Harnessing HTML5 For Storytelling
Content can be many things. It can be a five minute video on wine tasting, a how-to on cooking the world’s greatest lasagna, 30 minute coding tutorials, a memory of your daughter’s fifth birthday, a short documentary on the great apes or a point of view on an important issue half a world away. For everyone at Storygami, the belief that online video connects us to the stories around us elevates the technology behind it to an importance that is unmatched.
Back in early 2010, when the concept of creating interactive layered video came to us, web video was nothing more than a static box where content was used to deliver a message or a story. That said, it was still a good time to be running a production company: YouTube and others provided a way for storytellers to use videos to create and grow communities. It allowed brands and companies to experiment with creative new ways to get ‘eyes on them’ and have consumers connect to their products. Everybody began creating and so content was crowned king in the video domain.
It was only recently however that there has been amazing innovation in terms of the architecture around online video. With the introduction of HTML5 and its <video> element, the web saw an opportunity to free web users from the constraints of having to download and constantly update plug-ins. In essence this meant that video could be ‘native’ to the web and thus could, in theory, behave and act more like the environment it was in: the connected web. Video would be malleable and linked to the world it lived in. For those of us who loved web video but were frustrated by its limits, this was exciting.
It’s this idea of elasticity or a dynamic video standard that captured our imaginations in the early days at Storygami. At the time, we were travelling around some of the most dangerous places in the world and making human rights documentaries about incredibly complex and nuanced stories such as, child soldiers and post-conflict rehabilitation.
The challenge as we saw it was: how do we tell stories like this on a medium that doesn’t cater for depth? There is a lot of distraction out there, a lot of worthy stories too, but was there room for stories that could entertain and inform beyond the three minute mark? Now we were confronted with a tantalising possibility: could HTML5 video offer us a solution?
We began delving into the interactive video space and were astounded by the experiments taking place. Chris Milk had directed a fascinating HTML5 music video called ‘The Wilderness Downtown’ and a fellow documentary filmmaker Katerina Cizek had made ‘Highrise’ to much acclaim. Our brains melted at the possibilities, but at the same time we saw nothing out there that quite fit. These were sprawling, wonderful experiences but for one thing, whilst these projects were works of ingenuity, they were one-offs. They were made over long periods of time and with a bank of savvy web developers and weren’t something that could be easily replicated. What we needed as content creators with a high turnover of content was an interactivity ‘generator’ that could slot into our production line. We searched high and low – but it seemed we were just too early to the game.
Then and now
There has been significant progression in terms of the sophistication of what people are able to do with online and a rethink in terms of how video sits within it but namely we wanted to use technology that looked and felt like video – but was so much smarter. This is when we took things into our own hands. London is a city that has seen a remarkable concentration in terms of technology start-ups and it suits our entrepreneurial mind-set. It’s provided us with an environment to build what others hadn’t: an online video company that used technology to put story first. We brought in two equally remarkable web developers to our team. Dain and Rob bought into our vision for ‘layered storytelling’ and thus implemented our early experiments with an eye to what we intended to create: a working in-house editor that could replicate a standard of interactive videos that we felt should be out there.
If something isn’t out there that ought to be, we feel it’s up to us to create it. Storygami was born out of that principle.
On The Line
This brings us to the launch of our company, Virgin Media’s powerful backing and episode one of ‘On The Line’, our flagship web-series for Virgin Media Pioneers. Today, it has become apparent that there are many different kinds of interactive video, be they hotspot links, tags, or choose your ending using interactive elements. What we wanted to do with Storygami however, was to progress beyond the novelty of the technology. With ‘On The Line’ we wanted to offer an experience where the technology feels as if it’s out of the way, just under the surface, ready to give context to the content when needed.
We wanted to showcase an approach to online video that feels intuitive. The kind of experience a viewer could either lean back and watch or lean forward and dive into. This was ‘deep media’ to us (borrowing a term from a friend of ours, Frank Rose.) It offered us as video content creators a way to really concentrate on the people we’re trying to tell a story about. In this instance it’s Elephant Branded, their company and how they do what they do. Storygami thus gave Elephant Branded a way to tell their story completely, with depth and entirely compacted in layers of content inside a six part series of videos. For us, this is the first small step in what we believe to be a better approach to interactive online video.
The entire experience fits within Virgin Media’s branding. This customisation was an early USP for Storygami, as were the many interactive elements we developed in the process. The layers that help tell this story are pulled in from around the web, be they Youtube videos, image galleries and, of course, the Twitter stream. All of these layers were designed to place the series within brand terms; something that adds genuine and rich depth. An experience that would benefit the Virgin Media Pioneers community, with tools and tips that can be accessible from the video itself. A video series that fosters engagement and conversation. What makes this series the most exciting for us is that it is replicable and can be offered to future Storygami partners.
There is that wonderful analogy of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco which is an incredible feat of engineering that supports millions of commuters every day. It’s maintained constantly, and is situated in the most hostile areas in terms of weather systems, yet someone along the way decided to make it beautiful. When you look over at the two towering arches, you forget about the engineering because the technology just gets out the way. That’s it. We wanted to have the technology get out of the way of the story. ‘On The Line’ is our first step towards this. Over the coming months, we’re creating a second series for ‘On The Line’ and we intend to partner with other companies and organisations that believe in a similar approach.