Q&A with Pete Billington of Emmy Award–Winning Fable Studio
Part of the Future of StoryTelling Community Spotlight Series
Pete Billington explores the convergence of art and technology. His career began at Silicon Graphics at the dawn of the web era. As a visual effects software consultant, he contributed to films like Star Wars and The Matrix. He helped pioneer a motion-capture pipeline and rapid prototyping design process now adopted by every major studio. His artwork can be found in more than 15 feature films. He is also the director of the acclaimed virtual reality experience Wolves in the Walls, which strives to balance narrative structure with natural, intuitive interaction. His next pursuit is the creation of a long-term character relationship utilizing AI, interactive storytelling, and a little magic.
First of all, congratulations on the epic Emmy for Interactive Media win — what an incredible achievement! What does this mean for you and your team?
Thank you! It was wonderful to have the project and team recognized in such a special way. We were part of a juried innovation category, which meant that we had to demonstrate that Wolves in the Walls had made specific advancements in interactive media. Through the process of making our case, we discovered that it was the deep connection to character that made Wolves unique, the way in which Lucy seems to directly acknowledge and engage the audience. Winning the Emmy has given us a tremendous amount of momentum to further that concept. Prior to debuting Wolves at Sundance, we had no idea if anyone would be interested in this type of character intimacy or bond.
As a former Disney filmmaker, what first attracted you to tell stories in virtual reality? How has that changed over time?
Throughout my career I have always been attracted to the magic trick. Thinking back, it was probably Jurassic Park that first catalyzed this desire to understand how the illusion was conjured—seeing a childhood fantasy so convincingly projected on the screen, knowing I was being tricked, but unclear as to the exact methods. That became the fuel that led me into computer graphics and storytelling. Back then it was a dark art, more alchemy than science. You had to be half-engineer and half-artist just to have a conversation about this stuff. Over time that began to change. The tools got a lot more user-friendly, and the magic tricks were all exposed. As the visual effects and feature animated films I was working on became more sophisticated, the magic tricks became more mundane. The mystery had gone, and the challenges that needed to be solved revolved around outsourcing efficiency and pipeline optimization. These are hard problems to solve, but they aren’t particularly magical.
When Oculus kickstarted this recent wave of virtual reality (the third generation I have personally witnessed), it felt like a moment of significant convergence. A lot of independent technologies had rapidly advanced to create a moment of collision. Simultaneously, a diverse group of artists and technicians who inspired me were also flocking into the space. Dark magic! It was so incredibly exciting to know that we knew nothing. It was a moment of pure exploration, and every day there was the potential that you were doing something that had never been done before. This phase will continue for some time, but the most surprising discovery has been that our new course-heading is so different from our original destination. Predictably it will continue to change in unexpected and delightful ways.
Why did you first choose to adapt Neil Gaiman’s work into a VR experience? How is he a part of the process?
I can comfortably say that the entire team are huge fans of Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean, but it was Saschka Unseld, one of the founders of Story Studio, who recognized its VR potential. This was in the very earliest days of VR storytelling, and we had only the vaguest sense of the possibilities. While working on Henry, the team became intrigued by a moment of eye contact between the titular hedgehog and the audience. It made us all take pause; a character that directly engages the audience? Curious. Wolves was slated to be three projects down the lineup, and there were lofty goals surrounding its development. Episodic, interactive, reactive, emotionally connective. Neil and Dave’s original storybook has a haunting vagueness that is perfect for exploring these concepts — especially Lucy’s doubt, which we engage through sight, sound, and touch.
Both Neil and Dave have been incredibly supportive throughout the production. At first we only had anecdotal guidance surrounding the themes and critical beats of the story. Whispers of “I’m not mad, I’m disappointed” echoed in our subconscious as we began the arduous task of adapting one medium to another. There were some scary decisions we had to make in order to accommodate the audience as a participating character in the story, and then a cathartic exhale of relief when we were able to share an early version of the piece with them and receive positive feedback.
How did you and your team decide on the various collaborators and technologies to experiment with in telling this particular story?
From the beginning we knew that we wanted to collide the worlds of film and games. This wasn’t particularly novel, but it was necessary. 6DOF VR required a realtime engine, Lucy required the interactivity of a AAA game title, and the Pixar DNA of Story Studio demanded that STORY is KING. We started the process by speaking with teams that had created ambitious interactive companion characters: Elle from Last of Us, Elizabeth from Bioshock, Eve from LMNO. This gave us a general sense of the interactive team composition that we would weave into the existing film production team. Everything went swimmingly for about four months; a mutual admiration society. As the project progressed, we started to paralyze each other. The problem was that the film and game industries have proven ways of approaching storytelling. These methods work and are the result of lots and lots of painful mistakes. What comes first, narrative or prototype? Story or playability? As the writer and director I could easily alienate one group by favoring another’s workflow. We needed a common North Star. Something outside our collective expertise.
