY GOLF, RULE 35 (Syndicated)
• CNN HEADLINE NEWS (Turner Broadcasting System Inc)
• THE DAILY SHOW WITH JON STEWART (Comedy Central)
• THE EUKANUBA TOURNAMENT OF CHAMPIONS (Animal Planet)
• THE NEW AMERICANS (PBS)
• PEOPLE LIKE US: SOCIAL CLASS IN AMERICA (PBS)

2002…………………………………………………………………………………
• AFI LIFE ACHIEVEMENT AWARD (USA Network)
• ARTHUR (PBS)
• I LOVE LUCY (TV Land)
• MATTERS OF RACE (PBS)
• P.O.V. (PBS)
• SESAME STREET (PBS & Noggin)
• THE BEST OF (The Food Network)
• TURNER CLASSIC MOVIES (Turner Broadcasting System)

2003…………………………………………………………………………………
• BATTLESTAR GALACTICA (SciFi Channel/Vivendi Universal Games)
• BLOOMBERG TELEVISION (syndicated)
• CELEBRITY MOLE II (ABC Television Network)
• IMX – INTERACTIVE MUSIC EXCHANGE (FUSE Networks)
• INDEPENDENT LENS (PBS)
• KCET/KQED ON-AIR FUNDRAISING (PBS)
• KIM POSSIBLE (Disney Channel)
• WASHINGTON REDSKINS GAME DAY (FOX 5 [WTTG]

2004…………………………………………………………………………………
• AMERICAN EXPERIENCE: CASTRO’S CUBA (WGBH/PBS)
• DINOSAUR HIGHWAY (The Science Channel)
• DORA THE EXPLORER (Nickelodeon)
• LIVING FOR THE WEEKEND (Scripps Networks)
• THE L WORD (Showtime)
• HIJACK (MTV Networks)
• QUEER EYE FOR THE STRAIGHT GUY (Bravo)
• TV411 (The Adult Literacy Media Alliance/PBS)

2005…………………………………………………………………………………
• DoD PERSONALS (Simmons Lathan Media Group)
• CONSIDER THIS… (LACMA)
• HISTORY DETECTIVES ROAD TRIP (Oregon Public Broadcasting)
• MOMENT IN TIME: WWII (A&E/History Channel)
• MTV NEWS ON OVERDRIVE (MTV)
• MYSTERY ONLINE THEATRE (Telemundo)
• NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CHANNEL 2 (National Geographic)
• REUTERS ONE (Reuters)
• TOYO (Zodiac Gaming)
• WORLD WRESTLING ENTERTAINMENT (WWE)

2006…………………………………………………………………………………
• AIM SHOW PRODUCER (AOL)
• LAW & ORDER: MOTIVE. MEANS. OPPORTUNITY (NBC Universal)
• BEN 10 MEGASERIES (Cartoon Network)
• E2: GREEN MAP FOR LIVING (kontentreal)
• BUZZ (Cynergy Films)
• MC EVERYWHERE (Music Choice)
• SíTV Pure (SíTV)
• UNLOCKING MOVIE ASSETS (CASABLANCA) (AFI/Georgia Tech)
• XXXL (Hit Start)

2007…………………………………………………………………………………
• BRAVO DVR AD PLAY (Bravo)
• CITIZEN NOW (NOW on PBS)
• LEAVING THE GAME (Method, Inc.)
• FILMOCRACY (ITVS)
• PLAYERS (MTV, EA, Mekanism)

2008…………………………………………………………………………………
• VIEWING PARTY (ABC)
• WARPED ROADIE (EarthEcho International)
• HOOKING UP (HBO)
• PLANET ILLOGICA ARTIST IN RESIDENCE PROGRAM (Planet Illogica)

2009…………………………………………………………………………………
• ENVISOR (One Economy)
• FUTUREFEED (ITVS)
• INTERVIEW PROJECT (DavidLynch.com)
• LEONARDO DICAPRIO FOUNDATION CAMPAIGN (Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation)

This year’s Digifest, produced and presented by the American Film Institute, was a well-attended smorgasbord of the innovative, socially conscious, imaginative, and awkward. Now in its 11th year, the AFI’s Digital Content lab is a vital futurist incubator for the content industry (more than just film and TV, the DCL incubates projects and initiatives across a variety of content platforms, dedicated to ensuring that the storyteller has fullest leverage of their vision).

This year’s Digifest was opened to any and all, with free tickets made available for the main presentations, held at the Mann’s Grauman Chinese Theater in Hollywood. The location was appropriate, not only because its size  allowed for the larger attendance, nor simply due to its state-of-the-art playout equipment, but also because of its storied history as a film house (dating back to the 1920’s).

It was interesting (on a personal and professional note) that Digifest 2009 included a presentation by Technicolor’s Tom Burton. Tom and I worked together while I was CMO at Thomson (parent company to Technicolor), and his presentation here was a great education in how complex film-making really is, and how it is about so much more than just the business of making money from the fans:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/v/sowreI5LnWQ]

(self-promoting side note: that’s me he’s subtly albeit generously acknowledging at the 18:40 mark, when he refers to the “research division”, which was one of the areas at Thomson I was charged with integrating more closely in with the Technicolor business units).

