Case Study – Portal Entertainment take storytelling into the 21st Century

How would Alfred Hitchcock tell a story today?

This was the apparently simple question that started Portal Entertainment managing director Julian McCrea on his journey to Hollywood, with support from Innovate UK.

“Alfred Hitchcock, son of a greengrocer, started off in theatre and moved into film, the new medium of his age, changing how we told stories. In November 2010, we asked ourselves the question: How would Alfred Hitchcock tell a story today?” Portal Entertainment explains on its Facebook page.

Their answer? “We don’t think it would be a film. We think it would be a story that used all the devices we had available to us today to tell that story. And we would take part in them.”

The last “we”, here, is important. It stands for Portal Entertainment, of course. But it also includes you, the viewer. What the company envisages, in other words, is the audience taking part in these stories via the mobile phones, tablets and laptops that surround us.

They call it “immersive entertainment”: “Stories where the audience take part in them. Stories that put the audience at the heart of the story; stories that leave you with emotional, empathetic experiences that maximise the tension and suspense inherent in great storytelling.”

Portal Entertainment was formed in November 2010. In 2012, using research on human-computer interaction funded by The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, McCrea won an IC tomorrow Innovation in Film and TV competition, using the £30,000 prize to develop a prototype product called Thrill Me, which measures the anxiety on people’s faces.

Later that year, Portal entered an Innovate UK Digital Convergence competition and was awarded

£54,000 towards a £74,000 feasibility study. The company used this 12-month project to develop a prototype for Immersion Go, their first proper product.

Immersion Go is, according to Portal, “the storytelling platform for the digital age”. It allows users to tell stories over multiple platforms (web, mobile and tablet), changing the direction of those stories based on the audience’s anxiety level, which it can gauge by reading the viewer’s face using their device camera.

The 12-month project also allowed Portal to develop its first immersive story, The Craftsman, for iPad, a part-book, part-film, part-game experience that turns the reader into the main character. “No two people will get the same experience,” McCrea told The Guardian.

The Guardian, in fact, was one of several media to cover the launch, comparing The Craftsman to a massively extended take on the choose-your-own-adventure books of the 1980s.

“‘You’, as a fully paid-up character in the drama, can sign online petitions on fictitious websites and receive cryptic messages on your mobile phone from other characters, while the events you attend in the story pop up in your real-life calendar, as the app’s creators attempt to ‘bleed’ the story into your everyday life,” The Guardian said, clearly impressed.

Portal has since agreed deals with Warner, to develop a horror digital series for mobiles and a five-minute horror attraction for virtual-reality devices; Fox, for the use of the Immersion Go platform; and Disney / Pixar.

This last deal may be the most commercially significant of all the three, opening up the world of advertising, with Portal’s technology being used to measure “purchasing intent” for the 3D film Inside Out.

“Facial recognition is just the first step. Now we’re trying to pick up what the eye is looking at on screen and how attentive you are,” McCrea said. To this end Innovate UK has awarded Portal £88,000 towards a cognitive vision feasibility project to add to the company’s mood data.

Portal has now opened a Los Angeles office to handle these US deals, the end of a remarkable five-year journey that has seen McCrea go from working on the BBC’s Doctor Who Facebook page to striking deals with the Hollywood elite. The company also employs seven staff in offices in Birmingham and London.

McCrea says none of this would have been possible without Innovate UK. “What Innovate UK allows you to do is innovate and experiment with really risky ideas,” he says. “I’m just super-excited that Innovate UK exists. I love the fact that it gives me the opportunity to have crazy ideas that then become reality.”

Portal Entertainment’s mission, as laid out on its Facebook page is “To create Vertigo for the digital age”. It’s a bold statement, referencing one of Hitchcock’s most-loved films, and it is going to take a lot of doing.

And yet in 2015 the media environment is ripe for this kind of innovation. We are watching more content than ever on smartphones and tablets – in China, for example, 25% of all video is viewed on tablet and smartphone, according to the Ooyala Q2 2014 Global Video Index Report – and we increasingly expect to be involved in what we are watching, whether it is by voting on the outcome, submitting our own photos and videos or taking part in the Twitter conversation around live programming.

At the same time, the idea of interactive storytelling is starting to gain serious traction. The New York Times is one notable media company to experiment with the concept, using multimedia tools and interactive features on acclaimed online features like Snow Fall. (There is, incidentally, a whole page on rounding up its adventures in Interactive Storytelling, Graphics and Multimedia from 2014.) Gaming, too, is becoming ever more lifelike and story based, with the worlds of cinema and games edging ever closer.

The idea that the next Vertigo could be designed for tablets and smartphones with viewer interaction driving the story is not so farfetched, then, and Portal could be at the heart of it.




Written by Ben Cardew

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