Join Alex McDowell for an in-depth discussion in this video World building and narrative, part of Alex McDowell: World Building and Narrative.
- Hi I'm Alex McDowell and I do a couple of things. I teach at USC, I teach a class called World Building at the School of Cinematic Arts. I run a lab there called The World Building Media Lab that looks at the future of storytelling. And I run an institute called The World Building Institute that gathers large groups of people around the problems and the outcomes of the ways in which we're going to tell stories in the future. With very much a design base.
And then I run a studio called 5D Global Studio, which is kind of a design studio for the 21st century looking at all of media as our landscape and using storytelling as its base. I think for me world building started with a film called Minority Report. It was a disruptive space to begin with because there was no script. And the fact of having no script and having to develop a contextual framework for the story to develop a contextual framework within which the story, the linear story would ultimately find a place meant that we really had to build up the world.
So in simple terms with Minority Report we realized that with very few initial triggers, very few kind of prompts form Steven Spielberg originally. So we know we were in 2050. We knew it was Washington D.C. We knew it was apparently a benign future. And we know we had a major disruption at the center called the Precogs. From those relatively a few prompts, we built out a really rich world to the point where not only did the story find its place, and specific sequences of narrative existed that could not possible have existed if it had been scripted in the beginning.
But also we realized that there were layers and layers most story telling in that space that the film didn't necessarily tap into, but that we know that we could have gone back in and tell told a 100 more stories in that space. So it was clear that there was something in this idea of building a world, building a large kind of horizontal context between all of the components of a world, the politics, the society, the terrain, the landscape, the weather, the transportation systems, the infrastructure.
Every educational, all of these different parts became influential on each other. And a system of logic developed across the world. And then we would take that, so I think very much talk about world building now is this very large horizontal if you like, slice through a world that gives context to the world. And then every specific problem you have within a certain kind of world allows yo to dive in vertically, go deep into that problem, challenge the world, the way in which you investigate the fine details of the world makes the entire world more robust.
So it's becoming a kind of, it's a process and it's a system. It's hardly volatile, is very adaptive, but it gives very accurate context for for stories and I think that's the other big part of what's changing about what we're doing is that, narratives are multiple. Very few of the areas that we're working in have a single linear narrative anymore. Film has, but interactive media or virtual reality, mixed reality spaces, every single direction you look is kind of a different story so we have to think very differently about the ways in which we allow, the ways in which we seek stories and the ways in which those stories kind of emerge from the fertile clay of the world you build.
And so, this notion of world building as a foundational design practice is becoming, I think, almost essential for the future of storytelling. Yeah we're doing a lot of interesting stuff at the moment. In the 5D Global space, in the commercial space. We're working on a big project with The Oceans with Sylvia Earle. Looking at really how to get people below the surface of the ocean.
And how to be able to start telling really rich stories about the way in which the ocean is being impacted and what the impact of the ocean is on the world. So, that project kind of has a similar interest to me as this project we're doing in Saudi Arabia called Albaida, which looks at a Bedouin village that is under construction now in just the very, very beginning.
But will house 3,000 Bedouin tribe. And what we're doing is building out a world that will allow the tribes themeselves to the sort of people with the sweat equity in the project to understand how it will look in 10 years time. So we're doing a virtual world project that shows the village as it starts to evolve. So the model shows sustainable architecture. The ways in which the water from daily press, for example, can be used to cool down the building itself.
And sustainable agriculture, permaculture. So it rains once every five years in this region the desert, 40 Km south of Mecca. And they have already build an acre of land that's growing and producing with just one rain every five years so, it's, the two projects I think they're interesting because they're widely different from my entertainment media space.
Since Minority Report I think I've become really interested in this intersection of art and science. That we have to become so much more integrated in the way we work now. It's got a lot to do with the tools that we use. It's got a lot to do with the complexity of the landscapes that we're working in. And in order to be able to properly take on these these different sort of mediated narrative landscapes at scale, we have to be able to work with a really broad range of people.
