How to make a photonovel... dissecting a year long project

 This is the first post in a series that will walk through the process of creating a commissioned, full length work in a largely unexplored medium. It is both terrifying and exciting trying to do something new in a creative field; this particular process felt like forming  a movie, an ad campaign, and a graphic novel all at the same time.

I learned a tremendous amount, and my goals in this blog series are threefold:

  1.  to remind myself of what I learned
  2.  to help others in similar fields to learn alongside me
  3.  to give some really fun 'behind the scenes' context for  "the Joplin undercurrent".  


poster 1 for "the Joplin Undercurrent"- the homecoming kid. Poster design by Lauren White

poster 1 for "the Joplin Undercurrent"- the homecoming kid. Poster design by Lauren White



I'm finally breathing again. I've had my rest, and now I'm ready to look back and learn from my work on 'the Joplin Undercurrent'; the project that took my the majority of my creative focus from fall of 2014 to spring of 2016. It still has 1/17th of my soul. Kidding, kidding...

For those of you who don't know my work, I'll give you a little background. I'm a photographer hailing from Joplin, MO. The Undercurrent is 2nd in a series of photonovels developed by myself and co-conspirator Lance Schaubert (an author). You can check it out for yourself by clicking on the poster below. It's all online, completely free, and will take you and hour or less to read through. 


The "photonovel" began with 'Cold Brewed'- our first project together, an homage to film noir that began as no more than a fun excuse to fuse our work [words + pictures] together. That conversation happened something like this, 

Me: "I want to do a film noir photo series. But I need some good story captions to go with them, so they make sense."
Lance: "How big a story?"
Me: "oh nothing big. I just want to do like 10 shots. 20 AT VERY MOST." [emphasis mine. Yes, on my own words. to highlight the naive stupidity].

So, 400+ photos and one full-feature-length screenplay later...

Since there weren't any widely used mediums available for employing both words and photographs in fictional storytelling, we kinda just... made one up. And the word "photonovel" was pretty obvious, when you think about it. (Though not entirely original, as you'll see if you look up the wikipedia entry).

So, months later. There was Cold Brewed; a black and white, coffee-themed digital mystery formatted for  iBooks (we love PC too, but apple had the easiest book formatting software). Then we sat back and tried to figure out what exactly it was we had just made. A flipbook? Graphic novel? Silent movie that didn't move? Novella with pictures? illustrated e-book? Others used all of these descriptors and more, while we tried to decide which one was most fitting. 

We submitted it to every coffeeshop, film noir page, and other bizarre nitch we could find; even being considered for a show in a modern museum of photography. that last bit seriously almost happened, but of course, not everything that almost happens, does... 

Thing is, our niche was SO niche that we didn't really know where to put it- and nobody else knew what to do with it either. I guess that's lesson #1... if you're going to create something new, make sure you know how to market it. :) 

Eventually, we'd done all we could do in a marketing sense, at least for that time. Lovingly, gently, we sat "cold brewed" back on the shelf, unsure if we'd ever make another in this strange little genre of storytelling. 



In the meanwhile, we both continued in our own lines of work, which included a common client in the Joplin Convention & Visitors Bureau (I took photos of attractions, Lance wrote copy).  Our jobs, overseen by tourism specialist Carrie Puffinbarger, was to make Joplin look cool. I mean, it IS cool, but you know.

Our friend Carrie took one look at Cold Brewed and, unknownst to us, began to dream. I still remember the day she came to me, paused nervously, and said

 What if....

Guys, pay attention to the 'what ifs'. If it wasn't for this one from miss Carrie, this project never would have happened. What ifs are dangerous, but good grief are they important. If you haven't had a 'what if' in a good long time, it's time for a heart check. 

What if.... what if we made a photonovel for the City of Joplin itself. Part art piece, part tourism piece, designed to tell a story about Joplin and make people take a second look at the city... 'What IS this place? And look what's coming out of it.'

downtown Joplin MO, image by Mark N photography

downtown Joplin MO, image by Mark N photography

That's where it all started, and I'll leave it at that for now... 


See you next week. We'll split the series up as follows: 

  • "THE PITCH" (gotta get the moneys)
  • PRE-PRODUCTION (the script, the auditions, and assembling a team)
  • SHOOTING (how to think like a filmmaker)
  • POST-PRODUCTION (finding a format)
  • NOW WHAT? (phase 2?)


Check out the Joplin Undercurrent here.     

have questions? leave them in the comments below! 














Mark Neuenschwander