It's a heartwarming stat: 2.6 million views in 14 days. Those are numbers that could push you toward viral immortality. Even more impressive: They belong to a web series that, as of July, hadn't shot a single frame.
The show is “RCVR”, whose very title is just the first in a series of web-related puzzles. (Try saying it out loud.) It's a story told from the point of view of a government agent of dubious authorization who's been sent to scrub away memories of extraterrestrial encounters. The show unfolds in eight-minute episodes, released on YouTube by gaming channel Machinima.
The man behind "RCVR" is transmedia guru David Van Eyssen. A painter-turned-filmmaker whose credits include producing BMW's online film series, his passion for the show's mythology is palpable. Along with his writing partner, Brian Horiuchi, and a team of web developers, Van Eyssen has developed multiple viral sites that complement the YouTube series. These offshoots also allow the creators of “RCVR” to cleverly acknowledge the partnership of Motorola, whose technologies feature prominently in some of the hidden treasures that fans around the world have already begun to unlock.
The newest episode went live October 6; here's the RCVR YouTube channel. (We've embedded the first episode at the bottome of the piece.)
Van Eyssen sat down with indieWIRE to discuss the production of “RCVR,” the nature of an emerging fanbase and his own place in the wild world of web content.
You started working with online content in 2001. Was this an idea that you had even back then?
That’s about when it first started. I’ve been interested in the metaphysical aspect of space exploration and what it represents, because I was a child of the late '60s, early '70s. I remember being woken up in the middle of the night and my father putting me in front of the moon landing as a tiny little child. I realize that our species, even though it feels alone, has this desire not to be, to find its cousin or its brother or its sister somewhere in the universe. That deep and powerful need is basically the engine of exploration and discovery.
People can respond to what they like and don’t on an immediate basis. How have you navigated that element?
I thought it was going to be a terrifying experience. But the other side is we’ve had an opportunity to communicate almost instantaneously with our audience. That two-way street, that enfranchisement of the audience, I think you have to embrace it. I’ve read studiously the thousands and thousands of comments. It’s like sitting in an enormous focus group and paying attention to everything that’s being said, but also taking the bird’s-eye point of view and being able to see trends. That’s really what’s fascinating about the Internet, the way that it moves as an organism. It helps me understand what I’m doing right, what they’re liking and not understanding in real time. So what began as a frightening prospect has actually turned into a dialogue. We have a team who does this as well in the guise of the Alvin Peters identity. But I like to do it myself sometimes, too. I have various disguised voices that allow me to drop in and say things. From time to time I answer them and I lead them. Sometimes, somebody will get something egregiously wrong and I feel I must explain. They don’t know who I am because I have a different identity online. But I’m able to go directly and talk to them, peer-to-peer, to create a community of communication between me, the product and them. That’s the love triangle that exists on the web that doesn’t in any other medium.
So, even though you have this grand mythology planned out, you’re finding areas for getting input from people. They’re not actively directing the narrative, but there are opportunities for you to guide them.
Episode 1 hasn’t even been online for half a month. Did you think it would get to a million views this quickly?
Honestly... yes. I’d like to do more than that. I feel like there are hundreds of millions of people potentially sitting on the end of this pipe now who don’t know that “RCVR” exists. There’s every reason to believe there’s a demand at the end of that pipe. Those people aren’t sitting passively in front of a television. Some of them will watch TV, but also go on the web. A lot of them are pad/mobile device/laptop/desktop. That’s their world. They’ve disconnected cable, except for Internet connectivity, a long time ago. I know I did. I watch all the shows that I love on Netflix or iTunes. I’m not connected into the real-time, programmed world.
It’s not appointment viewing anymore.
It isn’t. It’s by my appointment. Which I think is the way God intended it. I’m hopeful that people way outside of the Machinima concentration will see this and talk about it and enjoy it and see that there’s an alternative way to experience story. Perhaps, in these very short-form pieces, there’s a bit of pleasure. As opposed to saying it’s an arbitrary hour or half-hour show, we say that one of the interesting things is to break at eight minutes and then to string a bit together and have something extended.
How long did it take you to come up with that final episode length?
