Topaz Adizes and Nathan Phillips, co-directors of {The And}, have succeeded where many interactive filmmakers have not: creating an online experience that is as emotionally satisfying as it is technically sophisticated. The website introduction asks visitors a series of personal questions and then creates a customized short film about love based on their answers. Each film is made up of clips of real couples interviewing each other with a set of questions provided by the filmmakers. After viewing, visitors are invited to “play again” or visit the “couples gallery” that contains longer cuts of the films of each couple.

At the Tribeca Film Institute’s Interactive Day, the pair gave the audience a live experience based on the documentary, as they have done at several other film festivals and venues. As with the films, the core of the experience was questions, with audience members invited to turn to their neighbors and probe with provocative queries like, “What would I have to do to make you kill me?” The project has also extended to include a card game that people in any type of relationship can play at home to examine their own relationships.

Given the thoughtful design of each of the project’s “transmedia” elements, it’s unsurprising that Phillips and Adizes had some thoughtful things to say about creating interactive docs and the future of storytelling.

POV: What was your development process for {The And}? Did you know there would be a live element from the beginning?

Nathan Phillips: It started with conversations that Topaz was facilitating with different thinkers through his collective, The Skin Deep. They were talking about how we connect as people in the face of technology, which led to having couples interview each other. Topaz shot these interviews in triptych, so you could see each member of the couple’s face at all times during the interviews. Then we talked about how to bring that experience to life, and worked with my team of developers on how to bring it into digital space. Topaz had already used a technological innovation by shooting in triptych. The next technical question we dealt with was: How do you create a documentary starring the viewer?

Topaz Adizes: The couples were a thought experiment. After we shot the videos, we realized that having the video content is not enough. We wanted to create experiences. How do we put audiences into the intimate space between these couples to ultimately question their own relationships? I go to Nathan, How do we make this s— interactive?”

Nathan Phillips: From the perspective of interactivity, the nature of the world has changed now. “Stories” are for passive audiences. We need to create experiences. Now audiences can choose the time and place of movie-going experiences they have. Is it going to smell like popcorn or not? Will it be in a field? We have a huge opportunity to make it emotional by appealing to multiple senses. When thinking about “sensory” or “sensual” media, every decision we make as creators plays into emotional state. We wanted to bring to life the experience of shooting the films, so the audience feels like they’re right in the room.

Topaz Adizes: Nathan taught me that we have a core idea that we want to share, but it doesn’t go across all platforms in the same way. We are creating the intimate space for people to have honest conversations, but it’s different in each medium. As for the live experience, we wanted to explore how we could use that setting to give audiences the same relationship illuminations they were getting online. It’s not about replicating; it’s about having a variety of executions customized for each platform.

POV: What did you do to try to ensure that {The And} would be an emotionally resonant experience for audiences?

Nathan Phillips: For me, the reason {The And} is emotional is because it’s about you. The way the triptych comes to life is theatrically beautiful. But online, creating stakes for people to buy in is different. Choices are powerful motivators. We ask people these questions and the answers are linked to video tags, created from a “floating point” system, which is more nuanced than traditional tagging. It’s nonjudgmental — not placing a value on how you answer. And then you get a video that’s totally unique to you.

Topaz Adizes: It’s also emotional because of the content — the honesty of these couples — and the way it’s shot is compelling. You are primed to be more emotional because the first questions are about you. And then we are literally putting you in the emotional space between these couples. If we just put the videos out on their own, it wouldn’t be as effective. The content is your payoff for answering the questions. There’s the story of the content, and then there’s the story of the context.

Nathan Phillips: On our end, making it look legit was important. Everything had to be thought through, from the logo and animation you see at the very beginning, to the beautiful trailer, to the way the questions are presented. It’s all designed to get you into a place that you’re emotionally ready for the film. Each of these pieces are working in concert. The beautiful films in triptych are at the heart of the whole thing, but every single element was thought through to create an experience.

POV: The project has been around for a while and has gotten a lot of attention. How do you keep it fresh for yourselves as creators?

Topaz Adizes: That’s easy. We’re constantly shooting more couples and relationships. Not just romantic couples — siblings, parents and children. Every time I film a relationship, it’s heart-opening. Their hearts are trying to communicate and I’m honored to be privy to it.

Nathan Phillips: I like the idea of being holistic about interactive experiences. The live experience always feels dangerous for us. We’ve done it with so many different kinds of audiences and we never know what’s going to happen. It’s totally guided by them. We open ourselves to failure because it’s real.

POV: At Tribeca and beyond, everyone in media is talking about the future of storytelling. What does it look like to you?

Nathan Phillips: It’s about the architecture of experiences and looking at the world with multiple entry points. I’ve been thinking about it: One definitive thing story has is a protagonist, and they’re the protagonist because they make a choice. Now the user is the protagonist because they make the choices. The user is the hero. But they wouldn’t have that experience without our constructs. That’s what we need to keep in mind moving forward.

Topaz Adizes: I think we have to use new terms. The current use of the term “story” is a limiting factor on us as creators because of our general understanding of story as something with a three-act structure. As we build narratives in interactive media, we have to create the environment for climactic peaks to happen, but they might happen at different points for everyone. People can play {The And} for 90 seconds or 3 hours, and each is legitimate. What makes stories interactive is that we each have different experiences.

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Liz Nord
Filmmaker and multi-platform producer Liz Nord (Jericho’s Echo: Punk Rock In The Holy Land) is embracing transmedia with her new documentary project, Jerusalem Unfiltered and as director of Lyka's Adventure Labs. She has produced media projects around the world, including MTV's Emmy Award-winning 2008 presidential election coverage, and has presented on a wide range of creativity and media-related topics, notably as a TED speaker at TEDxDumbo.