Sunday, July 19, 1998

"Paul Is Dead", a soap opera developed for the World Wide Web, isnt dead but the creation of LaFong principals John Sanborn and Michael Kaplan has certainly had the troubled life symptomatic of what some call The Bleeding Edge of technological change. It could even be said that "Paul Is Dead" has died and been brought back to life at least twice— saved by the tenacious Mr. Sanborn.

But more about that later.

Somewhat like the traditional play within a play or movie within a movie, "Paul Is Dead" is really a soap opera within a soap opera within a soap opera. First there is the actual story of the murdered rock star. Then there is the saga of its development, near death, and recovery. And finally there is the soap opera life led by one of the people who worked on it.

Oliver Eames Burns, my son.

OLLIE_TICKET.jpg (12944 bytes)

In our last installment, young Burns, now 27, had abandoned his Dallas pizza delivery career, survived being a bicycle messenger in New York, and packed all his earthly possessions to move to a warehouse in the SOMA area of San Francisco. The unheated warehouse boasted a complete metal working shop; a collection of at least thirteen motorcycles; the worlds largest Van de Graaff generator (great for parties); a six ton crane; roughly seven human inhabitants; hand crafted personal rooms straight out of a William Gibson novel; a fully functional computer network; and one somewhat functional flush toilet.

Now, the warehouse is a parking facility. The gang of seven has spread from LA to New York. And the young Burns has left CNET where he was one of the graphics geeks who developed their popular Gamecenter site. If you havent heard of CNET, it is one of the early web ventures that explain why 70 percent of all world wide web traffic passes through San Franciscos MultiMedia Gulch. It is also one of the Internet stocks that has soared in recent weeks.

Today, Ollie is a computer Ronin, a kind of graphics samurai-for-hire. In addition to being fluent in programs with weird names like Flash and debabelizer, he is so capable of cutting graphic file sizes that he acquired an ominous nickname at LaFong— The Reducer (pronounced "thu reduce-ah").

"Paul Is Dead" was his first project as a free lance contract worker and now, deaths and resurrections notwithstanding, its done. Today he is looking for new projects to support his latte habit.

The soap opera will be launched, Mr. Sanborn told me recently, in late July, but it wasnt an easy trip. Listen to the story:

"Nearly two years ago, Michael Kaplan and I went to Berkeley Systems. We had done Psychic Detective. ( An interactive movie made for computer game company Electronic Arts.) Our idea was to take a screenplay about a dead rock star and an obsessed journalist and make it into a soap opera for the web,"

"They funded two prototypes. But we got the project back in turnaround. ("Turnaround" is film/media argot for return of creative rights on projects when the financing developer bails out.")

"Then we showed the material to the studios, hoping to develop content. MGM Interactive optioned both stories.

"With MGM we then approached several companies. Microsoft was interested and we started to do development last spring. Microsoft was trying to develop proprietary content for their network.

"Then Microsoft changed goals In December they dropped out.

"In January, February, and March we developed it more. We were going ahead with MGM Interactive as our partner. But in April MGM decided it wanted to downsize MGM Interactive.

"Now were going to launch it ourselves in the next couple weeks. Mindspring is the computer host. Razorfish will be doing the (web) administration. And Ord in New York will sell ads."

Has it been a more difficult than he thought?

"Much. This is a creative project. Thats what we do. Our goal was to take the bandwidth available and the media available and create a new kind of story format. The original mandate from Microsoft was to push the limits of the web as an entertainment media.

"But a lot of (business) people dont seem to be that interested anymore," he said.

In fact, no one knows where all this is going. Like many new art/media forms, "Paul Is Dead" could achieve the romantic ideal of much art: creative success on a bedrock of commercial misunderstanding.

Note: The site is launching July 27 at: