Interview by Hal Siegel
Established in 1998, Upian is a design studio and interactive production company known for its award winning projects including Alma - A Tale of Violence, Prison Valley, and Generation Quoi? For this interview three of Upian's producers—Alexandre Brachet, Margaux Missika and Gregory Trowbridge—take us behind the screens as they describe their process and the development of their projects.
top right: Alexandre Brachet, bottom right: Margaux Missika, left: Gregory Trowbridge
1. Alma - A Tale of Violence is one of the best known interactive documentaries. As one of the producers of the project, what was your relationship like with the filmmakers?
After Prison Valley (by David Dufresne and Philippe Brault), we were introduced to the work of Miquel Dewever-Plana, a photographer, Isabelle Fougère, a journalist, and the story of Alma. We were immediately shocked, under the spell of the power of the story and the potency of the images. Our decision to work with Isabelle and Miquel was immediate and natural. It was an obvious thing to do.
With Alma there was, from the start, the firm conviction that this story was bigger and relevant in many more ways than just the story of a girl in a gang and the violence reigning over Guatemala. It's also the story of a generation that has been forgotten and slaughtered, a generation that became violent because it has no choice, because they'd been left out by everybody else, and because the "get rich or die trying" mentality begets a world of extreme violence.
We've had, with Miquel and Isabelle, a very, very strong and dense relationship. We started by organizing a first trip, a kind of location scout. Developing the story became our obsession. But in the meantime, Miquel and Isabelle had to build and work on their relationship with Alma with one key goal: trust. How could they record her words without betraying her?
During the preparative stages of the project, we did a tremendous amount of writing and of transcribing Alma's recorded testimonies in order to prepare as best as possible for the actual shoot. We also did a lot of testing with the camera, for finding the best field size.
2. As an interactive piece, part of what makes Alma so powerful is the simplicity of the interaction - swiping up and down. Did you look at many other concepts, or did you hit on this right away?
After we delved into the story, the concept began to surface naturally. So no, we didn't explore other options but rather kept working on this one concept to refine it as best as we could. Sébastien Brothier (Upian's Creative Director) had a vision of the final program and kept working on it to make it flow as much as possible.
3. Alma is a web doc, an iOS and Android app, and it has additional "modules" that take you deeper into the story. That seems like quite a bit of work. How long was the production and what was the team makeup?
Yes, the additional modules represent a huge amount of work. Each screen has been the object of particular care. In the main program, we refused to bring political, historical or sociological insights. We wanted Alma's voice to be the only one the viewer heard. So these modules were the perfect place to help our viewers understand, to broaden the point of view.
The decision process that leads to the commitment of a production company like ours (Alma represents two years of hard work) is hard to describe in general. But there is always one part realism, and one part irrational thinking — sheer will and intuition.
4. One of your more recent projects, GENERATION ...? (aka Generation Quoi? or, in English, Generation What?), attempts to create a portrait of an entire generation of French young people (age 18 - 34). This project leans heavily on "user-generated content" in the form of surveys with provocative questions. What were the biggest challenges in doing a "UGC"-focused project as opposed to a project like Alma?
This project is very different from our previous programs. It belongs to a specific family of storytelling in that it is a "bi-media" project. Originally, there was a documentary series directed for TV by Laetitia Moreau and produced by Christophe Nick. The series followed about 20 young people to establish a qualitative portrait of youth.
When Christophe Nick and France Télévisions came and asked us to think about what that could become online, we immediately thought it should be the complete opposite. We decided straight away to offer something only the Internet could do: a quantitative self-portrait.
Soon we were talking about a big survey. Two sociologists were already working on the movies and we wanted to involve them in the process. But we felt that our survey and the questions had to be original. We wanted it to communicate with the people while they answered the questions. A kind of intelligent, organic engine capable of placing the people using it among the whole population, giving them an editorial reward for participating.
So we're talking less about UGC here than experience or interaction. The documentary aspect lies in the experience, in that you can either do it alone or share it with friends. It was also the occasion to experiment with something we're passionate about: how can we address someone (on an individual basis, like talking to someone using a phone) and talk to everybody at the same time? We call this the "one-to-one/one-to-many" paradigm. We experimented with this in the portraits on the web by showing young people answering the survey, synchronized with the viewers' stats.
5. GENERATION ...? has had over 225,000 participants. Getting people to do anything online that seems like work is very difficult. How did you manage to get so many people to respond?
The huge participation was an incredible surprise. But we think it can be explained by at least two or three factors. First, it is a subject that the national media doesn't really cover. The youth of France don't have many places to express themselves, which was one of the reasons we were so excited with this project. I guess it has things to say and young people were happy to find a place where they could talk and listen.
Moreover, we worked for several months on the best way to interact with our audience. The design, the organization of the content, the tone of the questions and the way the engine was talking to the viewers became an obsession. It had to be intimate, relevant and technically smooth.
The discussion with Yami 2 (our co-producer) and France Télévisions was very useful. What was even more surprising for us was that most of the people who started the survey did it all the way through, spending around 20 minutes per visit, on average, answering the 143 questions.
We also put a lot of effort from the beginning into organizing the distribution of the program. We partnered with various national media organizations like Le Monde (a national newspaper), Europe 1 (national radio), and Francetvinfo.fr (the website of the national TV broadcaster). We also collaborated with Animafac, an association coordinating French student associations. They released a beta version of the questionnaire.
