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Real-time Story Development

If we were to devise a visual story development process from scratch, what would it be?

Development hell

Content development is hit-and-miss in general and cinematic story development is difficult in particular. The term “development hell” has achieved notoriety as a colorful — and apt — description of the time and money wasted when conceptual circling spirals into a creative nosedive.

There are many contributing factors, from the creative to the executive. Although no “magic bullet” exists, it’s generally understood that content creation benefits from workflows which encourage collaboration around a shared vision with reduced abstraction and extrapolation: informing and aligning creative participants, corporate stakeholders, and test audiences.

What would Walt do?

Walt Disney recognized the importance of telling emotionally engaging stories that would resonate with audiences, motivating him to pioneer the storyboarding process that quickly propagated throughout the animation industry and across a great deal of live-action production as well. The innovation of this development paradigm — applied within dedicated story departments — transformed cinematic storytelling and elevated the animation medium.

Yet the storyboarding process has evolved no further in nearly a century. Obviously, more story artists use digital tablets and tools than before, but the basic approach remains the same. As content demands change, shouldn’t our approach to development change as well — or at least be reexamined? If we had no precedent of cinematic story development and were to devise a methodology from scratch, would we arrive at this 100-year-old process... or something more progressive? In short: if storyboarding didn’t exist, would we invent it now?

The historical advantage of storyboards is that they facilitate visual thinking, collaboration, brainstorming and alignment: fostering ideas and building consensus. With that in mind, we should reexamine our approach to visual story development from the same need that spawned traditional storyboarding: the need for dynamic, high-fidelity visualization. This doesn’t mean that we throw the baby out with the bath water, but rather that we take a fresh look at our procedural assumptions given the realities of high-volume, tight-schedule, low-budget content creation that most of us face in 2021.

Why do we still storyboard the same old way? What issues are hidden in the process or lost in translation? How much time and money are wasted on unproductive iteration and course corrections? Even conventional 3D previsualization is stale and siloed — essentially a dimensional digital version of traditional offline storyboarding. What could be gained from dynamically-directed story development using real-time digital assets directly integrated with the output medium?

Real-time story development

MOFAC — a leading animation & visual effects studio in South Korea — is one of many companies expanding its traditional production expertise into the real-time realm. MOFAC embraced real-time animation due to the inefficiencies arising from the traditional animation workflow, where storyboarding, asset creation and shot production took place in a relatively linear fashion: misinterpretation was costly and iteration was inefficient.

MOFAC sought a real-time solution that would allow them to make and modify decisions flexibly and affordably. Although the new pipeline was a drastic departure from their traditional processes, it dramatically reduced the overall time and cost of content creation, enabling a responsive creative environment.

Digital puppetry — typically regarded as a niche production medium — has the potential to facilitate the story development process by empowering creators to explore concepts, characters and story points and evaluate viewer engagement quickly and affordably through real-time content workshopping and focus group testing.

Our team has seen the value of applying table reads and other dynamic approaches to animated story development.

Imagine those approaches augmented by content teams interacting in a shared virtual space, inhabiting character avatars and working through creative issues in a first-person, firsthand manner that is retentive, not repetitive. The advent of directable virtual beings takes this one step further.

This is the approach we are taking with the development of our real-time animated feature film, Hidden in the Peach Blossom Garden, recently profiled in the “Taiwan Animated by TAICCA” program at Annecy 2021. What character dynamics may emerge, what scenes may evolve, what level of engagement may be achieved — not from the misguided application of technology as a “solution” but from more thoughtful integration as support? We intend to find out.

At tellretell, we are inspired by the needs of compelling storytelling — immediacy and relevance — which have remained the same since prehistoric times and motivate our mindful application of real-time, immersive technologies. Our goal is not to abandon traditional disciplines, but to reexamine the foundations and apply those creative aspirations to the powerful, flexible digital tools now available to us.

The beneficiaries will be content creators like yourself, who have many stories to tell, little money to burn, and no time to waste.

Kevin Geiger's picture

Kevin is the author of AWN's Reality Bites blog, his musings on the art, technology and business of immersive media (AR, VR, MR) and AI. You can find Kevin's website at www.kevingeiger.com and he can be reached at holler@kevingeiger.com.

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