‘Technology should leave storytellers alone’ is one of the founding principles of Storygami, the interactive platform created by Guy Gunaratne and Heidi Lindvall. It’s comparable in some ways to Mozilla’s Popcorn Maker: rather than a tool for connecting multiple videos in a branching narrative, it allows filmmakers to create interactive overlays for a single video project. Image galleries, social media feeds, blogs and other text can all be added to the main video. The viewer can then access this content as the main video plays, by clicking buttons as they appear on screen, or choose from a full list in the menu bar to the right of the video. The team says that their research suggests a 50/50 split between those who like the timed approach, where the buttons appear in the frame, and those who preferred to choose from the menu and explore interactive content at their own pace.
The origins of Storygami are worth exploring in more detail, as many aspects recur in the histories of other platforms. It’s a start-up, but its founders come from filmmaking rather than business backgrounds, and the idea itself came about as a solution to a problem they experienced directly. ‘The rectangular boxes of video seemed restrictive’, they tell the workshop. They knew they wanted to be able to push their narratives beyond a traditional film format… though at first, they weren’t sure what that might mean.
They started by founding a documentary production company, CODOC, not long after they graduated. It created content for brands, but also provided a base for their video journalism and human rights work. Together, they created a three-part doc on Sri Lanka, ‘The Truth that Wasn’t There’, as well as ‘Forgive me Mother’, a film about Uganda. They were enthusiastic and ambitious. With an earnest video manifesto and a motto of ‘online discussion, offline discourse’, they aimed ‘to contribute to debate’ on human rights issues. However, they were left feeling overwhelmed by their complex, emotionally-charged subject matter: ‘we weren’t equipped to tell these stories’, admits Guy. They found themselves with enormous amounts of material, but would need to cut most of it to serve the needs of a linear film narrative. And as they point out, going to larger companies with the extra material wouldn’t help: ‘Knowing that your interview with a displaced person in a camp in Sri Lanka is going to end up as a soundbite in a newsclip really sucks’.
They decided that a solution to this problem might be to include the extra material as part of a larger multimedia online experience. Storygami’s first iteration was used by CODOC in-house, to build bespoke interactive experiences for individual clients. But in May 2012, they pitched in a Virgin Media Pioneers competition to make the tool into an online platform. From there, their R&D began in earnest, as they investigated which interactive features would be most useful, engaging, and accessible for particular audiences.
The agility of Storygami is impressive. The principles of seamlessness and simplicity are not just applied to the audience’s experience of interactivity, but to the filmmaker’s own use of the platform. It’s easy to learn how to use Storygami… and once you’ve done that, it’s then very easy to turn out multiple interactive projects in one day. ‘We wanted to get past the idea that interactivity is very time consuming and bespoke’, Heidi tells the workshop. By 2014, Heidi and Guy were still building bespoke interactive experiences for brands, but decided to put their ideas to the test in a more intense environment. They returned to their interest in making politically-engaged films which could also handle narrative complexity, and travelled to Hong Kong to film that year’s protests. They used Storygami to make interactive videos that demanded detailed contextual information, and at the same time, needed a very fast turnaround. From that experience, they introduced an embed feature, so that interactive videos made with the platform could be inserted into other sites without losing their interactive features.
The team say they’re now in a ‘growth phase’, and are currently participating in the San Francisco incubator ‘500 Startups’. But they emphasise that they’re ‘resisting gearing the product towards’ advertising and marketing uses alone. ‘We’re focusing on the product and building it as well as we can’. They refer to Reddit’s ‘model of listening to its users and working out of their feedback’ as an inspiration. Realising the need for users to be able to access content beyond their desktops, the platform is now responsive, and there are plans to develop an iPhone app (for watching videos made with Storygami, rather than for making them).
Storygami is compatible with Vimeo and YouTube in the free version. Unlike Popcorn Maker, there’s no community forum on the site itself, but projects can be shared with others by embedding them into other sites. In the free version, users can choose from templates as starting-points from which to build new projects. These aren’t, however, ‘templates’ in the sense that Interlude’s Treehouse uses the word, so they don’t give users pre-designed interactive structures for their video. They simply offer users choices in the colour scheme of the project. But with a Brand or Starter account, users have more latitude when it comes to the colour and layout of the project’s borders and menu, including the option to add your own logo above the video.
When creating a Storygami video project, most of the workflow revolves around placing and timing ‘markers’. These markers (known as ‘elements’ on a few other platforms) are the buttons which allow the audience to access interactive content. Solid markers are not yet resizable, so they’ll always appear to the viewer in a standard size; if the marker is made invisible, it can be positioned over an object in the video to make it interactive. But all markers can be given custom labels as the project is developing, via a list below the video monitor. The list is hierarchical, so markers can be prioritised or deprioritised by dragging them up or down the list. With Brand and Enterprise accounts, it’s also possible to add a marker for external HTML, so that when a viewer clicks the link, it will open another site for them in a new tab. For all accounts, a menu bar is automatically generated for your video, to be filled with a list of the interactive elements in your project.
Storygami’s advantage lies in its tendency towards minimalism and speedy construction. It has a short learning curve, both for new users who wants to build an interactive project, and for viewers who might be new to interactive concepts. As projects can be cloned simply by renaming them, a user can make their own interactive template, and apply the interactive structure they built to their next video projects. As a new and growing start-up, Storygami may develop in new directions, and are still experimenting with new features as they scale into a larger company. The free service is available through signing up to the site. The paid services are tiered, including a Starter account, with custom branding and 50 standard videos for $49/month; a Brand account, with 50 premium videos, advanced analytics, custom branding and customer support at $399/month for 1 year; and the specialised Enterprise account for custom builds.