So there's no, in my mind, there's no project that remains as a sort of singular item anymore. Everything seems to be part of an integrated larger landscape. And even, within every project we're doing, we're looking very broadly at the world, at the context, and that means we have to it means that we have to have a language and a ecosystem to be able to work with a really broad range of different people. Again, as I say, kind of goes into one foot firmly in art and one foot firmly in science with a great sort of respect and ability to integrate across that.
Which is, I don't believe it is a border at all anymore. But I think we still are working in these highly-polarized spaces where there are huge silos not only between art and science, but between every sort different of media space. I'm really excited at the possibilities of slicing through all of that. Kind of using design as a language to to find our way into the interior of the, sort of in the workings of the space of technology and art.
I think for me, you know, brought up in a very linear narrative space, first of all as a painter with a one-on-one relationship to the story through to music videos and then film, I've had a relationship that has been very much about linear storytelling. As soon as the door opened for me into interactive media and I started talking to practitioners in that space, and I realized the power of the tools and the thinking that allowed not only the audience, but also the creators to have and interactive relationship with the space that they were building and creating.
It had a radical impact on me even in the way that we would think about developing linear narrative. So, for me the beginning as a designer, the entire front end of of working towards a film is an entirely interactive sort of gamefied process really. We're using all the tools of game. We're using game-engines to drive visualization tools we're putting multiple participants, creative participants into that space simultaneously in order to allow it to evolve.
So yeah I think, I think we're now in a space where the story telling, the 100 years of storytelling in cinema has incredibly powerful tools that need to be drawn on in, to sort of change the way game thinks about storytelling. But I think that the sensitivity of the game space, of the interactive media space to the demands of the audience and to the nuance of the individual audience is relationship with the story space is equally important.
And if you look now at say, the mixed reality space, you know, virtual reality, short, but much more interesting, the augmented reality. These two things are going to have to come together this sort of idea of the, the power of the individual user as an interactor within the story space. And a new way to developing powerful stories that come out of the cinematic tradition. Those two things have to start mapping onto each other.
I think there's a sort of common thinking about this now is that the combination of sort of YouTube generation and virtual reality is going to set us off into millions of individual users who are all making their own stories. Who are all experiencing stories in a sort of small cellular way. I'm not sure I believe that necessarily. I think that, to me I think we have a strong tradition that has maintained, whether it's theater or the book or cinema or game.
Each of those things has continued to evolve. Cinema has not gone down, in fact it's really more successful than ever. Despite the massive interactive media space. So I think there is going to be a continuing evolution of all media. I don't think any of them are necessarily going to die. But I do think that we're coming full circle in and interesting way that the printing press created the notion of the single author.
And I think we are all trained with the idea that the single author, the autor, the director, the theater director, the starchitect, that this is all about single vision. I think the big shift I see is not not a massive multi-user influence on that space, but the possibility of really broad, creative collaborations where there's not going to be, it's not going to be possible for a single director to take on board the scale of worlds that are being developed narratively.
It's going to be really important to re think the idea of the collective voice and the cumulative creative process. And I think in that way, we're kind of coming back full circle to the beginning of you know Greek theater and what immersive theater is doing with plays like Sleep No More and what theater companies like Punchdrunk are doing where there's a really interesting balance between the way that theater develops collaboratively anyway. I mean, my small amounts of experience inside theater as a designer, it was a revelation to see how democratic it was.
How much of an influence each of the of the major creative collaborators had on the whole. And then you have this very real evolution now where the more people who integrate and, the more people who who occupy a world, the more they have a collective influence on the world. So Starwars and fan fiction starts changing the entire landscape of the Starwars Universe.
So you have that kind of transmedia influence. But I think you're also going to have this interesting balance between the power of the fan or the user, who are not necessarily powerfully creative in themselves but there's a kind of collective vision which goes along with that. And our need as creators to listen much more carefully to one another. And to the audience themselves. Probably right now, the most interesting project I'm working on is with a large sports company about looking at the future of sustainability.
So, what I'm finding really fascinating is we've worked with Nike now for a year. We've done we've written a dozen stories. We've developed a huge world space to look at the future through the narrative lands. As we look at the future, you know we're already in fiction space. From now on we're constantly really working within the fiction space.
But it's highly informed. And I think what's really interesting to me now is that rather than devoting myself entirely to this sort of selfish practice of very expensive movies that need very big opening weekends, and that all of your energy is really going towards how big is the opening weekend going to be. And of course you put in huge creative energy in order to develop a world that's rich enough and deep enough for an audience to come back to that space over and over again.
And selfishly you do it because you are interested in the future of Krypton and how to develop a world that's based on the biological, where there're no straight lines and you develop a 200,000 year old civilization to contextualize why a small boy can be sent off-planet to a small blue planet called Earth. But, what's very interesting about applying the fiction capabilities we have, the storytelling capabilities we have, that bring fiction as a powerful component to the table in the real world is that you got a fantastic tension between what I would call a prejudicial narrative stiring the story towards the outcome that you would like to happen.
And all of the powerful influence that the real world applies to stir and shape and kind of control the way in which that prejudicial narrative develops. So, so whether or not I'm allowed to talk about that certain sports company in this interview, I'll let you know. But to develop narratives that are around the future in the real world that look at things like sustainability or sports or the oceans or the dessert. With respect to to this tension between fact and fiction, becomes a really interesting space to work as a designer.
I think the evolution for me has been more and more towards this notion of prototyping the space that you build. So, in the early days when you were a designer you would go full board towards building the set so that the actors could stand there and they'd be shot and you'd be done. Now I think, what we're focusing on is that by developing a prototype space within which multiple people can participate and stories can evolve, the stories literally change in that space and you can go almost unknowingly into a contextual space, the world that you're interested in.
And narratives unfold and evolve from that space. Without you really having anywhere of knowing which way they're going to go. And when the narratives come out the other end, they're so deeply informed by research, by the participation of domain experts, by the collaborative team that you gather around them that they really have a life of their own. And I think as such, they are very powerful for the audience. And it speaks to what I was saying about the autor which is I think, we can trust in the single vision and there are visionary people we can look at throughout history who have driven all of us forward.
But, it's getting increasingly hard for me to see that I want to put all my faith in one person's vision that I really am interested in this kind of idea of a collective vision. And I think that's where all of this is going. And I can't remember whether that answers your question at all (laughs). I think design thinking doesn't take into account the full holistic framework. And I think that what I see has been problematic in the past is focusing in on what appears to be the problem at hand rather than focusing on the the holistic framework that surrounds the area over the problem.
And then, maybe the problem that you thought was the problem isn't even the problem you know? You discover entire other narratives within that space. And I think that we're very used to this idea that the clan lays out a specific brief, and the brief is to solve this problem. And I would say that our response at the moment is kind of, don't worry about telling us what the problem is, let's investigate the world around your area of interest.
And then allow all of these narratives to evolve and actually by launching characters, that represent the people most affected by the area of inquiry. Those characters start testing very robustly the system that you're developing. So I've been teaching world building for the past three years at USC. And I was in Rio at the beginning of 2014, last year with a great architect called Anne Penaldton Julian.
And we started comparing Rio and Los Angeles, sort of two cities that have steep mountains that face the ocean. You know one of which is the richest property in the city, and the other is the poorest. You have favelas on one set of slopes and kind of Malibu on the other. And the two film industries are incredibly interesting and parallel. So anyways, we started looking at Rio and L.A.
And we thought, what if we were to create a world that took the DNA of Rio and Los Angeles and combine them on a small, and place them on a small island in the Pacific that was too small for its population. So we came back and we launched my world building class in January of 2014 with that prompt and that premise with two classes. And we really just threw it out there and within a very short period of time the students had evolved an entire narrative around this.
How the island was discovered. How there was a challenge to fossil fuel and the trees on the island and a (mumbles) set of trees and, how that became a huge wealth resource and a vast influx of population poured into the island and then a plague started and the island was shut down and removed from the map and continued to evolve without our knowledge. And then as it evolved further, we opened it up to other schools and so, Relaw as the island was called became the subject for seven different schools around the world.
The Royal College of Art in London, The School of Journalism in Rio. A couple of design schools in Europe, a school in Toronto. And they all started contributing. So by the time we got to October we'd created a kind of gamefied framework and had 300 people arrive and build out Relaw in the day and they wrote a 1000 stories to that space in two and a half hours. And then started creating artifacts and all the artifacts went up on the web that same day. And then we went to the Berlin Festival with it.
