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What Wolstenholme is most excited about is "Eugene's tool." "Thousands of people are dying to get their hands on Eugene's tool," he quips to an amused crowd. Eugene is Eugene Walden, Madefire's third co-founder and chief technology officer, and his tool is the motion graphics tool, his major contribution to the company's endeavor. The software is based on technology he originally developed at 4delite, an online advertising company.
"When I first met Ben [Wolstenholme], I realized that [the software] was surprisingly applicable to the creation of motion books." The motion graphics tool is a white field of empty gray patches into which the user can drag images and other content. All added content shows up in a primary view screen that depicts edits in real-time, a multi-layered animation that can be adjusted by the creator to add action, panoramic views, and soundtracks. It's web-based software (it can be opened in any browser) whose complexity ranks somewhere between Photoshop and Facebook's photo uploading tool — an intuitive yet robust editing suite. All work is saved in the cloud and it's as quick and responsive as your Internet connection allows. This was important to Walden, as it rendered collaboration across multiple devices a breeze; anyone could hop on to an existing project from anywhere in the world with a stable wi-fi connection and make edits.
About all those people waiting to get their hands on this tool: There's a request portal accessible through the company website where aspiring motion bookmakers can sign up for access to the motion graphics tool once it's made available beyond Madefire's inner circle (such requests are temporarily closed). "We want this to become a standard tool for the industry," says Sharp.
As such, they're making the tool available free to those interested in creating a motion book. Sharp adds, "It's increasingly hard to break into the illustrated narrative industry, so why not let people build their own stories and sell them?" Walden insists the motion graphics tool is "as easy to use as Keynote or PowerPoint."
Madefire's philosophy toward the tool seems rooted in a general enthusiasm that emanates from its staff; like any start-up, they have no reason to believe they'll be a success — though the app is highly rated, it's not in the iTunes top 100 — yet their belief in motion books is palpable and sincere. Despite having spent decades each in tech, marketing, and comics illustration, the three principals don't come across as jaded or defensive about their goals for Madefire. Indeed, it seems that they're promoting the idea as much as the product itself.
While comics are struggling to define the face of their digital strategy, the playing field for e-books is tensionless by comparison; few are itching to reinvent black lines on a white background. Eli Horowitz was at McSweeney's — the S.F. publishing house and quarterly journal founded by author Dave Eggers — when that publisher was getting snowed under by digital. McSweeney's superlative print product translates poorly to digital. The time was ripe to invert that equation.
Horowitz, his McSweeney's cohort Chris Ying, and iOS developer Russell Quinn co-founded Ying Horowitz & Quinn, LLC. Theirs is perhaps the first joint business venture whose central product ended up being a novel.
The Silent History is the story of a generation of "unusual children" who are silent from birth, unable to comprehend or utilize language as we understand it. It's a multimedia story told through text, video, and geo-specific "field reports." The app is a gorgeous, non-linear map of portals, some of which lead to chapters of the serialized story, and others to one of the aforementioned field reports tied to specific geographic locations that are "unlocked" only once the user is near that location, with a "ping" from the app's geo-location feature.
Since this involves traveling, these supplementary reports are not designed to be essential to understanding the core story; they are contributions from readers built inside the mythos established by The Silent History. Updated content comes in the form of serialized chapters added by the creators and the field reports submitted by users (and approved by Ying Horowitz & Quinn). The latter presents another dimension of interactivity: collaboration. This carefully crafted potential for a multitude of experiences in reading The Silent History is what makes it such an intriguing variation on the e-book — and a cold medium.
The Silent History developer Russell Quinn, formerly of McSweeney's and European digital agency Spoiled Milk, says he saw the place for their work in the lackluster e-books market.
"Broadly speaking, they seemed to either be technology-led with a weak story, or content-led with poor design and usability," says Quinn. The Silent History presents the reader with a story matrix in the form of an intuitively navigated treasure hunt that utilizes the capabilities of iOS as cleverly as any touch video game. This non-linear experience feels cognitively similar to web browsing, hunting through links in a multiplicative manner that emphasizes perpetual investigation over closure. Indeed, it's uncertain where The Silent History begins or ends, or whether it's meant to at all.
Presently, the novel is exclusively available as an app for the iPhone and iPad ($1.99 for the first volume, $7.99 for the next five; the novel continues to be released in serialized chunks); it "may" be developed for Android down the road. It's perhaps the ultimate irony that such a lush media experience as The Silent History costs consumers a fraction of the price of a hardbound first-edition print book. And it's cheaper for the creators themselves. "It didn't cost us a cent to make this. Everything we make is profit," says Horowitz.
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