EXCLUSIVE: Bran Ferren Q&A Part 1 — The Oldest Profession

Bran Ferren, creative consultant to the Envision Symposium taking place September 19-21 in Monterey, sat with ETC for an exclusive look at the issues and context that inspired and provided the guiding principle for this first of its kind gathering of leaders and visionaries in the fields of storytelling, performance, cinema, television and games. The legendary designer and technologist is the creative consultant for Envision, with designer Bob Bonniol serving as co-creative consultant.

Bran is the co-founder and chief creative officer of Applied Minds LLC, a named inventor on over 300 patents and was the former president of Research & Development and Creative Technology for the Walt Disney Company.

Don: Thank you for taking the time and more importantly putting together the Envision Symposium. What prompted the conference?

Bran: We’ve been talking about for 25 to 30 years this concept of convergence — about television, Internet, gaming; how will that all grow together; how will theater and live performance change; how will libraries change — as if it is right around the corner, and that was 25 years ago. Accidentally, it seems that is not only around the corner but actually happening now. So this symposium really came as a result of interest out of a talk at LDI talking about some of these things and about the new audience and whether it is from the business side.

Look at the traditional record company business. It is like someone in a car going off a cliff, but still accelerating at full speed. And at the same time more people than ever are listening to music than ever have, but clearly the existing business model is going “poof.” How many years ago was it that publishers of magazines and newspapers were sitting in their proverbial smoke-filled rooms saying “who the hell is Craig and who gives a shit about his list?” Overnight, he effectively put them out of business without even being in their business.

So there are some really interesting things happening. And so to me, the purpose of the symposium is not to talk about doom and gloom. If you happen to be in one of those industries — isn’t it terrible what’s happening? But one of the points is what are the new audiences, what are the new possibilities? You look at it now… possible to create live virtual characters that are actually autonomous agents that interact with other characters, but where are the creative people? The directors and the other performers who have the appetite or interest in creating these or causing them to be created or interacting with them?

So, as usual, the technology is out ahead of where we are artistically and creatively. At the same time, there are ideas we’ve had for years creatively that we still don’t know how to do technically. So the purpose of this is to have a series of conversations, not formal presentations, about what’s going on with this. Where is it? Where are the opportunities? How should we as creative professionals, whether technical or in the artistic side, and you know, what to we do about this? It is an opportunity to have that kind of discussion.

Don: Let’s talk a little about composition of the conference.

Bran: It’s a very diverse collection of people. On one level we have people who have vast creative experience in the entertainment industries such as Marshall Brickman. Depending upon what’s your field of interest, you either know him as being the co-author of “Annie Hall” and “Manhattan” — or the executive producer of the Dick Cavett show or the head writer for the Johnny Carson show or playing one of the banjos in “Dueling Banjos” or writing the book for “Jersey Boys,” etc. So Marshall is just one of those people who has helped redefine a whole variety of creative cultural experiences.

So we have a top tier of advanced designers from the event staging world to new media designer people from the gaming world… people like Bob Bonniol, Adam Davis, Bill Cusick, all people at the leading edge of how to make these things happen. We have television director Roger Goodman who has, last time I checked, 27 Emmy awards; theatrical sound designer Jonathan Dean; Mike Hawley, who was for years basically the number two guy at the MIT Media Lab and now runs the EG Conference, which is another excellent conference. Christopher Janney, the architect and sound designer, Xeni Jardin the co-founder and co-editor of Boing Boing, which is certainly one of the great phenomena in our cultural and popular media; Ralph Osterhout, who is an American inventor, designer and entrepreneur who is currently designing the most advanced head-mounted computer goggles, which in my opinion is just remarkable stuff; Lesli Rotenberg — I am on her advisory board at PBS Kids — which as the proud parent of a 4-year-old is really a whole life-changing and important aspect in people’s lives.

The list goes on and on. If you want to have a conversation with someone who’s doing leading-edge stuff, this would be a pretty good start.

Don: Your keynote starts out with storytelling and you are immediately introducing an element of controversy by suggesting that there is a profession still older than the one that is historically noticed as such.