And then we went to FMX with it. And these various schools continued to teach it in classes so. I think the idea of kind of, potent world that you can launch into the world for real, and allow multiple participants to dive into it and let those stories go where they will has become in itself in a really interesting story to me. It's become a kind of proof of concept of vast collaboration. We've had, over a 1000 people working in this space now.
We've had, (mumbles) artifacts. We now have a virtual museum that's build on a website that contains all of the artifacts that have been evolved for this world. And it's kind of never-ending so, I'm fascinated by our ability now just to sort of throw a few pebbles into a pond of a world and then see how every world can kind of explode with narrative. I think what I'm learning is that we need a new a new space.
A new kind of way to think about the design practice let's say. I think what I'm really learning in having sort of launch into 5D, kind of building on it from my film background and in my mind the model being very much about a film art department as as a kind of space within which you have this great capability and the ability to ingest lots and lots of different kinds of people and skills and then just produce anything from sort of a 17th century drama about Paris to 21st century drama about Washington D.C.
But, what's interesting is the the way in which those collaborations evolve within a volatile kind of work space like that. It's very hard to define the edges when you're trying to create sort of the first design studio for the 21st century. And be opened to all the practitioners you need. So I have UX and UI designers. I have programmers, I have, you know there's a game component to it of course. There's a huge research piece. There are producers that, there's filmmakers and, (mumbles) game makers and UI, UX people.
So I guess what I'm learning and I feel like my whole life and various practices have always just been about my own curiosity and how I love to learn from what's around me. But I'm very opened to seeing how this new space for design and storytelling might evolve. And I think the other thing we all have to learn is that there's no stability now. We're in this volatile, chaotic space. We are developing stories and tools for media that do not yet have a name.
And within two years who knows what magic leap will have turned our experience of the world into hollow lands or, whatever the next generation of oculars or or vibe or, there's so much so many of the tools that are involving are in themselves massive learning opportunities. And I think that if you are curious and you're confident enough to sort of dive into the maelstrom and not be freaked out by the chaos I think this is an incredibly interesting time to be alive as a creative person.
As somebody working in creative industries. There's never been a more interesting time. I was trained as a painter at art school and as a painter I guess I was trained to have a one-on-one relationship with the creative practice. My wife's a painter. I have enormous respect for people who can do that, and have that sort of direct connection to the material and to the stories that they're developing, the world that they're developing.
But for me, what I've learned, and I think is increasingly powerful, is this notion of collaboration. So I've talked about that a little bit, but I think that the ability to truly collaborate outside your comfort zone and to be able to be open to working freely and developing a language that allows you to work freely accross a really broad plateau of different skills sets against that sort of idea of allowing art science...
Couple of my students out of the world building now write, put art scientist on their business cards. And I think that's the future. I think those are the people who are going to be powerful. That's what I hope my son and daughter are going to be, are those people who are not specialists actually, accept in the way they think. But in terms of their openness and capability of working equally or seeing no distinction between the arts and the sciences. Between designer, engineering. Those are the people that going to make the world change I think.
Largely right now that I find my inspiration my students. I think one of the most powerful things for me about teaching, the most powerful thing about teaching is that the privileged access that it gives you to young minds who are unfitted and incredibly curious themselves. And I'm really looking to try and be open enough to learn from every new student who comes in and says why does it have to work this way? The what if and why not of the future is what powerfully drives everything I'm doing, but I think we need that sort of stimulus.
And I kind of see everybody as an expert in some field or another so, I don't really look at a kind of hierarchy that's based on age and experience, I look much rather the hierarchy that's based on access to unique thinking, let's say. And to be open to creating an infrastructure that allows that all to be ingested and can still produce something that is structured and disciplined and with a real sense of direction and a ability to produce it, you know? The balance of that, that sort of volatility and the chaos and then this is just about making stuff that's going to exist in the real world.
Those two things are where my are of interest really lies.
In this interview, Alex tells us about his current projects (including models for sustainable living and a virtual exploration of the world's oceans), the future of media and narrative, and where he looks for inspiration.