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Online Sci-Fi Show RCVR Breaks Out of the 'Tyrannical Rectangle'
Show creator David van Eyssen had to wait for technology to catch up with his vision of interactive storytelling, but it was all worth it.

David van Eyssen hadn’t heard of Machinima when he wrote RCVR, which would go on to become an enormous hit for the online network. In fact, he only got in touch with the company by chance.

After writing RCVR, an interactive sci-fi series, and shooting his own pilot, van Eyssen cold-called Google looking for a partner.

“We pitched the story, pretty much deadpan, as aliens have intervened in human culture and made such a significant impact over the last 150 years that our world has been transformed,” says van Eyssen.

That’s the central concept of RCVR (pronounced “receiver”): Aliens have been feeding humankind information that jump-started the technological revolution, acting through specially chosen subjects called RCVRs.

“They looked at us like we were dead serious. At the end of the meeting, apparently it went so well that they were about to call security because they thought we were totally out of our minds,” adds van Eyssen.

Sometime before calling security, though, the Google team clued in and heard something they liked. Google-owned YouTube was creating a fund to finance new online channels and series, but that fund wasn’t ready at the time. Instead, Google called Machinima, since the companies have a close relationship. Machinima, according to comScore, Inc. research, is the third-largest partner channel on YouTube.

Van Eyssen met with people from Machinima, and they were excited by what they saw in RCVR. With studio support wrapped up, he next approached Motorola, knowing that RCVR was a perfect vehicle to pair with branding from tech companies. Motorola was also interested.

“I knew that I had the distributor, I knew that I had a friend and a kindly uncle in Google and YouTube, and I knew that I had a brand who was probably going to spend real money with us to get this thing done,” says van Eyssen.

It all happened fast. Van Eyssen went from writing RCVR in July 2011 to putting it on the market in mid-September. Soon after, it racked up millions of hits from online fans.

Interactive Beginnings

For the U.K.-born van Eyssen, an interest in interactive storytelling began at an early age. His first loves were writing, drawing, and painting, and he had his first one-man show at Goldsmiths, University of London when only 14.

Van Eyssen had family in California’s Silicon Valley, so he and his mother spent a summer there in the mid-1970s. That summer ignited a passion for technology that found him building his own computer equipment once back home. From that time, his interests in art and technology began to intertwine until he began working in interactive storytelling in the 1990s.

“I would augment the art experience with technology,” explains van Eyssen. “I saw interactivity as a way of creating [a] story and a visual experience that the user, the person sitting behind the keyboard, could participate in.”

Van Eyssen started off with his own interactive gaming company and did his first directing job with Christopher Lee, bringing a comic book to life. He created an interactive film called Passenger that, in the days of 56K modems, took an agonizingly long time to download. Live and learn.

His work moved into a commercial direction, as van Eyssen helped dot-com startups create videos to show off their ideas and strategies. He created videos with hot spots, where viewers could click to get customized ad experiences. He was also part of the team that created The Hire, the landmark online video series that starred Clive Owen and pitched BMW cars. The Hire was first designed to be an interactive experience, van Eyssen says, although the agency ultimately decided to play it a little safer. The agency thought the online viewer wasn’t yet ready for a complicated online video experience. Since the series debuted in 2001, it was likely the right call.

“In the end, the team ended up making a fine series of short films that today serve as a benchmark,” says van Eyssen. Directed by A-list names, such as Ang Lee and Guy Ritchie, it proved that there was an audience for online video and that a major online video ad spend could pay off. “When you look back in time, what we were really doing was activating people’s interest in using this new vehicle of distribution called the internet to democratize the entertainment industry. We were godfathers of video on the web, in a way.”

Breakout Storytelling

“My belief is that video is a tyrannical rectangle. The tyranny of video says that everything is inside the rectangle and nothing is outside it, except marketing. My view is the story encompasses many rectangles. How do you get people to travel between the rectangles?” asks van Eyssen.

The thread that unites all of van Eyssen’s work is the desire to use technology to tell deeper, more involved stories and to make the audience more an active participant in the story than film alone can do. That desire has had to wait for technology to catch up.

“I kept coming back to the idea that there is going to be this new stage on which new stories can be told, and it’s only a matter of time before broadband is truly mass-market and the technologies that sit on the surface of broadband make the distribution of video far easier and the interaction with the video we distribute a part of that experience,” says van Eyssen.

His patience paid off. With RCVR, van Eyssen was finally able to create the interactive, immersive world he was interested in.

“That’s how RCVR was born—by waiting long enough for the technology and the audience to arrive, so that I could take all those ideas that were over a decade old and make them absolutely new, because in a way, for me, this was virgin territory,” says van Eyssen.

RCVR doesn’t use interactivity as a kind of pick-your-own-adventure story, but as a way to create a world around the videos that make up the series. For one thing, van Eyssen created The Ufopedia, a UFO-focused wiki with entries for story characters Luke Weber and Helen Pinkus. He’s also made Project RCVR, an exploratory site created by off-screen character Alvin J. Peters, who has devoted his life to uncovering the truth about RCVRs. The sites let interested viewers dive more deeply in to the world of RCVRs. They can learn that Pinkus, an early RCVR, was instrumental in the Manhattan Project and that Weber was the father of the microprocessor revolution.

They’ll also learn that real-world brands, in the RCVR world, benefited from alien technology—real-world brands such as show sponsor Motorola. Van Eyssen understands he needs to tread lightly in brand sponsorships, but he still sees tech companies as a natural fit to his story.

