The future of storytelling: a content makers roundtable

We were very excited to invite a panel of creators and producers to discuss their creative practices via Slack as part of TRANSFORM!

Below you will find an edited version of their conversation, which aims to interrogate the future of storytelling, and consider whether collaboration, transparency and risk-taking will future-proof content makers moving forward.

Our roundtable (from left to right):

  • Kirsi Saivosalmi; a film producer at Revolver Amsterdam, a content studio and creative lab that creates digitally-mind stories for a variety of platforms. Revolver works between Europe, Latin America and the US as well as on international co-productions.
  • Katharine Round; an artist-filmmaker and co-founder of Disobedient Films who has over twenty years experience in creative documentary for broadcast & cinema. She has made films for the BBC and Channel 4, had work exhibited at leading international film festivals (including Sheffield Doc/Fest, IDFA, Open City & Cork Film Festival), in galleries (the Serpentine, V&A, the Barbican Centre) and at the European Parliament in Brussels.
  • Lottie Bevan; a producer and the director of Weather Factory; a company that makes ingenious narrative games with a consciously indie aesthetic. She is also the founder of Coven Club, a women in games support network. She has also produced Fallen London, Sunless Sea, Zubmariner and Sunless Skies at Failbetter Games.
  • Katie Grayson; Katie is Head of Experience at Passion Pictures, an arm of the documentary and animation studio focused on creating stories that can be told anywhere, on any platform, in every medium. Katie is an award-winning EP and business strategist and has a wealth of experience in animation, games and immersive media.

Creative Europe Desk UK (CED UK): Welcome to the roundtable – it looks like everyone is online, so if you’re all poised and ready to type, let’s begin!

CED UK: So in terms of the audiovisual industry at large, where have you noticed the biggest changes happening? E.g. Is it in the types of stories being told? How they’re being told? Or a combination of flux in all areas?

Katie Grayson: I think there’s maybe an awareness of the audience being more sophisticated and having higher expectations around story. There’s a lot to watch out there and our time is precious – people are expecting quite a lot in return for their engagement.

Kirsi Saivosalmi: To me the biggest change seems to be in the growing ambition in terms of the audience. We all want to reach an international audience with any story.

Lottie Bevan: There’s a lot of excitement in games about interactive stories – things like Bandersnatch and Telling Lies mix games and film like we haven’t before. And I agree with Katie and Kirsi actually, good storytelling seems more and more in demand!

Katie Grayson: Exactly – and if you are asking the audience to participate in the story (either with games, interaction or immersive) then that story has to deliver – if you’re asking people to take part you have to have a bigger level of satisfaction in how that story was constructed.

CED UK: Can anyone speak to why that demand might be increasing?

Katie Grayson: I think it’s maybe about attention span – you can’t dual screen and watch Bandersnatch, you can’t see anything else if you’re in VR. We’re so used to so many things competing for our attention, to get lost in a good story feels like a real luxury.

Lottie Bevan: I suspect a good story is also a way to prioritise what to engage with in a sea of content. There’s so much high quality stuff out there these days, that looks good, plays well – it’s not enough to just be pretty and competent in games any more, a lot of people want emotional engagement too.

Kirsi Saivosalmi: Since there are these recent success stories that we all know, it’s easier to raise the bar and expectations nowadays beyond our own market. Look at SKAM for example, the Norwegian youth series from some years back. That project is still being mentioned and referred to many projects that have a completely different target audience or story.

We pick ideas from a much larger market nowadays, the inspiration comes from a wider source. The diverse platform can of course help the project, but I personally think that it can also distract the development phase since there are one too many opportunities.

I think it’s interesting that we’ve all identified how important [story] is, regardless of the means of delivery.

katharine round

CED UK: In light of larger markets and swatches of content, what is the key to surviving, and thriving as storytellers in the digital age where we’re competing for audience’s attention more than ever before?

Katharine Round: I think it’s simple – have a good story.  Easier said than done of course but the films and projects that endure will be those that have a good story at their heart, where the means of expression feels intrinsic to telling that story. I think it’s interesting that we’ve all identified how important that is, regardless of the means of delivery.

Katie Grayson: I think it’s important not to lose sight of all the things you already know – for example, just making a narrative branching/interactive isn’t enough – you still need to think about the logic, the drama, the pacing of the story. Whatever format we’re working in, that’s really important. And I think we “get off the page” quicker – more prototyping, more read-throughs, more tests of what works once we allow the user to take part in the story.

