“Should we care about interactive films?” — Engagement, interaction and future scenarios

Garage Stories
Aug 26, 2019 · 12 min read

This document explores how narrativity, interactivity and engagement are mutually reshaped within the domain of interactive films; addressing both the production and the user experience through the case study of NUFF Club, an interactive film* created by a group of talented filmmakers and developers at the Nordic Youth Film Festival 2019 in collaboration with SEEK & Garage Stories.

*Link to the film at the end of the article ;)

Every year, by the end of June, the city of Tromso (Norway) -the capital of the “North”- is filled up with young and excited filmmakers that travel from all over the world (from Gaza to Greenland) to be part of the Nordic Youth Film Festival, an international gathering of young filmmakers in the North.

During an intense week, participants are formed into international teams and challenged to work on a short film from “idea to final cut”. Out of the 6 working teams, one of them is challenged to explore new forms of media in the format of a lab.

The idea to have this experimental group was started since 2016 by Ismet Bachtiar, Project Manager at SEEK, that promotes the development and integration of emerging media in film festivals:

“The most important thing is to start a conversation between filmmakers and technologists so they can understand each other: their workflows, their creative process and their challenges. Once you reach that understanding, new opportunities start arising and anything can happen! That’s our main goal at SEEK, to foster multidisciplinary projects”

The focus of this year was interactive films, and the selected participants to undertake such challenge were the filmmakers Hanna Suni, Margaretta F A Orkan, Stian Andreassen, Charlotte Kristiansen and Amenallah Hraghi; altogether with the Developers Simen Fjellstad and Rico Soleng; and the artist and graphic designer Ali Jabaly.

“What attracted me to this project was that I am studying computer science and I also work in films back in Tunisia, but I have never known how to merge both of my passions, I always thought of it as two very different things” Amenallah Hraghi

The team was mentored by Ismet Bachtiar and myself, that I’ve been running similar labs with Garage Stories around the world, though I had never worked on an interactive film.

PREMIÉRE of NUFF Club at Verdensteatret Kino. June 28th 2019

Probably the first thought that comes to your mind when talking about interactive films is “Black Mirror: Bandersnatch”, the “Choose Your Own Adventure” film released by Netflix on December 28 2018, that allowed consumers to make decisions for the protagonist throughout the story, with each decision branching into a different storyline and ultimately a total of 5 possible endings.

“I watched Bandersnatch with my girlfriend and we had so much fun! We actually felt bad for the character when we made really bad choices for him and we tried to go back to fix it” — Eric Jensen Stene — main character at NUFF Club

Bandersnatch was the first interactive film to gain widespread media attention and acclaim, but it definitely wasn’t the first one to be made. There’s been quite some experiments in this field, and interactivity is a wider concept that we can initially imagine. Some pieces allow you to switch between different scenes of the different characters -in a similar way that you scroll through Instagram Stories-; and others allow you to change the reality of the character you are following.

Also, interactivity isn’t secluded to filmmaking, theater has also experienced a growing trends of immersive and interactive formats.

“I work in theater and we’ve experimented with interactive formats: from letting the audience make decisions and even involving them into the plot. People feel a bit skeptical at the beginning but it normally turns out much better than they expected and get really engaged” Charlotte Kristiansen

The first thing we did was watch some movies from Hello Eko to get some inspiration.

HelloEko is the platform we actually used to build the project, which actually have a interesting guideline that you can read here (https://studio.helloeko.com/guides).

Afterwards we did a short brainstorming session to decide which elements of interactivity we wanted to explore and which stories were naturally suited to this medium.

In my experience running similar labs, I feel it is important at the beginning of any creative process to create some chaos and let your imagination fly wild. It doesn’t matter if you find all the answers you are looking for at that moment -in fact, you shouldn’t-, but asking the right questions will help you be open to new possibilities and you’ll eventually find your answers along the journey. This is an essential part of any lab, to question everything and be open to unsuspected answers.

“I love breaking down films into what works, what doesn’t and why that is. With interactive film this is a much bigger job, with several more angels to consider, but since you have very few pre-assumptions about what an interactive film should be, this (for some reason) came easier to me” — Hanna Suni, Writer & Director

Below there’s a mind map with our first explorative thought about the role and the agency of the audience in the film, their new storytelling possibilities that interactivity enables.

There were of first thoughts that initially stand up to us:

  • We need to create a clear role for the audience, so they understand what’s their goal — otherwise people might feel confused and annoyed
  • The audience must have its own emotional ride within the story, which can mimic the character’s one… or not
  • Interactivity requires rewarding audiences for their actions, to increase their engagement with the progression of the plot
  • Not making a choice should be a choice — which is none of the ones available to the audience, but a third one that happens if you don’t chose on time
  • We need to keep the surprise element not to make it boring: even if the audience is deciding, the movie can’t be predictable

So with all these thoughts in mind we went into scripting. One thing we had clear is that we had to tell a story that the audience could relate to, so they would care about and be more engaged when making their choices; so we decided to build a story around the idea that of our working place, TVIBIT, turned into a secret club after midnight (that was the time we were actually being asked to leave the building every night during the festival).

Once we had that clear, it was time to actually go into the scripting and figure out which agency we wanted to give the audience. We thought that given the short duration of the film (maximum 6 minutes), our best asset to engage the audience was curiosity: we had to get them intrigued to figure out what was happening at TVIBIT after midnight.

Tvibit is the youth culture house Tvibit in Tromsø that hosts NUFF every year.

The first scene was easy, at least the theoretical part of it, as it wasn’t that different from traditional storytelling, where you use the first scenes to introduce the characters and their circumstances. In this case though, we had to build it in a way that the audience -driven by curiosity- wanted to help the main character get into the secret club to find out what was it all about.

