With lockdowns putting a stop to large film shoots and live events, producers and creatives working in fields from advertising to film and TV have had to find new ways of making content. For the most part, this has meant a wave of lo-fi ads filmed on mobiles or handheld cameras, or commercials stitched together from social media footage and video calls. Jimmy Fallon and the likes have had to conduct weekly chat shows over Zoom, and cinematic dramas have been replaced with at-home documentaries and dramas filmed by actors and their families (or in some cases, their pets).
While these constraints have led to some surprisingly creative productions, from Skoda’s homemade stop-motion ads to ITV’s Isolation Stories, it’s clear that there is still a demand for premium content with high-end production values – a demand that is growing and diversifying. As Sky’s list of the most popular shows in lockdown has demonstrated, audiences have been turning to epic fantasies, thrillers and comedies that can offer some much-needed escapism from the stress and boredom of lockdown. Viewers have come to expect high-end entertainment – whether it’s immersive film screenings, lavish TV dramas, or beautifully produced TV ads and music videos – and that demand is only likely to increase in the absence of theatre productions, festivals and large-scale events.
There’s a world of tools out there to help brands and creatives produce compelling experiences, but so far, it seems we have barely scratched the surface of what’s possible – in part because the tech that allows us to create these experiences has been traditionally expensive and hard to use, but also because slow connectivity speeds has made rendering, producing or streaming more ambitious content difficult (if not impossible) within tight budgets and short time frames.
EXPLORING NEW FORMS OF STORYTELLING
As a result, most brands and content creators are still focused on video and traditional ‘2D’ forms of storytelling such as linear dramas or documentaries, and formats such as AR, VR and MR haven’t quite lived up to their initial hype. The arrival of 5G and edge computing, however, will make it quicker and easier to produce the kind of mixed reality experiences that have so far existed outside of the mainstream, and open them up to a wider audience.
As Geoff Goodwin, Senior Director at Verizon Media’s in-house 5G studio points out, this brings with it the potential to create more complex and ambitious types of content and deliver experiences that combine traditional 2D video with 3D or interactive elements. With podcast listening and mobile video streaming still on the rise, there is still a strong appetite for audio and video content. But alongside this, there are several ways that brands can utilise faster internet, more complex computing processes and cheaper, more accessible tech to engage with audiences in new ways – something that has become increasingly important amid lockdowns and social distancing measures.
For brands and creatives, it’s a good time to be exploring what a 5G future could look like – and what the widespread adoption of 5G networks could offer both content creators and audiences. For Goodwin, the creation and production opportunities it affords can be grouped into three broad categories: immersive, interactive and smarter.
With large physical gatherings ruled out for the foreseeable future, brands and event organisers have been turning to digital platforms to host virtual events. Record label Defected has put on a series of virtual festivals using Facebook Live, literary gathering Hay has hosted performances, talks and Q&As using Crowdcast, and Secret Cinema has been hosting paid-for events for cinema fans on Zoom, while TV panel show have been broadcast from empty studios in the absence of an enthusiastic studio audience.
With the use of 5G and new ‘smart stage’ systems, Goodwin believes there’s an opportunity for brands to create more exciting live experiences with higher production values. Verizon Media’s studio has recently been experimenting with a new smart stage, which offers an alternative to traditional green screens. The tech allows brands and entertainment companies to film people on set and project 4K videos or motion graphics around them in real time – giving actors and presenters more immersive backdrops and visuals to interact with. For those on stage, this provides a more natural experience during filming, and for audiences, it makes for more interesting footage than a rolling feed of talking heads combined with 2D infographics or split screen videos.
Real events will come back, we hope, but now, it’s [a case of thinking], how do we create blended virtual events alongside them?
As Goodwin points out, there’s a clear demand for virtual events – whether it’s a gig or a conference – that are visually exciting to watch. And while online experiences can’t quite replicate the feeling of watching someone talk or perform in person, they could offer a whole new way for brands and individuals to interact with audiences who are unable to attend events in real life.
“Real events will come back, we hope, but now, it’s [a case of thinking], how do we create blended virtual events alongside them?” says Goodwin. “People want a better virtual experience, so [it’s thinking], ‘how do we make this good – not just like a Teams or Hangout situation, but something that feels premium?’” While these kinds of events can exist without 5G, faster computing and download speeds could make them better and more accessible and remove some of the many technical issues that often occur when broadcasting live streams.