In the early days of developing content for computers and for the Internet, I had a theory that, by the time my rear end itched and I felt I needed to move, that was the duration. It was an intuitive thing, but it had to do with the ratio of the resolution of the image to the duration of the experience. So a picture of 640x480, I could sit and watch for six to eight minutes. As the resolution improves duration increases, which is why we can now watch hours of content at 1080p on bigger screens. Now that we’ve really broken through the barrier of resolution, a laptop allows you to sit and watch for hours. People do it all the time, but they didn’t in the beginning. So that number harks back to where I was in the early days. A lot of people online have been saying, “Can we please have them longer?” If the economics permit, we will.
There seems to be one shot that stands out in each episode. Is the visual style something you see as a point of entry, not just the content itself?
Very much. I think when we talk about the “ghettoization” of digital media, one of the criticisms is “It’s not as well made as...” and then you fill in the medium: there’s television, film. I don’t want people to be able to say that. I want to come out on a level playing field where story, performance, visual design and cinematography are given equal weight by us as filmmakers as they would if we were working in another medium. We’re only constrained by budget and time. We don’t think about delivering this as a series of headshots or close-ups because we’re on the web and the screen is smaller. A lot of the comments that we’ve got back have said that this is too good for YouTube, it’s too good for the web. My response is, “No. This is what you deserve. You’ve been waiting a long time. Let’s start making things for you like this.”
Machinima has billed this as “epic.” Was that a word that was in your mind when you set out to do this project?
I love the idea that you can create something on what is basically the smallest screen in the media universe, but not be limited in your scale. I was a painter originally. What you learn about scale in painting is that the picture doesn’t have to be big to have enormous scale. It’s the size of the brush that can change scale. You can be sitting in front of a painting the size of a book and the scale can be dwarfing and you can be in front of an enormous painting and feel like you’re in front of something tiny. That ability to shift scale was really exciting, and from a storytelling point as well. There’s some irony in them calling it epic, but yes, I hope we reach it. Especially in a sci-fi story, you’ve got to be epic at a certain moment. You don’t have a choice. What we’ve tried to do is be intimate, and by turns, epic. And I think that seems to be working.
It’s inevitable that some people will compare “RCVR” to existing properties. Is that something that you embrace as a point of entry for viewers or something you try to transcend?
Everyone’s going to say that this is “The X-Files.” It really isn’t “The X-Files.” They started off at a certain point and left after a certain point. I think we have picked up where it left off, but we’re taking it to a whole another place. Someone had a great comment online which was that this is “Twin Peaks” meets “X-Files.” We think it’s an enormous compliment.
It’s true of every show on network or cable television today, that the best of them have their predecessors. It’s just that they only took it to a certain point. I think that’s what art, what human culture is about. You need those shows to exist for people to have a reference point. I don’t think of this as an extension of that, but I think of the community of interest that those shows built, and we are talking to those same people. There are also intervening years between the end of those series and now when the birth of interactivity took place. The interactive components and the distribution mechanism of our show is completely different.
So we have to respond to that audience and their needs, not just sitting down at 7:00 on a Thursday night and seeing the next episode. We don’t work that way. In fact, our audience seems to be watching Episode 3, then 1, then 2, then 1 again. The sequencing is very strange. Building the interactivity around it allows the audience to get a grasp into something that few shows have been able to do, because often the interactivity is an afterthought. We hope that more people, in conversations like this, will be driven toward Alvin Peters, Project RCVR, because we want them to embrace that experience as well.
Little by little, we’re starting to see sites pop up that are solely devoted to web series and exclusively online content. Have you interfaced with other people who are trying to build shows that may not be on this scale, but in that same spirit?
Recently I did a screening and I got to meet a lot of other creators. I kind of feel like their godfather because I’ve been doing this since they were very little. [laughs] And I love that they exist. I’ve been waiting for them to come. I sat under the Christmas tree and wished for them. Now they’re here and they’re making it. I’m incredibly excited and I want to help them if I can. I see “RCVR” as opening the floodgates if it works because they’re going to have a medium to work in. I had to convince people for a decade that we should do this. If this helps convince those people that it’s the right decision, then the lives of those other people who want to create for it are going to be that little bit easier.
In every medium, when those sea changes have occurred, people have come along and created for those platforms in unique ways. We’ve seen it in television, we’ve seen it in movies and I think we’re going to see it here. There are going to be all sorts of brilliant, inspired creative people who are going to follow along. There’s a whole generation around me that needs to be helped because there are too many forces working against that evolution. I think it’s a natural evolution that has to happen.
Here's the first episode: