Unlocking the Mystery of Cloud Chamber – An Interview With Christian Fonnesbech
Originally appeared on September 23, 2013 on the ProVideo Coalition website
Cloud Chamber, an online, interactive mystery, will open this year’s New York Film Festival Convergence program. In this interview I speak with creator, Christian Fonnesbech who explains the process of getting a large scale project off the ground, his thoughts on the festival and why Convergence may be the next big venue for interactive storytellers.
JB: Can you explain Cloud Chamber and your inspiration for the story?
CF: Cloud Chamber is an online mystery, a next generation altered reality game. We’ve done three of them before, they were all campaigns, however Cloud Chamber is permanent and you explore it in your own time.The basic idea is that once you’re in the website, it’s kind of like a 3-D Wikileaks. It is an immediate database for fictional, confidential files, and documentaries, which you’re piecing together. The story revolves around three young people, one is astrophysicist, Kathleen Peterson, in the story she betrays her father and risks insanity, all to explore a signal from another world. You, the player are exploring found footage left behind by the characters; their documents, films, emails, scientific journals while at the same time you are discovering what happened to them.
I wanted to tell a story that was personal and that tackled big themes. Kathleen’s journey is in many ways my journey – and the questions about the universe (i.e. Why are we here? Are we alone?) were very much what the development of what Cloud Chamber was all about. After talking to astrophysicists in Denmark and Europe, I realized that most of us lack an emotional understanding of the universe – a feeling for it.
JB: Are you bringing the whole project to the New York or just part of it? How is it going to be previewed at the festival?
CF: We’re opening the New York Film Festival, which is quite an honor, so we’re just going to basically spend an hour showcasing it, showing how it works, showing clips, the experience, and then discussing it.
JB: Who approached you about coming to Convergence, did someone happen to see Cloud Chamber and say, “wow, we need to show this”?
CF: Matt Bolish from Lincoln Center, saw us present at SXSW in 2012. He came up after the presentation and said ’hello’ and we’ve basically been talking ever since. I think what he reacted to was that we’ve been fortunate, as we say in Europe, to have film institutes that have funding and are actually able to invest in something as R & D, like this. Where the business model is unproven and the form experimental.
JB: What do you think Matt saw in your presentation at SXSW?
CF: Of course, I really don’t know what it was that Matt saw when we presented – but I know what I hope he saw. I hope he saw a step towards creating a story that was truly at home on the internet – and that was every bit as emotionally engaging and immersive as anything movies, books or tv can present. Cloud Chamber is honest attempt at telling an involved story on this new canvas. We’ve worked hard to create an immersive experience that uses the foundations of the internet to tell a classical story in a new way.
Additionally, I think what Matt really reacted to, was that we had a decent budget, like an art house film budget, not many ARG’s or transmedia projects get that, unless they are actually just marketing something else. My producer was Vibeke Windeløv, who produced a lot of Lars von Trier’s films, and we’ve been able to put together a production value both on the game side and on the film side, we have international stars, like Jesper Christensen who’s a James Bond villain, and Gethin Anthony from Game of Thrones. We also have people working on the project who worked on “The Killing” the original series. We just had some great talents here and I think many transmedia projects suffer from the fact that it’s difficult to get top people from all the different sides, we’ve been blessed with that and I think Matt reacted to that.
JB: How did you get the funding to make Cloud Chamber?
CF: The things is, in Denmark, we have a film institute that spends millions of dollars, I think close to a hundred million dollars, a year on making feature films, and this is a government institution that invests in our country’s ability to make itself heard with artistic projects and commercial projects and so on. Because the country is so small, our film sector would disappear if it didn’t have any state funding, it’s really viewed as an art funding project. Most all of this money is dedicated to feature films and what happened was I had conversations with some of those people while I was making campaigns early on. In 2009 we basically got to the point where we were the leading online storytellers, at least in our country, and these filmmakers said, ‘how about making a project with us,’ and it grew from there. Obviously it took about a year from that point, of jumping through hoops to get the funding. It’s not about a handshake and here’s a check for a million dollars, it’s more like; let’s start a conversation, and that conversation leads to treatments and concept documents and design documents and descriptions of the team and commitments from top talent and getting a producer like Vibeke Windeløv to shepherd the project through the institute, and from that point it’s a full time job just making it happen, then it starts to happen and 2 years after that we’re here now.
