EXCLUSIVE: Bran Ferren Q&A Part 2 — We’re Just Getting Started

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. This is the second and concluding part of our interview with the legendary designer and technologist.

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: Saturday opens with Michael Hawley and he has had a front row seat to all of this. It looks as if it will be an eye-opening day right from the start.

Bran: That’s what we’re hoping for! Mike has certainly been in the position for a very long time of watching and helping to enable technologies and platforms and ideas that have changed the way we think about things — and so getting his perspective on it seems really important.

The question of what are the new worlds? If you’re in the world-building business, such as in the theme park business, Bruce Vaughn, who actually worked for me for 15 years prior to working at Disney where he is currently the senior creative executive at Disney, has spent billions of dollars creating worlds for people to create positive, optimistic experiences that families will remember for the rest of their lives. How does that change and evolve in this?

There is Christopher Janney, who has done a lot of work in public spaces creating visually exciting places, architecture that you can interact with — and Brent Bushnell, who is at the avant-garde of next-generation gaming and entertainment based upon portable platforms.

So this is really about, “okay, world invention — what is it and what does it mean?”

The theme park basically was an invention. Prior to that we basically had amusement parks and entertainment, but the theme park basically happens when you apply characters and some story to that and create themed entertainment.

It became a very compelling organizing principle. Witness the percentage of the world’s population — of the affluent world, at least, meaning non-third world — who has been to a theme park.

Don: That’s true and it is a total immersive experience.

Bran: Exactly. It is interactive. We act like video games were the first interactive thing. No, the theme park was. When Walt Disney came up with Disneyland, the idea of a central court and [from which] you radiate out and something that visually attracts you — in the case of the theme park,  it’s what Walt Disney called a “Weenie” — the thing that you look at, is visually iconographic (which tells you about it — whether it is a Space Mountain or whether it is some other object) that attracts you.

Those themes and organizing principles are much the way people think about creating gaming and about the virtual worlds. What are the surprises? What’s the doorway you can go through and appear somewhere else? How does scale, visual scale, timing, revelation… how does all of that stuff happen?

So again I would argue it’s all reflective of the human experience and what we’ve done and what we’ve learned to do and what we are just doing is changing the context and often the sensibility of the viewer and the mindframe.

Don: Going further into the program,  you explore the whole idea of festivals. There was an interesting conversation that several of us in the ETC were exposed to a couple months ago where the Millennial Generation especially is gravitating to some live component, some live element as part of their experience.

Bran: They want to experience something real! And experience it together.

We are social animals. I have been in the music business off and on for a good portion of my life, in the touring business. When I started, the first group I worked with was in the 70s, a group called Emerson, Lake and Palmer. They went out with some of the biggest tours ever done. At the time it was forty tractor-trailers worth of stuff and touring an entire symphony orchestra and you know, stuff like that, which at the time was how you attracted audiences. It was, can you top this? They went to the tour. The tour was often a loss leader. It broke even, even if it sold out. But what it did was promote and sell records.

And then MTV was invented and that entire business got turned upside down. So then it was working to make money selling records but we’re going to promote it with MTV. So nobody wanted to put any money into this and yours became some sort of a spotlight and a chair and you’re on your own. The tour was more of a tip of the hat to the performers than it was about marketing or generating other things. It was all part of the MTV experience.

Now people are back on the road with big shows again because all of a sudden it turns out that people actually like going to them and with record bootlegging and the whole change going on in that business nobody making money from record sales, they are making money on the live performance again.

So there’s been an enormous amount of change in this and clearly the audience’s behavior is such that “gee, it’s kind of fun to go to a live concert” and experiences and do this. These things are often very trend driven and everyone jumps on the bandwagon. Businesses collapse. Businesses get invented. But the music business is one where you are going to spend some portion of time talking about because it’s the one that’s clearly broken at the moment.

We have Bill Schnee who owns an independent recording studio. Recording studios are going out of business every week. Arguments from people are [that] kids these days have never heard quality recorded music. They listen to stuff recorded in people’s basements, compressed the shit out of it on little earbuds. They don’t actually know what live or the music sounds like unless they go to a concert. Because they certainly aren’t hearing it on their iPod. So those are the kinds of discussions.

Do we go from the dark ages where things are then rediscovered? What happens to all the talent who can’t work at the moment? Where is that going to go? There will be some tough conversations during this because if you’re a newspaper press operator, which is the equivalent of being a recording engineer, which is the equivalent of being this, or if you are an A&R person from the record business, you don’t have a job now.

Don: So everyone really has to re-invent themselves or embrace the possibilities.

Bran: Or they need to go extinct, which will happen, too. There was a time when buggy whips was a great business to be in because everybody needed one.

Don: What I am also hearing is that there is no overarching technology agenda. In many respects this is a conference and symposium of ideas and inspiration, as opposed to a technology solution.

Bran: This is not on one level a conference about new technology. At the same time it is an audience of both technical and creative people and you can’t be either without having technology being an intimate part of what you have to think about.

It is inevitable that some portion of the conversation will be about new techniques and technology that are enabling these things and making them happen. I think that’s an important part of the conversation. So I don’t want this in any way to be a conversation that doesn’t go into, you know, a discussion of technology, but as appropriate so it’s not a technical conference, is not an ethereal conference. It ought to be one that maintains the balance that creative professionals and people in technical theater and film and such have to wrestle with every day of their lives. Because it doesn’t matter how great your vision is, if you don’t know how to execute it, no audience will ever get to see it, or worse, to see it badly, which means the fourth wall on the ability to suspend disbelief and all those other things that are cornerstones of the theatrical experience cease to function effectively and you end up doing what would be known as bad storytelling.

