News & Views

Going Deep on Immersive Storytelling with Melissa Eccles and Frank Rose

by Chris Barth

Contagious is a proud partner of 4A’s CreateTech, the conference for the seriously curious. 4A's CreateTech 2015 takes place in New York City from November 11-12; details and tickets available here

This year's 4A's CreateTech conference will bring together top industry minds to discuss 'Creativity and the Adjacent Possible' – the idea that, as founder of the Business Innovation Factory Saul Kaplan puts it, 'everything we need to innovate is in our sandbox and can be found at the edges between our sectors, disciplines and technological silos.'

Melissa Eccles and Frank Rose are two minds exploring those edges, particularly when it comes to storytelling and technology. Eccles, a filmmaker-turned-producer is currently the creative director for immersive entertainment at Elastic, and has spent the past decade bringing incredible experiences to life for brands including towing the Space Shuttle Endeavour behind a Toyota Tundra and transporting Game of Thrones fans to the world of Westeros through dreamlike mobile experiences. Rose, a former contributing editor at Wired, is the co-leader of Columbia University's executive seminar, Digital Storytelling Strategy, and the author of The Art of Immersion: How the Digital Generation is Remaking Hollywood, Madison Avenue, and the Way We Tell Stories. Recently, we sat down with the two of them for a wide-ranging conversation about immersive storytelling and where technology might take us next.

Contagious: To start, can you tell us a little bit about how you came to be involved in immersive storytelling?

Rose: I was a contributing editor at Wired and wrote regularly for the magazine about stuff at the intersection of media and technology. Around 2008, I realized that the stories that I was writing all seemed to indicate that something very different was happening in terms of storytelling – entertainment, marketing and advertising  all forms of storytelling. I decided to take a bit of time off and do a book to explore this, and the result was The Art of Immersion. Since then I've continued to follow these developments, and in particular I've gotten very interested in both entertainment and marketing, not exactly from a how-to point of view, but what are the pointers, what can people learn from this, what can they take away from it?

Eccles: About two years ago I had the opportunity to come over to Elastic and really come back to focusing on the creative strategy, psychology, and development of ideas and their execution, to work on Game of Thrones. They came to us and said 'Our fans are insane. They love this show so much. The offseason is so long for them  can you do something?'

I said, 'So what's the brief?' And they said, 'No brief, no box. Just give them something they're going to love.' That was really the beginning of me practicing an immersive principle into my work. That project was the ability for the fans to have the power to see the future in the same way that the characters do on the show. We created an immersive experience for them through mobile devices and social media that allowed them to be pulled back into the world a full five months ahead of the premiere and actually see the future the way the characters would, through premonitions.

For me, it's been kind of a roundabout way back to where I began, in film and television and storytelling and that crossroads of entertainment. It's a wonderful place that I sit in: that spot between marketing and entertainment. It's not really marketing, but the experiences that we're creating are serving a lot of the purposes of marketing, or at least meeting a lot of those objectives. We call it marketing-not-marketing. Other people call it strategic engagement. We're trying to find that sweet spot between entertainment and value for the fans. Something that has a bit of utility, in the same way that you'd look at it from a brand value proposition, but also just pulls you into a world and immerses you there and creates that entertainment value as well.

Rose: I think what Melissa is talking about is really just a brilliant example of what brands need to do now, which is to not interrupt but entertain. To bring something to the table that is not purely about selling themselves  because frankly most people don't want to hear that any more. It's much more about offering an experience, offering to deepen another experience. This is something that is increasingly prevalent and increasingly effective. The reason is because in a post-linear TV age, which is what we're rapidly entering, the whole idea of interruptive advertising just doesn't work anymore.

The same could be said for anyone producing content, couldn't it? The age of interactive content is here, and people need a little something more than they used to in terms of engagement or involvement to get sucked into and interested in content.

Rose: I did a piece for Wired on alternate reality games, in 2008 or so, which focused on 42 Entertainment, and the experience that they designed with Trent Reznor around the Nine Inch Nails' 'Year Zero' album. One of the real eye-opening exchanges I had was with Jordan Wiessman, who's the co-founder of 42. His comment was that marketers need to think of themselves as being in a Middle Eastern bazaar. You want to sell a rug, but you don't do it by touting all the fine points of the rug. You invite somebody in, you give them tea, you have a whole conversation, and eventually you get around to talking about the rug. I think that's an analogy that works in terms of taking a largely digital experience, or a digitally-enabled experience, and bringing it back to not only a pre-digital, but a pre-industrial age.

Eccles: Exactly. The concept of immersion isn't new.

So what are we seeing that is new? What has changed that everyone is now talking about immersive content and engaging storytelling? Is it technology? Consumer attitudes? Some of each?

