The Art and Science of Visual Storytelling

A conversation between Framestore’s Mike McGee and The Drum’s Cameron Clarke at JW London Insights

If you’ve seen a special-effects movie in the last 30 years, you’ve probably enjoyed the work of master storyteller Mike McGee. The Oscar-winning cofounder of Framestore, the legendary digital effects firm behind movies like Gravity and Paddington, sat down for a fireside chat with The Drum’s Cameron Clarke at JW London Insights. The conversation—one of the most celebrated at the conference—shed light on what it means to tell stories in the digital (virtual reality) age and the spectacular power that video brings to the picture.

Below is an edited Q&A featuring excerpts from the fireside chat.

 

Clarke: What does it take to create a story?

McGee: A great story is really a journey—beginning, middle, end. It’s driven by characters that you can make an emotional connection to.

 

C: What are the key ingredients of making content stand out?

M: It’s originality. It’s finding something new and innovative. We spend a long time understanding a brand and coming up with original thinking. We use top-quality Hollywood visual experiences to help us develop the technologies and techniques in-house. That’s where we add the extra value: being creative with not just the idea, but how the idea is applied with tech.

 

C: There’s a lot of self-made viral video online, some with low quality. Do you see that as a blessing or a curse?

M: Both. It means that anyone can create content as you can buy a 360-degree camera for $250. Our challenge at Framestore is always to achieve the best quality for our budget. For a Robinson Squash commercial, we took a flight to zero gravity. We filmed liquid mixing with Robinson Squash in the air, no special effects needed.

 

C: What are the challenges of producing film for small screen devices?

M: The quality of the story is still what’s king. The platform is irrelevant. It’s about creating the right story for the platform . . . knowing the message, understanding the platform, and adapting the content to fit. If you’re making an advertisement on Facebook where people are scrolling, you may only have three seconds.

 

C: How has your creative process changed over the years?

M: We have concentrated creative sessions. We use mathematicians and scientists, fine artists and writers. It’s that mixture of science and art that helps us with problem solving, and we put a team together for the execution.

 

McGee (right) discusses the future of digital storytelling with Clarke.

 

C: Which platforms are getting you most excited?

M: I love VR. I’ve seen people scream, shake, tear their headset off, and I’ve seen them cry. You can really transport people to places. VR and mixed reality open up whole new opportunities for how we interact with our devices. They make story living and not just storytelling—it’s tricking all your senses to move in a physiological and not just emotional way.

 

C: What’s next for visual effects?

M: I laugh at my team—the year we don’t win a BAFTA or Oscar for digital effects is when we have done our best work. No one would know because it will be totally seamless.

We’ve made many creatures over the years, but the ultimate creature is the human being. How long before we can bring dead actors back to life? Or make actors age without a lot of prosthetics? CG is getting good enough to do that. (See Framestore’s Audrey Hepburn Galaxy commercial.)

 

C: Do you think our conception of great storytelling has been changed by technology?

M: If we do our jobs well, it should be a seamless experience watching how stories are told. What’s happening now is the boundaries between what’s real and what isn’t real are so blurred that we can give people genuine experiences that are more than just telling a story. They’re capable of becoming memories. (See Framestore’s Fieldtrip to Mars experience for schoolchildren.)

It’s not visual reality; it’s virtual reality. When we get all those ingredients right and put them in the right kind of experience, we can educate, we can inspire. We can of course still entertain. We have a very powerful medium for changing people’s lives.

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For more on JW London Insights, visit our video page and read this recap from The Drum.

Missed the event? Don’t worry, we’ll be hosting more events in New York and London in 2018.

To learn more about how to become a video-first publisher, schedule time to talk with one of our video experts.

 

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