After the first scene is when all the fun part starts, and before going into detail we draw the story arc… which is quite different to the traditional one.

“I had actually used branching narratives before as a script writing tool to explore different possibilities and to test the characters. Doing so I noticed that once the characters become the most powerful thing — then interactivity feels natural, not imposed at all into the story, so I really wanted to explore with the genre” Margareta F A Orkan

Our particular story arc ended up looking like this:

Once that was in place and we tested that it worked, it was easy to break the script in different parts and fill in the details, while the “programming team” started drafting the logic tree into the Eko platform with placeholder content later to be replaced with the completed ones.

“I am a gamer and I play a lot of games that feel like interactive movies, for example TellTale’s games that use narratives to make it more engaging, so I had always been interested in working in a project like this” Simen Fjellstad, self-employed programmer

The logic tree was connected by nodes, which are the decisions points. Those can be very diverse, and are based on traditional game dynamics. For the project, in order to maintain audience engagement, we chose different dynamics for every test that the main character had to go through:

  • Decisions & Quiz challenge: choose between two or more given options to determine the character actions/ answers
  • Physical tests: a progress bar where audience needed to be pressing one single button for 10 seconds as fast as possible to reach the PERFECT spot.

Once we went into production — we realized that we had a 19 pages script for 6 minutes film — which meant that we would need to split the group in 2 units in order to be able to finish the shooting on time.

Margareta F A Orkan, who worked closely with the actors, said that they tried to shoot as linearly as possible in order to make it easier for actors to stay on track and for the production team to make sure that they were not missing any relevant piece of footage.

“I wanted to build a character that the audience would immediate empathize with, not just a puppet for the audience. I wanted to have my own emotions and through them, create the urge in the audience to make the right choices to avoid putting him in real danger” Eric Jensen Stene, main character

The third day it was time to start going into production while a small crew finished shooting the last scenes. The editing was complex given that the whole workflow was different.

“Shooting was already challenging because you need to have all in your head at all times to make sure you are getting all the footage you need to build a consistent editing, but even so it was challenging because scenes don’t seem so coherent — transitions are specially tricky” Stian Andreassen

The way we decided to organize post production was by working individually in each piece of content of Eko’s logic tree — locked edit, grading, VFX and sound — and send it to the programming team to be uploaded into the system, scene by scene. That made it especially hard to deal with sound, that needed to be balanced throughout all the content.

We created an analogic poster to track down the progress of the editing.

The good part is that as the content was divided, we could be working in several things at the same time.

In regards of the movie score, we had the help of the awesome team of Barents Sounds Design, that created the sound effects and the soundtrack for the film. Creating music for an interactive film doesn’t differ as much from a regular one, but with the added challenge that it may have to be broken up and often loopable. Also, in places it has to be used as a way to tell the viewer that you’re expecting an input.

During the process we continued thinking about some of the questions that we had asked ourselves at the very beginning of the week, trying to decide the best way to present it to the audience.

We run some tests with the rough cuts with and one of us making the choices. But it was a bit boring for the rest of us, so we started thinking how could we involve the whole audience to create a social experience. We realized that this was important to guarantee the success of the movie, because opposed to traditional movies, if you make the wrong choices you won’t find out about the “NUFF Club” mystery at the end — so failing or winning had to be a shared decision.

“If people doesn’t like the ending, they will only have themselves to blame” Amenallah Hraghi

So the programming team built a web app with Heroku, a platform that enables you to build, run, and operate applications entirely in the cloud. With the app on place (nuffclub.xyz) once the film would prompt a decision, everyone would be allowed to participate via their phone and democratic choices would be made all along the movie.

Once we got hyped with the idea of creating a social experience, we decided to take a bit further, so while the Gaza artist Ali Jabaly was creating the poster for the movie, we decided to also produce some t-shirts to be drafted amongst the audience after the screening — so the winners could earn their pass into the “secret club” to make the whole experience more engaging.

After some quite stressful moments the night before the screening -the web app wasn’t working and the whole Eko platform collapsed in the crucial last few hours due to server maintenance. But finally, on Friday 28th at 6pm the premiére of all the movies produced at NUFF at Verdensteatret Kino, be ready to take place at he oldest movie theater in the North of Europe.

Both mentors presented the challenge that the SEEK team worked with as well as instructions for the audience to log on to the web app and participate in the shared decision making. And with that, the project made its big screen premiere — with around 100 participants ready to play “NUFF Club”

And… the audience failed. They didn’t manage to get into the NUFF Club but — as the main character says while being kicked out: “Holy shit, that was fucking amazing!”

We had a crowded movie theater full of people with their phones on their hands fully engaged trying the make the right decisions to find out what was the secret club about. There was laughter and screams of people encouraging others to TAP faster to beat all the opponents.

It was a truly magical experience that created a fully social experience within a movie theater that totally suits some of the current trends of ephemeral, social and one-time experiences that hungry audiences are looking for.

Can that be the future? Maybe a part of it. In any case we shouldn’t be afraid of change, thinking that new things are invented to replace the old ones. Cross-discipline exploration nurtures our creative processes and gives birth to amazing new projects and mediums that can help us build a stronger and more diverse entertainment industry. At the end, all that matters is that we have good stories to tell, and the more tools we have, the more people that will be able to enjoy them.

Here you can enjoy the beta version of the film while we work on the new one. We are looking forward to your comments!

Link — https://bit.ly/2HsuBCV // Password: nuff1st

Garage Stories

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Innovation lab for emerging mediums — garagestories.org

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