There’s one very important thing that needs to be said, people are always asking me ‘you got a budget, what would you recommend to somebody who’s looking for the same thing?’ My recommendation is getting experience; what these people are investing in is me and my team’s ability to do this, because we’ve proven we can do this, because we’ve proven that we can deliver, we can do it at higher quality, we can coordinate across media; that’s why somebody like Vibeke Windeløv steps aboard, that goes a long way, that’s really my advice. It seemed a little crazy at the time working on one project after another but it paid off in the end, Each project builds on the last project, they slowly get bigger over time.
In fact, the last mystery we did, which we did with commercial clients, had a budget that was actually quite close to Cloud Chamber, so in that way it’s not that big a leap, we built our own ability to do this, to the point where the film institute can say, “o.k. well you can actually do this.” But then the film institute’s involvement, and Vibeke Windeløv’s involvement, actually boosted our quality level by five or tenfold because suddenly we were able to bring in top talents that wouldn’t have been interested in us three years earlier. So we really are making a big leap this time, but again it’s building on the credentials that we can handle it.
JB: What do you hope that the audience will be taking away from this year’s Convergence program?
CF: I would hope that people take away that there’s a new game in town, a new way of experiencing stories. For the niche audience creators, we’ve been looking at this stuff for years, but the main audience hasn’t, but they are beginning to transition to their tablets, they’re watching Netflix on that and so on. The big question is really, if you ask me, where is the narrative form that is suited to the internet? Because looking at Netflix, that’s just TV on the internet, it’s not the internet’s own narrative form, I think that’s what’s coming. I think what’s coming now is how do you tell a story with what this new medium, or these new media can offer. I think that’s where it’s going, that’s definitely what we’re aiming for, a narrative form that is native to the internet and native to the many media that the internet is able to fuse together. We’re not actually cross-platform storytelling; we don’t cross media channels, we cross media types. For me that’s a different game. Classic transmedia like where you have a book, a comic, a film, a game… that’s not what we’re doing, we’re working with the internet’s narrative form and figuring out how do you mix film, social and game on the internet into one story experience? I think the cinema is about to move, so that instead of us being the same place at the same time in a darkened room watching one screen together with hundreds of other people, it’s going to be experiencing a story with hundreds of other people online in the same virtual space, but not necessarily at the same time or at the same location… I think that’s what’s coming, whether we nailed it, I don’t know, we’ll see, but that’s what we’re aiming for.
JB: Why is the Convergence program a good fit for Cloud Chamber?
CF: I think Convergence is an apt term because when we look at Cloud Chamber it is a Convergence product. We are taking a classical film concept and we’re converging that, we’re putting it in a closed social network and we’re using game mechanics to allow people to progress through it, so we’re really converging those three things; the social network, the game mechanic, the film into a single narrative so I think it’s a very apt term. As for suitability, I’ve studied film, I’ve made 10 shorts, I’ve directed a TV series as well, we know our film and the people we bring in know even more about film, so it’s a fantastic honor to be at the NYFF. And the fact that the NYFF is now interested in the stuff we’re doing, we didn’t need much time to sign. Everybody’s looking for how to make the traditional content fit with the new platforms and interfaces and possibilities. For me it feels like it’s happening now, I thought it would happen 10 years ago, but I’m glad I stuck around.
JB: Any final thoughts on coming here to New York and showcasing Cloud Chamber?
CF: For us, we’re really looking for partners in the states and globally as well. We’re launching four days after the New York Film Festival in the first test market, which is Denmark. But everything’s in English and it’s ready to globalize, so anybody who wants to play, we’re ready.