Suzanne Stefanac, Director, AFI Digital Content Lab

1. What is your role at the AFI Digital Content Lab?

Suzanne Stefanic is the Director of the AFI Digital Media Lab. The AFI mission statement is to identifying and supplying excellence in film, television and digital media. This is what Suzanne’s job entails.

In keeping with that mission statement, one of Suzanne’s roles is to identify media assets which would benefit from user interaction.

The AFI Digital Media Lab started in 1998 as the AFI Enhanced Television Workshop. It was TV centric. Suzanne was one of the mentors from the beginning.

In the beginning, there were Television projects based on set top box interaction. As time went on, “it was clear that many frontiers would facilitate that interaction,” says Stefanic. Therefore, the lab projects focus changed.

About 3 years ago, the name of the lab changed from Enhanced Television Workshop to the Digital Content Lab. “The name changed to reflect the changes in the media landscape. Today, we focus on TV, Games and sometimes Film projects. The number of platforms that benefit from user interaction has also exploded with broadcast, broadband, DVRs, On-demand, Mobile and Game Consoles”, says Stefanic. This continues the tradition of incubating the most forward thinking programs and projects for digital media.

Project collaboration occurs among recognized experts, which the Lab calls mentors, in: interactivity, strategy, design, production and underlying technologies. The Lab finds mentors in various ways. “Some mentors come to AFI, from On-line, referral and press. Some mentors AFI actively recruits.” says Stefanic.

Projects come to the AFI through various ways. “Projects come from a media asset or idea, set a standard, and provides a template for others looking at some emerging form of interaction.” says Stefanic.

2. What are some of the barriers challenges for your lab?

One of the challenges the AFI Digital Media Lab faces is the rate of change. “We want to be on the cutting edge and still relevant for our project timelines of 6 months. Today there is more emphasis on eventual deployments, so we want to choose projects that are true interactions and have not been done in the last 6 months.” says Stefanic.

The AFI is a non-profit organization. As with many non-profits, they have a small staff of 4 people in their department. The Lab highlights mentor collaboration. “Whatever success the Lab has had, it required participation and enthusiasm of talented individuals to donate their time to strategize and build prototypes.” says Stefanic.

The Lab provides an environment for mentors an opportunity to experiment, learn and meet peers who are avid about finding new solutions.

Another challenge is finding mentors. Most mentors have been participants in the Lab for many years. It is important to bring in different perspectives and expertise.

The Lab looks for new arenas, people who evolve in their field and stand out as visionary, bringing new ideas and solutions. “New mentors, companies and individuals, branch out into new platforms and content types.” says Stefanic. Some the lab seeks out, some come to the lab directly.

One of the larger challenges the Lab faces is to look at the entire media landscape, and not focus on a single platform or content type. Stefanic says “Putting together new prototypes and team members, innovate with new technology or interaction that no prior mentors have an expertise in at the moment, and helps find the best projects to cover the entire media landscape”.

Each project has a team of 8 – 12 mentors. Each team has a 1-hour weekly phone call. All mentors are at the top of their game. “All the mentors are great. They put their egos aside and find graceful ways to learn from one another. They create a great prototype.” say Stefanic.

People want to work with the AFI brand. It is prestigious; a neutral entity in world media; has graciousness associated with it; and appeals to traditional academia.

3. What are the plans for lab?

The AFI is turning 40 this year, so the mission is changing. “It is important to remain flexible and continually rethink our goals and mission”, says Stefanic.

Projects are once a quarter. The advantage of this is the Lab can respond quickly to changes in the media landscape. The disadvantage is there were too many events which did not benefit the lab or the mentors. “We are looking at 2 6-month cycles, late-spring to fall, and fall to spring”, says Stefanic.

There will be a Festival in July to identify excellence, present and showcase the best in interactive digital entertainment today. Another Lab event will coincide with the AFI Film Festival.

The Lab would also like to increase it web presence. “We would like a place where we can have podcasts and streaming video.” says Stefanic. This will increase the Lab’s visibility and add value to mentors and other participants.