Tom: Thanks for joining us today, Tom. Could you please tell me your name and what you do?
Tom B: Sure! I'm Tom Burton, Head of interactive at BBC Studios. I also consult, mentor, speak, and work with cultural and creative organizations, individuals, and others around the world at the intersection of technology, storytelling, and innovation.
Tom: To get started, could you walk us through your creative and thinking process during production, maybe using an example or two?
Tom B: Thinking comes before doing. So actually, I think a lot of important work comes before production. There are some things I always watch for at the beginning. One is avoiding tech for tech's sake, that is one important question in how you brief yourself or a team. I believe in the freedom of a tight brief. Capturing and distilling your purpose and constraints. In this case it's important to ask why the technology is there and if it serves a purpose. Whether it should be in the foreground or background. Hint, it’s almost always the background. With innovation and tech in particular, I see a lot of answers looking for a question. Or to put it more plainly things that could have been more effective and better executed more traditionally.
Another classic particular to my context, where you are working with multiple disciplines in traditional sectors is the tendency towards direct translations of linear content. We're natural linear storytellers, but with interactivity you are no longer in a passive medium. There's agency, ludo narrative dissonance etc – you must consider and design for the arc of your audience’s journey, not just your story. Consider their perspective, familiarity, the different psychology, and grammar at play. Storydoing not Storytelling.
That thinking up front also needs to consider the impact and purpose of your project. The people you are working with and nature of what you are trying to achieve. A strategy for getting to good and making sure your project has a legacy beyond the audiences reaction, having an impact on your creative practice and future goals. A classic consideration in this vein is the difference between research, innovation, and market-ready products. Understand the stage your idea is at, measure expectations so you have right amount of room to breathe and plan for the next stage in its journey.
Be honest about your audience, impact, and value. The tech might be cool but given your purpose are the right people going to even been able to see it or are you just making this for you and your mates? Are you going to reach a meaningful and diverse enough audience? Or is this incredibly niche?
Tom: What do you mean by "brief"?
Tom B: Deceptively good question. I mean the brief that you write for yourself. Other people often write terrible briefs. It's important to find the right balance between thinking and doing. Too often, the thinking is the top of the iceberg, and the doing is the big part.
Tom: You mentioned the difference between parallel storytelling in interactivity and traditional linear storytelling. How do you decide which way to balance interactivity?
Tom B: Striking the balance depends on several factors, including the level of emotional engagement needed. It's important to understand that when interacting with something, you enter a different mental state or behavioural space compared to consuming content more passively. There’s a term called Ludo Narrative Dissonance that captures this challenge. This understanding is crucial for the work you're creating.
In the context of immersive, you're often consuming more of your audience's senses and asking them to perform tasks. So, expecting them to listen to large chunks of narrative and exposition is not reasonable. They need to live your story. Focus on their agency and how that can drive a personal level of emotional as well as intellectual engagement. It comes back to that brief again, what impact are you trying to have, what are you trying to do? Interactive entertainment's strength lies in the depth of engagement it provides, and you need to play to that.
It's a question of understanding the depth of engagement that you want to have, It can be a golden path with light touch moments of interaction that provide a deeper level of empathy. Think Edith Finch or indeed many pieces from Annapurna. Or at the other end of the spectrum this can be lived, with high levels of agency. Think The Under Presents.
For instance, I find it's often easier to tell the complex story of another human being if you lean heavily into linear (golden path) led interactivity and look for moments where you want the audience to engage with the person or the world. Studios like Annapurna Interactive are great at doing this. They take a linear story and use light touch interactivity to bring you into the story and heighten it’s emotional impact. On the other hand, you may find that the most important story that’s being told is that of the audience’s journey. In our Natural History work we often need to show and not tell, letting people explore and use the strengths of play to drive understanding and that in turns gives them an emotional arc.
Tom: That's super interesting. Could you give a couple of examples, maybe one that required a more active performance and one that required more passive consumption?
Tom B: So, one example is "Is Anna Okay?". I use it as it's a highly emotionally charged and very linear story about two twins, one of whom has an accident that impacts her mental state, and the other twin who lives through the consequences with them. You can experience the story from both perspectives, and we wanted to give the audience the ability to compare the two stories and understand their impacts. You make a choice as to which sister you start with, but then you follow a golden path. However, within the piece, you actively make choices to hear memories and fill the story world. You piece together the story from the point of view of those two people and through the objects in the room.