Don: Have you seen a change in the way the technical side of the business, the scientists and the engineers, incorporate an artistic sensibility into the their work?

Bran: I think it depends who you are and what you do. Certainly the notion of the introduction of computers into the entertainment industry — whether it is automating a theme park or scenery, whether it’s in CGI and creating characters, whether it’s an audio editing and mixing is done etc. — clearly has changed workflow of the way people think about their jobs and how to do it.

When I started working, you sat there editing on a KEM or a Steenbeck, on horizontal editors and Moviolas. You assembled scenes, got feedback and notes, and you cut your film, literally. Now there hasn’t been a film cut on film in more than a decade. Does it change what you think about things? Of course it changes the way you think about things because it used to be when you’re cutting film you didn’t have 30 different assemblies. It was just too much work, you couldn’t afford to do it, you can’t wear out the work print. If you damage it, you have strike another print. Then you run the chance of scratching the negative, etc. So there was a lot of pressure to think about what you are doing and not exhibit bad behavior or so the studio cuts you off. That was the dynamic. Of course, now you can do a different assembly every 10 minutes. At the same time, so what? It’s different, but it isn’t necessarily any better.

Our creative process and technical tools we choose maintain some state of equilibrium. It’s different from person to person. There are people who resist the introduction of new technologies for long periods of time. Moveable type — forget it. It is bad for writers. I remember when word processors were first introduced. The writers I know asked why do we need these word processors… “I can’t be creative unless I use my typewriter.”

Before that they could not be creative unless they had a ruled pad or notebook. Before then, I can’t be creative unless I use parchment and a quill. If it hasn’t come out of a duck’s ass, then I am not capable of being creative! It’s all nonsense. These are all just momentary little abberances, little road bumps in people’s adaptation to new technology and the early adopters are the ones who are willing to put up with the bullshit.

New technology is the stuff that doesn’t work yet. Once it gets better and works okay, it’s not technology any more. It’s just  the way we do it.

Don: On the engineering side, are the people who work in making the technology taking a more creative approach or have a greater sense of collaboration with the artistic side?

Bran: I don’t think so. I don’t think they ever have. The reality is new technology products happened either because a creative person needs to find a better way to do it and find something that they can modify and adapt to it. Or, more often than not, have been created and invented for a totally different industry and then someone gets around to adopting it for entertainment.

Entertainment doesn’t pay for R&D and doesn’t pay for a bunch of these other things. So by and large, the impact the entertainment industry has had on the evolution of technology, with some noteworthy exceptions such as animation CGI and so forth, is usually waiting for the technology to get invented elsewhere and then ripple through. Which means there isn’t generally an intimate connection between the invention of that technology and the way it’s developed. It usually becomes an intimate collaboration when it becomes an adaptation, not an invention.

Don: By the final wrap up of Envision, who do you hope will have attended and what do you hope they will take away from their participation?

Bran: My sense is that the people who should come to this are the people who have an interest in storytelling. Whether they’re of a technical background, or writers or performers, it doesn’t really matter, but people who would find this conversation to be interesting.

Where they go next is hopefully the ability having been through this weekend to reflect and have the opportunity to have ingested other opinions — some contrary, some aligned with their own view — but hopefully stimulate thinking about how it impacts their own personal work and the trajectory of their lives and careers.

I don’t mean to sound overly grand, but I have found in my life and career often it is just one sentence you hear someone say that gives you a perspective that let’s you think about your work and your craft in a fundamentally different way. My highest hope is that during this symposium there will be opportunities for many of those statements to happen, each which can touch different people in this space. The people who are on the stage are not theorists. They  are all practitioners. They are all people who have spent a distinguished career or are in the middle of distinguished career inventing the future of their respective professions. And with any luck this kind of dialogue helps inspire others to continue on this path and, in turn, infect others.

Don: How long have you been working on Envision?

Bran: It’s been going on over about the past three months. There’s some people who come and go because again these are all working professionals and as a result of unforeseeable circumstances, maybe some people will regrettably have a last-minute change. There will also be people who are arriving who are going to be substitutes and new people just joining the conversation. It’s been about a three-month process putting it together and we’ve been actually very excited about how well people have responded because it is not me by myself. This has been the staff at LDI and the creative consultants all working together on it. So we’re very excited about it and the thing which we would love is to get more people to show up because the more people in the conversation, the better we accomplish our goals. Every single conference on the face of the earth faces the issue of finding its audience. So hopefully this one will find its.

Don: Before we close, is there anything that we have not discussed that you want to be sure we include?

Bran: I just think the thing that’s important is we think about so many of these businesses that are in entertainment — theater, film, television etc. — as if they’re mature. I guess my argument is that we are at the very beginning of all of this. The computer revolution isn’t over and, in fact, has barely started. We’re just at the dawn of how these new technologies, like the Internet, portable ubiquitous communications systems coupled to display devices and computers creating new venues etc. etc., all of this stuff. To say that it is mature isn’t even thinking about it.

Nothing about the personal computer is mature. Just look at the transition of a new technology like a smartphone or a tablet that is introduced and overnight it becomes the most successful consumer products in history. We’re seeing that now all over the place.

The message is the computer revolution and everything associated with it, which I would argue is responsible for what will be thought of as the storytelling revolution, is barely getting started.

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