Q&A with Story Designer Bernie Su
Bernie Su is a three-time Primetime Emmy award–winning short form and interactive creator and showrunner.
Bernie Su is a three-time Primetime Emmy award–winning short form and interactive creator and showrunner. He is the co-creator and showrunner of Artificial, the first live audience-interactive science fiction series to debut on the social media platform Twitch. He was recently named the 2019 Peabody Futures of Media Award winner and was awarded the 2019 Primetime Emmy for Innovation in Interactive Media.
His other works include the Jane Austen adaptation The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, which seamlessly incorporated social media storytelling with short form video and won the first-ever Primetime Emmy for a YouTube Series. Emma Approved, another Jane Austen adaptation, was designed as a five-platform interactive series in which the title character created a real fashion blog and advice column that tied into the show. The brand synergy of this franchise was groundbreaking in how it incorporated products into the story. This series also won the Primetime Emmy for Original Interactive Media in 2015.
How would you describe yourself as an artist and creator?
If I’m asked “What do you do for a living?”, I would say that I’m a writer/director. I do that because it’s simple and it’s understandable to most people. People know what that is. But to people in this community, I would actually classify myself as a story designer.
What do you think the word designer describes that storyteller does not?
With the term storyteller, you take a format like a book or a movie or a TV show and there’s a format that’s predesigned. If I do a feature film, I generally shouldn’t worry about the presentation of that film. I know you’re going to be in a theater or somewhere. You’re going to sit your butt down and you’ll commit to my film for two hours, and hopefully you like it. But in my work, there is so much that is undefined. What is a Twitch show? What is a YouTube show? What is a Snapchat show?
I spend so much more of my time designing the format. It’s not just the aspect ratio or whether the camera’s vertical or horizontal. It’s questions like “What are the touch points?”, “Where are the nodes of interactivity?”, “Where are the nodes in social storytelling?”. So, for someone in my world, I have to think about all these things. It’s not like I’m a Dick Wolf who’s done a thousand cop shows and the characters are different, but it’s still a cop show. I design as we go. I’m not saying all my shows are successful — they’re not. You just hear about the successful ones.
Can you tell me a little bit about the most recent show, Artificial?
Artificial is a live and audience-interactive science fiction series where the audience is consequential to the story. It was designed to be distributed on Twitch, which is a platform best known for gaming.
How did you go about designing it?
The first thing I worked on was “What do we know?”. Well, we know it’s going to be distributed on Twitch. The second thing was “All right, well how long is it going to be? Is it five minutes? Is it ten minutes? Is it half an hour? Is it an hour?”. And then came the question about how to work in a live format: “Okay, so now we know it’s live. We also know it’s scripted. So, are we going to just start live and stay live the entire time and basically put our actors out there just like a play? Or are we going to design ‘in-points’ where there are breaks, where the actors in the live format can reset and look at their scripts and look at the next scene and so forth?”. And so that was a big part of the design — let’s actively put in commercial breaks, let’s actively put in scenes that are not live and that were pre-recorded. And we found that this made the story better, since the recorded scenes allow us to put things in context. That became the genesis of the basic skeletal structure of Artificial.
You use the word consequential to describe the interactivity of this work. What do you mean by that?
Interactive is at a really great place, because gaming is so big right now. And that’s inherently interactive, right? You’re controlling the character and so forth. I think the next level of interactive storytelling is consequentiality, where it becomes high stakes. If you play the Avengers Marvel game and you kill off Captain America, well you can do the level again. But if you have consequence and you kill off Captain America, Captain America’s dead forever and you keep going….
We already have consequentiality in mainstream storytelling. Take Game of Thrones: characters die, they stay dead — that’s it. And that’s consequence within the show, but it’s not interactive. So, what I’m trying to do is kind of merge that feeling of “Oh my God, these people, my favorite characters have died and I have this emotion from it” — Breaking Bad, Harry Potter, characters that had these big moments and success or failure or life and death. We feel those things. I don’t think we get that sense in interactive storytelling yet — we watch it happen and it just resets. But if we can get to that with interactivity, I just think we’ll hit another level.
How did you end up working on Twitch, and what about that platform is so ideal?
They wanted to work with me because they saw someone who would think of storytelling in a different way. When Twitch talks to traditional Hollywood, they’ll pitch obvious things — gamers in a reality house, gamers competing against this or that, Jeopardy! with gamers, The Real World with gamers. That’s not using Twitch tech. That’s not using Twitch for what Twitch is. Twitch is live, Twitch is community, Twitch is chaos, Twitch is all these things. And so I remember that some of them were so frustrated by hearing the same thing over and over again. I remember this very vividly, that my first official meeting with them wasn’t a pitch meeting. I needed to understand Twitch more. And so then they saw someone who was going to work with the platform, and use the technology, and design something so unique that it could only be done on Twitch — which is what I did.
Can you describe the bit system on Twitch?
Twitch has a currency called bits. It’s basically a dollar per 100 bits. So, like a penny per bit, right? And so, in streamer culture, if I’m streaming Fortnite and I do something awesome, you can “tip” me with bits. You spend ten bucks, and then tip me 200 bits. So, you tip me two bucks. Okay, great. “Oh, I like you.” You know, whether you like my game play, whether you think I’m attractive, there are various reasons.
We were experimenting with how you reward people for throwing bits by actually giving them consequence. So, were people throwing bits to just tip? Yes, they were, which we appreciated — people were fans and we liked it. But then how do you bring it up a level? And so the way we did this on Twitch was to allow using bits to buy more votes in our polls.
So an example: in Game of Thrones, the throne room scene with John and Daenerys. Who kills whom? The audience votes, and you can buy more votes. How much money would they have spent, right? So, we were testing this out for our show. We were asking for ten bits a vote, five bits a vote because we just wanted to see what would happen. We weren’t trying to cash-grab, we were just trying to see what would happen. And when you had very high stakes, you would have a fan or a super fan come in and just jack in a whole bunch of votes to try to swing the poll the way they wanted, because they were passionate about it.
So now this season of Artificial is over and you won a couple of Emmys, which is great. Where does it now exist? Is there an equivalent to reruns that people go back and watch?
Yeah. The episodes are available on Twitch as video files, which you can just go and watch. Twitch itself is not a well-designed platform for replays. The episodes are also on YouTube, but people just don’t know that they’re on YouTube, so our views are terrible there. But on Twitch, the replay files have very high view counts, which is awesome because the show is definitely not, as a live show, a top tier — because the streamers are so big. I wasn’t expecting that. I was very surprised to hear that the VODs — they call it the VOD files — we are one of the highest on the platform.
Is there going to be season two?
That is…TBD [laughs].
What else are you working on right now?
There are a couple of newer live platforms or interactive platforms in the mobile or network space that have asked me to develop for them. I have not seen their tech in full action, so it’s all speculative. And then short form is something that I’m very much into. Snapchat and Quibi are interesting. I’m fascinated by the turnstile technology of vertical video turning to horizontal video.
Big picture and looking forward, what is most exciting to you at this moment?
I love immersive theater. The Third Rail guys, you know? As someone attending your summit, I’m looking forward to meeting some of them. I’m not a theater producer, I’ve never produced theater — I just think it’s so cool.