Tom: You mentioned that the desired emotional engagement for the audience determines the level of interactivity. Can you explain more about this and what factors determine the need for interactivity?
Tom B: I think emotional impact is often overlooked. It’s the juice of any interaction. Anything we love to touch, or experience is because it makes us feel something. In the past I’ve developed a process to map the emotional arc across the beats of the narrative arc. Using mood imagery to help a team agree on what they want an audience to feel. Every other thing you use, tech or otherwise is in service of that.
Traditional storytelling methods like cinema and film can have a greater reach and effectiveness. Because they’re grammar and passivity suits the emotional journey you want to take an audience on. However, interactivity can offer presence, agency, and choices, which can have a deeper impact on the audience. It can turn the dial to 11 or it can tell a story at a level that other mediums can’t.
To come back down to earth for a sec. Our Green Planet AR experience, had a goal to address plant blindness and engender empathy for plants. To reveal the invisible world of plants, showing that they lead lives just as dramatic as any animal. While this can be done through television storytelling and was to incredible effect. We knew that if people could interact, meet and experience first-hand those environments and plant stars it would have a different level of engagement.
The feedback we received confirmed that interactivity through play and agency meant people remembered the plants. Even a month later.
On this, there are a few things I often cite as the strengths we play to, why we do something: First hand experiences are better teachers than passive exposure to information. Dynamic interactions allow people to experiment, play, and adapt. Connection enables collaborative play, diversifies thought. Complexity, can be reduced through interactivity and play. To name a few.
You can also provide a sense of ownership and engagement that is not present in passive storytelling. Take VR, where you can take on various roles and perspectives, connecting with characters on a personal level. These factors, combined with agency, can help build empathy and understanding.
Tom: So, if I understand correctly, linear storytelling guarantees a certain level of impact for a vast audience, but if you know more about the context in which the content is being consumed and the specific audience, then there might be a place for interaction. When done well, the engagement and impact can be much deeper for various reasons.
Tom B: Yes, though one has been around longer than the other. We are living through are explosion in interactivity in every facet of our lives. You should have empathy for the audience you're trying to reach. It's not about categorizing people into age groups or demographics; it's about understanding the context in which the content is being consumed and how they are going to feel.
When I'm doing my mental checklist at the beginning of a project, if the audience is quite vast and there isn't a specific type of person or setting, then linear storytelling guarantees a certain level of reach. However, if I know more about the context in which it's being consumed, the desired impact and the audience consuming it, there's often a case to be made for something more.
Tom: Yeah, that makes sense. Super helpful. You mentioned a couple of stories already, but looking back at a lot of the work you've done, do you feel like there were a couple of stories that had more impact? And if so, how did you determine whether they had more impact?
Tom B: I think in terms of engagement, data is always helpful. From a practical perspective, you should be thinking about how you're going to measure the success and failure that you've had. However, data is not the panacea. It's just one of the tools. It's about engagement, not reach. Of course, you need to reach people, but it's an old adage born of the world of traditional marketing, where people ask, how many eyeballs did you get on it? With interactivity, it's about trying to change that conversation. It's more meaningful to have 20,000 people spend 45 minutes with you than if you had a million people on the video and they all watched it for two seconds.
Data is helpful, but one of the things I emphasize is the way we measure stuff should also include the soft stuff, qualitative research. How did they react? How did they feel? Did they remember this? Did they follow up on that? For example, with Green Planet AR experience, we had specialized academic research to see whether people developed a better understanding of plants and our environmental messaging, and it seemed like they did. Personally, as a practitioner I think it’s important to watch your audience and collect stories from them. I'm always amazed when someone produces a piece of work where they can sit in a space with them, and they don't. With projects like Anna, we had some insightful individual stories listening to the audience’s experiences. Similarly for Green Planet. It's often an individual story from the audience member that can give you a deeper sense of the impact you've had, as well as perhaps other things you should be thinking about.
Tom: Do you see any common patterns in these impactful projects? Was there something you did similarly across these projects that worked, or was it a fact that you had more experience with the technology or more interest in the story itself?
Tom B: The tighter the brief, the more likely the impact. Experience and maturity of the technology, the number of disciplines and scope of the team, the familiarity of the audience with what you want to use and make. It’s about setting realistic expectations. On a creative level a genuine interest in the story. Don’t tell a story you don’t care about. Also with any project success isn’t just about delivery, good projects mean you learn and carry something through to the next.
Tom: Thanks for joining Tom!