In 2016 the World Bank came to creative director Chris Panzetta and his team with a brief: tell the gatekeepers of global funding about the plight of war-torn communities in the Asia-Pacific region.
The bankers needed to spark a very specific emotion: empathy.
As with every brief, Panzetta shared it with his team of 15 creatives at S1T2, a creative agency based in Sydney. Their round-table discussion began with a familiar process to define the issue, find the story, then determine the best technology to tell that story.
Of all the tools at their disposal, they considered carefully which had the greatest capacity to elicit empathy.
“Each technology has an affordance, so you try to look at the affordance and link it to the problem,” Panzetta says.
Virtual reality provides for naturally immersive experiences in which content can be the audience is fully surrounded by the content or explored by its users. These qualities made VR first choice for the World Bank project.
“With VR, its affordance is empathy,” Panzetta says. “If you need to create empathy, that’s a good place to start.”
Panzetta co-founded S1T2 – or Story 1st Technology 2nd – with university friend Tash Tan. As the agency’s name suggests, storytelling is the top priority, but exploring new technologies is also deeply embedded.
Panzetta is unashamedly proud of the World Bank project, which took the form of a 360-degree VR documentary series. Not only was the subject matter important and worthy, but the finished product also created a palpable sense of human vulnerability, with expert execution.
“You can’t deny the results and ability of this immersive storytelling and the connection it has with an audience member when it’s well designed,” Panzetta says.
Since then, S1T2 has worked with an array of emotions and all manner of tools, including open frameworks, augmented reality, game engines, biometrics, lasers and more.
As an Adobe Creative Cloud for Teams user, remixing Adobe’s logo alone took a master pianist’s notes, a dancer in a digital SmartSuit, and an explosion of dynamic colour to move as one. See S1T2’s remix of the Adobe brand here.
Tucked away in Sydney’s Surry Hills, S1T2 has attracted various brands interested in immersive storytelling, bringing big projects and long hours to the small team. But for Panzetta, the small business structure is crucial to the agency’s sustainability.
“The trick to this studio is the culture, and culture is always permeated by its members,” he says. “So when you have a smaller team, individuals feel more entitled to it and responsible for it, so there’s more ownership. We find that when you’ve got more ownership there’s more effort, and you have more skin in the game.”
Hanging on the office wall is a mural called “The evolution of storytelling”. It’s a window into the six stages of storytelling: spoken, written, printing press, motion, interactivity and the future. Panzetta is quick to point out that although the technology has changed, the storylines have stayed the same, and this encapsulates the agency’s approach to trialing new technology.
“What people enjoy, their behaviours, they stay the same,” he says. “All technology changes is how we serve that up. You can take confidence in things that don’t change very fast and that gives you the stability to look at these new technologies. Then you’re not as afraid.”
A “technology agnostic” approach may seem unrealistic to many agencies – why spend resources exploring new tools when you can exploit existing skillsets? But Panzetta is strict about understanding what affordance a new technology can bring before investing in its exploration, and this potential should be on every agency’s mind in today’s disruptive environment.
“Technology changes faster than people,” Panzetta says. “You still have a lot of people in a lot of agencies who are used to how things used to be and they’re resisting change even though it shouldn’t be resisted. I do think everyone needs to have a much wider view of the possibilities, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with specialisation at all.”
At the far end of S1T2’s mural is a lantern-carrying figure climbing the stairs of a 3D castle. This is the “journeyman”, an identity that features in all four stages, representing the “storytellers” of that day. This is a reminder for Panzetta’s team – and the creative industry – that humans don’t change, so keep exploring new technology without fear.
“What we’re really interested in is that last island and where we are now with immersive storytelling, with interactive storytelling,” Panzetta says. “What do we find and what does this new island look like?”