For about 20 years the cast of Mystery Science Theater 3000 has been entertaining science fiction fans with funny commentaries of bad movies. The concept is strangely simple: mad scientists (at various times: Trace Beaulieu, J. Elvis Weinstein, Frank Conniff and Mary Jo Pehl) have launched a man (Joel Hodgeson and later Michael J. Nelson) into space and are forcing him to watch the worst movies ever made. To keep his sanity, the unfortunate spaceman and his robot friends (at various times: Beaulieu, Weinstein, Kevin Murphy, Bill Corbett and Jim Mallon) make fun of these movies. The original show was canceled about 10 years ago but most of the people involved are still riffing on cheesy movies – “the worst they can find”.
One group of original cast members has formed a comedy troupe called “Cinematic Titanic” (Joel, Trace, J. Elvis, Frank and Mary Jo). Basically, they do a live version of the original show (minus the robot puppets). Recently I caught a performance in San Francisco. It wasn’t surprising that the group was as funny as ever. What was surprising was the fact that all of the performers were holding iPads. They didn’t make any sort of announcement about it. They just sat down and started to to read from them. They have always used paper scripts — even during live performances — so I was surprised to see this revival of a 90’s era show using such 21st century devices.
I wanted to learn more about this so I contacted Glenn Schwartz, their PR person. He explained that the iPad solved several longstanding problems involving the creative process, performance and even travel.
During their creative process the cast will watch a bad movie and write down any jokes that come to mind. These are then sent to one cast member, Weinstein, who compiles them into a script. The script is then emailed to each cast member’s iPad. They view the script in a PDF viewer and may make changes, which are shared via email directly from the iPads. The PDF reader allows each cast member to highlight their part and to make notes. The immediate effect of this is a tremendous reduction in wasted paper. It also allows for a very rapid iterative process even though all the participants are in different locations.
Apparently Apple has done an excellent job designing the UX of their PDF reader. The interaction is so natural that the cast is able to use it as if they were reading a paper script (paging to appropriate sections and etc). A side benefit of the glowing screen is that each performer is self illuminated, requiring much less stage lighting, if any at all. I was surprised to learn that the iPads are not synchronized to each other or to the film. The performers simply “turn the pages” of their scripts as necessary.
The troupe’s five performers each need an updated script. These scripts are fairly lengthy (and heavy), weighing in at about 50 lbs a set. Now that the cast uses iPads they’re no longer obligated to carry all that extra weight around. They simply bring along their iPads, something they would have probably done anyway for their own personal use.
Clearly the Cinematic Titanic troupe would benefit from a more integrated solution. Imagine if our own XLibris were an iPad app that was extended to include more collaborative features. A cloud version might enable these performers to iterate through changes in an even more natural way — retaining their local changes while automagically pushing or pulling in important global changes.
I wouldn’t be at all surprised if a technology very much like this became the standard way that scripts are distributed. Xerography made quickly revising and distributing scripts possible; some form of XLibris on an internet-enabled tablet might make it even easier and faster.
This is just one example of the way these technologies enable people to work collaboratively. Cinematic Titanic’s ad hoc script writing process isn’t very different from the way researchers might prepare a paper or the way a sales team might prepare a presentation. A robust, document-centric application that supports annotation and collaboration running on a lightweight tablet might well be that killer app we’ve all been looking for.