Whatever format [you’re] working in…you still need to think about the logic, the drama, the pacing of the story.

katie grayson

Kirsi Saivosalmi: Since I work across our international productions and co-productions, I talk a lot about this with the creative teams. I think you need to stay loyal to your idea and within that trusted international team you can test the story to see how it’s being received – but you shouldn’t try to please everyone left and right. And since younger audiences are consuming a lot of TV and shorter stories, it is affecting the trends of cinematography I believe. Slower stories with subtle buildups are harder and harder to sell, because the audience is seen to be less patient with their attention.

Katie Grayson: With the Doctor Who VR project the writing process was really painful – we worked with some amazing TV writers, but we had to break that “TV script” process pretty quickly – everything they wrote was great but we wanted to know how it would feel for an audience member who was “present” in the scene – so we started performing it.

Kirsi Saivosalmi: Katie, how did that change the outcome?

Katie Grayson: It made it instantly more collaborative. TV writers do tend to work a bit in isolation – they wait for quite detailed edit notes and feedback. We needed them to see the challenges we had if the scene was taking too long to get going, or you didn’t know what you were supposed to do. Once they could experience that we moved forward much quicker on the big challenges of the story beats and logic. It also helped our animators – again, they work to locked scripts – it freed everything up on that side too.

Kirsi Saivosalmi: Sounds like it was a good call to work that way. Something to learn from on the film side perhaps!

CED UK: Lottie, I know the Weather Factory are incredibly transparent about their data, methods and success stories – is that something you see as being vital to sustaining production in the future?

Lottie Bevan: It’s something we do to give back to the industry, which is very tight-lipped about sales figures because the industry is very competitive! I hope that by sharing our figures, it’ll encourage other people to share theirs and we’ll all be able to learn and grow more quickly.

We’re in an unusual position with our content, though – what we do is very niche, which means we have far less competition than some other studios. So I can understand why people in more competitive genres might disagree with me. 😅

CED UK: Lottie, I also loved your case study on making a successful indie game, where you spoke about deliberately keeping it small and experimental and leaning into studio’s USP and weaknesses. Does the idea of leaning in to your ‘niche’ or even your limitations resonate with everyone?

Katharine Round: I absolutely think that limitations are what makes us creative. I’m also niche and deliberately so, but I think in terms of how to express a story at its simplest and usually most personal. It’s good to know – and stick to – what you’re trying to express.

Katie Grayson: 💯

I think what I like about working at the more experimental side of Passion – we can work pretty lightly and try things out without the expense of the huge CG studio machine grinding into gear. We can laser in on the story when you don’t have the budget or resource for huge crews. Limitations are great for focus!

CED UK: That’s very true.

We work from a small territory when it comes to sources of financing, so I believe in our case it makes sense to seek for alternative ways to create film or other content.

kirsi saivosalmi

Katharine Round: If the story can’t work at its simplest expression… it probably doesn’t work with a big budget either. Really drilling into that and working at the smallest execution possible is great for cross-examining what’s really working and at the heart of the idea.

CED UK: And budgets can often be used to hide the sins in a story.

Lottie Bevan: Definitely.

Kirsi Saivosalmi: Out of curiosity, does everyone focus on English language content?

We work from a small territory when it comes to sources of financing (the Netherlands), so I believe in our case it makes sense to seek for alternative ways to create film or other content. I wouldn’t say this is for everyone, but I do believe we have some sort of head start compared to other companies in the Netherlands since we have been open to this for quite some time already. I would say it’s both a strength and a challenge actually!

Lottie Bevan: We very much write in English, as we’re text based and the literary quality of our stories is important. but we’ve recently localised into Chinese and Russian, which I’d say is essential for small indies like us.

CED UK: Because they’re big markets?

Lottie Bevan: Yeah, China is really looming large over the games industry. Historically there’s been very little crossover, but games need to focus on more than just their own languages to impress financially now. We picked Russian and Chinese because there was significant interest from those markets even with limited English language penetration. so far it’s been very worthwhile financially – though it contorts our small studio in strange ways, and it’s very odd not being able to speak directly to those audiences!

CED UK: Do you all find yourselves collaborating across borders more now?

Katharine Round: I’m open to working in all languages, as long as I feel we are the right people to do so. I’ve recently been involved in films in Colombia, the Phillippines and Japan. My question around this is whether I’m best placed to tell the story usually.

I’ve been very inspired by the collaborations I’ve had – I was recently involved in the CPH: LAB at CPH: DOX that brought together filmmakers and artists from across the world. It’s very inspiring to be in a room with artists who work in very different ways to you, to see what you can learn from them. I think it’s a very good thing for us to be open minded and a real privilege to meet great minds from all over the world.

