| Brooke Burgess is a techno-storytelling evangelist raging against
the 90 second narrative. Since 2001, Burgess has been genre-busting
with his epic 12-hour, 24 Chapter, 57-part online saga Broken
Saints, which was recently released on DVD. Mindjack writer
Melanie McBride caught up with Burgess at Toronto's Flash
in the Can festival to talk about long form Flash and the way
of this Broken Saints warrior.
McBride: In your presentation at this year's Flash in the Can, you
evangelized about the need for longer form flash narratives. How
does Broken Saints speak to this need and why should we embrace
longer flash forms?
Burgess: Deep down I had a feeling that people were getting
tired of shallow stories and half-hearted narratives - they were
longing for something meaningful and profound to experience online,
as opposed to 90 second cartoons about defecating puppies and exploding
breasts. When we first started doing scene tests with the software,
our friends and peers all said the same things: "there's not enough
action," "nobody will have the patience," and "any linear content
over three minutes on the web is doomed to obscurity."
So that was what we had to reconcile with this format. How do you
engage viewers in a medium where they've already been trained for
immediate gratification? And this vector of thought runs almost
diametrically opposed to compelling classical narratives; because
the only way you can do a story any lasting justice, which is by
generating a deep emotional resonance with your audience through
the characters and themes portrayed within, is to craft the tale
over TIME. So that's the ante we put on the table with Broken Saints.
Normal Flash animations clock in at 1-3 minutes? Then we'll push
for 20. The average online series lasts for 6-12 episodes, with
maybe enough running time for one 90-minute compilation on disc?
Then we'll give a deep nod to traditional forms, and make ours 24
episodes - containing 57 parts and nearly 12 HOURS of storytelling,
which is right up there with a season of television or a lengthy
graphic novel run. The majority of online entertainment pushes for
quick hits of sex, violence, and toilet humour? Then we'll proudly
raise our middle fingers and tell a sprawling yarn about love, fate,
redemption and sacrifice in the looming techno-spiritual age.
Maybe it just boils down to a basic belief that all storytellers
- from the original shamans dancing around tribal fires to modern-day
yarn spinners - have a powerful responsibility to affect the way
we look at ourselves, our beliefs, and our world ... hopefully for
the betterment of us all.
Broken Saints features wide ranging influences- from Eastern and
Western spirituality to Sci-Fi and pop culture.
So many things, to be completely honest. Everything from classic
literature to film, TV and comics. The most obvious influences were
things like David Lynch's Twin Peaks, Patrick McGoohan's
The Prisoner, Alan
Moore's graphic novel epic WATCHMEN; the music of Pink Floyd
and Radiohead; Terry Gilliam (Brazil, 12 Monkeys),
Stanley Kubrick (A Clockwork Orange, 2001), and David
Lynch (Wild at Heart, The Elephant Man). These brilliant
minds kept my creative fires stoked!
On the more academic and philosophical fronts, it's a broad spectrum
of thought: Platonic; Jungian; Taoist; Hindu; Judeo-Christian; Muslim;
and Gnostic. It's archetypal myth with a strong thread of Joseph
Campbell's The Hero's Journey.
What did you take (or leave behind) from your time at Electronic
Broken Saints, we essentially had NO cash reserves, and -
unlike the gaming industry - we hadn't foreseen the double-edged
sword of internet infamy; the more popular you get, the more
likely you are to go broke!
After several years in the trenches at EA, I got tired of cranking
out the same franchises without really delving into the power of
classic storytelling structure and smarter narratives. Unlike your
average mass-market interactive experience, we weren't doing a graphics
and effects showcase and then tacking a story on top - we were using
minimal skill and spartan tools to craft an original narrative and
the only way to keep folks hooked was to not flag at all in the
With Broken Saints, we essentially had NO cash reserves, and -
unlike the gaming industry - we hadn't foreseen the double-edged
sword of internet infamy; the more popular you get, the more likely
you are to go broke! Because hosting was still relatively expensive
at the time, and because we were getting some serious hit tallies
from media and fan-related stories, we were spending thousands of
dollars a month on bandwidth fees. This almost killed the project.
Broken Saints was fairly anti-commercial/anti-capitalist in nature,
and we didn't want to 'soil' our little cyber oasis with ads, corporate
sponsors, or subscription services - again, a philosophy unheard
of in the mainstream interactive industry. Instead, after swallowing
our collective pride, we asked our fans for help. Through an online
drive and a series of local fundraising concerts, we were blessed
with over $15K for the saintly cause, and were able to finish the
online series in the summer of 2003 and just break even. That wouldn't
have been possible without the emotional connection that our serial
story and online community atmosphere had created.
Review: Broken Saints
by Tony Walsh
genre-busting Broken Saints webisodes spanned 24 chapters
over three years, scooping up thousands of rabid fans and
millions of viewers. Broken Saint's motion-graphic story spins
gritty contemporary fantasy, liberally injected with scenes
of grim horror, and intertwines the lives of four main characters:
Raimi, a disenfranchised tech wizard and hacker; Oran, an
Iraqi mercenary abused by military scientists; Kamimura, a
Japanese priest plagued by a tragic past; and Shandala, a
mysterious orphan who begins to experience ominous visions.
