A Look Inside Voyeur

It’s a few days before Halloween and content creator Oliver Moorehouse and filmmaker Isaac Cravit are taking a brief breather from putting the finishing touches on a collaborative effort they’ve been working on for quite some time. Over tea and water at a downtown Toronto diner, both seem to enjoy spending their break talking about why they’re excited to share their new initiative with the world

Moorehouse is the CEO of start-up CineAPP, a company that has dedicated itself to creating a new melding of how people play games and watch videos on their mobile devices. Committing themselves fully to creating a new form of digital storytelling, Moorehouse, his team at CineAPP, film producer Jordan Walker, and writers Ravi Steve and Jeff Geddis created Voyeur, an interactive film played out on a user’s cell phone or tablet that functions as a modern day “choose your own adventure story.”

“A couple years ago, I was looking at how stories and gameplay were playing with each other. You started to have things like Grand Theft Auto or Mass Effect putting more story into their games.” Moorehouse said. “At the same time you had all these TV shows that were expanding their universes through the use of a second screen, so I saw a pretty big opportunity there to do something that wasn’t an add on. The goal was to try to find that perfect balance between storytelling and gameplay. With the rise of smartphones and tablets, it seems like the perfect kind of platform for this type of story.”

Voyeur, which saw its first three episodes launch on Google Play on Halloween, was always about creating a story first instead of a marketing hook. It’s a pretty simple story: a bunch of people (including lead character Ash, played by Sharon Belle) are trapped at an abandoned, booby trapped farm by a madman, and their only connection to the outside world is you, the person on the other end of the phone. For Moorehouse and his team, the biggest challenge was trying to figure out how the story would work from various different user perspectives.

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VoyeurTrailerOct20 from Jordan Walker on Vimeo.

“As we wrote the story, it doesn’t work without you there.” Moorehouse said. “It doesn’t flow without you there. I’m interested to see how this can work. A number of companies have sort of dabbled in the area, but no one has really hit on it yet, at least in my opinion. We did a lot of research into similar experiences to this, and most of them were actually in the marketing sphere, so they’re not fully developed stories; they’re more brief experiences designed as a call to action of some kind, like signing up for something or buying something. We’re curious to see if people will pay for this kind of delivery of a story, and if we get the affirmative, that’s huge. And we think this can be used beyond just shilling for a product. If we can show there’s a niche here that is user-pay, then we can prove that content could be made for that purpose. Because as it stands these experiences aren’t crafted with that in mind. They’re never really made with the user in mind. They’re often made to get someone to do something instead of crafting a real story.”

The project actually started not as a horror movie experience, but originally as a detective thriller. Moorehouse says that idea was abandoned about halfway through the writing process because it was too costly and because the audience for such stories generally skewed towards considerably older, less marketable demographics, meaning the core audience would have less time to sit down and play it. It became a scarier product because for a start up launching its first title, it had to be something with the widest range of appeal. It makes perfect sense. Even filmmakers will tell you that horror has consistently proven to be the genre with the most active audience participation levels.

As Moorehouse states, “We haven’t proven this is ‘the thing’ yet, but hopefully soon we can start in on that, but everyone was so excited about it because it isn’t just another movie to work on or just another game. It has promise, and that’s been the best part for me about this project, the excitement the team has been able to bring with it.”

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Cravit, who most recently directed the feature film Solo, was brought in to direct the ambitious 90 page script in only 10 days, forced to keep track of numerous different time lines that are tailored to whatever the audience experience is.

“They came to me and they already had a story, which was nice because that was new to me.” Cravit says. “Usually, I’m writing my own material, so I just went in. I know they met with other people, but I just pitched my take on the material, and I think since the material was so well realized and straightforward that it became less about me saying ‘This is how I want to tell this story,’ but more like, ‘This is how we can tell this story really well using the software you developed.’ That was what was interesting to me. How do we exploit what you have here? What’s unique about this technology?”

One of the things unique to the technology is the decision making process. The viewer has direct influence over the characters and at certain points is allowed to make a choice to seal the fates of those involved. By that same token, characters won’t always listen to the advice that the viewer gives them, and the absence of the viewer making a choice can still be considered a choice in some spots. The experience is very keen on giving viewers exactly what they want in the fashion they most want it. As Moorehouse puts it, the experience isn’t about winning or losing, but “playing with influence.”

Voyeur

It was all new to Cravit who had never previously thought much about the potential for such technology until he sat down with the CineAPP team to think about it. Once he starts talking about it, he has a lot to say on the subject and how he approached the material from a directorial standpoint.

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“That part of gaming technology is new to me. It was all really new to me. I don’t even have a Facebook. For me it was never about technology, but how effectively I could tell this multi-directional story. I think working together we can find an interesting spin and shoot the best material possible for this platform. I approached it exactly as a movie, albeit one with a lot of technological, stylistic, and logistical constraints. But that’s like any project. They all have unique challenges.”

“The potential for storytelling using this process is huge. We just happen to be telling a horror story, and I think that was a smart move because there is an audience for that sort of thing that’s built in. But I don’t really even know if that’s the best story to tell with the technology. I mean, we’ll see.”

“I’m always thinking about the audience because that’s what the medium is ultimately about. Making movies is too expensive and too collaborative for it to be anything else unless you’re just going out and making a deeply personal film on your own. If you’re making something to show people, you have to keep the audience in mind. The best parts of these kinds of movies are when they scream or laugh or whatever. Any filmmaker would tell you when they watch one of their movies with an audience, the best part is seeing that kind of a reaction. I’m always thinking about that, and with that in mind, I hope the audience has the same taste as I do because I don’t know how else to do it. When we’re going over the script, or designing sequences, or talking to the department heads and actors, the dialogue I’m trying to have is what appeals to me. And some stuff in here I think are things that people are going to like, and honestly not all of it is to my taste. It is as much as can be, and while killing someone in a gruesome way isn’t exactly my favourite kind of thing to watch. I like a more restrained approach. But you think about what that audience wants to see and you hopefully do justice by both of those audiences. I think what’s cool is that we manage to do both. You can have the crazy, gory version of the story, or the creepy and more restrained version. It’s up to the viewer to decide where to take it.”

“On my end, we were trying to hide every cut because the conceit is supposed to be like you can see this on your cell phone, so there aren’t supposed to be any cuts. It was mostly pre-designed long takes. It was a really complicated pre-production and complicated once we got to the choreography with the actors because they had to do all the camerawork themselves. They had their own camera rig instead of just a phone. And it’s not like the story could change at all in editing. Usually you can say you can fix things in post, but here we were locked into this complicated tree of storylines.”

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But how does Moorehouse feel about people comparing Voyeur to a game now that their hard work has been completed?

“To be honest, at first I got defensive about that. We don’t want to appear like a pure game, but now that we’ve been working on it for so long, I don’t mind it anymore.” Moorehouse says with a chuckle. “There are game elements to it. But unlike another game where it’s all about the game mechanics, this is more like trying to make you feel like these characters are your friends. To put it into game parlance, you’re creating a fantasy, and the mechanic is that you can text message your friends. It has those game elements that I think for most people, but it’s hard to explain that balance to some people. It’s game and story, but we made a very strong effort to never sacrifice the story for the mechanic.”

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