For an industry like fashion, Covid-19 has thrown the tried and tested event cycles into disarray. But exploring digital-first, virtual shows offers an opportunity for a once-closed industry to democratise access and reach new audiences. Verizon Media recently partnered with the London College of Fashion’s Fashion Innovation Agency to host a new kidn of fashion show, ‘The Fabric of Reality’, which will see three top designers paired with VR artists to create an immersive exploration of their collections. The results were broadcast via live streams hosted on Yahoo and HuffPost, allowing designers to connect with a wider range of consumers and gain new fans and followers in the process.
Interactive storytelling is another area that Goodwin believes brands should be looking at closely, and one that could become more popular with the widespread launch of 5G. The success of Bandersnatch – a one-off interactive episode of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror series – revealed a huge interest in alternative forms of storytelling. But so far, this has relied on fairly clunky mechanics, with viewers having to select from a list of options using their device or controller to move a story on. In future, however, Goodwin believes there is scope for more immersive formats that unfold in real time.
“Interactivity is where I think 5G is going to be the game changer: having zero latency, and the ability for us to adapt properly – not in the clunky way [of having] three options at the bottom of a screen on where to take it, but having something like facial recognition to help drive stories and branching narratives,” he says. “That doesn’t work if you have a delay, because as soon as you have a delay between that activity, that moment where you could suspend disbelief is gone, but zero latency or thereabouts does away with that, and it becomes a more natural, fluid thing.”
Could we create a whole other platform that allows for different points of view when watching something?
In film and TV, Goodwin believes this could lead to new kinds of interactive stories that go beyond allowing viewers to choose their fate (or their characters’) and instead allow viewers to watch a story unfold from multiple perspectives, switching between heroes and villains, or between lead characters in ensemble shows.
“We saw in the 2000s when shows like The Sopranos and The Wire came up, you had the rise of the antihero and now, we’re in this world where it’s sometimes cool to be the antagonist … so could we create a whole other platform that allows for different points of view when watching something?” he adds.
“You can start thinking about stories from different perspectives and how that works within branching narratives, but again, you need big data and really low latencies to drive some of those stories.”
While Goodwin doesn’t think we’ll see an end to linear storytelling any time soon, he also thinks that this could provide a point of difference for entertainment companies struggling to compete with the likes of Netflix or Hulu.
Instead of having these commercials driven by one creative vision … you can start to branch an ad based on what you know about your consumer
“I think this is the kind of experience that audiences are going to want [in future]. Of course, they will still want to watch a sit-back, Killing Eve-type experience over six or 12 hours, but that idea of Netflix, BBC, Hulu and HBO all competing to create the same linear drama and comedy … I don’t believe that is a lasting competitive advantage, and that’s where we need to start finding new creative opportunities.”
There is also a huge opportunity for advertisers to connect more deeply with audiences using the same technology. “If you think about FMCG brands, or car companies, instead of having these commercials driven by one creative vision – typically the aspirational shots of beautiful people in beautiful cities – you can start to branch an ad based on what you know about your consumer. For someone who is more data-driven or into the stats, you could go under the hood for 45 seconds. If you could do all of that within the same budget and timeframes as it takes to create a traditional commercial – as 5G promises to support – the potential return on investment is enormous.”
In the early 2000s, the rise of YouTube and cheap video editing tools brought an explosion of new content covering topics from cooking to gaming and beauty, allowing people to create and share content with millions of users from the comfort of their homes, shooting a video and sharing it minutes later. And with the adoption of edge computing, smart lighting and cameras, Goodwin believes there could be an opportunity for brands or filmmakers to get outside and produce original dramas or documentaries in much the same way within a local area.
With feature films now being shot on mobiles, and video apps like TikTok offering built in music libraries and editing tools, the barriers to creating original content are much lower than they were a few years ago, and with the arrival of 5G, we could see creators able to shoot, edit and distribute high-end content in a matter of hours rather than months. “If you can have something that’s shot that day and released that night, there’s enormous potential there,” adds Goodwin.
Any time a new tech comes in and disrupts [the industry], the people who are more prepared for that and understand how to make it work for them are the ones who win
While 5G is yet to become standard across the UK, most of the country’s major networks have already begun offering the service, and brands such as Samsung have already released 5G enabled smartphones. As Goodwin explains, there’s a need for companies to think about the potential applications of this new tech, and the ways it might affect our viewing habits, if they want to avoid getting left behind.
“If you think of something like TikTok, advertisers are scrambling now [to work out] how to tell stories [on the platform] – any time a new tech comes in and disrupts [the industry], the people who are more prepared for that and understand how to make it work for them are the ones who win.”
For professional creatives working on big budget TV ads or epic dramas, 5G could provide a huge benefit in enhanced post and on-location services previously held back by connectivity issues. Stronger networks supported by 5G will inevitably make shooting, manipulation and editing more efficient and, in the process, more creative.