Mind the Bridge

Last summer, “Professor S.” was nominated for the European Innovative Games Award. Because of that, we received a lot of attention most notably from ACE Creative, who invited me to present “Professor S.” to a group of investors and game developers at Gamelab in Barcelona. As a result, we were selected to come to San Francisco and present the project to an audience of high profile investors and industry experts in the bay area.

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When I got there, I joined a group of of entrepreneurs from all over Europe who had come to San Francisco to hone their pitching skills and explore opportunities in the Silicon Valley. I can tell you that there are many opportunities and the weather is also pretty good. On top of that, I managed to catch up with old friends in the area and met many new interesting people.

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Most days were taken up with talks and workshops to help us get our projects ready to pitch to US investors. One day, we were all taken on a tour of different companies around the bay area which was absolutely fascinating. Our visit at Google HQ in Mountain View was definitely a highlight and a great opportunity to have our picture taken with the old logo.

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The week passed very quickly and on the final day, I had a chance to present “Professor S.” at the European Innovation Day in the Computer History Museum in Mountain View. There were many people there and I had my hands full speaking to everyone that was interested in the project. Luckily, my friend Leonard Cetrangolo was also there. Leonard has been helping with “Professor S.” from the very start and I was especially grateful that he was around that day.

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I also managed to catch up with my friend Grant Hosfort, who was in San Francisco working on his very fine Codespark project at the time at Zynga HQ. In the picture, you can see Grant and me in the famous Zynga tunnel.

“Professor S.” captured imaginations in the short time I was there and I know it will not be my last visit to the beautiful Bay Area. The first steps toward the US have been taken and I look forward to my return.

If you would like to check out the other companies in my cohort, you can have a look at this short video:

 

Mind the Bridge Startup School 2015 – September Session from Jan von Meppen on Vimeo.

 

We All Have Our Skeletons

Jan likes his coffee black. He is leaning back in one of the blue lounge chairs by the bowfront window. At this point, he is getting comfortable being interviewed by me. After years of dedicated work, he is ready to look back and marvel at how it came together. As Jan is digging in the archives of his memories, it seems like he is not only telling me about the early days of “Professor S.”, he is telling himself.

The road of an explorer is never a straight one. “It was very rock’n’roll,” Jan concedes. “There were many spontaneous decisions during working on the episodes.”

With the surprise casting of Paul as Professor S., Jan was eager to start shooting the first episodes. “The film element was part of the idea from the very beginning,” Jan explains. “During my work in schools, I noticed how people used computers and media,” he continues. Seeing how many teachers used films as part of class inspired Jan to what would become LudInc’s signature dish: a storyline delivered in entertaining episodes with cliffhangers that require the audience to become active and add to the show in knowledge and character.

Bringing together both the entertainment and the educational aspects was Jan’s biggest accomplishment in those early stages of writing. A one-man operation for good parts of the early way, Jan had to step out of his comfort zone of composing and producing by having to divide his attention between all aspects of filmmaking, including camera work or the prop department. Jan soon found out that passion projects have a way of screaming for attention from all different angles simultaneously. What counts, though, is not how much you know but how well you are connected. “At the time, I was working on a feature film called Dark Fibre, together with Jamie King and a very talented director called Peter Mann,” Jan remembers.

Jamie and Peter had asked Jan to provide the musical score to their film. One thing led to the next. “Peter is very good with technical camera work, so I told him about my idea,” Jan continues. “I told him that I wanted this professor guy to travel inside of his lab, because that is all I could afford in terms of setting,” he laughs. “I said: ‘Inside the lab, there is a window. How can I make scenes appear in the window?’ Peter gave me advice on how to position my camera in order to achieve this effect.”

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All of a sudden, support was coming from all corners of the globe. Jan had charmed Mark Twain School headmistress Verena Thamm into granting him the school’s chemistry laboratory as a set. Tako Taal, Jamie King’s girlfriend at the time, offered helping with the set design. Leonard Cetrangolo from San Francisco, whom Jan had met while working in the States, provided valuable knowledge of cinematography. “It was nice having so many people involved from the beginning. People wanted to help because they really associated with the project,” Jan recalls, ”even though it was very ambitious. We were nowhere near having the resources to pull this thing off. It was a very rock’n’roll kind of production.”