CED UK: A MEDIA-funded training programme!!

Katharine Round: Yes indeed!

Katie Grayson: We are a pretty big company with four offices around the world so there’s quite a lot of collaboration between offices. And I’ve worked with directors in the US, France, Portugal, Germany in the last year.

CED UK: And what about across industries? Katie I know at Inition you were working at the intersection of games and advertising and spoke about how the two could borrow and learn from one another; is that something you’re all seeing and initiating more of?

The rise of experiential is really interesting as a lot of that comes from games/cosplay, things like secret cinema, creating worlds you want to go and play in. That’s where the crossover happens.

katie grayson

Katie Grayson: Now I’ve added TV to the mix just to complicate my life further! 😀

Games and TV are definitely borrowing from each other pretty freely now – and those worlds and franchises from gaming are becoming too big to ignore. Advertising I think is struggling with some of this now – TV commercial spend is dropping. The rise of experiential is really interesting as a lot of that comes from games/cosplay, things like secret cinema, creating worlds you want to go and play in. That’s where the crossover happens now.

CED UK: Lottie, does that chime with you?

Lottie Bevan: With my industry, yes! though not with me personally. The flip side of this experiential marketing is that the little guy (e.g. me) can’t afford to compete at all. Big IPs like Resident Evil and Pokémon can do amaaaazing things, but I have a fraction of the budget.

Indie marketing is turning ever more personal: grafting for years with open production rather than splurging on amazing one-off campaigns. But it’s still great! Just another example of indie having to be inventive in place of being rich 😄

Katie Grayson: I’m working with a very experienced TV script exec at the moment on a couple of interactive and immersive projects – she’s really keen to learn about interactive storytelling, VR experiences, expanding TV show universes, because she sees that knowledge as being part of building a successful TV property now – what does this world look like as a festival like Peaky Blinders, as a location based VR experience, as a big bells and whistles SXSW installation – they need to find those access points with audiences that make them want to take part. I guess it’s part of the ownership audiences feel with stories now.

Kirsi Saivosalmi: At our company we collaborate across borders with almost all our film projects via co-producing. And since we produce fiction, doc, and hybrid films, but also advertising and VR, we definitely hop around the industry.

But I don’t see that being separated at all, we bring our stories to the platform that it fits the best. I also love when you can combine platforms. For example, we are producing a documentary at the moment, about the world seen through children with different forms of autism, and we are adding a VR experience to it. I think it’s a great example of how you can really make use of the technology to engage the audience that wouldn’t normally seek that.

CED UK: Lottie, coming back to your point about indie marketing being ever more personal. Can you talk about how brands, gamers and filmmakers can become better at gathering communities the moment they start telling a story?

Lottie Bevan: I think the rise of influencers has given people a taste for people rather than brands. Disney is a brand people know and understand, but it’s hard to have feelings about a mega-corporation, however much you like their products: most people have feelings about their favourite Disney character rather than the brand as a whole.

Indie marketing is just like that: Weather Factory is just a name, but seeing behind the curtain – getting to know myself and my partner as humans, seeing photos of our stupid cats, hearing about what we cooked for dinner last night alongside our production plans for our next game – this tells a story beyond ‘buy this game please’ which makes people feel like they’re friends rather than faceless consumers. And it’s something we’re much better suited to doing than larger companies, who in turn have lots more money to spend on marketing than we do! So it sort of evens out in the end.

CED UK: Katharine, you’ve pioneered new models of finance and you mentioned working on complex international shoots. Where did that incentive or need to break the mould come from? And how did you deal with risk, or convince people to come onboard a project that had a different financing plan?

Katharine Round: Necessity really. Most of the projects I get involved in wouldn’t happen if I waited for traditional financiers or commissioners to give permission. However I don’t think what I do is inherently risky, it’s just the market is very conservative and that can be difficult for more artistic work.

I think the onus is on us to show that it’s possible to make work with artistry that reaches audiences, to know that audience and how to connect with them, how to bring them to a project. Once you have shown you understand the audience and have a solid plan to reach them it is usually much easier to convince funders.

CED UK: Katie, you were one of the first agency producers to deliver a commercial project rendered entirely in a real-time engine, and you ran an R&D project with the Philharmonia Orchestra in 2015 to deliver some of the first fully stereoscopic 3D 360 video for VR. When you’re spearheading projects such as these are you met with resistance? And how do you produce something that doesn’t have a precedent? Is the basic scope / budgeting / check-list the same?

