When the phone rings I’m feeling a bit nervous. The voice on the other end is slow and calculated. “We can do 30,000 but it will take 10 weeks. In order to get it in time for Sundance we need to order 500,000 and ship from China… We’re going to have to find another way.” Not quite your normal Sundance prep conversation especially when the items in question are bottles of water. But these are not regular bottles of water they are “Pandemic Water,” just one entry point within a story world experience entitled Pandemic 1.0 taking place at Sundance.
Pandemic 1.0 is a story R&D (research and development) project, the first step in a larger transmedia build that includes film, mobile, online, and real-world events. This transmedia extension is set within the same storyworld as a feature film that I co-wrote and will be directing called HiM – a lord of a flies tale about a strange sleep virus that only effects adults and leaves the youth fighting for their lives.
Over a period of a 120 hours, Pandemic 1.0 unfolds in a mixture of online and offline events. Festival attendees and those online not attending are able to interact through a “social experiment,” one which harnesses various social and emerging technologies to impact the spread of a Pandemic. How people choice to respond and collaborate will directly affect weather the Pandemic spreads or slows. It is all part of a larger R&D effort that is looking at the role of social behavior and it’s impact on storytelling.
The intention of employing a story R&D approach to the project provides a way to experiment, review and refine. Not too dissimilar to how software is developed or how a script goes through revisions and receives feedback the concept of story R&D provides insight into ways to design stories that resonant in a connected world. As storytelling moves into the 21st century it is now possible to tell stories not only across devices but also with connected elements in the real-world. Thanks to technologies like RFID, augmented reality and geolocation the physical world becomes a new storytelling playground for those interested in extending the stories they wish to tell.
For instance, Pandemic 1.0 which unfolds within New Frontier and US narrative shorts sections of the festival, is told with:
1 short film which tells the story of a sister and brother dealing with an infected parent.
1 magazine that contains a “rabbit hole” that leads to elements in the experience.
5 secret locations, which are scattered throughout Park City.
6 totems with cameras, gps trackers and thumb drives embedded inside them.
10 scares can be requested by those following the experience online.
20 actors carry flipcams and perform scenes as the “Pandemic” unfolds.
50 story artifacts are placed throughout Park City with barcodes, #hashtags and RFID.
5,000 bottles of water that when found can help to slow the spread of the Pandemic.
40,000+ festival-goers who’s social interactions inform the spread of the Pandemic.
50,000+ photographs harvested from the internet and filtered in real-time.
1,000,000+ points of data visualized within a special Mission Control space.
These items are not random but in fact each has a distinct role within the story. Each caries significance while at the same time providing insight into the underlining social spread of the story. In other words they work within the overall theme of the story while at the same time providing a variety of data points which are used to enhance, change, and trigger elements within the story experience itself. For the project we scripted a five-act structure (Everything is Fine, Feeling Sick, Loss of Control, Adults are Gone, and End of the World?) that reacts to social interactions between people online and off and their relationship and proximity to a number of connected objects.
For instance one of the core themes found within both the transmedia project and feature film is the “power of memories.” Within the storyworld the sleep virus, which only affects adults, transforms all the adults into “faceless” monsters who develop hive mind abilities. The adults create “totems” out of objects that hold significance for the youth and use the totems as a way to manipulate and trap the youth.
To bring this theme into the real-world we worked with Pretty in Plastic an LA based design shop to create custom totems that have cameras, gps trackers, mp3 players and thumb drives inside them. The totem which have a stuff toy bear enclosed in them are striking pieces of art designed to fit comfortably in the users hand. Within the bear’s head is a slide viewer that flips through images intended to evoke a memory. While the user holds the bear and views the slides their reactions are documented via a camera placed in the bear’s belly. These images are then fed back into various data visualizations used within Mission Control. Those who hold on to the totems overnight at the festival will become targets of a series of scares as the infected “adults” come for them and the totem.
Story R&D beyond entertainment
In addition to building an immersive storytelling experience at Sundance, Pandemic 1.0 also provides a unique way to measure social interaction within a public setting. Part of the build of Pandemic 1.0 attempts to understand how things can spread socially in a real world environment. Through a collaboration with Sundance, Vectorform, Monteur, Medicmobile and Freedomlab Future Studies what is learned from Pandemic 1.0 will be directly applied towards the development of a social grid and series of applications to be utilized in efforts to combat actual pandemics and disasters.