Considering a future wherein cinematic experiences are participatory, audiences would interact with narratives as if they were concurrently films and video games. Enter: "Leviathan," an experimental leap forward in cinematic technique that heralds such an evolution:
This past January, in collaboration with Intel Labs, the USC School of Cinematic Arts World Building Media Lab unveiled "Leviathan," at CES 2014's Intel CEO Keynote speech. As the audience used Intel Ultrabooks and tablets to simultaneously control flying jellyfish creatures that swam alongside the eponymous augmented reality behemoth, Leviathan soared off the screen and into the crowd, yielding an as-of-yet unparalleled mixture of film and gaming experience. "Immersive storytelling" doesn't even begin to describe it.
The project integrated both the physical and digital universes by using a multimedia platform that may very well set a precedent for future AR and immersive-narrative creativity. The Creators Project was fascinated by the collaboration between Intel Labs and USC's World Building program, and subsequently made a documentary that details the partnership, the project, and its unprecedented results (above).
We spoke with Scott Westerfeld, writer of the original Leviathan story, Tawny Schlieski of Intel Labs, and Alex McDowell, the director of the World Building program, about how projects like this are major strides towards a future in which we don't just show or tell stories, we dive right into them.
"Leviathan" was inspired by author Scott Westerfeld's steampunk series of the same name, which re-imagines World War I with mechanized war machines and genetically-enhanced creature-based combat. The topic was a perfect springboard for real life tech-enhancement, and thus Intel Labs "challenged" USC's World Building Media Lab to reimagine the text and to augment its storytelling with cutting-edge technologies (which included virtual reality helmets, sensor fusion, and the latest in motion tracking tech) to turn an imagination into a narrative tour de force.
"The Leviathan project is really about a collision of technology," says Westerfeld. Students from USC's filmmaking program were induced into multimedia cross-pollination by being paired with students from the school's game development department.
"Film is based on tremendous visual control, and games are about participation and total freedom of the audience," notes Tawny Schlieski of Intel Labs. By combining two distinct types of thinkers, the project became its own behemoth with an explorable, interactive narrative. It's a present-day dive into ways in which we can deepen the stories of the future.
"We evolved film from a linear narrative, a script based storytelling process, into something that looked much more like a world," said Alex McDowell, the director of the World Building Media Lab. Not only did the students add side characters, the jellyfish-like "Huxleys," to Westerfeld's story, but they turned the creatures into amalgamations of cinematic characters and video game avatars. The creatures could be induced via tablet to follow the massive whale as it floated beyond the screen. Similarly, as the choice of venue hints at, the virtual environments in this project were more than just entertainment pieces to gaze over; the work was navigable, explorable, and fully engrossing.
"Leviathan" points towards a future in which video games and cinema are fused in order to create new experiences. And while the integrated world of "Leviathan" is impressive in its own right, it also illustrates that folkloric practices will continue to be revolutionized in the near future. "It's really a space that you can hardly guess where those stories and where those experiences are gonna take us," says McDowell." "We're really moving rapidly into a new narrative space."
Above, images of the titular Leviathan evolving from sketches to a 3D colossal beast.