Bran: I believe storytelling is in our genes and is fundamental to how we think about ourselves, how we remember things. We are visual creatures who think about pictures and images that cut together to form a story and how it happens in three-dimensional space. If I say, “World Trade Center,” you think of a picture of a building, Twin Towers, planes flying into them… you think about where you were, etc. I mention “Statue of Liberty,” I say “egg salad sandwich,” I say “bagel and lox”… your local delicatessen and how does that compare with Canters or how does that compare with the Gaiety.

Depending upon your background, those words code something for you or they don’t. And if they do code something for you it evokes memories. So the issue in all of this is that I think it is fundamental to who we are as people, how we communicate, how we interact with each other. Now I think other things aren’t. So, for example, I believe writing [printed text and handwriting] will end up being a fad. I think it will not be here in 150 years. I think it’s an abstraction used in the service of storytelling and I think it will be replaced by newer and better technology.

So as a result, storytelling seems to me to be the fundamental organizing principle.

When we originally started talking about this conference, in a sense it was a little too esoteric: storytelling in four dimensions — this notion of three-dimensional scenes moving forward in time is the essence of how storytelling is organized. It struck us that this is an interesting place, an interesting center and interesting nucleus to start thinking about all of these fields, where they’re going and why. And so from my perspective there’s no endpoint for this… there is no thesis… this is really designed to be a dialogue and explore where is this going and why.

My view is that I have witnessed over the years, every time a new technology is introduced — when I got to Disney and was in the role of first senior vice president and executive and president of creative technology, effectively the CTO role for the company — at that point none of the executives had computers. I bought Michael Eisner his first computer. I mean our CFO had a computer attached to a thing called MIS, Management Information Systems, basically a spreadsheet. But nobody had computers. And it was my job to have to think about is there anything to this whole Internet thing for the entertainment industry, in general, and Disney, in particular.

Now you say, what a ridiculous question! It wasn’t a ridiculous question then, nor was the answer obvious at that point.

This whole process of growth, of understanding things… I for the life of me do not understand how it’s possible that things like broadband penetration in the home took 20 years when I would have thought that it would have taken five. So I’m constantly disappointed that by the time you have the revelation that something is completely obvious and will happen, it still takes four to five times as long as you thought it would to actually happen. I have grown to accept this.

Don: I read some stats today that somewhere on the order of 70 percent of U.S. homes now have broadband.

Bran: And my sense is that we should have been there somewhere between around 2000 and 2005. So it just takes longer than you would think. At the same time, the time it takes people and business models to change… and sensibilities, which are even harder to change… for an overnight sensation, when you’re in the middle of it, seems to take forever.

Don: One area of interest, especially to a lot of the member companies in the Entertainment Technology Center, is what is the future of cinema and what is the future of experiential entertainment? The opening keynote on Friday is looking at storytelling as a participatory event. What is some of the background on that?

Bran: I think that there is a tension that currently exists between, for lack of a better word, the traditional theater, television and film business and, for lack of a better word, the interactive business of gaming. The challenge, I think, in all of this is that many people in the traditional businesses not only are not excited by or interested in gaming, but they are actively contemptuous towards it and wear the proud badge that they don’t. Sometimes it is age. Sometimes it is a bunch of other things. The people who grow up in the world of gaming actually think of the whole notion of creation of these worlds, the atmospherics, how you set a story and all in that world, to be fundamentally compelling. Now there’s a tension between traditional theater performances that are highly deterministic — even if it is improvisational. The notion is that there is a beginning, middle and end, an arc where it’s predictable. In gaming, there’s an arc as well, but the arc can go through a large number of possible paths at different rates in different worlds and gamers intersect with other gamers in highly unpredictable ways. So it’s quite nondeterministic as compared with traditional experience.

So I think that for me the interesting question is exploring these things.

When it comes to storytelling, think about for a moment the fact that right now there are a little over 7 billion people in the world. There’s 6 billion working cell phones; 10 to 15 percent of these are smartphones. That number is going to double in a year, which means the vast majority of the world’s population, you can reach, tell them a story, tell it in their own language, in a way that they’ll understand it, and have them participate in it. That’s an astonishing moment in the course of civilization.

