This Week in Kickstarter

Welcome back to our twice-fortnightly rundown of some of the lesser-known things that've been happening in and around our world. Right now the weather around the office is half-decent and everyone’s officially calmed down about that whole dress thing, so this update is coming from a very positive place. The week’s highlights:

Genuine Ugandan action movies! Wakaliga is a small district in Kampala, Uganda. In that district lives a guy named Isaac Nabwana. Isaac Nabwana makes action movies — genuine Ugandan action movies, with martial arts, shoot-em-ups, drug gangs, commandos, and high-octane special effects put together on low-octane built-from-parts computers.

Nabwana’s films are, by all reports, a big smash around Kampala. We like them, too. For one thing, who doesn’t want to see an action flick Kampala style, with local jokes, local characters, local color? For another: you know that joy that comes from watching people make ambitious things with whatever tools they have around? All that glee, verve, and sheer creativity that comes out when someone makes a $20-million-style movie for just $200? Nabwana’s work is neck-deep in that stuff. Try watching the trailer for Who Killed Captain Alex — or the full film, now with English subtitles and a VJ — without marveling.

A few years back, some filmmakers ran a project to make a documentary about Nabwana’s work. Now his company, Ramon Film Productions, is reaching out to develop its studio, upgrade equipment, and maybe even let you do a death-scene cameo in Kampala’s next action blockbuster via phone footage.

Whoever's handling their email is a pretty chilling copywriter, too.

Best things to look at: The Veteran Vision Project’s portraits of veterans and their civilian selves, and the extremely dignified pigeon in the project image for Darwin’s Pigeons.

The future of breakfast: We need to talk to you about pancakes. A significant portion of the world appears to be flipping out over Pancakebot — the batter-based printer that can whip up a pancake in any form you like. (It’s so cool that we’re willing to bet you would not immediately use it for any of the juvenile things you think.) Between this and the Keyboard Waffle Iron, we’ve been thinking a lot about griddled breakfasts, which inevitably remind us of a novel by Donald Antrim entitled The Verificationist, in which a psychoanalyst drops into a lengthy and pretty amazing riff on both the appeal of the pancake (“a childish pleasure,” “eating as a form of infantile play,” an “escape from loneliness”) and their emotional dark side (“we crawl back to pancakes again and again”). Recommended. The book and the bot.

Anyway: between robo-printed pancakes and our old friend Bartendro, it kinda feels like we’re circling steadily in on Rosie-from-the-Jetsons territory. Some of us are considering doing our part to create a more swinging future by backing a project to develop zero-gravity cocktail glasses — because you can’t toast with an amoebic blob of liquid, and someone needs to figure out the fluid mechanics of this stuff.

What is television anyway (technically): Our new friend Coorain says: “TV is boring. Watch art instead.Here’s a clip of Brian Eno telling a television interviewer something similar, on television.

Best “testimonial” quotes: Dear Mr. Lebon, in which an English retiree writes letters to pop stars about their lyrics, has a row of star comments that reads like a geek’s treasury of British pop: Billy Bragg! Roland from Tears for Fears! Inspiral Carpets! The singer from Republica! Plus Neil Hannon, Ian McNabb, Howard Jones, Vic Godard, members of the Undertones and Stiff Little Fingers, and more.

Drones should not be good at physical comedy: People love drones — personal-type drones, anyway — but they are certainly not perfect. Sometimes they run into stuff. Sometimes the stuff they run into is water. Solutions are coming: projects are hard at work on obstacle avoidance and being waterproof.

Friends: Eric Migicovsky from Pebble stopped by the office to chat about their newest smartwatch project, which we’re pretty sure will get funded. We got to put up this video of recent visitors Jesse Reed and Hamish Smyth, who found an old copy of the New York subway’s graphic design manual in a basement locker, republished it as a gorgeous hardcover, and dropped by to walk us through the printing process. Some office supplies I ordered showed up. Really solid week.

A source of internal dissent: Is the video for Style Otter Belts hilarious, terrifying, brilliant, offputting, or what?

Things that seem weird until you think about it and they're kinda perfect: Sleigh Bells' Alexis Krauss curating safe-and-healthy beauty products; Burning Man, the Musical.

The Process: Marshall Reese on Making Large-Scale Ice Sculptures

Nora Ligorano and Marshall Reese, also known as the collaborative conceptual art duo Ligorano/Reese, describe their work as striving to "communicate, to provoke conversation, to engage the public." One of the ways in which they do just that is by making huge ice sculptures and melting them down in public places; their Kickstarter project from last year funded a huge sculpture of the words The Future, which the two melted down in Manhattan during the UN Climate Summit.

In March, we're celebrating Art at Kickstarter, so we asked Marshall Reese, one half of the duo, to tell us a bit more about how and why these sculptures come to be. 

Ice sculptures in general are interesting because everyone has an experience with them, and they’re very popular. People see them at family occasions and corporate events. But Nora and I are not making them for a logo. We’re making them because we want them to disappear. We want them to become immaterial. 

The most interesting thing about ice sculptures is that they change and diminish, and they get very fragile. We live in an immaterial world — we’re generally on the internet, looking at some sort of screen. But ice sculptures are really physical. They’re cold, they have a temperature and a scale, and they’re responsive. They change over time. People can relate to that, and I think they want to. I think people are missing things in the world, so to make something so physical that it has its own transformative power is really significant.

First my partner Nora makes a mockup on the computer, usually in Illustrator or Photoshop, and we tweak the settings to make sure it will look the way we think it will look. As for making them — we hire ice carvers. In New York, we’ve worked with the same ice carver on all the projects. The sculptures are words, so we make a design of the words in a sans-serif font, Arial or Futura, and send it to the carvers. They carve the letters out of 300-pound blocks of ice, and then they put it in their freezer and bring it to the site in a truck for us.

We met the ice carvers we currently use because we were looking on the internet, and they had a nicely designed site. We went to their studio, and they were in Long Island City — at that time they were near the Noguchi Museum. They opened their freezer door, and inside were seven life-size Buddhas. So we said, OK, we’re going to work with these people.

When we’re making these sculptures, we have a very short timeline. We’re doing these at national security events. You can’t just walk in to a convention site and say, “Oh, I’ll do it there” — it’s hard to get permits, and everything will thwart you. There are a lot of moving parts to these projects.

I’m not even sure if our reputation as artists helps. Take Tampa in 2012, for example. When a city offers themselves to the political party as a convention site, they give them everything. The party is buying the whole place, the whole city. They have access to everything. In Tampa in 2012, they were reserving a few sites for the public to use, and it was going to be by lottery only. So, we had a ten-thousand dollar project, and we weren’t even sure we were going to get the site because it was by lottery. It’s weird and hard. In New York with the "Future" carving, we didn’t know if we had the site until a week and a half before. It was a matter of cost that time.

The ice carvings happen at definitive times, but it’s also the kind of words we’re using. In 2008, we melted down the word Democracy at the convention in St Paul. That was a key time — we’d just had eight years of the Bush administration, and people were worried about where government was going and where the idea of democracy was going. 

Then on the 79th anniversary of the Great Depression, we melted down the word "Economy." That captured everything — people were so unsettled, but nobody had a way to express it. Then we melted the "Middle Class" down in 2012. And most recently, we melted the word "Future." In debates about global warming and climate issues, what is lacking is the idea that the future is disappearing as well. To come up with a sculpture of a future that's going to cease to exist — that’s very heavy. Nora and I were going through some worries. It was not easy, psychologically.

These ice sculptures are not just the sculptures. There’s streaming happening on the internet, there’s a blog, we take photographs, and we do time-lapse videos. In the video, the present is zipping by the future. Some people are acknowledging it, but most people seem to be taking their pictures with it. These things are also theatrical and a spectacle. And what people were really interested in — and it’s kind of a sad commentary — is taking a photograph of themselves in front of "The Future." I don't know what they were thinking. Maybe they’re thinking the future is disappearing, but maybe they just want to have a nice photograph of themselves in front of it.

Projects They Love: Creators' Favorite Projects

There are tons of incredible projects live right now, with lots of great people behind them. Any creator can talk about their own project, but we wanted to hear what these folks think about some other projects — the projects they love.

