TryLife is an ambitious interactive drama pulling in talent from the Youth, Education, Health, Media sectors in the UK. Paul Irwin explains.
My background was mainly focused on working with young people from disadvantaged backgrounds both within media and traditional community work settings. I have worked with young people from all over the world and it was really this experience that spurred me on to develop TryLife. I could see so many attempts to engage with young people but many of them fell short and did not deliver so decided to give it a go myself. I guess I just wanted to cut through the bullshit and develop something worthwhile. Young people today are not stupid and we need to adjust how we approach issues which impact on their lives by using technology and media they understand. Our corporate advert was made by a young person. Our trailer video is aimed at the target audience and a little more sex, drugs and rock’n’roll.
What motivated you to make an interactive film?
The main inspiration or one of the inspirations was the old choice-based adventure books. When I was a kid I would bury my head into these books and I was surprised to see that no-one had really taken the concept and ran with it.
I also love my gaming and have done since the days of Binatone and Spectrum 48k. I think the gulf between these two mediums [gaming and interactive film] is getting smaller and smaller and I wanted to give the viewer real choice. I actually got the chance to speak to Ian Livingstone who wrote many of the books I read just last month when I was speaking at a BBC conference called Fusion Games. Kate Russell from Click [the BBC TV programme] introduced me to him and we had a good chat about TryLife. I tried to talk him into an interactive Warhammer movie but not sure if he took the bait.
Some of the best interactive experiences I have had in the past few year have all been on my Xbox 360. Four of the above games have had me on the edge of my seat, have all kept me up later at night than I should have been and all are good value for money. Skyrim, Halo, Grand Theft Auto and Mass Effect are amazing and if you are not even into gaming I would still suggest anyone who wants to create an interactive film should at least play the first 30 minutes of them to see how the masters do it. Most people would not see Football Manager as a film but I would disagree. I think it encourages people, myself included (for the past 25 years without fail) to use their imagination. Going to work devastated after a cup final defeat and spending the day mulling over what is going to happen when the board react. I know it’s a game in the sense that it has all the traditional achievements, reward elements to encourage the players return but it creates much more in the user’s mind.
Did you plan for interactive story design in the film-making process from the start? Can you describe that development process for other film-makers interested in creating interactive works?
Yeah right from day one I wanted to create an interactive drama, initially it was going to be a male and female lead and I was just going to keep expanding on their choices and path routes. It was my mate Chris Price who played Joker in Batman Live that mentioned maybe doing it episodic (is that even a word or a Chris Price ism?) and we ran with it. I guess doing it as a traditional drama series means we can focus on different people from different backgrounds. We can have a diversity of characters and the user can walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.
In this first episode, we worked to complete nearly 300 drafts. These drafts were rotated within the team and brought back to meetings where they were drafted again. Within this process, the scripts were shown to various professionals and young people who evaluated the script to ensure its credibility. The script was revised and rewritten with the feedback from these focus groups.
At one point we had post it notes on my dad’s dinning room table and tried to map out the possible routes. I’m not going to lie, pulling together the framework was a real challenge but eventually (months) we nailed it. Some people said it could never be done but we managed it: so why can’t others?
We shot around three feature films worth of footage for episode 1 which has 26 different endings. The amount of scenes that were similar but had just slight differences needed to take the story forward in a different direction was immense. The production team need to be bang on and the cast members needed to be fully focused.
What my advice would be for anyone thinking about developing an idea is to listen to no-one who says it can’t be done and find someone who is interested in finding a solution. Don’t always go for the old trusted hand, around 90% of my crew were under 25 years. If you are saying it is interactive then make sure it is. What is the point of offering choice if it has no real meaning? Be brave and so what if it does not work, you only live once man.
How many crew members were working on the interactive elements? and what were their roles and contributions?
Our main staff team is very small but we can scale up very quickly and back down again when it comes to production. We had three writers, a focus group of young people, about 15 people in the web design department, 55 in the actual film production and people popping in and out with a few time wasters… I think that the total number of people who had input was around 200.
The core people around me number around 6-7 solid people and then a further 20 people I bounce stuff off. Myself and the writers done most of the work in the development of the story which drove much of the interactivity. The web team had to try and create something around what we were designing but to be honest if anyone came out with an idea that was good we ran with it. My daughter came out with TryRadio when she was 10 and that made it in, the director of film brought his ideas and some of them made it.
We had everyone from animators, web designers, film crew, actors, musicians, young people, youth workers, writers, camera man and so on around the table. We gave so many up and coming people a platform to show what they could do and they delivered. TryLife was not a massive budget, we pulled in episode 1 very cheap and much of that was possible because we used students, friends and young people with drive.
What interactive technology platform are you using for TryLife?
In-house development: the web team designed the website which picks the selected clip based on the choice you make.
We can map a user through TryLife and see what choices they make, thus making comparisons between gender, age, ethnicity, location etc. Let’s use these data creatively, let’s test trends, see what young people are doing, why they are doing it.
Is the interactive film TryLife part of a trans-media strategy or a stand-alone story?
TryRadio and TryLive are two other elements we are working on. TryRadio is basically a podcast which is set up to sound like a live radio show, have a look on the website at TryRadio or rather have a listen. Young people can send their tracks in and gain exposure from this platform.
TryLive is also another cool thing we are pushing out and basically consists of the TryLife actors delivering interactive workshops for young people in schools, youth centres and so on. We are aiming to pull together a TryLive tour, this will be a tour of the UK where young people can come audition, take part in workshops and watch live interactive drama with crowd participation deciding what happens next.