Eccles: I think it's a combination of both. You've had this attitude shift happening for a few years now, especially with the millennial generation, and even Gen Xers, where people are just tired of being sold to. Lives are so layered, we want an experience. We want something that gives us some kind of value for our time, because our time has become so precious.

That, in combination with the technology that has proliferated, made the opportunity organic. These types of experiences are just available to a wider audience. When Jordan, who's over at Imagineering now, was designing some of the first virtual reality headsets, you had to go to an arcade. It was an outing. Now people can do this at home. It's a small subset, but just like mobile and smartphones were a small subset, it's going to grow.

Mixed reality is going to grow and be something that's much more available to people. I think it really is that combination of a desire for a different thing with the ability and availability of that technology.

Rose: I totally agree. The technology really unlocks that desire which has always been latent in people. We're coming off of 150 years of industrial age mass media, whether it's print or television or movies, that essentially forced people to become passive consumers. This existed for so long that it began to seem like the natural order of things  the way things were. But in fact, it was just the result of technology and economics coming together in the way that made it the most cost effective way to reach people.

People, it turns out, didn't really want to be reduced to passive consumers. I think you got the first glimmerings of this a couple of decades ago with the remote on TV and with video games. Suddenly people were able to, in one way or another, exercise much more control over their entertainment. And many subsequent advances, not least of which is social media, have conspired to give people the opportunity and desire to jump deeper and deeper into experiences or stories that really matter to them.

I think it's important to define what we mean by immersive storytelling and experiences. It can be anything from something like the New York Times' 'Snowfall' to something that is full-body immersive the way a VR experience is. Where do you see the future of immersive being? Is it going to go one direction or the other within that spectrum?

Rose: Spectrum is really the right word. I think there's going to be a multiplicity of opportunities and modes of engagement. I don't think there's going to be any sort of one-size-fits-all. I don't think there's going to be anything that is going to be completely dominant. For decades we've had radio and television and print and so forth all coexisting.

I do think that there are really two kinds of immersive experiences, and in some ways they're quite different from one another. The more traditional kind is where you become so involved in a story or experience that you forget everything else around you. This can certainly be independent of the technology used to deliver it  a really good novel is as immersive today as it ever has been. The idea is that this is what happens when you are so immersed in a story that you're reading on the subway or a commuter train and you forget to get off at your stop and you end up God knows where. That's one kind of immersion.

There's another, which is newer  and more what Melissa is talking about with the Game of Thrones experience  where you're able to live out an experience. It's not so much that your imagination runs away with you, which is what happens when you lose yourself in a book or another kind of media experience, but instead the medium almost disappears and you are, at least in some sense, living out the experience of the story. I would call one of them passive immersion and the other a more active form of immersion. I think they're quite different. I think they're certainly complementary. And beyond that there are just degrees of immersion in both cases  you can be more or less immersed in any kind of story. Some people are going to be more immersed in a story than others are.

The fact is, in order to be immersed in the story in any form, it has to be really mean something to you, affect you deeply. That's obviously going to be different for different people. 

Eccles: Absolutely. I couldn't agree more. I think that it's those invisible blinders that are helpful  but it isn't about the technology at all. VR is great. In some ways it can jumpstart you into a sense of immersion, because you are physically blocking out your senses. But the Game of Thrones stuff we did was really old technology  it was SMS and Twitter and video on your smartphone. It's pretty mundane when you think about it. But the story is so great and your emotional entry point and connection to that story is contextual and meaningful to you. So it becomes immersive very quickly.

How does this affect the way we're telling stories? Melissa, I think you have an interesting perspective because you are almost in a position where marketing storytelling is building on the canon of the story that the show itself was telling. How do these behaviours and technologies change the way we tell these stories?

Eccles: I think you look where people are. For Game of Thrones, the real reason we chose this technology is because we wanted it to feel intimate, and like a dream. We were tying to figure out the experience we wanted to deliver to people. Here's the story, here's the feeling we want them to have. Here are the emotions, the mindset. All of this to brings them back into this world. What is the best way for us to execute that?

It's not that we went into this saying 'Hey, we have to do a social media and mobile campaign, what are we going to do?' We went into it saying, 'Here's the experience we want to create. What is the best tool to help us execute that in a meaningful way?' 

The technology made sense because it was the one thing that could feel intimate while still reaching a really wide audience. Premonition is a dream that happens inside your head, and if you put that in your Twitter feed, it's not intimate. If you put it on your laptop, in between your work email, that's not intimate. But a text message that appears when you're least expecting it  or not expecting it at all, for that matter  you see this vision and like a dream it disappears. It recedes into your consciousness the more wakeful minutes you have. It allowed us to give people that same emotional entry point and that same visceral feeling that you would have in real life if you had a premonition.

