The Caucus Awards

What a whirlwind. After Virtual Morality took off online, it was our honor to represent USC as the digital submission to the Caucus for Producers, Writers & Directors. 

We shared the stage with Noah Hawley (creator of Fargo), David Nutter (director of Game of Thrones) and legendary head of FX John Landgraf. And then, to our astonishment, Virtual Morality was named the winner of the Television/New Media Award.

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Bryce Morgan and Ilan Benjamin at the 2015 Annual Caucus Awards

As the trailer played in the packed ballroom of the Skirball Cultural Center and we stepped up to that stage to accept the award, I couldn’t shake the feeling that this was one of those moments you never forget. Thank you everyone who made it possible. We are both so proud of our madcap project and grateful to the Caucus Awards for this tremendous honor. Onward!

PewDePie, Virality and a 2nd Season of Virtual Morality

On October 10, 2015, I woke up to find our interactive series Virtual Morality reviewed by none other than PewDePie.

For those less versed with the interwebs, PewDiePie, otherwise known as Felix Arvid Ulf Kjellberg, is a Swedish youtube star, famous for his “Let’s Play” video game commentaries. He is also the #1 most subscribed star on youtube with over 40,000,000 subscribers. In other words, we hit the jackpot.

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Suddenly, Virtual Morality’s facebook page was bombarded with likes, comments and even fan art. Youtube stars from around the world reviewed and spread the series. Within a week, we were over 10,000,000 views. This was our first taste of virality. And like anything beautiful and fleeting, it made us want more.

When Project Greenlight Digital announced this year’s competition to find the next best web-series, the proverbial light bulb burst into light. What if we pitched a 2nd season? We brought the team behind the 1st season back together and started brainstorming. We shot a short pitch video, and next week, we’ll be spamming a newsfeed near you with pleas to vote for our project! What is it, you ask? Oh, you’ll just have to wait. But I’ll leave you with a hint…

What if you could walk through walls? Until next time… #MURDR

So What Is Interactive Anyway?

This Labor Day, we will finally release the first episode of Virtual Morality – Season One: #MURDR, an interactive murder mystery. We’re beyond excited to share it with the world. But the world? Many don’t seem to understand this interactive business. Is it a game? A video? Both? Somebody explain!!!

What exactly is interactive? 

The truth is–interactive is a whole new art form. And like anything new, it’s a trifle to define. Some of your favorite media may be interactive and you don’t even know it. Examples range from Arcade Fire’s legendary “We Used to Wait” experience, utilizing google maps to personalize a music video, to the Emmy-winning Lizzy Bennet Diaries, a transmedia vlog-style adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.

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Any video that forces you, the viewer, to take an active role in the experience–that is interactive. In the case of Virtual Morality, we took it one step further. YOU yourself are the protagonist and YOUR choices define the narrative.

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Yeah, you thinking Goosebumps? Those choose-your-own-adventure books? That is exactly what this is, but with film. Thanks to Interlude, a build-your-own interactive film website, we were able to create a web of choices, conclusions and mysteries that would otherwise be impossible, were it not for this new technology.

The writing process alone was a mind-bender. Imagine writing a TV pilot you truly love…then writing every possible alternative plotline…then making sure each version leads to the 2nd episode without contradicting each other. Yeah, exactly. Yikes! Luckily, I had an incredible team to help flesh out the myriad of ways the story could be told.

A sceenshot of episode 1's "story-tree"

A sceenshot of episode 1’s “story-tree”

You might be wondering right about now–okay, wait. So isn’t this a game? You’re damn right it is. It’s an experimental fusion of film and game that will likely predicate the emerging media of the future: Virtual Reality. The title itself was a nod to this incredible technology and the future of interactive storytelling. But okay. That’s nice and dandy. How does it work?

A still from episode 1, with two choices

A still from episode 1, with two potential choices

In Virtual Morality, two choices will pop up on screen like notification bubbles on your iPhone. With the click of a mouse, you make a choice. And two more choices after that. In order to see every potential ending, of which there are about 8 per episode give or take, you’ll have watch to again.

I encourage you to explore, look for the clues, follow the killer’s breadcrumbs and solve the mystery. This is what interactive means. You get to tell the story yourself. With Virtual Morality, I hope you tell it to everyone you know and remember:

DON’T LIKE. DON’T SHARE. DON’T SUBSCRIBE.