We also have an e-Learning section of the website which is in development and aimed at business. This is a more structured learning module with audio, video and multiple choice questions with a certificate of achievement for the user at the end. We can cover issues more in depth using this section, issues such as equality and diversity, racism, drugs and alcohol, safeguarding….
What would you like to tell us about your background – and how did you become interested in making interactive films?
I started off as a youth and community worker, worked all over the country and then the world in some really deprived areas. I soon was asked to get on board with a few media projects still all focused on young people and my career just sort of shifted more into media. When I was a kid we didn’t have much, my dad was a scrap man and my step mum worked in a factory. I was brought up in a housing estate called Battle Hill and it was tough. No-one had it easy but one person gave me the chance and I took it. I was heading down the wrong path and have only ever wanted to give young people the chance I had. That one youth worker who spent some time with me has led me to go on and work all over the world. Like I said earlier, I had seen some attempts to engage with the social media generation but they were all ‘police or government’ led. They skirted around the issues and never really got stuck in. I decided to stick my neck on the line and not shy away from the issues that needed covered.
Will you make more interactive films – if so, in what genre?
We have another 26 episodes of TryLife we want to run with and so TryLife will take up the next few years. We are in talks with cabinet office, NHS [National Health Service], Drug Action Teams, Youth Service and the Police at the moment and trying to secure more income.
Apart from TryLife we have a few more ideas we want to run with. Some of them are aimed more at younger kids and i’d love to do a sci-fi movie. If Ian Livingstone is reading then he needs to email me back and get cracking with War Hammer. Can you imagine an interactive Star Wars or something? I’m a total sci-fi geek by the way and if I ever had the chance later down the line then I think that’s what I would love to do.
What is holding back other film-makers in the UK from going down an interactive path do you think?
Money and trying to get your material mainstream without the big companies and broadcasters just taking your ideas and running with their ‘safe’ production friends are two of the main things.
There is very little support for film in the UK unless you are connected in some way. I dragged TryLife kicking and screaming for 6 years before we secured our main funds. The regional media bodies and places like the arts council have had their funds cut because of the banking crisis. It’s a shame that more money is not available for film and gaming because we (the UK) do it so well. I also think that the people in power are not ideally placed to embrace new technology. The shift will come when our generation of gamers get into position of power. Media as in main stream tend to run 10-15 years behind the talent that is coming through the ranks.
More people need to create interactive content. We are not precious about how we went about creating TryLife. More heads are better than one and I personally have found the trans-media community very willing to help each other out. All of the technology is out there, it just needs pulling together and packaged up into your project. We are in the process of putting our stamp on the future of interactivity and welcome any input and support. In turn, I have no problem in giving people a few tips, pointers or contacts.
What interactive video genres or categories will do best do you think?
I’m a big sci-fi fan so would love to see more done with this genre. Education is where we are focused at the moment and I think anything aimed at the young generation will do well if executed correctly. Young people have grown up with gaming, internet, social media and smart phones. They are the masters of multi-tasking, they dive in, bash buttons and work things out. If you look at the success of series like Skins, Hollyoaks, Waterloo Road, Tracey Beaker, Shameless, Missfits and even Grange Hill and Byker Grove, then how can these fail if made interactive?
We pitch TryLife as an interactive Skins to our young audience and have done so really well, we now have 111k+ Facebook fans. We also managed to pitch TryLife as an educational tool to Government, Police, NHS, PCT [Primary Care Trust, NHS] and Educational / Community projects. The balance between the two is a very fine line but can be achieved so both sets of user see and appreciate the value from their viewpoint.
Do you think there is much scope for works of fiction in interactive video? Why is that do you think, or why not?
Fiction is perfect for interactive film, I can’t understand why more works are not made into a participatory format. There are some amazing books, films, television brands, cartoons and video games out there. It takes a brave person to try and recreate a successful experience from a well loved classic but people do achieve this. The smart phone has opened up massive potential for direct interactivity with the viewer.
What is your favourite interactive film or genre?
Well I have to say TryLife first, as I honestly don’t think there is a more complex episode out there at the moment and we created it. TryLife aside, I’m going to put my neck on the line here and say that I think the video games industry are still miles ahead. Grand Theft Auto, Mass Effect, Skyrim, Football Manager and Halo have delivered some amazingly gripping story lines.
Anything that allows people to use their own creative thought / daydreams / imagination much like a book does, gets the vote from me. A film in your head does that count? Video games are the future showcase to where film needs to be.
What is your next project, if we may ask?
To be honest I think we are going to be working on TryLife for a few years to come but we do have a few other ideas in the pipeline. We chatted to Channel 4 about some of these not too long ago, one of them is an interactive Shakespeare and a few other educational based projects to complement and enhance the Try brand. We have a few more ideas and at the moment are trying to bring in the correct board members to monetise what we have achieved so far. I am not a business person by trade so at the moment I’m trying to bring in a few focused people to help me develop the business and secure our future. We have also written some really funny animations and a class Monty Python type period drama called Barron John. The next few months will be make or break for us so ask me in six months and I will either be on the dole or developing some amazing stuff.
How do you see the interactive video scene developing in 2013?
I think people will begin to embrace interactivity a great deal more in 2013. I spoke at a BBC Games Fusion event last year and I think we will start to see more mainstream broadcasters getting on board with real interactivity, not just second screen, bolt on extra material. I think the red button needs to be developed much further in the UK. Games consoles and apps are also ideal platforms to branch out on. I think people see the mobile phone as an add-on but we have some pretty cool technology coming this year which will blow people away. Mobile phone is where we will be concentrating on very shortly and i’m hoping that we can push the boundaries on that platform too.