Anrick Bregman is an Interactive Director at UNIT9. He takes cutting-edge digital tools and time-honored storytelling techniques, mixes them up in a big bowl and serves them up as beautiful, informative, and emotionally-resonant web creations. Whilst the mainstream arrival of inventions like Oculus Rift has brought immersive experiences into the public’s field of view, folks like Anrick have been creating cool, non-static digital stuff for years. He was kind enough to share some of his observations and insights with me.
Can you give us a quick timeline on how you got to where you are today?
I’ve been coding since I was very young, but I never gave it much thought. But my interest in what code can do when combined with animation, or live action footage, started around 2005. I got inspired by the early code scene online. The Secret Garden of Mutabor, personal stories like Days With My Father, and ad campaigns like Love Distance and Adobe Creative Mind. These projects showed me that the web could also be a place to experience things like emotion, fun and surprise.
Above – Black Diamond for Stella Artois
I taught myself how to code in about a year, using online forums and small experiments. Then I quit my job and started to look full-time for work in the digital world. I just felt like I had to be a part of it.
I got lucky though, finding unit9 was like finding a home, they really think a lot like me, and they hired me for my post-production experience. They basically taught me my job while I was already working there. So I feel I owe them a lot of gratitude. And I am still a part of the family 7 years later, I was the first Interactive Director they signed, and I’m still going strong.
Above – A Crystal Christmas for Swarovski and Harrods.
There’s an old adage in advertising that says that clients want something that’s never been done before, and three examples of how it’s going to be done. With interactive filmmaking that must be doubly true. How do you approach selling in what be considered by some as complex ideas?
I spend a lot of time on my pitch work. If you have no examples to show for an idea you want to sell, then you need to create a vision of what you’re planning to make. In detail. It’s so important to be able to break down a challenging idea into individual steps, and to figure out how to make your never-been-done-before idea into a practical plan of execution.
I think it’s pretty hard to do this in less than 25 pages. My treatments are usually longer than that. Thats an eye-wateringly large amount of work for an unpaid pitch, but as a director, you and your team have to be sure of the approach you want to take.
This is the true benefit of pitches, I know it’s a sensitive subject for many. But if a client want something revolutionary, there needs to be a logic to the madness before you commit as a team, so that you can be confident enough to pull it off. Otherwise you can’t risk your team having to deal with the fall-out, it’s them that have to put the work in.
Above – Defy History for Assassin’s Creed.
So we carefully piece that logic together with visual examples, mock ups and storyboards. With technical breakdowns and very honest explanations of what we do and don’t know – we share information openly, rather than trying too hard to go for the jugular. It’s as much for the client’s benefit as it is for our own.
Until we feel like we’re probably going to be able to pull it off, ourselves, we can’t sell the idea.
As we know, mobile is ever increasing in terms of reach and ubiquity. But most of the standout examples we’ve seen in the relatively short history of interactive direction have been desktop-based. Are there any examples you’ve seen so far of stellar mobile-based digital narratives?
The mobile device is limited in two ways. Firstly, the variety of settings device’s processor is limited, and secondly, the lack of consistency in the different devices makes it extremely complicated to build for. In spite of that there’s a lot of smart mobile work coming out lately, the best example I’ve seen in the past few months is probably Species in Pieces, running fully in css3, by Bryan James.
But you’re right, generally, the mobile experience is a paired down version of the desktop site. That’s not laziness, it’s mostly because clients don’t value the additional work it takes to make a mobile experience great. I think perhaps it’s our biggest failing as an industry – with the term ‘responsive design’ we gave the world the impression that it’s automatic.
But it isn’t the interface that needs to be squeezed to fit the screen, it’s the functionality behind that.
Above – Desire for Converse.
For any creatives out there that feel new to the art of non-linear storytelling, can you give us a bit of an idea of the creative and production process involved? How do you storyboard an idea with infinite paths, for example?
Creating concept art for interactive projects is difficult. Your vision will be spread out across storyboards, diagrams, and prototypes, each representing a piece of the overall puzzle. There’s also the interface – buttons and graphics usually play a hugely important role in the experience. So there isn’t really a single image that can capture your full vision.