And We’re Off!

I am so excited to announce that New Form Digital has picked up Virtual Morality for a full season. See the pitch trailer below:

It is no simple task to plot out an interactive film. For every choice you make, there are two more choices and another two after that. There are 8 potential endings to every story you tell. Now, multiply that by three and you have the first season of Virtual Morality, a murder mystery a la Clue but with a satirical social-media twist. Get those #hashtags ready. I’m thrilled to be working with my colleagues Bryce Morgan, Luke Pastor and Matt McClung to develop this topsy-turvy season. And of course, to work once again with New Form Digital, Ron Howard and Brian Grazer’s new online studio.

Plotting out Season 1 of Virtual Morality

Plotting out Season 1 of Virtual Morality

What’s next?

While studying at USC, I took a life-changing class outside the confines of my comfy cinema school called Origins of the Mind, Psychology 339, taught by Dr. Justin Wood, an examination of how human knowledge emerged in our evolutionary history and emerges during human development. The last section of the class took a close look at morality. In one lab, we watched and analyzed a TED talk by author, philosopher and “New Atheist” neuroscientist, Sam Harris. It’s worth a watch:

Harris argues science can dictate morality and that a universal understanding of right and wrong, namely that which promotes the wellbeing of conscious creatures, would benefit humanity. It’s at once an alluring and troubling proposal. For who dictates the choices you make? You or a man like Harris who claims he know best? If his argument strikes you as rather fundamentalist, in a religious sense–you are not the first. Chris Hedges writes in TruthDig:

“Harris, like all utopians, has reduced millions of human beings and cultures he knows nothing about to primitive impediments to his vision of a better world.”

But what does any of this have to do with me? Next weekend, I begin production on an interactive web-series called Virtual Morality, in which you are thrust into classic moral dilemmas and forced to make choices: some are right, some are wrong. But whose to say what’s what? That’s for you to decide. The results may challenge your expectations and specifically the presumption that black and white can be so easily drawn as they are by men like Sam Harris. At the same time, the web-series will examine whether Harris’s noble attempt to perfect humanity with a universal scientifically sacrosanct moral algorithm could actually work. Is it even possible? What do you think? Next Monday, September 22, make your choice in the pilot of Virtual Morality.

Deserters

We made a 52-hour short film for the Producer’s Guild contest. Although we did not get picked, I am still so proud of what we accomplished. A huge thank you to Asher GenootAlex BenjaminDani FeJack MartinVahan BedelianAdriana RidingsKayla SukrtConnor HallXander Rodzinski and Luis Aguilon. Enjoy!

Producer’s Guild & Cadillac Make Your Mark Contest

“Passion is [the] immeasurable, indescribable factor that separates movie from movie. Passion moves freely across borders, speaks every language and flourishes in every culture. The movement of passion is the most gratifying satisfaction in any moviemaker’s life. This happens when you see and hear people all over the world share their laughter, their crying and their sudden gasps at identical screen moments.” – Saul Zaentz 

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This weekend, I had the pleasure and challenge of participating in the Producer’s Guild and Cadillac Make Your Mark short film contest. Given only 51 hours, we were expected to write, produce and complete a 2-5 minute film using a very specific set of requirements, incorporating the work of legendary producer Saul Zaentz. Famous for his independent production company in the Bay Area and literary oscar-winning adaptations such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Amadeus, Zaentz has been a hero of mine for years. So to write and produce something in his spirit was an opportunity I could not resist. I teamed up with Asher Genoot, producer of Poets, and an incredible team of dedicated cast and crew members to take on this challenge.

Deserters - Crew

Shooting at a crew member’s cabin in Lake Arrowhead, we spent an entire night and day shooting. We then completed post-production here in Los Angeles and managed to submit the project with just 3 minutes to spare! Now, we wait to hear the results on July 29, 2014. Regardless of if we make it into the finalists, this experience was beyond exhilirating. It’s weekends like this that remind me why I love filmmaking so much. And I am beyond grateful to get to do what I love with people I love…even if it keeps us up for two nights straight!

As soon as we are able to share the film, we will. In the meantime, wish us luck!

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Ilan Benjamin and the cast, Dani De La Fe, Alex Benjamin and Lisa Goodman