Bxx: Haunted (Web Series)
Starring Jeffery Bell, Kalinda Gray, Lynda Reynoso, Ryan Hannah King, Brent McGregor, Michael O'Connell, Kayte Arnett
Created and written by Daniel Knauf
Directed by Cliff Osmond
When Daniel Knauf ("Carnivale", "Spartacus: Vengeance") created what he calls the Bxx narrative, he had to create new tools just to write the script. By opening up new dimensions in storytelling, he couldn't rely on the tools that worked for him in the past on traditional projects.
I find myself in the same situation. This is going to be a slightly unconventional review because all of the usual methods of critique don't quite apply here. This is a new kind of storytelling so a new form of critiquing that storytelling is needed. This is going to be a long review. Much like Haunted itself. For future Bxx projects I'm sure I'll find a way to trim it down, but for now I need some room. Bear with me; it's worth your while.
I have to start off by letting you know just what a Bxx narrative is.
Upon entering a Bxx site, you're presented with controls to view the action of a linear narrative from different vantage points. Using those controls, you view the story. It's entirely up to you how you view the story. You can skip around, watch it in chronological order, whatever you like. If you find a conversation or character that you want to follow, you can do so and ignore those you don't care about.
That's the innovation of Bxx: Tt's the first multi-threaded narrative. It's not exactly interactive, as a video game would be, in that you don't influence the narrative in any way. This isn't a "choose your own adventure" book converted to video. However, you control what you see, when you see it, what order you see it in, and how much time you spend on the story. You can view the entire story in a few hours, or hundreds of them - it depends on what you want to see.
So if that's what Bxx is, what is Bxx: Haunted?
Haunted is best described as a prototype. Made for very little money and a great deal of sweat and crowd-sourced labor, Haunted is designed to be an example of what the Bxx narrative can do. This is where things get tricky: Both the technology and the format are prototypes, but so are the story and the performances. This is entirely new from top to bottom. Just like Bxx will split off from plot to plot, here's where the review is going to split.
The Bxx Narrative and Technology
First I'm going to talk about the Bxx concept and the technology used in this specific application. This has to be considered separately from this exact story because the concept can fail while the story sails, and vice versa.
In the case of Bxx: Haunted (watch it here), you're presented with an interface upon entering the site. The "dashboard" is a blueprint of a house. Inside this blueprint there are icons to select sixteen different cameras. Up top there are controls to select exact segments of time from the beginning to the end, thirty-two hours later. Segments are six minutes long. So, for each segment of time you have sixteen vantage points to view what happened in the house during that segment.
While the story isn't interactive, there is definitely a strong element of exploration, and that exploration is rewarded. As you follow the narrative, you collect evidence. If a character in a segment shoots a video on a handheld camera, or mentions a historical point, that item might be unlocked for you in the Evidence, Background, or Investigation tabs at the top of the interface. This allows you to dig deeper into the story, if you choose. Some of these are available from the beginning, which will allow you shortcuts to the "action". If an investigator report says they saw something at a certain time on a specific camera, it's easy to jump to that point and see what they saw.
Telling the tale of a paranormal investigation that goes very, very wrong, Bxx: Haunted implements an interface that fits the theme and works into the story. The sixteen cameras are placed there by the team to capture activity and record the investigation. In the case of Haunted, everything technical fits into the story itself. All video, audio, and other evidence is collected on-screen or otherwise fits directly into the narrative. Conceivably, a Bxx story could be written without giving a narrative excuse for the camera presences, but in this case everything is part of the tale.
The interface is intuitive. There's a brief intro upon entering the site if you have trouble, but I spent weeks on the site before the intro was available and was never confused. Sliding the timeline control can be a little tricky when choosing a precise time, and selecting segments can be a little confusing. Once you find your segment, however, following the action is incredibly easy. This is one of the benefits of this type of project as opposed to other formats: They can make changes as they like, based on feedback from their users. The controls were almost completely redesigned between the closed beta and the public launch based on such feedback, for example.
I found a specific rhythm to how I followed things within just a few segments. I imagine most viewers would do the same. You can open multiple cameras and have them sync up, start one camera and then start another and have them out of sync so you can see action being referred to in the first happening in the second, etc. There's a bit of creativity to how you want to take in the story, and this part of the Bxx concept works absolutely perfectly.
The primary roadblock that Haunted runs into is a technical one: The audio on the clips leaves a great deal to be desired. Likely due to budget limitations and exacerbated by the location chosen, the microphones on the cameras are relatively poor. Loud noises cause them to distort and fuzz out so when there's shouting, it's easy to lose what's being said. Their sensitivity works against them in other areas as well. When someone is speaking softly, it's extremely difficult to hear them...not because the mics can't pick them up, but because they almost always pick up louder noises and voices in other areas of the relatively small house which drown out the softer talking. This is a critical problem, as people tend to talk softly when discussing critical plot points and loudly when they're just shooting the breeze. While the actor who played Emil Grant did an amazing job, his voice is dramatically louder than the others, and if he's in another part of the house while a quiet conversation is going on, you're often going to hear him even though he's a room or two away. It's not his fault at all, just a limitation of the technology used, combined with the small location.
The video quality is solid enough for this project. It's not amazing, but you never get frustrated trying to see a detail. It's even clear enough to detect things such as palette shifts that denote plot points. Future projects will be in HD according to Knauf, which would be nice, but not as necessary as improved audio or even limited ADR to patch in important conversations that are lost.
