Ste Thompson is on a not-so-secret mission to scour the digital galaxy in an attempt to discover new ways of telling stories through innovative and interactive user experiences.

As CEO and creative director of Powster, a London-based motion graphics and UX production house known for creating web experiences for some of the world’s largest film studios, Thompson’s goal is to bring users into the stories they’re already passionate about.

Take, for example, the platform Powster created for Star Wars: Episode VII The Force Awakens‘ website in the UK. The virtual reality component brings the audience a little closer to that galaxy far, far away by inviting them into the action via their mobile devices (and Google Cardboard). Users can navigate 3D photo galleries and virtual reality videos from the film while feeling a little like a floating satellite orbiting the iconic background of the opening crawl.

“Personally, I just want users to feel like it’s something new, interesting and really fun,” Thompson said. “As a studio, we really want to be exploring new grounds and trying to push things as far as we can.”

These web experiences are in many ways an extension of a film director’s vision, which means Powster doesn’t always have the freedom to take risks. Instead, Powster is taking what it’s learned from creating experiences like the Star Wars platform and applying it to the growing world of interactive music videos.

Where technology meets storytelling

Powster’s first fully interactive music video was for the song “Carry Me” by Bombay Bicycle Club. The video allows users to interact with the band members by “moving them like stop motion puppets” in a way that feels like it’s happening live, even though everything is pre-recorded.

“What’s different with this is it’s all filmed with live action, that’s the real breakthrough with all this technology-wise,” Thompson said. “This is where you’re interacting with filmed content. It’s like you’re reaching into a video and manipulating it, and that’s something that feels really unusual actually.”

 Gif of people raising their arms with motion graphics overlaid on top of them.
Image by Behance.

When horses fly – giving users the reins

The concept for the “Carry Me” video was based on the pioneering work of photographer Eadweard Muybridge, known for his explorations in capturing movement in horses. By combining animation, motion picture design and cutting-edge video technology, Powster hopes to further this exploration by throwing users in the proverbial horse riding ring and handing them the reins.

“It’s not a sit back experience, it’s lean forward,” Thompson said. “You’re being told a story, but you’re being part of it in some way. We still want it to have a very strong, linear narrative that’s being told and you’ve got some control over that, some influence, but having key things about traditional storytelling and traditional filming techniques [is what makes it unique].”

Powster’s video for the song “Work It Out” by Netsky takes things one step further by empowering users to control aspects of the video by connecting their computer with their mobile device via “telekinesis.” This gives users, “the illusion of controlling objects inside the video. It’s like flipping the pages of a flipbook, but with videos instead of still images,” the creative overview says.

More and more artists have been introducing these interactive elements into their projects. Powster recently worked with Ed Sheeran to develop the interactive experience “Journey to Wembley,” which tells the story of how Sheeran went from a busker to an internationally recognized performer. This experience included synchronizing five different performances for the same song recorded at various times over a number of years into a video that essentially allows users to create their own “time travel edits” of Sheeran’s journey.

Much of storytelling in this way is in essence a manipulation of time and perception.

Interactive storytelling: the saga continues

Powster’s version of interactive storytelling is a little different from the interactive experiences you may have seen before. Their goal is to embrace a more traditional film making approach to storytelling by taking on the role of a director rather than allowing audiences to choose their own adventure.

“You don’t choose your path watching a movie, you get told a story,” Thompson said. “What we’re trying to do is still communicate that story, but let you be a part of it. The action that is unfolding is pre-determined. You’re being told this story, but you’re engaging with it in a way that is satisfying and helping further the point that is trying to be communicated.”

It’s something Thompson thinks is only going to become more popular as more artists and creatives desire to position themselves on the cutting-edge of technology—and as more and more people want to be a part of it.

“I think that you only have to look at what 360 video, VR and even what video content is doing, it is all making people do something in some way,” Thompson said. “Everything started out really static with images, then it became video, and now you can move around video. Soon you’re going to be able to be in the video.”

The potential possibilities of interactive video are still being explored and discovered, but like any Star Wars fan will tell you, there’s almost always a Dark Side. We’ll have to explore that in another episode.