Friday, February 25, 2011

Start-Up Watch COD: Xtranormal and the text to vid phenomenon

If you are alive, I would imagine you have seen an Xtranormal flick over the past year -- the iPhone 4 one was quite popular, as is Digital Ninja. (Both appear below.) But there are thousands of others, and I am certain we will be seeing even more of them over the months ahead.

Xtranormal is a Montreal-based company that lets users makes 3-D animated movies just by typing a script. Whether what you want is 20 seconds long or an hour, it's all possible, and their technology makes it incredibly easy and monstrously addictive. Here are the iPhone 4 and Ninja movies, just to give you a sense of how entertaining DIY cartoons can be.

Warning, both are NSFW:

digital ninja from moon stuff on Vimeo.

Those two videos use the same characters and background, but there are actually dozens of other people and places to use for your mini Citizen Kane.

There are essentially two versions of their offering, one web-based and one you download to work on offline. The second version is faster and appears to have more flexibility, not surprisingly. In addition to movie making, Xtranormal also offers a web viewing community, and lets you export your creations in a variety of ways -- low res and higher res. You actually plan your movie through storyboarding, clicking on character icons and writing text as you go. Don't like the way a line sounded? You just change a couple words and re-render. You can also direct simple character movements, and switch camera angles to reflect what the characters are saying and doing.

But how is all this relevant to marketing? Well, I think in about a dozen ways. I'll stick to just a couple here:

First, technology has dramatically reduced the cost of producing commercials. We've moved from a world in which directors and production companies had a monopoly to an era where tens of thousands of pro and semi-pro video makers are scattered across the country, on a level playing field. In 1989, I worked on a TV commercial for laundry soap that cost $1.3 Million. How we spent that on something that did so little for the business -- well, I would say it was a challenge but really it was all rather easy. Of course, that was exceptionally expensive, but for most of my career, major brands paid in excess of $300K for :30s. These days, more and more brands are using crowd sourcing to develop their TV ads. Communities like Poptent and sites like XLNT Ads bring both great value and tremendous ideas to brand challenges every day.

Xtranormal has also been used for making TV ads. I was pleasantly surprised to see GEICO use the platform to make ads they broadcast on national media, using the premise that in the time it took to make the ad, the person could save hundreds. There are a number of these ads out there - I chose the one below to show you a different background and character set:

But as we all know, marketing-centric videos needn't all be broadcast-bound. So many companies would love to produce videos to replace rarely read content on websites. But it used to cost a lot of time and money. Tech companies used to spend a small fortune on making their front page "what we do" videos. Now they can do it for free in about -- two hours.

The final way that I think Xtranormal and its compeittiors are changing the game is that they are shifting the balance in online entertainment from the art direction to the copywriting. Hey, pictures will always be a critical currency online, but with Xtranormal, the emphasis is on writing and aural communication.I think that's great because ads online are, with some notable exceptions, utterly devoid of ideas. And in the ad biz, most of the ideas historically came from the writer. So by entering the environment with such a strong platform, they may shift the balance in online creative to a more idea-centric model. That'd be very good news for our industry.

Finally, this is all animation. But how long can it be before we can put words into the mouths of people? I don't know if that is in Xtranormal's plans, but it is or should be in SOMEONE'S PLANS. It'll probably look rough at first, but like everything else online, it'll get better and better. And THAT will make it possible for us to deliver highly tailored video messages that express brand benefits in the context of a user's personal needs. Pretty powerful stuff for what today looks like a couple of talking bears. Xtranormal was founded in 2006 and has 30 employees according to Crunch Base, so it is a bit bigger than many of the companies I write about. But I think this area is something brands should definitely take note of in a significant way.

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