Enter stage right, Immersive Theater.
This was the solution—something that both groups could admire and strive toward. The best immersive theater experiences solve all of the problems that we were facing: balancing narrative with interactivity, creating intimacy and emotional connection that feel subtle and natural. A human performer can improvise, but we needed Lucy to create this illusion of spontaneity. She started as a virtual character; now we consider her a virtual actress. She is the synthesis of animators and choreographers, artists and engineers, dancers and artificial intelligence programmers, sculptors, writers, voice performers, and audio designers. More than 100 people collaborated to create her.
Your company, Fable Studio, is invested in a future where virtual beings aim to revolutionize storytelling. Walk us through what you’re imagining, how you think this might happen, and how storytelling will change.
Oof. This is a big one.
We realized that the most powerful aspect of Wolves in the Walls was the bond you felt with Lucy. It has to do with her “seeing you.” You feel like her friend, you are in her world, and she is simultaneously telling you a story that the two of you experience together. When we took a step back and looked at characters across all forms of storytelling, this felt new.
At the same time I started to look at traditional forms of media — books, film, games, television — and noticed a trend. As a culture we are gravitating toward longer formats, and we are becoming addicted to extended character engagements. Long-format serial adaptations like Game of Thrones and Harry Potter are appealing because we are spending hours with characters instead of minutes. We get to know Arya Stark and Hermione Granger at a relatively deep level. We believe we can predict their behavior and are shocked (and delighted) when they do something unexpected. Our culture is also in the middle of the “experience” age, where we value experiences more than things. We share those experiences with each other through social media and collective storytelling.
I believe that the natural progression of these two trends will result in long-term character/audience relationships. Characters who will spend 20 years with you. Learn and grow with you. Characters who are aware of who you are and what you have done together. Characters who can form memories of these collective experiences, recall them, and tell stories based on them. These characters will live outside of their narratives and have their own persistent timelines.
We are building on top of all the lessons that we learned with Wolves in the Walls. At first these character interactions may be limited, but the rate at which technique and technology are converging is staggering. As a storyteller I feel like I have superpowers that I couldn’t access even two years ago. I can see my audience, I can hear my audience, I can even predict my audience.
Ironically we are just reclaiming the tools we had in the cave 60,000 years ago, flickering in the firelight. We are able to adjust our stories on the fly and adapt to the emotional state of our audiences.
What does it mean to direct virtual beings?
There is a natural instinct to fear the loss of control. We have honed the crafts of storytelling to maximize control. This is the essence of the editorial process. With interactive media the storyteller must take a step back and consider themselves more of an architect. From this perspective it is quite liberating. Recently I was speaking with an experienced animator who has spent many years breathing life into characters. She spends most of her day moving small dots along a curve to create the illusion of life. With a virtual being, her artistry and knowledge would be maximized. Rather than moving dots on a curve, she could be directing that character emotionally, speaking to it the way a film or theater director would. That character would learn over time, and potentially have access to limitless range. That’s 10 years from now.
Today directing a virtual being means clearing the path and setting the vision for 100 artists and engineers who need to fluidly engage in a game of zero-g Tetris.
What other forms of immersive storytelling are you most excited about and why?
I am fascinated by large-scale socially interactive storytelling (when a masterful DJ can make an entire room of people simultaneously experience the same emotional range in real time). I love the dedication and exploration of Nordic Larping traditions (multi-day/week role-playing as a way to understand themes and identity). I am also very intrigued by the potential of spatialized location-based audio (the idea that there could be a secondary audio track to reality that would register with the real world but be created by artists).
Can you tell us about some upcoming projects?
I am currently exploring long-term character relationships and creating the emotional architecture for a character who can form memories. Wolves in the Walls Chapter 3: They’re Everywhere is in its final weeks and will be out soon!
How do you plan to build on what you’ve learned with Wolves in the Walls?
We are assembling a sort of “codex” that helps us understand all of the lessons and concepts that we felt contributed to the success of Wolves. If we collapse that into “what we think we know” and collide it with “what we don’t know” — which is the potential of Artificial Intelligence — we expect to hit an inflection point in the next six months. If history is a good predictor, our ideation will begin to stall at that point and we will have to look for a new North Star. This is the best part of exploration. We really have no idea where we will end up.
What are you most excited about for the future of storytelling?
The democratization of good storytelling tools and the intentionality of the artist. As the tools get better and more accessible, we will be exposed to intentional ideas that are genuine and “of their creators.” As a result we will be exposed to new and exciting stories that haven’t been filtered through the veil of marketability.