We wanted to use Animafac's network to bring enough people to answer questions so the database would hold some numbers at the program's launch. But it went viral, and we had more than 4,000 people answering the survey before we even were officially online. Then, the campaign organized by France 2 (with broadcast teasers during peak listening hours) coupled with the involvement of our partners continued to build the audience throughout the two months of the campaign.
6. The films and videos "close the loop" by presenting the data back to the respondents — we get to see their reactions, and how the individual stands in relation to the group. In many ways this could be called Generation DATA, as we have become so aware of the collection and mining of our personal data. How much of that was intended to be a subtext of the project?
Honestly, at the beginning, not much! We had been looking into a lot of data visualization programs, like slaveryfootprint.org, so we really wanted to tell a story with numbers and graphs. The point of the portrait was to give a qualitative feedback with the videos and a quantitative aspect with the numbers. We wanted the viewers to be able to identify themselves with the characters and to place themselves on the map. They could thus compare themselves with the other users.
The only thing important from the beginning concerning the data was how we would use it. It was meant only for sociology. We were going the opposite way of marketing and management approaches. The funny part is that along the production of Generation What?, we started to work on a project around online tracking, how data is collected and how personalization of content is changing the web.
7. Speaking of Upian, the company was founded in 1998 — quite a long time ago by web standards. As an agency focused on interactive storytelling, can you describe the makeup of the company? How are you structured to produce these kinds of innovative projects?
We are indeed a very old web company! Since it's creation, Upian believed the Internet would be a great place to tell stories. We started to create what we called galette, that were like interactive press cartoons. Then, in 2002 Upian created Presidentielles.net. For about 6 months, it became a new form of media, producing daily content about the French presidential campaign (documentaries, games, parodies, video clips, news, etc.). So producing content is really in the genes of the company.
Although about half of our activity comes from production, we are structured as an agency, with 20 permanent employees, evenly divided between artistic directors, developers and producers/project managers. Everybody works on both type of projects, production and studio. It has many advantages. When working for national media organizations (such as L'Equipe or Radio France) we are creating interfaces used by millions of viewers each day. Furthermore, when we start to work on a project, web designers and developers are involved at the very beginning of conception. It allows us to explore a lot of possibilities from development phase until it's published.
8. Since your founding there have been so many changes in digital media — from social media, to tablets and smartphones, and now virtual reality is posed to become, well, a reality. At Upian, what do you consider to be the biggest changes on the horizon? How do you see Upian and the industry changing in the next few years?
Ha... This is the biggest question! We have intuitions, but we wouldn't dare to predict what the future holds. The multiplication of screens is impacting our daily job. Responsive design is a difficult puzzle when you try to produce intuitive navigation and innovative storytelling.
We haven't been taking on many apps, preferring "web apps", with HTML5 and the open web. We are starting to explore the potential of virtual reality, with objects like Oculus. We are also interested in distribution, as it is at the intersection of our different activities.
But I guess the main belief is that people are consuming more and more content and they'll be less and less interested about where it comes from. TV, cinema, web, radio, videogames... all of that should be available everywhere at any time. New actors are entering the field, like Netflix or Amazon. Some formats shall emerge in the next few years and hopefully we will have participated in creating them. This is what we are trying to do with Generation What?, by adapting it to compare a generation across Europe.
9. In the United States there is a lot of talk about the "business model" for these kinds of projects — or more specifically, the lack of a clear business model. Is this something that you struggle with at Upian? Do you feel that you have to reinvent the wheel for each project, or is this less of a problem as an agency for hire?
We are also struggling with these questions. As all emerging industries, and particularly in times of crisis, the question of business models can take years to be solved. Upian is quite peculiar in that matter, as we have two activities that aren't based on the same business models.
The studio works as a classic customer service provider. It is the reason why we have so many permanent employees, which is not the typical production structure. For the moment, our production activity is quite similar to the traditional model: We hire contract workers and raise money through public broadcasters, public institutions and international subsidies.
We believe that each project doesn't necessarily have to be profitable on its own. And for a long time, production was really an R&D activity. We have a business model for the company. But web programs are growing and the borders between screens are becoming less and less clear.
Moreover, we have initiated discussions with production unions to see how we could structure the industry. About the business models, the debate here is focused on pre-financing programs, when the budget is secured before launch. This is most of the case today, as we haven't yet found a way to make people pay for online content after it's been released, something closer to the business model of, for example, video-games.
10. From across the Altantic, France seems like a hotbed of innovation for "transmedia" and immersive storytelling. Why do you think it has taken hold there so strongly?
One of the main reasons is that public institutions are very active in culture and they started to get interested in the potential of the Internet as a place for storytelling quite early. The CNC (the Centre national du cinéma et de l'image animée) has had a "new media" department since 2007, Arte created its web department almost at the same time. About three years ago, France Télévisions decided to invest in "new writings" to explore what television could look like in a few years.
You need institutions to invest in innovative fields that don't have solid business models yet for people to start producing content. You can observe a similar — or even stronger — phenomenon in Canada. Public institutions (like the National Film Board of Canada, Canada Media Fund and regional funds) have invested in web productions and, thus, producers have multiplied and it has become one of the main actors in the world of "transmedia." But the United States is a quick learner!
Hal Siegel is a partner at Murmur, an entertainment studio that creates immersive extensions for existing Television, Film & Web brands and develops original cross-platform series.