And so the question is: How do we as professional storytellers capture that, take advantage of it, and get beyond the novelty stage?

The novelty stage is, you know, when the film first came out, someone smashing a tomato in slow motion or someone sitting in a chair disappearing or a person taking a walk were things that people paid money to go to the theater to see because they had never seen anything remotely like that. The novelty of it was so interesting.

That’s where we are with this all of this new generation of media. We’re just at the pre-beginning stage of novelty.

And the question is: What’s it take to get beyond that from novelty to something with depth and importance so that it actually becomes a significant tool for storytellers and one that is fundamentally compelling?

What’s different than what we’ve ever seen before is that if you were an incredibly compelling storyteller in the past — and by the way that’s what we are seeing with YouTube — YouTube is just novelty. You stick it up there, see what happens. If it goes viral that’s great. But think about the difference. If you did something important in theater or film no matter how important it was and how good a storyteller you are, what percentage of the world’s population might you reach? What fraction of a percent of the people on earth would you reach? And look at how that has changed now.

So the question is: Who has the ideas interesting enough or compelling enough to harness this?

Beyond its impact on the arts, what does this do to redefine society, politics, how national boundaries are thought of and created physically, emotionally, etc? Our sense of self, our sense of tribe and in belonging… and what is the ongoing role of storytelling in that? Because, as we know, storytelling and storytellers, playwrights, writers and everyone else have always had a fundamentally important role in the evolution of not just culture, but of society, of governance, how we think of ourselves, freedom, all those other issues. These are actually important issues… not just ones about, “Gee, what but happened to TV becoming 3D, 4D, 5D, is it worn, is it something like that. All those things are curiosities, which are all well and good. New presentation forms will clearly emerge. I think head-worn could actually be quite big at some point for a variety of interactions. But that to me is not the interesting question. The interesting question is how do we as people in society, how does our definition of culture, of art, of design evolve?

Don: It is going to be a fascinating conversation. If that’s not enough to start out the day, the afternoon brings Platforms After Next, an exploration of where we are in the post-PC era.

Bran: The reality is that everyone says this whole thing about cell phones is bullshit. “How can you do anything real on a cell phone?”

People who started in theater thought film was bullshit. How could you ever do something with these recorded characters and so forth? People in film thought television was bullshit. How can you tell a story without the group experience of everyone in the big theater on the silver screen? Instead you’re going to be in this little room. And people are saying exactly the same thing about what happens on your computer or on your cell phone — that they are all bullshit.

But the fact is these are all viable channels for storytelling. Now you are going to format it differently.

It’s just like television on the small screen became a medium of close-ups. In a movie theater, it is usually mid-shots, longer shots and very rarely do you see a 12-foot nostril. The reality in television is that almost everything is either a medium shot or a close-up because a wide shot looks like nothing. It’s just mush.

So the reality is it is going to change and keep changing.

The old guard will tend always to be dismissive of the new guard. Even within industries, look at television. Broadcast television thought cable was nonsense. They thought it was community antenna television that has nothing to do with changing things. Whereas, basically the television networks are rapidly on the way to becoming irrelevant relative to cable and narrowcasting. The status quo seen by the present guard is always something that looks at any of these future things as it is going to be a long ways off in the future and it is never going to have the same impact as what we are doing now.

Same thing happened with movable type, going from calligraphy to moveable type… “quality isn’t as good, the artform is gone, etc, etc.” The answer is that may all be true, but it is going to happen anyway and it is going to fundamentally be a new platform for empowering people.

It’s the new platform in handheld phones; it is the new platform for head-worn computers built into your glasses; it’s the new platform implants were you will be wired directly. That is what that conversation hopes to be about.

Tomorrow: Part 2 of our interview with Bran Ferren, a look at Day 2 of Envision and some future thoughts.

For more information on the conference, visit the Envision Symposium 2013 site or registration page.

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