We started by asking Eric Migicovsky — the man behind the hugely popular Pebble Time smart watch —what his favorite live project is.

Pebble Time

"I just backed the Spark Electron! Can't wait to get mine. I'm going to hack together a LoJack type thing for my car." Migicovsky's referring to the Arduino-like cellular development kit from another repeat project creator, Zach Supalla and the Spark IO team.

Spark Electron: Cellular dev kit with a simple data plan

We checked in with Supalla and it turns out he's a huge fan of Piper, a recently launched kids' project that merges play and experimentation. "Kids these days love Minecraft, so an educational toolbox that teaches kids electronics with Minecraft seems like a great way to create the next generation of engineers.”

Piper: a Minecraft Toolbox for Budding Engineers

Mark Pavlyukovskyy and the team at Piper say that they're in love with the constructible cardboard creations of Kids Imagination Furniture. "We think that making things open, hackable and customizable is the future, and this project is making it possible! And what's super awesome is that they are making this for kids to start learning and hacking things in their lives from an early age."

Kids Imagination Furniture

It's no huge surprise that The Cardboard Guys team picked The PlyFly Go-Kart, a CNC-manufactured wooden go-kart. "The PlyFly Go-Kart encompasses everything we love as The Cardboard Guys: it empowers people to become the makers of their own useful creations, it's incredibly well designed and unique, and it's just super rad. Plus, like our furniture, it's a blank canvas for people to paint, modify, and make their own."

PlyFly Go-Kart

From a smart watch to a wooden go-kart — what an incredible roster of projects. We'll check in with the PlyFly team next week to see if we can pick up right where we left off with another round of recommendations.

An Awesome Time for Documentaries

It's an exciting time to be a documentary maker. Today, we announced Made With Kickstarter, a new showcase of emerging filmmakers over at the New York Times. In celebration, we asked the filmmakers to talk to us about their own documentaries as well as the direction that documentary filmmaking is headed.

All of the documentaries below can be watched over at the Times' video page

 "I was interested in stories behind objects — what a thing can tell us about a person, a place, or a time — specific stories that point to universal truths and experiences. What better place to explore this idea than at the world's longest yard sale? I made a short documentary about a yard sale in LA several years ago. So many weird and wonderful people showed up that day. So when I read about the world's longest yard sale I knew I had to make a film there. 

I'm not sure documentaries need to "go" anywhere. In honor of Albert Maysles (who passed away on Thursday, and whom I had the pleasure of knowing), I recently re-watched Salesman. For me, nothing tops that film. It's such an intimate portrait of a human being and his unique experience. Every time I watch it I connect with it in a different way and have new insights. I'm not saying all documentaries should try to emulate Salesman. There are definitely some really interesting experimental and "hybrid" documentaries being made these days. And, of course, contemporary filmmakers are making some amazing direct cinema films. Each filmmaker should do what feels appropriate for them. I can only answer this question for myself and say that personally, I aspire to make a film as intimate, nuanced, and beautiful as Salesman."

— Riley Hooper, Elvis Loses His Excess and Other Tales from the World's Longest Yard Sale

"When I first read about Bill's story I was struck at his drive to be the best at whatever he does. He found that he's great at bowling and has spent the better part of his life at being the best that he can be. The night that he was on the path towards a 900 (three perfect games or 36 strikes in a row), which is the event Strike focuses on, was a special moment that I think any athlete or creative can connect with. It's about being in the zone, where everything in the outside world melts away, all of your skills and training fall into place, your focus is razor sharp, and you're just in an unstoppable flow. But as robotic and consistent as you hope to be, we're only human and things don't always go perfectly. That was what I wanted to capture in the film.

It's an awesome time for documentaries. The internet has obviously helped more films find an audience, but even more traditional broadcasters are getting behind docs, like ESPN and CNN. The quality of filmmaking and story telling options has also improved, thanks to really great and really inexpensive camera gear. You can shoot amazing footage with a kit that you can toss into a bag. Aerial shots are cheap. With GoPros you can pretty much stick a camera anywhere you can imagine. Smooth, cinematic shots no longer require a Steadicam rig or giant dolly. And the improvement in technology isn't just about making prettier pictures - with smaller cameras documentary filmmakers can get access to areas where before they would have called too much attention to themselves. We've all got an amazing video production studio in our pocket.