Each character's rocky journey plays out individually until
paths cross, resulting in harmony, discord, and irrevocable
bonds. Fate demands their presence in a small Californian
city, home not only to the BIOCOM corporation (a biotech/telco),
but VALHALLA (a top-secret military installation). Walking
around and within these oppressive shadows, the Broken Saints
suffer and toil in an attempt to bring about the salvation
by a 4-man Canadian team, Broken Saints has outgrown its internet-exclusive
appeal, and is finally available as a 4-DVD set containing
700 minutes of footage. The atmospheric series was practically
rebuilt from scratch, with upgraded artwork, a retooled soundtrack,
and voice-acting-a first for Broken Saints. William B Davis
of X-Files infamy joins other known actors lending their talent
to the captivating Dolby 5.1 Digital soundtrack. The addition
of top-notch narration and dramatic characterizations takes
the Broken Saints epic from flitting between motion-graphics
and comic books to flirting with Hollywood stardom.
the first three chapters of Broken Saints for free at CBC's
Through Flash, Broken Saints has transported the graphic novel into
the interactivity of PC and the home-cinema of DVD. How would you
describe the "Broken Saints genre"?
Considering this - that audiences and critics need some sort
of label in order to more effectively relate to what you're doing
- I wanted to coin something that encompassed the major technical
and artistic themes of the work. So out of that examination - and
the clear fusion of graphic novels and simple 'filmic' presentation
in Broken Saints - the "Cinematic Literature" genre was born. It's
not necessarily the slickest sounding of genres, but it carries
a certain pedigree and thematic gravity that 'animated comic book'
never could. And now, with the storage and features available on
the DVD format, we've truly been able to push the work more squarely
into the 'cinematic' camp.
How did Flash influence the pace of presentation in terms of story
As with most things regarding the creation of Broken Saints, it
was always a case of playing to our strengths and reigning in our
weaknesses within the medium. Were we great animators? Not at all,
and our team was far too small and the scope of the story too mammoth
for us to consider a fully articulated presentation. Did we have
file size limits? Absolutely. We were bursting at the virtual seams,
and often had to split chapters into parts or 'Acts' to accommodate
all the essential art and effects work, not to mention the challenges
of sound design. Were there weak spots technically? Certainly! Initially,
we tried to cater to slower machines and reduce the size of the
viewing window in order to offer a presentation with fewer framerate
hiccups. Then, we realized that Flash played at different speeds
on Macs and PCs, and we didn't have the available space to 'stream'
the majority of our timeless.
With these chinks in our armour, we tailored the BS experience
to what we COULD do well, given the circumstances. We couldn't animate
well, but Andrew could draw, and Ian and I had strong cinematic
sensibilities that influenced the camera movements and layer shifts
within scenes, which created the illusion of more movement and action
for the viewer. This choice solidified the 'cinematic literature'
tag for the series, and the painted and shaded bitmap art style
distanced our work from the glut of vectorized Flash at the time.
We couldn't prioritize well, so instead we shaped each chapter and
act around its strongest component, and then did the best we could
to minimize frills and compress the remaining assets without making
the story suffer. This ended up highlighting the audio for many
viewers - many of whom declare that Tobias and Quentin's music is
the shining gem of saga. We weren't technical wunderkinds, so we
found the lowest common technical denominator for presentation,
and then religiously timed and tested chapters on machines of various
speeds to gauge the ideal 'window' of engagement. This certainly
slowed down the pace of presentation, but I found - when combined
with effects, poetic dialogue, symbol-heavy visuals and dreamlike
soundscapes - that it all fused to create an hypnotic (and at times
downright trippy) experience.
What is the response to Broken Saints from the flash community and
I had originally hoped to create a small buzz in the comics
and anime communities with our unique take on things, but I never
imagined that we would be seen my millions worldwide, be raved over
in the mainstream press and receive some major Flash industry accolades
- culminating currently with the DVD receiving the 2005 Best of
Show Award at the Horizon Interactive Festival and two major nominations
at this year's Canadian New Media Awards.
The continued fan support, especially from European and South American
audiences hungry for new styles, more challenging narratives, and
'trippier' experiences, is not entirely unexpected. I guess it's
really the scale of it all continues to amaze us. There's a segment
of the flash community that is vocal in their dislike of BS - we
use bitmaps, the effects are primarily Photoshop layers, and the
animation is mainly performed with simple 'tweens' - but what they
fail to realize is that it's all about serving the STORY in the
end. We understood from the beginning what Flash (at the time in
its 4th and 5th iterations) was good at, which was the manipulation
of images, text, and audio along a timeline. As comic fans, we saw
the obvious - that a medium comprised of images and text, spread
out over linear chronology, and then textured with hypnotic music
and creative sound design, would capture an audience.
We just couldn't predict how big that audience would be.
What's next for Broken Saints? I heard rumours of a game?
A next-gen console version of Broken Saints has been designed and
is confirmed for development pitches with three major publishers
that have requested it after arduous discussions and negotiations.
I hope to use this opportunity to revitalize the classic adventure
and mystery genres (think Gabriel Knight and Myst meets Kojima's
Snatcher) while taking advantage of new tools to leverage interactive
cinematics and compelling network experiences.
On the DVD front, the 4-disc Special Edition [is] exclusively featured
at Future Shop (along with an in-store HD trailer!). We're finalizing
US and UK/Europe distribution deals this month, so I expect it to
be widely available by summer's end. Meanwhile, I'll be evangelizing
at the San Diego Comicon, the Canadian New Media Awards, Banff Television
Festival, some anime cons and several other speaking engagements.
I am also continuing to negotiate for specialty broadcast of the
series along the lines of what we're currently doing with CBC's
On Demand specialty service.
Finally, Broken Saints is entering an exciting phase of early development
as a premium print graphic novel and a limited live action television
series. Still much dangling of carrots at the moment, but if and
when the green light shines I'll be sure to post it on our new blog
McBride is a Toronto-based writer and communications specialist.
She blogs at chandrasutra
and resides online at HTMeL.net.
email for info