None of this is a dealbreaker. Understanding that this is a prototype makes it easy to understand that issues such as the poor microphones and small, echo-prone location would easily be remedied with a bigger budget and with lessons learned. There's still plenty here to enjoy; it's just mildly frustrating at times. If you run into one, just move along; there's more after it.
As for how the Bxx narrative works as a concept, Haunted does effectively prove what can be done. Within just a few hours on the site, I had probably half a dozen ideas of what could be done in various genres using the concept. I'm not sure it's the next evolution in storytelling, as Knauf claims, but it shows enough promise to be a new and exciting way to present fictional stories using the technology of the web.
So that's the Bxx concept and tech in this application; now I need to talk about the story.
Bxx: Haunted, The Story
In Haunted we join the investigation of a house that's seen no small amount of horror. Dr. Jeremy Johnson and his team of three have won the right to do one last investigation of what's known as the Blaylock House, named after its final occupants. They're joined by Elizabeth Escobar, a psychic who was present during the last investigation of the house over a decade before, and Emil Grant, a lawyer with CalTrans, who now own the house and plan on demolishing it two days later to make room for a freeway expansion.
With sixteen cameras capturing the investigation, these six people plan to spend forty-eight hours inside the house in an attempt to prove the existence of an afterlife.
Things do not go well.
This project was shot entirely in real time. This has to be said upfront. I've wracked my movie-nerd brain and can't think of another ensemble piece shot for thirty-two hours continuously, with no cuts or edits. Hasn't happened before. These six performers have accomplished the unthinkable in acting out this story over that length of time with no breaks, having to sleep on camera multiple times, while staying in character, reacting to special effects not yet added, and pushing through a narrative. This, alone, makes Haunted worth watching. It's an astounding feat of acting, and everyone involved does an incredible job. There are no bad performances, no one slacks, no one phones it in after twenty-four hours. Phenomenal. As an effort of acting and filmmaking, no one has had the testicular fortitude to even attempt something like this, even in experimental film. The fact that Knauf and his troupe have pulled it off on the first attempt is nothing short of miraculous.
Unfortunately, the project doesn't do them as much service as it could. The primary problem that Haunted faces is that there's just too much of it. You have thirty-two hours of story, spread out over hundreds of hours of segments across sixteen vantage points. When you figure that a lengthy season of narrative television would be twenty-four hours, all edited to focus on only what action needed to be told, you can see the potential trouble. There's just no way to fill thirty-two hours of eventful story here. Even with the ability to skip forward using the controls, doing so is risky. You skip ahead a few hours, and suddenly you've missed a vital conversation or a paranormal event that matters to the plot. Then you backtrack, and you spend almost as much time as you've skipped picking up the breadcrumbs. It's just a huge meal to ingest, and I'm afraid many viewers will give up before they pick up every important morsel of story.
The story needs a great deal of tightening. Well, that even gets tricky. Perhaps it wasn't the story so much as the planning. Or how the actors played it out. Without knowing the inner-workings of how this project came off, there's no way to know exactly where the problem lies.
In future Bxx projects, this has to be the primary lesson learned, and chances are Knauf and team already realize this. The key points of the story and plenty of spooky moments could have fit into sixteen hours, easily. That's half the time, which is a massive cut.
There's quite a bit done to attempt to make that time interesting. Paranormal events happen frequently, and that's my second issue. They happen a little too frequently. Again likely due to the limitations of this project's budget, there isn't enough variety to the spooky goings-on. After a few hours of disembodied voices and specters appearing in one or two locations, it becomes a bit routine. With more money I'm certain this would have been quite different. In Haunted, however, it has to be noted.
There is also one problem inherent to the Bxx concept. Unlike other storytelling methods, it's entirely possible to miss major plot points. Even while tracking things as closely as possible, you could spend over a month watching every segment thoroughly so you're going to need to skip. When you do, it's very easy to miss that one conversation or event. I did and had to go back when the ending didn't make much sense. Whether this is a plus or a minus is up to you. I honestly didn't mind it. With Bxx you get out what you put in. In the case of Haunted, in order to get everything, you're going to be dedicating a lot of time. In future Bxx projects that will likely be reduced dramatically, but for now you have to be ready to dive in and poke around quite a bit to sort out every detail.
The overall message is simple: Less is more.
All that sounds relatively negative, but believe it or not, I don't intend it to be. The story here IS solid and IS entertaining. I said I've spent weeks in the Bxx, and that's not just because I needed to bring a review to you guys. It's addictive. You find yourself saying "one more segment" and then move ahead to the next… and the next. Knauf certainly knows how to tell a story. This isn't one of his more complex tales, but considering the fact that this is a prototype, I imagine that was intentional. Still, you have detailed, fleshed-out characters engaged in interesting things. The plot is interesting and not predictable. The finale is shocking, fitting, and provides resolution while also leaving the door open for a return to the world of Haunted. When Haunted shines, it shines extremely bright. The project is littered with excellent moments, visceral and emotional, touching and frightening.
Haunted does require patience, and a good deal of forgiveness, but the price is right. Due to the experimental nature of Haunted, it's free for all. Just hop on, and you can see everything you want. Like I always say, it's better because it's free. For the price of your time, you are going to get a hell of a lot of entertainment. The concept works, the story works, and while there are both technical and narrative issues, Haunted is a heck of a lot of fun.
Settle in, some dark night, in a comfy chair. Perhaps with a glass of good wine. Plug some earphones into your computer. Log onto bxxweb.com. Start watching segments. Check out the evidence. Explore what you want, follow the characters you're interested in, examine the footage as the story unfolds. You won't regret it. It's not perfect, but it's like nothing you've ever seen before.
3 1/2 out of 5