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Tako, freshly cast Paul and Jan went into the lab over a weekend in the middle of December. “We dressed the room so it looked like a time machine with lots of blinking machines and apparatuses. When I set up the camera, I called up my friend Leonard on Skype and I did a live cast of my laptop screen for him so he could basically look through the camera’s viewfinder and tell me how to adjust the camera and lighting.”

Every well-equipped school science lab comes with a skeleton and so did this one. It just briefly graced the corner of the lab setting before being handed a name and a role in the story, the sidekick the script had been missing. “Tako came up with that,” Jan laughs. “She just used it as part of the set at first. During filming, Tako crawled on the floor and started moving it around to make it come alive.”

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“The skeleton idea was great because it showed the obvious need for a companion for Professor S. in the Time Lab.”

Find out next time how our skeleton Pierre changed names, nationalities and genders all at once. Skeletons are weird that way.

If you can’t get rid of the skeleton in your closet, you’d best teach it to dance. –George Bernard Shaw

David Lütke, Editor

" rel="bookmark">Go With The Flow (流れに身を任せます)

Production for a movie or TV series can span months and years. A lot can happen during that time. Previous plans can come undone. It’s up to the producer and crew to roll with the punches. The fascinating part is looking at cast, titles or details that never came to be. These could-have-been’s are something the audience rarely or never hears about. Of course, a multitude of factors play a part when movies become iconic. Imagine how different some of the world’s most popular productions could have been. Could you see John Travolta playing Forrest Gump? He almost did. Or Sean Connery in the role of Middle-earth’s favorite wizard Gandalf? They were considering him.

Now, our dear Professor S. is no Forest Gump, although he does get himself into quite a few situations of historical significance. But did you know he went through several incarnations, both on paper and on screen?

But let’s recap: Jan von Meppen proposed giving his unique game model a try at Mark Twain Primary School in Berlin. Jan, with a background in filmmaking and alternate reality games, went to work on a prototype of the game over the summer holidays of 2009. His friend Frieder Klapp, fourth grade teacher at Mark Twain Primary School, helped him.

“Frieder put me onto topics like fire, whales & dolphins, which is basic fourth grade content”, Jan remembers. “So I took that information and constructed stories around it. I wanted to wrap the learning content into a story. That was the idea.”

The writing process went fairly quick, as Jan remembers. The time travel theme quickly established itself. However, there were initial detours. “One of the ideas was that Michael Jackson, who had died in June of that year, was not really dead but actually living in the school’s attic, communicating with the children.” Jan laughs, “but that was dismissed quickly.”

When the professor story came into focus, Jan recognised the need to put a face on his main character. “The first idea was to get a Japanese actor. The character was then called Professor Takeshi. So I was looking for an Asian actor because there is a stereotype according to which Asian people are widely associated with technology.”

An email from Jan to set designer Tako, discussing the possibilities of having a Japanese Professor S.:

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Jan set up the auditions at HomeBase Lounge, an event space at Potsdamer Platz in the heart of Berlin. Some people who came to the audition were just curious and weren’t even available for the planned shoot.  Others simply didn’t have the acting skills. It wasn’t looking good for Jan’s schedule. But, as he soon found out, good things sometimes happen unexpectedly.

“All throughout the auditions, there was a guy named Paul, working the bar”, says Jan. “He said ‘Why don’t you just let me do it? I can do it, I love kids and I can act’, so we tried him and he turned out to be very good, he had a lot of energy”, he continues. “And he was kind of chaotic which is something I wanted for the character of Professor S.” Paul Karopka shortly thereafter put on the lab coat and thick rimmed glasses that made him become the first official Professor S. Lucky incidents like this are dotted throughout LudInc’s founding years and seem to be proof that persistence is always rewarded. Jan is smiling, thinking about it.

So far, lady luck has favoured our heroes. What happens if you go into a project passionate, open-minded and with a rock’n’roll attitude? Are great things going to happen or is the project bound for disaster? Which way does the pendulum swing? Find out next time.