The cost of gear and shooting great images is decreasing while our options in how and where we can visually tell a story and keep an audience engaged is increasing."

— Joey Daoud, Strike: The Greatest Bowling Story of All Time

"My film was inspired by John Roderick’s memoir “Minka: My Farmhouse in Japan.” I’ve always been drawn to films about memory and storytelling. Reading the book, I fell in love with the idea of their house as a container of memory.

Documentaries will continue to be as exciting, moving and profound as they have always been, in old and new ways. So many brilliant filmmakers are pushing boundaries, expanding the form, and taking risks of all kinds."

— Davina Pardo, Minka

"I was in New York on 9/11/01, editing my first documentary. I knew I wanted to try to address 9/11 in a film somehow, but it wasn’t until four years later that the story for The Trees presented itself. I was on the subway and met a friend of a friend who was a landscape architect working on the design of the 9/11 Memorial plaza. I was immediately hooked by the story he told me: Each of the 400-odd oak tress that would make up the memorial grove were symbolically gathered from the areas affected by the attacks — the New York metro area, D.C., Virginia and Pennsylvania. The trees would be grown in giant boxes in New Jersey for five years before being trucked into the city — across the Manhattan Bridge—and planted in time for the 10th anniversary of 9/11/01. And the entire memorial plaza would be one of the largest “green roofs” in the world. So I set out to make a film that is both an examination of how one thinks about and designs memorials, but also a behind the scenes look at this humongous and exciting construction operation. I also saw film as a way to showcase the engaging, passionate and unheralded landscape architects and arborists deeply involved in rebuilding lower Manhattan. The more I filmed, the more it became clear that The Trees must also explore the deeper themes of how communities mark loss and the way memorials can function simultaneously as vibrant public spaces and places of remembrance within in urban environments. 

I do believe that crowdfunding platforms are vital to the future of documentaries. We’ve had some success at our production company getting grants to make documentaries, but it’s very competitive and just feels like the sources have dried up over the years. This is not to say that doing a $52,000 Kickstarter — the amount we raised for The Trees—is easy. Far from it. It was many, many hours of work from a large and dedicated team of people. But we were successful and the percentage that Kickstarter takes as a fee is roughly the same as “fiscal sponsors” take in the grant world. At the same time, the Kickstarter campaign helped us to dramatically build buzz and awareness through social networking and news stories. It even led to conversations with distributers for the film.

So to me, this means that anyone out there with a great story and dedication can bring their documentary to life. They don’t need to enter into the arcane world of grant writing. They can then take their finished film and self-distribute it on something like Vimeo on Demand, which allows the filmmaker to keep 90% of the profits. We all want our films to end up getting bought by PBS, IFC, or HBO, etc., but if they’re not, they can still be seen and filmmakers can try to recoup some costs. That to me is a great thing and makes me hopeful for the future, especially as all of this technology matures."

Scott Elliott, The Trees: Growing a Forest at Ground Zero

"When I met Jean and heard her story, a story of a mother whose son who was killed on the streets of Harlem who then co-founded the organization "Harlem Mothers" to fight for other children’s life, I was totally amazed by the heart of this woman. I wanted to tell her story and help her cause any way I could.

I’m happy to see documentary films everywhere I go. They are in cinemas, airplanes, schools, these films are made by everyone today, from professional filmmakers to grannies who want to tell their stories. Maybe one day instead of sending postcards to people will send to each other documentary films they made. It’s like documentaries are becoming a pen to express what is in our hearts. Most importantly, documentary films provide social change in our societies. This gives me the strength to continue making social films."

— Ivana Todorovic, A Harlem Mother

The New York Times & Kickstarter: We're launching a new showcase for documentaries

Documentary filmmaking has always thrived on Kickstarter, and we couldn’t be prouder of all the incredible work that’s gathered funding on the site — we’ve seen films go on to garner widespread acclaim, Oscar nominations, even an Oscar win. Browsing through the best-loved documentaries of any given year always turns up plenty of films we had the privilege of working with.

