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by Melanie McBride

May 30, 2005 | Brooke Burgess is a techno-storytelling evangelist raging against the 90 second narrative. Since 2001, Burgess has been genre-busting with his epic 12-hour, 24 Chapter, 57-part online saga Broken Saints, which was recently released on DVD. Mindjack writer Melanie McBride caught up with Burgess at Toronto's Flash in the Can festival to talk about long form Flash and the way of this Broken Saints warrior.

Melanie McBride: In your presentation at this year's Flash in the Can, you evangelized about the need for longer form flash narratives. How does Broken Saints speak to this need and why should we embrace longer flash forms?

Brooke Burgess: Deep down I had a feeling that people were getting tired of shallow stories and half-hearted narratives - they were longing for something meaningful and profound to experience online, as opposed to 90 second cartoons about defecating puppies and exploding breasts. When we first started doing scene tests with the software, our friends and peers all said the same things: "there's not enough action," "nobody will have the patience," and "any linear content over three minutes on the web is doomed to obscurity."

So that was what we had to reconcile with this format. How do you engage viewers in a medium where they've already been trained for immediate gratification? And this vector of thought runs almost diametrically opposed to compelling classical narratives; because the only way you can do a story any lasting justice, which is by generating a deep emotional resonance with your audience through the characters and themes portrayed within, is to craft the tale over TIME. So that's the ante we put on the table with Broken Saints. Normal Flash animations clock in at 1-3 minutes? Then we'll push for 20. The average online series lasts for 6-12 episodes, with maybe enough running time for one 90-minute compilation on disc? Then we'll give a deep nod to traditional forms, and make ours 24 episodes - containing 57 parts and nearly 12 HOURS of storytelling, which is right up there with a season of television or a lengthy graphic novel run. The majority of online entertainment pushes for quick hits of sex, violence, and toilet humour? Then we'll proudly raise our middle fingers and tell a sprawling yarn about love, fate, redemption and sacrifice in the looming techno-spiritual age.

Maybe it just boils down to a basic belief that all storytellers - from the original shamans dancing around tribal fires to modern-day yarn spinners - have a powerful responsibility to affect the way we look at ourselves, our beliefs, and our world ... hopefully for the betterment of us all.

MM: Broken Saints features wide ranging influences- from Eastern and Western spirituality to Sci-Fi and pop culture.

BB: So many things, to be completely honest. Everything from classic literature to film, TV and comics. The most obvious influences were things like David Lynch's Twin Peaks, Patrick McGoohan's The Prisoner, Alan Moore's graphic novel epic WATCHMEN; the music of Pink Floyd and Radiohead; Terry Gilliam (Brazil, 12 Monkeys), Stanley Kubrick (A Clockwork Orange, 2001), and David Lynch (Wild at Heart, The Elephant Man). These brilliant minds kept my creative fires stoked!

On the more academic and philosophical fronts, it's a broad spectrum of thought: Platonic; Jungian; Taoist; Hindu; Judeo-Christian; Muslim; and Gnostic. It's archetypal myth with a strong thread of Joseph Campbell's The Hero's Journey.

MM: What did you take (or leave behind) from your time at Electronic Arts?

With Broken Saints, we essentially had NO cash reserves, and - unlike the gaming industry - we hadn't foreseen the double-edged sword of internet infamy; the more popular you get, the more likely you are to go broke!

BB: After several years in the trenches at EA, I got tired of cranking out the same franchises without really delving into the power of classic storytelling structure and smarter narratives. Unlike your average mass-market interactive experience, we weren't doing a graphics and effects showcase and then tacking a story on top - we were using minimal skill and spartan tools to craft an original narrative and the only way to keep folks hooked was to not flag at all in the storytelling department.

With Broken Saints, we essentially had NO cash reserves, and - unlike the gaming industry - we hadn't foreseen the double-edged sword of internet infamy; the more popular you get, the more likely you are to go broke! Because hosting was still relatively expensive at the time, and because we were getting some serious hit tallies from media and fan-related stories, we were spending thousands of dollars a month on bandwidth fees. This almost killed the project.

Broken Saints was fairly anti-commercial/anti-capitalist in nature, and we didn't want to 'soil' our little cyber oasis with ads, corporate sponsors, or subscription services - again, a philosophy unheard of in the mainstream interactive industry. Instead, after swallowing our collective pride, we asked our fans for help. Through an online drive and a series of local fundraising concerts, we were blessed with over $15K for the saintly cause, and were able to finish the online series in the summer of 2003 and just break even. That wouldn't have been possible without the emotional connection that our serial story and online community atmosphere had created.

DVD Review: Broken Saints
by Tony Walsh

The genre-busting Broken Saints webisodes spanned 24 chapters over three years, scooping up thousands of rabid fans and millions of viewers. Broken Saint's motion-graphic story spins gritty contemporary fantasy, liberally injected with scenes of grim horror, and intertwines the lives of four main characters: Raimi, a disenfranchised tech wizard and hacker; Oran, an Iraqi mercenary abused by military scientists; Kamimura, a Japanese priest plagued by a tragic past; and Shandala, a mysterious orphan who begins to experience ominous visions. Each character's rocky journey plays out individually until paths cross, resulting in harmony, discord, and irrevocable bonds. Fate demands their presence in a small Californian city, home not only to the BIOCOM corporation (a biotech/telco), but VALHALLA (a top-secret military installation). Walking around and within these oppressive shadows, the Broken Saints suffer and toil in an attempt to bring about the salvation of humanity.

