'Great stories are never diminished by the size of a screen': Framestore’s co-founder Mike McGee on balancing tech with storytelling

Fireside chat with The Drum

Big screen or small screen – a great story should translate on any medium, right? For many brands, creating great content for multiple channels poses a challenge but it does not have to be this way, according to Framestore’s co-founder Mike McGee.

At JW Player Insights in London, where digital publishers and broadcasters come together to share best practices and learn about the future of video from industry experts, McGee said as long as it contains all the “vital ingredients” the size of the screen the story is told on is irrelevant.

“It’s about using the technology in a new way that someone has not thought of before,” he said in a fireside chat with The Drum. “It's about knowing the message, understanding what platform it's going onto and then adapting the content.”

McGee showcased a range of videos to bring his argument to life — including how Framestore used spectacular special effects in a major blockbuster movie like Gravity and the resurrection of a 17-year-old Audrey Hepburn for the Galaxy chocolate advert.

But what does it really take to tell a great story?

“For us it’s about originality. We spend a lot of time getting to know a brand and what messages they want to communicate. We do that by using Hollywood as a Formula One experience, as it’s where we develop a lot of the technologies and techniques but then these trickle down to different platforms where we can use the learnings,” he explained.

Working on a feature film like Gravity and then crafting a story for a 30 or 60 second TV commercial involves completely different processes. McGee said his experience on Gravity taught him the value of immersing the audience - which keeps the core principle of storytelling intact – keeping your audience completely engaged in the experience.

“70% of the film's final screen time is only made up of 17 shots. The director does that so you as an audience would find it difficult to look away - you are immersed in that storytelling. By just having one camera there, it really immerses you.”

It’s not always easy, admitted McGee, when asked about the challenge of competing with companies that create content for mobile that goes viral. Is it a blessing or a curse to be competing against viral videos that are not always of the highest quality?

“It’s both. It means that anyone can create content as you can buy a 360-degree camera for $250 dollars. In fact, I shot a piece of content for a brand that had no money and it was only for the internet. We had to find a way to communicate their message. Our challenge is always to achieve the best quality within [the brand’s] budget,” he added.

What’s next for the future of storytelling?

To flourish the promise of Virtual Reality (VR) for storytelling, Framestore shared its ‘Field Trip to Mars’ project with the audience, which used VR to transport school children to Mars with the aim to inspire them to develop an interest in science. The ground-breaking project included 30 school children travelling on an American school bus who thought they were going on a regular field trip, but the bus became a literal headset thanks to transparent 4K screens enabling the children to look outside the window and onto the surface of Mars.

McGee said he’s excited about what the future holds for VR because of its ability to transform people’s lives.

“It creates a kind of emotional connection with people and once you start augmenting that with 4D sensory experiences like wind and smell, you can really transport people to other places – and that’s just VR. We are currently experimenting with mixed realities which is going to open a whole world of opportunities in terms of how we interact with our devices and view content on our screens.

“I think if we are doing our jobs well it should be a seamless experience watching a story unfold. The boundaries between the real and unreal are so blurred, we can give people genuine experiences that are more than just about telling a story – they can even become memories,” he concluded.

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