Starting this month, we’re teaming up with a pretty exciting institution to help share even more of that fantastic work: The New York Times. Over the coming months, The Times will be hosting great short-form documentaries, all made with Kickstarter, on its Times Video page, with a new film taking a turn in the spotlight each week — films The Times has hand-picked to inform, entertain, and broaden the worlds of its readership.

These selections span both the globe and the diversity of filmmaking talent on Kickstarter. Six terrific stories — each running a compact ten to thirty minutes — are ready to watch right now:

  • The first to be featured is Joey Daoud’s Strike — the story of Bill Fong, an underdog bowler who suddenly begins nailing strike after strike after strike.
  • Sandy Patch’s The Last Ice Merchant follows Baltazar Ushca, the last of his brothers to make a living harvesting ice from the glaciers of Ecuador.
  • Scott Elliot tells the story of The Tree That Would Not Be Broken — a pear tree that was the last living thing rescued from the ruins of the World Trade Center.
  • Minka: A Farmhouse in Japan, from Davina Pardo, tells a tale of place and memory.
  • In Elvis Loses His Excess & Other Tales from the World’s Longest Yard Sale, Riley Hooper introduces us to the characters of a 690-mile roadside sale, stretching from Michigan to Alabama.
  • And A Harlem Mother, by Ivana Todorovic, mixes 1998 documentary footage by shot LaTraun Parker with a view of his mother Jean’s life after LaTraun was murdered at age 26.

Take a look, enjoy the selections, and stay tuned for more — we’re incredibly happy to be working with The Times to share important films with the world!

Introducing Apple Pay to the Kickstarter app

Today we’re happy to introduce an amazing new feature to the Kickstarter app that makes it even easier to back a project on the go. Thanks to the addition of Apple Pay, you can now back a project with the touch of a finger. No more manually entering your card details. No more holding your phone in two hands, even. Install our latest app update and you’ll be on your way to backing with nothing but a single thumb. 

Check it out:

This is the latest in a series of improvements to help make supporting the projects you love a more seamless (and now virtually hands-free) experience. 

Some questions (and answers): 

Who can use Apple Pay? 

Apple Pay is compatible with iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus, iPad Air 2 and iPad mini 3. To use it, you’ll need a U.S. credit or debit card. Apple Pay is available for pledges to any project based in the U.S. 

How secure is Apple Pay?

Extremely secure! When you add a credit or debit card to Apple Pay, the actual card numbers are not stored on your device, nor on Apple servers. Instead, a unique Device Account Number is assigned, encrypted, and securely stored. Each transaction is authorized with a one-time Dynamic Security Code, instead of using the security code from the back of your card.

Where can I download the Kickstarter for iPhone or iPad? 

Great question! You can get it right here

The Lonely Whale

For decades, a solitary whale has been calling out across the ocean, never receiving a reply. It’s believed to be the only whale of its kind: an unknown species, perhaps a blue whale hybrid. The frequency of its 52-hertz voice is too low for other whales to hear.

While other whales may be deaf to its cry, humans are listening. Since a 2004 New York Times article first brought the story of the Lonely Whale into the public consciousness, it has gathered something of a movement around itself. It seems more myth than creature — both a fascinating story with a mysterious protagonist, and a place to project your own feelings of isolation.

The zeitgeist surrounding the whale, known as 52, even extends to Kickstarter. In 2011, a guy named Mike Ambs started making mixtapes of the whale’s song and distributing them, a few at a time, to Kickstarter backers. One of those backers was Josh Zeman, who, with Adrian Grenier, is now developing a documentary called 52: The Search for the Loneliest Whale. The film will chronicle a 20-day expedition, taking their team 400 miles off the coast of California out into the open ocean — all in pursuit of a whale that nobody has ever seen.

“It resonated with me because the story is so dynamic,” says Grenier, the film’s Executive Producer, about the narrative. “Beyond the documentary, the film will be a rally call. We’ll have a community that we can tap into for other ocean work and other stories. And we can help the lonely whale speak to a larger audience.”

Seeking a lone creature across the vast sea is both audacious and familiar. “The search for an individual unique whale is one that’s very common in our culture,” Zeman says. “The greatest piece of American literature is the search for a whale, but it goes beyond that.” The appeal is not just canonical, but also emotional. “The whale is just a metaphor for the human connection that so many of us are searching for, so that’s why it’s important to me. I’ve learned more about human beings from a whale than from hanging out with other human beings.”

