Content Vs. Technology: What's Your Story?

When it comes to storytelling, where are design and technology taking us? “Whatever is next in storytelling, design, and technology, it will always be about rendering emotional transportation—capturing attention and converting it into intention,” says Hollywood producer Peter Guber, CEO of Mandalay Entertainment.“Every story has a call to action.” Guber is one of 14 leaders in the entertainment industry who will decode the DNA of storytelling, design, and technology at the second annual Envision Symposium in Monterey, California.

When a group of the brightest thinkers in the entertainment industry gather at the Envision Symposium at the Steinbeck Forum in Monterey, CA (the original home of TED), the biggest question on the table will be: where are we going in terms of technology and design when it comes to the art of storytelling? “If you are involved in any aspect of the art and science of storytelling, please bring your ideas and passions to contribute to the exchange of ideas shaping the future of live performance,” says Bran Ferren, the technologist head of Applied Minds, who was recently written up in Wired for the high-tech camping vehicle he is building for his four-year-old daughter, Kira. Ferren serves as one of the creative consultants for Envision, along with video designer Bob Bonniol of Mode Studios, who notes, “help us create the fusion of old and new, of classic narrative and wondrous new technologies. Envision how we will all continue to make myths, share wisdom, laughter, and love in ways we haven't even begun to imagine."

Bran Ferren at Envision 2013

For Butch Allen, a top concert designer whose clients range from Nickelback to No Doubt, “storytelling, technology, and design are stranded on an island. The exploration of their new, strange home begins. As one expects: a lamp is stumbled upon, rubbing ensues, a genie appears and grants one single wish for the waylaid disciplines to share.” Also part of the concert industry is director Amy Tinkham, who has worked with Madonna, The Dixie Chicks, Aerosmith, and Mötley Crüe, and who echoes the strength of storytelling as the basis of her work: “Rather than swirling in a sea of high-tech spectacle, we now have the opportunity to use the new and exquisite paintbrushes of technology to dig deep into storytelling, and to reacquaint ourselves with our humanity.”

Chris Barreca

Considered by some to be the world’s oldest profession, what then is the future of storytelling. Christopher Barreca, winner of the 2014 Tony Award for Best Scenic Design of a Musical for Rocky, feels that what’s important is “achieving individual artistic expression in a world of technological systems and processes.” Visionary designer Surya Buchwald, aka Momo The Monster, who creates graphics for such artists as deadmau5 and The Glitch Mob, feels that "the future of storytelling is in the flattening of the boundaries between performers and their audience."

The audience reaction is also important to Jasmine Ellsworth, who has produced events for Disney, Comedy Central, and 20th Century Fox: “My favorite part about building an immersive experience is finding the right way to tap into different emotional centers with different tools,” she says. “Is the key in audio? Visual? New technology? Does it support the story? Are we cutting through the clutter of the outside world effectively enough to really connect with our audience —so they don’t say ‘How did they do that,’ but instead say, ‘Wow, did you feel that’?” Or as Sandra Tsing Loh, writer, actress, performance artist, pop-culture analyst, and radio commentator, puts it: “Human beings—they’re ba-a-ack! Viral or not!”

Alex McDowell

the British production designer and film producer who has won awards for his work in Minority Report and The Terminal, feels that content is the key: “The disciplines we touch when we work are becoming inextricably linked, but crucially it is clear that the engine that drives us towards the horizon continues to be content,” he asserts. “Like noisy kids in the back seat, storytelling, narrative design, and the worlds we build make demands of technology that ultimately determine its course."

Yet technology continues to evolve at breakneck speed, influencing the way audiences see and digest content. "New tools for storytelling are constantly being developed,” agrees E. M. Gimenez, a cutting-edge sound designer whose recent work includes the site-specific opera Invisible Cities at Union Station in Los Angeles. “The problem lies in the fact that those tools aren't created for storytelling but for some other application... Our job is to identify those emerging technologies and synthesize the experiences that will shape the future."

An intelligent use of technology also rings true for Peter Schneider, film and theatrical producer/director, who produced the Tony Award-winning The Lion King on Broadway. “New technologies provide us with explosive new ways to amplify and diversify theatrical storytelling,” he notes. “They offer opportunities to reinforce the variety and intensity of emotions and to revolutionize the means through which live connections can be made. The challenge is to use sophisticated technologies to enhance the work and still make it feel raw and urgently unplanned.”

Bora Yoon

Technology then should be at the service of content and storytelling. Bora Yoon, composer, vocalist, and sound artist who explores the connection of sound to the subliminal, agrees that the story is the anchor of any entertainment experience: “We are living in an increasingly visual age…entertainment and performance will become more and more multisensory—and bridge the language of interactivity and experience— but it will never get away from the anchor of storytelling,” she says. “Meaningful exchange, illuminating truth, and creating connections -- will always remain the main motivation behind entertainment and performance, no matter what technology or tools are used.”

For some the future is not all that clear, but they will be on hand to join in the discussion: “I don't know what is next in storytelling but I can tell you a few things about what I have been doing!” says Neal Stephenson, the internationally best-selling author and game designer known for his works of speculative fiction and post cyberpunk—who better to decode the DNA of storytelling?

“Whatever the digital wizardry we utilize, storytelling will always be about the ooh’s and aah’s, not the 0’s and 1’s,” adds Guber. “Regardless of the delivery mechanism or the form, the DNA of successful narrative bonds information to emotion making it resonant, memorable, and actionable."

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Storytelling. How does that apply to me? I had to ask myself that question when I was invited to the Envision gathering.

Which Envision Symposium speaker won a 2014 Tony for Best Scenic Design of a Musical for his work on Rocky? Christopher Barreca.

What Envision speaker founded Opera Del Espacio? E. M. Gimenez.