The basic steps I go through while working on a project are:
– Post-production and visual effect
– UX & Interface Design
– Music and Sound
– Front-end and backend code
In reality, these aren’t always so clearly defined. But it’s good to aim for that, as best you can. You DO need to have your project written up before you start shooting, and you most likely need to have it filmed/animated before you start coding. Making things up as you go along is really twice the work – trust me.
The other thing missing from this list is marketing and promotion, which is a hugely important process, and needs to be considered all the way up front really. Who is going to see your project (audience)? And where/how are they going to find it (festivals, magazines, etc)?
Above – Kingsman.
THE BEST PLACE TO START ANY PROJECT
IS THE SCRIPT.
I have three bits of advice for people thinking about making an interactive project:
a. Because of interaction, think how the viewer will perceive the story. Is the user a character in your story? Or are they just an omnipresent observer? Your interaction has to add value somehow for the viewer, otherwise it’s just like visual effects for the sake of it.
b. Find the simplest possible tools. Tumblr, Klynt, Racontr, Vsco, there are some fantastic platforms and tools out there, try to see if your project could run on them. Why not simplify? It will save you a ton of time and a big headache. You may not need to reinvent the wheel each time you build a project, and if anything, using existing tools means you will need less help along the way.
c. The best place to start any project is the script. And the first thing I think of when writing a script is the trailer. It helps hugely to try to simplify what you want to make in small manageable steps. And writing a script for the trailer is a great example of that. Think in simple, understandable terms what you’re trying to create, and then sell it to an imaginary audience, as if it’s already on youtube.
Imagine that deep, classic trailer voice over: what would he say about your project? How would he get an audience to pay attention? It’s a fun little exercise and useful.
Above – Find Your Way To Oz for Disney.
You’ve talked a lot in the past about the fact that we’ve seen TV spots that make the audience cry, but we haven’t yet seen a website do so. Have you seen anything come close in terms of approaching that level of emotional effect?
It’s an interesting challenge, just like we always talk about the 3 second attention span with web-based projects too.
My personal opinion is that it is possible to make a powerful emotional experience in the browser, but it comes down to the power of the script, the edit, and a music score. Interactivity shouldn’t take any of that emotional power away, because if it does, it’s blocking your story from being the best it can be.
Everything you put into a story must make it better.
Often in doing interactive work we ignore two things:
It’s not the interaction itself that will cause the user to feel strong emotions, or to have a strong reaction. The interactivity alone is just technology applied to a narrative – the emotion lies inside of the story.
By experimenting too much with technology we often lower the emotional impact of a story. We get distracted and side-tracked, and we focus too much on functionality. We muddle up the power of the story with messages like “choose with your mouse which door to open!’. That kind of message ruins the illusion.
EVERYTHING YOU PUT INTO A STORY
MUST MAKE IT BETTER.
Above – Kissing (An Interactive Installation).
To me there’s a double-edged sword to me when it comes to digital technology: the possibilities afforded are ever-increasing, but at the same time we’re seeing a massive fragmentation of people’s attention spans. On the one hand we’re tapped into our phones 24/7, but a million apps, conversations, and information sources are vying for that attention. This means as production companies and ad agencies we can do more and more in the browser, but getting people to sit with headphones and just-do-one-thing is a mission. How does digital storytelling bridge that gap?
I could write a book about just this one question. It’s too broad an issue to tackle it in a simple answer.
Is digital technology to blame for the fragmentation of our attention span? Maybe, but certain things like going to the cinema still manage to keep us focused. Games go beyond film and keep us playing for hours on end. And we all love turning off our phones for a few hours when we fly. So perhaps we’re just not making digital interactive content that is good enough for us to stay focused? I think honestly, we can do better. And really engage people.
Is digital storytelling able to captivate people so much that they don’t check their Facebook? Probably not. I think it’s a human problem that affects all forms of entertainment, and beyond that, threatens human relationships as a whole. Our smartphone obsession is literally a global cultural issue that frightens the life out of me.
It’s 2025. What digital/advertising/storytelling experiences do you envision us consuming?
We’ll be building 100% realistic worlds and experiencing them in a VR headset so light you don’t even notice it. You’ll be able to do anything you can dream of, if you have the cash for someone to build it for you.
The big issue to start thinking about is the legal implications of your actions inside virtual reality. That is a fascinating topic, but for another day.