“Obviously, brand, manufacturing, industry, had a direct tie-in, and we thought ... there are some really interesting pieces of information about Motorola which we could put into this and make it part of the story,” says van Eyssen. For example, he says, Motorola essentially invented the cellphone shortly after the Roswell crash. In RCVR, he’s free to explain the history of Motorola in a nonconventional way.

“What I really think would be wrong is to suddenly have the Motorola logo and product all over the place because they pay for it,” says van Eyssen. He wants in-show mentions to be subtle, while the online sites and Peters can go into more depth. Well, they’re not always subtle: As Peters himself notes, the image on the bottom of the flying saucer in Season 1 looks quite a bit like the Motorola logo.

A Talented Cast

One of the challenges of creating premium video for online is that the economics are far different, which makes it hard to create programming that looks just as good as network or cable content. Plus, van Eyssen didn’t have a leisurely 6 months to create the six episodes that make up RCVR’s first season; he had 10 days.

A smaller budget also reduces the pool of acting talent available. “I don’t want people to make a distinction between film and television and web in terms of the quality of acting or the quality of the writing,” says van Eyssen. He was in luck, however, when it came time to cast his two male leads: Daniel Bonjour plays agent Weber, while child actor Garrett Ryan plays Tommy, the mysterious boy at the heart of the first season.

Bonjour was cast immediately, despite not completely wowing van Eyssen at the audition. 

“Daniel gave what I call the best worst audition of all time, because he came in and he just threw it away. And I wanted to know what he just said and I wanted to know why he didn’t say it more clearly, because he was thinking it and it was coming out in a way that he wasn’t performing—he was in it. And I knew the moment I saw him do that that he was already my Luke Weber,” says van Eyssen.

As Bonjour explains it, there’s a good reason he didn’t connect more convincingly with the script from the start: He hadn’t been given the full script, and he didn’t completely grasp the material.

“I got the sides. It was well-written. I just didn’t really know what was going on in the material,” says Bonjour. “When I went [in], I cared more about the guy and not the subject material. The subject material was talking about outliers and people showing certain things, and it just meant nothing to me. I did not know the context—they were just words that really meant nothing. I figured the only way to play it was that the words really did mean nothing.” So in his head, he thought about Weber’s day-to-day routine as he auditioned. That matter-of-fact quality resonated with van Eyssen.

Finding a child actor was actually much easier for van Eyssen. Child actors don’t need the same salary or time commitment, so they’re more likely to audition for web work. Plus, there’s a large pool of talented minors in Los Angeles. That helped him find his perfect Tommy.

“When I found Garrett, I thought he was a kind of savant and he was wonderful to work with in the end. The first audition, he was so good you could just see it,” says van Eyssen. “Once I had Garrett and I had Daniel— because, in a way, that’s the pivotal relationship of the story ... I knew once I had that, and I put them together and it worked, that we were away.”

An Online Blockbuster

Thanks to that fortunate combination of elements, RCVR was a huge hit immediately after launch. It became one of the big winners in the International Academy of Web Television Awards, winning for Best Drama Web Series, Best Male Performance (Drama), and Best Cinematography.

“I honestly didn’t expect to win,” says Bonjour. “There are so many people that have been involved in the web for so many years. I assumed they would be honoring those people, so when my name got called it was a huge shock.”

“We were thrilled to see a legitimate award ceremony for producers of original storytelling on the web, and for a lot of other categories, as well,” adds van Eyssen.

RCVR Awards

RCVR was one of the big winners at the 2012 International Academy of Web Television Awards, with honors going to (from left to right) Joost van Starrenburg, Best Cinematography; writer and director David van Eyssen, Best Drama Web Series; and actor Daniel Bonjour, Best Male Performance, Drama. (Photo by Troy Dreier)

That success means that van Eyssen will have the chance to continue the RCVR story with Season 2. He plans to take the show in a different direction from what people have already seen.

“One of the comparisons that’s been made with RCVR is The X-Files, and, of course, it was going to be an obvious comparison. I think it’s an envious comparison: I’m really pleased that people would think for a moment that we were a kind of new version of The X-Files, says van Eyssen. “In the second season, you’ll see how different we are from The X-Files. It’s just that we had to start somewhere.”

Agent Weber, viewers learned at the end of Season 1, isn’t just an investigator of RCVRs, he’s also a carrier. In the second season, van Eyssen will explore what that means. He hopes to release the second season in late summer. For him, the success of RCVR isn’t just a personal milestone, but a marker for the whole industry.

“What I learned from RCVR is that we can build a franchise online. If you want to build a franchise, this is the place to start. You don’t want to start in film and television,” he says. RCVR was unknown just 4 months prior to this interview, he notes. Within 4 weeks it had been watched by 4.5 million unique viewers. That’s as good as cable, he notes. All that happened with no media buy and no ad platform.

The success of RCVR and other online blockbusters is good for the future of online entertainment: “I think there’s going to be no difference between the internet and television in five years time,” says van Eyssen. It doesn’t matter where the content is coming from, he says. “I think people are going to be watching more and more content delivered through the Internet, but I don’t think it’s going to matter to them where it comes from. I think it’s going to be a window, and a window is transparent.”

As the audience grows, van Eyssen sees the door opening for a variety of new online programs.

“The real success story of RCVR is that it was made at all. If it is a success, it’s going to allow other people to do the same thing. The financing mechanism is going to open up for other people. Brands are going to look at what we do on the web with as much interest as they do what we produce for television,” says van Eyssen. “That would make RCVR a great success, if other people could follow that model—and, of course, I could continue to produce what I believe in.”

This article was printed in the April/May 2012 issue of Streaming Media magazine.

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