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David Lütke, Editor

Fishing In The Idea Pond

Great ideas come by accident. The trick is to be ready when they come. What helps is a generous dose of rebellious spirit and the ability to think two steps ahead. When Jan von Meppen was first consulted by schools about their server setups and computer infrastructure, he didn’t know it would lead him to creating the concept of the Real World Game. After all, school was an unlikely place for him to start afresh.

“I’ve always disliked school”, Jan laughs. “I became a master at avoiding classes with the exception of those attended by girls I liked and subjects I enjoyed. In any case, I received spectacularly bad grades.” Several years down the road, new doors opened up when his admission to the renowned University of Oxford rekindled Jan’s academic spirits. “Basically, at Oxford, I got to do something I was really interested in.” Between studying philosophy and a finance position at Harley-Davidson, Jan has always been keen to try out new things.

Jan, together with some fierce Harley-Davidson colleagues in 2003:

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He knew when to jump at a good chance. His first steps into the world of digital media led him to film production and score composition and paved the way for Jan to further explore the field.

“I had become fascinated with the concept of transmedia and alternate reality games”, he recalls. “I enjoyed this novel approach to audience engagement. I absorbed everything I could find on the subject.”

The key moment took place at Berlin-based Mark Twain Primary School in 2009. The principal, Verena Thamm, asked Jan to produce a short image film for the school. “I just replied ‘I could do that but I might have something better for you’”, says Jan and chuckles. “My proposition to Mrs. Thamm was that playing an alternate reality game as part of regular class activities would create more buzz than an image film.” Were these the magic words that led to the creation of LudInc? Whatever the case may be, the two agreed that it was worth a try and Jan went to the drawing board.

Frieder Klapp, then teacher of a fourth grade class at Mark Twain, saw the potential in Jan’s idea. Having been given a thorough overview of lesson plans by Frieder, Jan went all in and dove into writing and the production of the first batch of episodes for Professor S.

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The scene was set for an unsuspecting school class to experience the first real world learning game.

Naturally, not everything went smoothly during testing. One time, the whole class started crying because they thought Professor S. had been eaten by dinosaurs. “We had to reassure them that he was still alive”, Jan remembers, “and that he had in fact just sent a new message through the Time Portal. It was the fastest I have ever seen kids run back into the classroom.”  Believe me, the first months with Professor S. produced boxes and boxes of these funny anecdotes. Stay tuned for more.

David Lütke, Editor

Remembering The Work Bench

Jan von Meppen has rolled up his sleeves and is typing away on his laptop. Warm air mixed with street noise is coming in through the open window. Jan doesn’t seem to notice. He is in the zone. It’s 11.45 on a Friday. The weekend is almost here. Not that a weekend would mean much to Jan anymore.

It’s been a busy week. LudInc has launched a crowdfunding campaign to ensure funds for further development of Professor S., LudInc’s first interactive learning adventure and Jan’s brainchild.

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Over the past six years, he has watched his idea grow from a seed into a thing. Jan is a modern-day Gepetto. He is helping his creation on its legs and watching it take its first steps.

The LudInc offices in Berlin-Wedding are bright and sunny on a day like this, spacious rooms with a warm feel and wooden herringbone floors. The shelves are filled with remnants from the past, bits and bobs from over the years. Musical instruments, books of sketches and ideas, early technical models. They showcase Jan’s path and the long way his initial idea has come. Between strategy meetings with his team and an increasing number of press appointments, Jan rarely gets to sit back and take it all in these days. New storylines and episode scripts are being developed so that Professor S. will soon be able to played by kids all over the world, at home and on the go.

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Jan remembers the early days of Professor S. He started exploring the possibilities of story-infused learning models for the classroom back in 2009. At first, he was on his own but with resilience, patience and a bit of luck, the pieces started falling into place.

This is the story of Jan and Professor S., a diary of our work at LudInc over the past six years. We will meet early contributors and loyal companions from along the way, hear funny anecdotes from what it means to bring together a team of maverick thinkers and visionary lunatics and uncover some of the secrets around Professor S. Where did the Time Portal come from? Was Professor S. initially Japanese? Can skeletons talk?

David Lütke, Editor