Katie Grayson: The million dollar question! Yes, we do tend to start every project with no idea of what kind of shape or size it will be or who we’ll need on it. And internal sell-in can be as difficult as convincing a client or partner on what we’re trying to do.

For me, it’s really important to understand why you’re doing something using new technology – what’s the value of it (both in terms of the end audience and as a company in terms of what we’ll learn and how it fits into what Passion Experience is about). Then there’s usually a kernel or nugget of the one thing we’re trying to achieve with any specific project – making that really clear and keeping hold of it, as the creative is likely to evolve, move around, formats and platforms might change.

There’s a lot of chunking things down into smaller, de-risked parts so that we have regular milestones and check-ins to stop us disappearing down rabbit holes. And these projects do tend to involve a lot more leg work in the early stages (often pre-greenlight) than a traditional linear bit of content – we have to go beyond the storyboard, or dive into some prototyping without a final storyboard or script, and that’s quite scary for people who like to have everything locked down in terms of shots/characters/environments and indeed budget before you start work – that just doesn’t happen with immersive or interactive projects, it’s more iterative and there’s a lot more to work out. So longer development and pre-
production phases, but actually pretty quick in terms of actual production once you’re into the job.

I often see my role as grabbing hold of the hands of the people coming along for the ride (whether clients/stakeholders, directing or animating talent, or internal management) and not letting go – keeping everyone engaged in the problem we’re trying to solve and reminding them why we are doing it regularly!

CED UK: Sometimes there’s a fear about working with and for new platforms, that I think stems from this idea of starting from scratch, have you found your skills are transferable?

Katharine Round: I hope so!

Katie Grayson: Yes – I started out in traditional media and all those skills in terms of client and team management are totally transferable – milestones still need to be met, review and feedback rounds, sign off process etc are all the same.

I’m certainly not a software project manager or agile-workflow person, I’m still a producer at heart – and at the heart of a lot of what we do is a workflow not dissimilar to traditional animation – it just has a lot more flexibility and needs a bit more buffering in terms of contingency and iteration.

I actually worked in strategy for a while and I think that’s been really useful too – articulating what it is we’re trying to do and how it creates value/satisfaction in your audience or user is a very helpful skill, as is acting as a translator between technical staff and non-technical clients!

You have nothing to lose from trying new platforms. Provided you do your research, are sensible with budgets and are ready to admit mistakes and learn from them, I can’t encourage people to try (and fail!) enough.

Lottie bevan

Lottie Bevan: In my experience, you have nothing to lose from trying new platforms. You might find out that it’s not a good business decision, but you haven’t wasted that money: you’ll have learned a great deal even if it doesn’t work out, from platform pipelines and platform-specific contacts to new audiences and different marketing approaches. Provided you do your research, are sensible with budgets and are ready to admit mistakes and learn from them, I can’t encourage people to try (and fail!) enough.

CED UK: I’m interested to know how you refer to yourselves, I labelled this roundtable content makers, but has your own perception of what you do changed in the last few years?

Katie Grayson: Not really! I maybe find myself being a bit more of a cheerleader and sales person than a creator – trying to show there’s value in what we’re doing in immersive even though it tends to keep being written off, or people bemoan the lack of audience/ROI for it – there’s so much to learn in terms of challenges of storytelling in immersive and interactive technologies, I love the idea of re-writing the rule book of what works and how we tell stories in new mediums. Every year the content is getting better, every year I see something that genuinely makes me smile with delight – that’s what I’m here to facilitate (hopefully!)

Lottie Bevan: Weather Factory’s spiel is very much ‘we make the weird, indie, experimental stuff you don’t find elsewhere’. We tend not to call ourselves ‘content creators’ because that makes it sound a bit generic, and our whole USP is niche, specific weirdness.

I’d like to think we provide more than stories: we try to cross platforms and make merchandise and provide a community where people are constantly interacting in this fictional world we’ve created, so everyone’s involved and participating rather than simply consuming. But I’m biased!

Katharine Round: I used to just think of myself as a filmmaker but now I suppose I feel I embrace the idea of being an artist more generally. But really labels are just labels and I don’t care that much for them.

Comment below with your thoughts on the future of storytelling and where you think the opportunities and challenges may lie. Or take to Twitter and let us know @CEDUK_MEDIA using #TRANSFORM!

One thought

  1. Inspiring! So great for a TV-dinosaur like me to hear from these agile and creative storytellers. And the audience/user focus of everything they do is so refreshing

    Like

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