“I don’t know if I could say that I relate to it — I just thought it was a beautiful, strange, fascinating story that was just vague enough that people projected onto it,” says Ambs, who’s had a lifelong fascination with whales. “When I was really young, I was flipping through the kids' magazine Ranger Rick, and there was a centerfold spread of facts about blue whales: human adults can swim through their major arteries, and their hearts are the size of a van.”

How then is it so common for people to relate to this creature, when it’s so different and so unimaginably huge? “They say that when you think about a whale, it’s just so giant that it really humbles you as a human being,” says Zeman. “So suddenly your heart is very open in the face of this other creature.”

He sees the way this whale’s story affects people all the time. “I was talking to one person about it and I told her about it, and suddenly her arms went all goosebumped and she started to cry. Like literally right there. It also happened with a journalist just two days ago.”

Besides, the human connection to whales through audio goes back a long way. “In the 70s the album Songs of the Humpback Whale was one of the number one selling nature albums,” Zeman says. “But here is this other 52-hertz whale, and it doesn’t really sound like you’d think a whale sounds. It sounds like this really weird kind of spooky thing.”

Upon discovering the story in 2004, Ambs recalls seeking out a recording immediately (a limited number of his mixtapes of the recording are available as rewards through the documentary project). “It’s a very calming sound. I don’t know if other people feel that way. When I first heard it, I kept wanting to hear it.”

Zeman carries with him a CliffsNotes copy of The Odyssey. He and Grenier are realistic about the challenge of finding one specific whale in an ocean, but they’re optimistic, even excited. “Every film I’ve ever been a part of is a crazy idea, or, ‘Oh yeah that sounds nice but it will never happen.’ But it’s important that we as humans dare to imagine the impossible, and then go out and make it possible.”

Ambs is conflicted. “I’d be scared to come face to face with it a bit because it is such a symbol,” he says. “Still, it’d be a hell of a story to find it.”


For more information, or to support the effort to find 52, visit the project page here.

Kickstarter Films at South by Southwest

Every year South by Southwest—or SXSW as we'll be typing from now until forever—occupies three distinct lanes in Austin, Texas: a tech portion, a film portion, and a music portion. Each is great in its own right, but when we saw the list of how many feature films that were funded through Kickstarter we were bowled over. There are so many. In an effort to give you (and, let's be honest, ourselves), a road map during the film portion of the festival, we collected all the feature length films, along with videos explaining what they are in one handy place, and that handy place is this blog post. Check them out in Austin, March 13-21.

Creative Control directed by Benjamin Dickinson

Funny Bunny directed by Alison Bagnall

Krisha directed by Trey Edward Shults

Manson Family Vacation directed by J. Davis

Frame by Frame directed by Alexandria Bombach and Mo Scarpelli

Twinsters directed by Samantha Futerman

Bikes vs. Cars directed by Fredrik Gertten

KTOWN COWBOYS directed by Daniel Park

Deep Web directed by Alex Winter

For the Record directed by Marc Greenberg

GTFO directed by Shannon Sun-Higginson

Petting Zoo directed by Micah Magee

Rolling Papers directed by Mitch Dickman

T-REX directed by Drea Cooper and Zackary Canepari

Naz + Maalik directed by Jay Dockendorf

Nina Forever directed by the Blaine Brothers

All Things Must Pass: The Rise and Fall of Tower Records directed by Colin Hanks

Danny Says directed by Brendan Toller

Landfill Harmonic directed by Graham Townsley

They Will Have to Kill Us First: Malian Music in Exile

We Like It Like That, The Story Of Latin Boogaloo directed by Mathew Ramirez Warren

Finders Keepers directed by Bryan Carberry

Ned Rifle directed by Hal Hartley

Welcome to Leith directed by Michael Beach Nichols and Christopher Walker

Continuum directed by Guy Reid

Peace Officer directed by Scott Christopherson and Brad Barber

Madina's Dream directed by Andrew Berends

“Calls to Okies” The Park Grubbs Story directed by Bradley Beesley