Everything that we're doing, the story is driving the technology choice.

In Game of Thrones you have a good example of a diehard population that is willing to go the extra mile to immerse themselves in these experiences. They're going to seek out the opportunity to go to the world of Westeros, to be involved in the story. How do these immersive ideas and stories extend and reach the people who aren't doing that? How do you translate them to the population at large?

Eccles: That's a great question, and I don't think that we totally have an answer yet. Personally, I think you have to create something that people can relate to without a whole lot of prior knowledge, but you want something that is layered enough that the people who do have the deeper knowledge of the world can engage with it  and continue to engage with it and drill down so that they feel satisfied with the experience as well.

To answer your question, I think it's about creating a multi-layered experience for folks, so it's not one-size-fits-all. That's something I've been working with a lot of my clients on, helping them understand and support the fact that you're not really making one experience anymore. You're making multiple subsets of experiences, in order to help fans modulate and personalise the level of depth of an experience that they want to have.

When we look at marketing, it's not so much about unlocking a piece of content, it's about giving people something that they feel makes them a part of the world. Nobody wants to deal with reality. So people are looking for a way to escape that allows them to fall into that state of immersion fairly easily. 

It's not because they're lazy or they don't want to participate  it's because their time is in demand. When you're trying to figure out how to expand that to the larger population, you want to find ways to bring people into an experience that can allow them to get into it rather quickly, so that they can get a taste for that world and then, if they choose, drill deeper. They can spend more time, they can experience more layers. I think that that's the key  a multilayer experience where people can choose their own level of participation.

Rose: Once of the other articles that I did for Wired that led me to do The Art of Immersion was an interview with James Cameron. I think it was maybe 2006, before he started making Avatar.

He said, for him, the best way to tell a story like that was to create different levels of experience, so that you essentially had a fractal experience. The casual fan could just watch the movie and that would be enough. But for the more committed fan, you could jump in almost in powers of ten, deeper and deeper, and the pattern would still hold.

Not everybody is going to want to do this. There is always going to be a large number of people who just want to see the movie. But then there are going to be other people who become more and more committed, more and more active and engaged and immersed in one way or another  depending on what you're offering them, of course.

I don't think you have to try to engage the entire audience with these kind of experiences. What you need to do is to engage a large enough number of people to really make a difference and to provide material for those super fans to be satisfied and thoroughly engaged. That's going to have an effect that goes beyond strictly those people, because there's a ripple effect. People talk about it  word of mouth, whether on social media or literal word of mouth, continues to be the most effective way to market anything. You're never going to get everybody engaged. You're going to get a significant subset of fans, and that's going to have a widening effect.

Eccles: My brief isn't always to reach everyone, either. Take, for example, the Game of Thrones project we did. They've had about 17 million viewers for an episode. We reached about 250,000 committed people to participate. 1.5%, basically. But that 1.5% generated 47 million organic impressions for Game of Thrones. So there is a great exponential power of people who are really immersed in an experience and find that powerful to talk about and share and want to continue to reengage with it.

So when another client comes to you who isn't James Cameron or Game of Thrones and says 'Most fans can engage at this broad, high level. Some fans can engage at the middle level. But only a small number of fans will engage at this really deep level. Why should we spend money on this small minority?' you can say, 'Because those people are going to be the people who talk about it the most.'

Eccles: They're going to be your evangelists. They're going to go out and proselytize why people should do this. More than that, they're going to continue to reengage with your property, probably on multiple platforms. So they may engage with the immersive experience, but they're also going to engage with all of your other experiences as well. Then that word of mouth, that echo effect, is going to reach across all of those other properties as well. You can't think of it in just the one silo of the immersive experience. How does it affect the entire ecosystem of a campaign or of a world, so to speak, of a particular film or brand?

Frank, I saw a talk where you noted that it often takes 20-30 years to get the hang of new mediums  to really understand how to use them, how consumers will engage with them. Obviously we've had smartphones around for eight years or so, we've had computers and the internet a bit longer than that, but not an incredibly long period of time. Do you both feel like we're still in the Wild West era of digital storytelling and immersive storytelling? Or are things moving faster than they have in the past?

Rose: I think the technology is moving a lot faster than our ability to understand what to do with it and to make the most effective use of it. The fact that technology just continues to rocket ahead means that we are always playing catch up with it, in a way. That was one of the real revelatory discoveries I made when I was working on the book: that realization that it does take people, generally speaking, at least 20-30 years to figure out what to do with a new medium and how to make it work. 

The classic example is motion pictures. The motion picture camera was invented around 1890, and it wasn't until 1915 or 1916 that you had, on a regular basis, feature-length films that made use of everything that we now take for granted as the grammar of cinema  cuts and pans and fades, and all of those technical things that had to be invented, because until you had a motion picture camera there was no way to even imagine them. It was another ten years or more until you had sound. 

