Interlude’s interactive platform, Treehouse, is named after its central metaphor: with interactive platforms, narratives can be made to ‘branch out’ in all sorts of directions. As a video plays, multiple-choice options present themselves to the viewer, who can then choose which branches they’d like to climb out on to explore further. That idea of playfulness and exploration is crucial to the Treehouse philosophy, and it’s visible in many of the high-profile projects made with the application. Vania Heymann’s interactive music video for Bob Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone is just one example of that concept writ large. Viewers, presented with an interface designed to look like a TV, could ‘channel-surf’ as the song played, and see the lyrics mimed in real-time by the stars of every programme they came across.
With a desire to bring interactivity to their band’s own music videos, Interlude’s founders originally made the tool for themselves. But as interest grew in the Internet’s capacity to give an audience a non-linear film experience, they released Treehouse as a self-service platform for filmmakers. “Getting someone to lean in, to engage, is our biggest goal”, says Interlude’s Omri Anghel, echoing his colleague Yoni Bloch. Omri suggests that, compared to non-interactive experiences, there’s an up-to-eightfold increase in the likelihood of a viewer sharing a Treehouse link with others.
This is where the Treehouse philosophy takes on a more serious character. As well as an in-browser editing platform, the Treehouse dashboard also offers users access to metrics that tell them how viewers are engaging with their project. Those with Premium accounts can collect more precise analytics, right down to seeing user decision-making broken down choice-by-choice. Metrics used in marketing are useful for documentary filmmakers, suggests Omri, as well as for narrative feedback generally.
This is an approach to creativity that sees online interactive filmmaking as part of a continuum – not necessarily with traditional film and video, but with other online services, products and experiences. Treehouse, from the visual style of its website to the language by its founders, recognisably draws from the ambitious, aspirational culture of Internet start-up companies. This is a world which believes in the critical importance of receiving quantifiable statistical feedback from your users, as often as possible, and in learning about and improving upon ideas based on the new information gathered. From an artistic perspective, this might seem unromantic, and overly businesslike. But the form of interactive storytelling is still new, and the culture of the internet demands that, if people are really going to engage with it in a meaningful way, a story must capture their imaginations as quickly and decisively as possible. Whether this is a good or bad thing, the internet is undeniably a competitive environment for media content, and demands that careful attention is paid to the behaviour of an audience.
As with other interactive platforms, the Treehouse editing interface resembles that of current digital video editing software, from Adobe Premiere Pro to Final Cut Pro. The user’s media library is to their left, their monitor in the upper centre, and a set of tools for changing project settings to their right. But the timeline that appears at the bottom of the screen is very different. Instead of following the usual layered design of a video editor, it is three dimensional. Treehouse doesn’t refer to it as a ‘timeline’ at all, but as a ‘tree area’ (or as a ‘canvas’). Users can pull their media assets from their library and into the tree area to create a node. Nodes are then connected together by dragging from one (the parent) to another (the child). The more detailed editing choices, concerning the individual contents of each node (the exact points that a button appears or disappears, for example) are decided and developed within the monitor and its toolbar options. This is known as the Node Editor. Here, choice buttons can be designed and added. Their style, placement and duration can be decided by the user. If you want to give your viewers an Easter egg option, add an invisible button. Use the transform tab function to change the opacity of a button element. Place it over an image in your video to make the image into a link that takes to user to another node.
But these element features need a strong narrative structure underlying them if they are to present meaningful options to the viewer. “It’s not just about creating choices or decision points. It’s about creating valuable choices”, Omri points out. As an interactive narrative experience is developed, decision branches will multiply out exponentially, and the tree will usually start to become a bit unwieldy. But the tree area, with its diagram-like structure, is optimised for rearranging the narrative’s progression as simply as possible. The user can more easily focus on creating narrative choices that are both clear and rewarding. The tree area’s own layout can be adjusted via the grey floating toolbar, known as the ‘tree toolset’. The interface can be enlarged, or dragged around so the user can more easily navigate to other parts of their tree. As the nodes on the canvas are inevitably not very detailed, simple icons appear within any nodes that contain media, to represent their content visually (so a node containing a video generates a small camera icon). Users can also hover over any node to see a thumbnail from the media file inside it.
Even when the viewer reaches the end of a narrative path, they are not necessarily finished their experience. The film can be designed to play again, with an alternative introduction, so that viewers can see what would have happened if they had chosen other options at various points. In the vein of other interactive platforms such as Mozilla’s Popcorn, Treehouse has factored in the idea that replaying – climbing other branches – should be an intrinsic part of the experience, one that users will expect to have available to them when they participate. The philosophy behind Treehouse, Omri says, is that if your interactive piece is an “internet based concept, or project”, you’ll “therefore prefer videos to be online”, and design them as internet-based interactive experiences. Finished projects can be published to Interlude’s community platform, the Playhouse, and a client can be given an iframe if they would like to embed the project into their own site. As Treehouse is responsive, it’s compatible with most operating systems, across desktop computers, mobiles and tablets. New users are offered templates to play with, intended to introduce them to the Treehouse workflow – but the pre-designed Interview and Quiz formats will save a lot of time for users with those particular mechanics already in mind.
Treehouse’s editing suite is elegant, but also robust. Despite being web-based, it’s capable of handling large media files without a struggle, and boasts a reliably accessible and consistent online experience. This will potentially make it appealing to newcomers who are curious about what interactive software is, as well as to more heavy-duty, tech-literate filmmakers, who might have already designed an ambitious interactive project and would like to implement it with minimal frustration or fuss. Its core concept of interactivity is, like a few other platforms, based primarily on the choose-your-own-adventure mechanic. However, its deceptively simple tools are allowing users to experiment and innovate with interactive forms, beyond simply offering audiences multiple paths through a story. It’s revealing that the projects available in the Playhouse are so formally diverse, and that many of them (from quizzes to interviews to games and beyond) are difficult to imagine in a more traditional long-form film format. They appear to have been developed, filmed, and edited with their potential for audience interaction in mind from the start. This emphasis on the significance of interactivity as the central method of storytelling, and not just an add-on, has allowed Interlude’s platform to help push the boundaries of what it means to make something ‘interactive’.