From film restoration to another form of archiving, Digifest showcased the work of Public Radio station KUOW, as part of the MQ2 project. Part of this project has used crowdsourcing to capture the essence and history of neighborhoods across America:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/v/Vmsd9EmnxjI]

Digifest obviously showcased innovative new projects, as well. These included ScrollMotion’s fascinating, albeit not quite ready for primetime, “First Things Last”:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/v/IH9G-misVi0]

The event also was site of the world premiere of Mass Animation’s first piece of work, “Live Music”:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H_2NcijwPWE]

Worth noting: Mass Animation just launched their newest project a couple of days ago:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z4QGFaL0iQQ]

Digifest 2009’s innovation showcase included an interesting but somewhat messy presentation by Naked Sky Entertainment, demonstrating the unmistakable potential of AR (Augmented Reality):

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/v/NvcCiqxatvQ]

Giving Naked Sky due credit, the team had very little time to put their presentation together, but I could not help wishing that they had thought through the variety of potential applications of this technology, and seen more clearly where the obstacles and opportunities lie. I believe that AR will be, along with real-time news sharing, one of the most talked about media evolutions of 2010, and so I am frustrated when it is not given the most compelling presentation possible. Another AR demonstrator at Digifest, Trigger, showed some of their work on “District 9“, and again I was disappointed by the lack of true innovation, given that such a compelling tech was part of the production.

Presentations from both days of Digifest opened my eyes to the nature of my frustration. on Day One, The Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation gave another somewhat stilted presentation (mitigated here *a little* by some good editing by AFI):

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/v/eQhJUt4LC7I]

The presentation gave no sense of what it was or intended to be, and was somewhat saved by the impassioned, and far more clear-sighted, subsidiary presentations of Global Green USA, Treepeople, and IFAW.

On Day 2, The Manobi Development Foundation gave a thrilling and inspiring presentation (even though it was largely pre-packaged):

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/v/7rpt0AXxjDI]

The difference was simple – in any case where the presenter was showcasing a project driven by a dominant focus on the technology, there existed a certain lack of direction. When the project was largely about a well-conceived creative, political, or social objective (as opposed to an attempt to tap in to the shiny attraction of emerging tech), the power of that project came across impressively.

My critiques notwithstanding, I must acknowledge that all the presenters demonstrated a shared conviction in the power of storytelling and digital platforms, as foundation stones for social growth and community building. It did not matter whether the goal was social change or pure entertainment. The common thread remained an acknowledgment of the need to continue experimenting with the nature of storytelling.

The AFI’s Digital Content Lab was originally the brainchild of Nick DeMartino, and for the last few years has been driven by the tireless efforts of the impressive and charming Suzanne Stefanac.

I sincerely hope that, as Digifest 2010 begins to build up steam, the projects that will be showcased will be borne of, and driven by, creative and social considerations. The technologies that facilitate and assist in the realization of those considerations are vital and compelling, but they should never dominate the vision of those who have chosen to put them to use.

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[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZKrhokUqKPE]

For two days this week, the world-famous Mann Chinese Theatre in Hollywood will be hosting AFI DIGIFEST, a veritable smorsgabord of new media and cross-platform experiments and productions in storytelling and audience engagement. You might still be able to snag a seat at this great peek in to the near future of content creation and interactive entertainment (see link at bottom of this post).

I’ve been supporting the AFI’s Digital Content Lab for the past 10 or so years, and for good reason: This is where Apple’s Quicktime technology was launched, and the Lab was winner of last year’s technical achievement award at the Machinima festival, responsible for the deployment of such groundbreaking tech as the mobile interactive apps for WARPED, the Planet Illogica digital artist support network, and the development of the Federally supported ITVS initiative (funding a wide swath of indie films), among others.

Right now, the Lab is working on a variety of very interesting projects with groups including The Leonardo diCaprio Foundation, DavidLynch.com, and the whole team that created “Africa Diary” (led by LM Kit Carson). These projects, and more, will be showcased at this year’s DigiFest.

Some highlights to be seen at DigiFest 2009:

  • a social network and proposed marketing plan for INTERVIEW PROJECT PRESENTED BY DAVIDLYNCH.COM;
  • a proposed online strategy for engaging youth in a series of relevant environmental action challenges for the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation;
  • a mobile application that provide an interactive past-to-future timeline for an innovative ITVS cross-platform micro-series;
  • an interactive mentoring environment for One Economy that encourages students from low-income families to learn more about science as a career;
  • a MOBILE STORY MAKER session with longtime filmmaker L.M. Kit Carson, who shot the deeply moving micro-series AFRICA DIARY using a Nokia mobile phone as camera. The series will soon air on the Sundance Channel.
  • 2012, dramatic visual effects demonstrated by Digital Domain;
  • DISTRICT 9, a behind-the scenes look at games and an augmented reality application created by production house Trigger;
  • LIVE MUSIC, a 3D animation pieced together from contributions by thousands of animators from around the world, masterminded by Mass Animation’s Yair Landau, former vice-chair of Sony Pictures;
  • URBAN WOLF, a surveillance camera-based micro-series drama by Parisian director Laurent Touil Tartour;
  • ESCAPE FROM CITY 17, an adept meld of machinima and live action created by the multi-talented Purchase Brothers for less than $500;
  • MANOBI, an innovative mobile phone application that has helped raise the standard of living for Senegalese farmers and fishermen;
  • FIRST THINGS LAST, a dynamic and visual storytelling application for the iPhone created by ScrollMotion;
  • NAKED SKY ENTERTAINMENT, a surprising look at what our collective augmented reality future may look like a year from now;
  • THE CORNER: 23RD AND UNION, an evocative sound, image, phone, web, and public installation created as part of Maker’s Quest;
  • ROUTES, a documentary, narrative thriller, and game about genetics for Britain’s Channel 4 that attracted more than 2 million gameplays;
  • MR. HULOT’S HOLIDAY, a restoration of Jacques Tati’s 1953 whimsical tale presented by my old company Thomson.

Here is the link to register, but hurry, as space is limited.

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