Yes, things moved more slowly then. But I don't think that our ability to imagine what to do with these tools is moving any faster. I think that the fact is that the tools themselves are progressing so much more radically. For example, YouTube came along in 2005. That was only a couple of years after a significant number of people started to get broadband. Before you had broadband, even though you had the internet, with a dial-up modem it was pretty much impossible to conceive of watching video online. Now you have Netflix and Amazon Prime. 

We're just finally getting to the point that was promised 25 years ago, of a real virtual reality experience. Which is going to be something else entirely and require a wholesale reinvention of all of those things that we take for granted in cinema. It doesn't work anymore when you're in a 360-degree environment. Those tools don't work the same way.

There are technical issues, much less the imaginative issues of what you do with these tools. With the development of different social media platforms, from YouTube to Facebook and Pinterest and Instagram and so forth, people come up with more and more insightful and innovative ideas of how to make use of those tools. That, frankly, is what is much more interesting to me than the raw technology itself.

Eccles: I think, too, with a new medium or a new subset of mediums, what we need to do is help people understand how to behave and interact with that. Janet Murray talks about this in her awesome book Hamlet on the Holodeck: with any type of participatory medium, you've got to teach people how to behave and how to participate in the experience that you're creating for them. It's wonderful if you've built this world, but if people don't know what to do, it's going to be a lot harder for them to really emotionally engage with it  and then for that medium to proliferate.

The more people want to participate, and know how to participate in these stories, the more demand there's going to be for these immersive storytelling experiences. That's one thing that I think we're all still learning: how to teach and instruct, and not just drop people in somewhere wondering, 'Do I look around? Do I move? Can I not? What is it I'm suppose to do?'

Mixed reality is going to be amazing for that, because you're going to be able to do so many things naturally, with your behaviour, because your senses are less obliterated.

I want to also touch on the opposite side of the coin. A lot of these immersive experiences  particularly the VR headsets that trap out a lot of your senses  require a lot of time, a lot of commitment and engagement, to really get the most out of them. Do you think there will be pushback at some point, where people will say 'Look, we kind of just want a lean-back experience. I don't have enough time for this many immersive, experiential things to happen in my day-to-day life.'?

Rose: I feel like people are just going to be a little choosier. I think what we are really getting is the whole spectrum of possibilities. If there's a TV show and you just want to watch the TV show, that's fine. Probably most shows that you're interested in, that's what you're going to do. It's only the ones that really speak to you deeply – that really capture your imagination in some very compelling way – that you're going to get involved with at a deeper level.

That's why, viewed from a slightly different perspective, you have the phenomenon of out of 100 people who are watching a show, maybe 50 follow something beyond the show online and maybe 15-20 are very actively involved with posting online and having real-world experiences and so forth. Obviously there isn't enough time in the day for everybody to do everything, so I think it's just a question of not people being tired of doing it, but people being more selective. If there's something that really matters deeply to you, you'll jump into it. Otherwise, if it's successfully done, you can still have a passive viewing experience and have a good time with it.

Eccles: I think it's really about what's going to be the best content. That's where people are going to choose to put their time. That really applies to any medium  it's not unique to immersive experiences. People want the best content. And best may mean the most interesting, it may be something that provides value, it may be simply whatever has the highest production value. It really depends on the lens each person is looking through.

Ultimately, when it comes to entertainment-based properties, a good story is a good story. A great story on a low-budget film is a great film. It doesn't have to be this glossy, tech-forward produced thing. It just has to engage you emotionally and engage your mind and heart at the same time. That's what people are going to gravitate to.

This has been a great look at the immersive landscape. To finish up, what does the future hold? What are you excited about for the next few years?

Eccles: I'm super excited about mixed reality. I think the ability to bring your imagination to life in some ways and make those imagined things real and bring them into the physical space is wonderful, from a passive and an interactive experience standpoint. 

With a lot of our work, we look through the lens of magical thinking. The idea of a magic trick is that it takes place in your mind. It's what your imagination is connecting in your brain with the story that you're telling that creates that magical moment. I think the ability for that imagination to become real to your senses and physical space is going to be very, very powerful.

Rose: The whole idea of blending the digital and the physical, the real and the imaginary  that's a very powerful idea and a terrific way to get people involved and engaged. 

Even more than virtual reality, which I am completely fascinated by, I think that this is something that is going to be the most fascinating to see how it develops and to help take it forward. This is something that really engages people. There's something very kid-like, very child-like about it. It involves the type of imaginative play that you had when you were a little kid. I think there's something in all of us that doesn't want to give that up, so anything that makes it possible to extend that imaginative experience into adult life is great.

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