Storytelling For Interactive Web Series: Making #OnTheLine – From Pitching to Shooting
If I think back to my favourite stories growing up, the books that made me sit up at nights reading: Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, The Plague by Albert Camus, more recently Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell or even The Cat In The Hat by Dr. Seuss. What really struck me was that these stories were multi-layered and could be read in many different ways, each time informed by my own sensibilities upon viewing.
They were all stories thread along narratives which engaged and excited you, retaining your attention throughout. It was only once that you were invested into the story that you became aware of some emotive pull toward a larger theme, some deeper level of intention. These stories created conversation and discussions, the kind that began with somebody somewhere saying “the storyteller here said this but what he meant was this.” These were stories thick with meaning.
Pitching On The Line & Finding James
When we sat down with Virgin Media to pitch a six part web series following a young UK entrepreneur,we offered them a glimpse of the interactive tech Storygami could provide that could be used with it. We wanted to tell the story on different levels, with branching content pulled into the story as opposed to having the viewer go off-site into tangents.
We wanted to be able to provide a way to tell a story about entrepreneurship, of being a founder of a company and following your dream, in way that could inform, entertain and compliment the brilliant work Virgin Media were doing with their Pioneer program.
Those early creative meetings were exciting and our eventual executive producers Jos Smart and Lisa Ellwood were fully behind our vision. This was a corporate partner that understood the value of storytelling. Virgin Media Pioneers was about inspiring the next generation of entrepreneurs, we wanted to tell a story that could help them do that.
Heidi and I are entrepreneurs ourselves and we always maintained that we learnt the most about running businesses by asking others for their stories, where they’ve been; where they were going. On The Line therefore would be just that: a great story, told well. The technology that Storygami would bring to it would allow for narrative depth and community engagement. For this to work we needed a story that we could really get our teeth into and characters who could engage a viewer on a journey to the extent that they would want to lean in and learn more.
Choosing James Munro Boon and Elephant Branded as our focus for the series was a no-brainer. At initial interviews he came across honest and open about his company’s mission of making money by doing good. It’s a business value that is close to our own at Storygami and we chose him for his heart and it paid off. This was a guy you’d lean in to listen to, a storyteller. For us, that was key and we explained the interactive element along those lines.
It was important to demonstrate to Virgin Media that the interactive elements were not simply layers of extra content but rather layers of meaning. Text, videos, image galleries were all part of the fabric of the story we would be telling.
We wanted to make sure that any time a viewer clicked on an interactive element, they were compelled to do so because of an emotive connection. What was revealed therefore had to simply be another layer of James and Elephant Branded’s story.
Shooting For A New Medium: Roots and Story Branches
We’ve been making content for a while now and whether it be corporate work or more stylistic pieces there comes a point when that spark gets kind of slack. What came from storyboarding, designing and shooting On The Line however was a completely new skill-set and an approach that informed everything from thematic arches over an extended period to simple things such as framing and spacing. We were shooting for a medium that had never existed before.
Every frame needed to be thought of as multi-dimensional in order for us to benefit from eventual tangental branches. For instance, one of the challenges we came across was that a lot of Elephant Branded’s story takes place in Cambodia where their products are made and designed. Unfortunately our production budget wouldn’t allow for a trip over so the focus of the series became James, Tim and the team in the UK who manage operations. Rather than this becoming a compromise, the multiple layers of story allowed us to delve into the characters of James and Tim while also make space for elements of the story that informed the process behind creating their products.
An example of this was when James spoke to us about Pry, one of Elephant Branded’s suppliers from Cambodia. He mentioned that Pry couldn’t read or write and that his wife handles the accounts back in their Cambodian village. He told us that Elephant Branded’s success as a whole was determined by the trust in Pry and his wife Mey to make sure production is kept running. This was such an illuminating story that we desperately wanted it in there. It’s those little anecdotes that really give a sense of richness and humanity behind a brand. But given that the thrust of the first episode was James and Tim’s personal story, there was no way to keep it in the actual episode (what became known as the ‘root’ video.) But now with ability to layer the story of Pry over the top of the root episode, it made it possible to add that level of depth to the overall episode as a branch story.
This meant that Storygami offered us a way to add enriching layers of story that perhaps otherwise would have been left on the cutting room floor in order to constrain to the 5-minute run time.
Now, I was acutely aware that this could end up becoming a way for us as producers to add every single piece of superfluous information into the story just because we could. We tried to be constrained on that front. Constraints make us better storytellers and so anything that didn’t need to be told for the betterment of the story, wasn’t included. Stories like the one about Pry and May we felt genuinely added something. The intention was to add depth, not distraction.
Why It’s Important To Maintain Authorship
The best stories feel as if the storyteller is taking you on a journey. The first episode therefore, from a narrative standpoint, needed to set up James and Tim as our focus for the series but also as an invitation to the viewer to keep watching; a ‘come back next week’ quality. The entire series from the first episode onward needed to feel whole and the interactivity needed to be part of that binding process. We needed to illicit an emotional connection to the story early on so as to retain viewership. This comes down to the content above all but the tech helped in a number of ways.
More often than not, webseries can feel disparate and disjointed. For the most part this comes down to distribution and production cycles. A lot of what’s out there is produced on a low to no budget and wherever it ends up online, Youtube, Blip etc, the web isn’t the best platform for episodic storytelling. From an audience perspective it’s difficult to keep track of what episode comes next.
We thus designed Storygami and it’s player to help in this regard by allowing for each episode to be kept tight within the space of the series. Each episode can be accessed within the player and wherever the videos are stored on the web (Amazon S3 for us but this could equally be pulled in from Youtube) all episodes are just a click away.
This also means that the pacing of the show can rely less on gimmicky endings to gain returning viewership but instead simply let the story breathe and pace itself. This at least was our experience with On The Line, knowing that the next episode and it’s branch stories could be accessed from within the player itself allowed us as producers to, again, go back to what mattered: the story that was being told.
It’s an interesting challenge: to have linked, connected content branch from a root narrative yet feel as if it were part of a single story. We’ll only know if we succeeded by Episode 6.
The web is a wonderful place to tell stories. We’re still trying to feel our way through this connected environment. Our approach to interactive web-series was to concentrate on how best to tell a single story in a medium that offers many dimensions. The best way to describe the philosophy Storygami want to advocate with On The Line is to talk about interactivity not as multi-media experiences but as multi-layered storytelling. This is still a very nascent space and the experiments in interactivity are beginning to bear fruit but we still tend to focus too much on the novelty of giving a viewer a little button or the tag or the hotspot to interact with. Perhaps we ought to do some work on making it easier for producers to tell compelling stories on the web. A viewer will lean in if they are compelled to do so by the content. The technology will allow for this to happen if and when they choose to do so. All we need to do meanwhile is keep telling great stories. It’s all that matters and frankly, it’s all that ever will.