Created by a 4-man Canadian team, Broken Saints has outgrown its internet-exclusive appeal, and is finally available as a 4-DVD set containing 700 minutes of footage. The atmospheric series was practically rebuilt from scratch, with upgraded artwork, a retooled soundtrack, and voice-acting-a first for Broken Saints. William B Davis of X-Files infamy joins other known actors lending their talent to the captivating Dolby 5.1 Digital soundtrack. The addition of top-notch narration and dramatic characterizations takes the Broken Saints epic from flitting between motion-graphics and comic books to flirting with Hollywood stardom.

Buy Broken Saints

View the first three chapters of Broken Saints for free at CBC's ZeD TV

MM: Through Flash, Broken Saints has transported the graphic novel into the interactivity of PC and the home-cinema of DVD. How would you describe the "Broken Saints genre"?

BB: Considering this - that audiences and critics need some sort of label in order to more effectively relate to what you're doing - I wanted to coin something that encompassed the major technical and artistic themes of the work. So out of that examination - and the clear fusion of graphic novels and simple 'filmic' presentation in Broken Saints - the "Cinematic Literature" genre was born. It's not necessarily the slickest sounding of genres, but it carries a certain pedigree and thematic gravity that 'animated comic book' never could. And now, with the storage and features available on the DVD format, we've truly been able to push the work more squarely into the 'cinematic' camp.

MM: How did Flash influence the pace of presentation in terms of story elements?

BB: As with most things regarding the creation of Broken Saints, it was always a case of playing to our strengths and reigning in our weaknesses within the medium. Were we great animators? Not at all, and our team was far too small and the scope of the story too mammoth for us to consider a fully articulated presentation. Did we have file size limits? Absolutely. We were bursting at the virtual seams, and often had to split chapters into parts or 'Acts' to accommodate all the essential art and effects work, not to mention the challenges of sound design. Were there weak spots technically? Certainly! Initially, we tried to cater to slower machines and reduce the size of the viewing window in order to offer a presentation with fewer framerate hiccups. Then, we realized that Flash played at different speeds on Macs and PCs, and we didn't have the available space to 'stream' the majority of our timeless.

With these chinks in our armour, we tailored the BS experience to what we COULD do well, given the circumstances. We couldn't animate well, but Andrew could draw, and Ian and I had strong cinematic sensibilities that influenced the camera movements and layer shifts within scenes, which created the illusion of more movement and action for the viewer. This choice solidified the 'cinematic literature' tag for the series, and the painted and shaded bitmap art style distanced our work from the glut of vectorized Flash at the time. We couldn't prioritize well, so instead we shaped each chapter and act around its strongest component, and then did the best we could to minimize frills and compress the remaining assets without making the story suffer. This ended up highlighting the audio for many viewers - many of whom declare that Tobias and Quentin's music is the shining gem of saga. We weren't technical wunderkinds, so we found the lowest common technical denominator for presentation, and then religiously timed and tested chapters on machines of various speeds to gauge the ideal 'window' of engagement. This certainly slowed down the pace of presentation, but I found - when combined with effects, poetic dialogue, symbol-heavy visuals and dreamlike soundscapes - that it all fused to create an hypnotic (and at times downright trippy) experience.

MM: What is the response to Broken Saints from the flash community and beyond?

BB: I had originally hoped to create a small buzz in the comics and anime communities with our unique take on things, but I never imagined that we would be seen my millions worldwide, be raved over in the mainstream press and receive some major Flash industry accolades - culminating currently with the DVD receiving the 2005 Best of Show Award at the Horizon Interactive Festival and two major nominations at this year's Canadian New Media Awards.

The continued fan support, especially from European and South American audiences hungry for new styles, more challenging narratives, and 'trippier' experiences, is not entirely unexpected. I guess it's really the scale of it all continues to amaze us. There's a segment of the flash community that is vocal in their dislike of BS - we use bitmaps, the effects are primarily Photoshop layers, and the animation is mainly performed with simple 'tweens' - but what they fail to realize is that it's all about serving the STORY in the end. We understood from the beginning what Flash (at the time in its 4th and 5th iterations) was good at, which was the manipulation of images, text, and audio along a timeline. As comic fans, we saw the obvious - that a medium comprised of images and text, spread out over linear chronology, and then textured with hypnotic music and creative sound design, would capture an audience.

We just couldn't predict how big that audience would be.

MM: What's next for Broken Saints? I heard rumours of a game?

BB: A next-gen console version of Broken Saints has been designed and is confirmed for development pitches with three major publishers that have requested it after arduous discussions and negotiations. I hope to use this opportunity to revitalize the classic adventure and mystery genres (think Gabriel Knight and Myst meets Kojima's Snatcher) while taking advantage of new tools to leverage interactive cinematics and compelling network experiences.

On the DVD front, the 4-disc Special Edition [is] exclusively featured at Future Shop (along with an in-store HD trailer!). We're finalizing US and UK/Europe distribution deals this month, so I expect it to be widely available by summer's end. Meanwhile, I'll be evangelizing at the San Diego Comicon, the Canadian New Media Awards, Banff Television Festival, some anime cons and several other speaking engagements. I am also continuing to negotiate for specialty broadcast of the series along the lines of what we're currently doing with CBC's On Demand specialty service.

Finally, Broken Saints is entering an exciting phase of early development as a premium print graphic novel and a limited live action television series. Still much dangling of carrots at the moment, but if and when the green light shines I'll be sure to post it on our new blog at:

Melanie McBride is a Toronto-based writer and communications specialist. She blogs at chandrasutra and resides online at

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