Creative Dialogue

Smash the Screen: Grumpy Sailor Talks Storytelling Through Spatial Design

Memorable digital experiences don’t require a screen. This is a key realisation that James Boyce, “Head Grump” at bespoke creative technology agency Grumpy Sailor, had after one of the firm’s first experiments.

Partnering with The Royal Shakespeare Company and Google’s Creative Lab Sydney, the project added a digital layer to a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one that could take the audience from the enchanted, fairy-filled world on stage into an online world, augmented through digital storytelling.

Even with the frills of extra characters and storylines, the curtains closed with mixed reviews. James realised the high tax that employing screens can have on a single experience. “It was a great project, but as soon as somebody puts technology between you and the experience, you can lose the natural transaction that happens between the audience and the performer,” he says.

Grumpy Sailor Agency Office

Break Out Of The Box

Since the agency’s inception, James and co-founder Claire Evans say the goal for “Grumps” is to deliver a nexus of storytelling, design and technology. But both agree this early Shakespeare project set the tone for creating digital experiences that break with conventional structure. Their online creations span a 360-degree video and audio tour of Uluru, a skeletal-mapping tool allowing users to spread their augmented wings, and interactive light installations that could be controlled by an app.

When choosing the technology to engage, James and Claire stay curious about what’s on the horizon but they’re not driven by it. Claire makes certain her team understands emerging technology and its potential to contribute to upcoming projects. “We’re strategic in choosing the technology we use, but we also respond to what we’re interested in,” she says. “We don’t want to wait until it becomes ubiquitous, we’re curious and impatient to try out new technology.”

James sees spatial design – creating digital experiences that are not bound to a screen – as the new frontier in technology, a space in which we’re only now starting to break ground. “For so long technology has been tied to a screen, but when you take it out what does this look like?” James asks. “How do you have a nuanced, customised, digital experience when you don’t have that leg to stand on? How do you tell a story when you take that screen away?”

Grumpy Sailor Agency Founders

This suggestion influenced the agency’s recent major project with the Australian Centre for Moving Images (ACMI). Using Adobe Creative Cloud for Teams, Grumpy Sailor was tasked with reimagining the charming story of the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. The result is a world first: a fully CG video experience of more than fifty 3D printed objects and large-scale walls, each item with its own tailored projected-mapped content. The exhibition will tour the world over the next five years, delighting audiences with a brand new take on the classic tale.

Alice In Wonderland Projection

Client Becomes Collaborator

Classing your firm as a “creative technology” agency means clients expect inventive and original work. To envision projects such as the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, Claire says the agency formulates a project brief through a practice called “context setting” – a meeting in which the agency peppers the client with questions across several key pillars. Instead of the client handing the agency a brief that comes with a mess of preconceived ideas, biases and politics, Claire believes that through these meetings, the agency gains a collaborator in the creative process.

Once the outcome is agreed on, the agency approaches every project with what it calls a “prototype methodology” – a fail-fast mindset that experiments with the identified technology on a small scale then grows, layer by layer. This is the process the agency adopted for the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party. “The hypothesis was – can we do this?” James says. “Can we projection map these inanimate objects to make them look like they’re moving and something magical is happening?”

The job started with a single projector, white cardboard and some plastic cups. It progressed to a 14-metre-long table, 15 projectors and cumulatively hours of video footage mapped onto individual items. Claire says maintaining the patience to test and fail is key to the success of the digital experiences Grumpy Sailor creates.

“We’re not going to set out on day one and say we’re going to the moon,” she says. “We’re starting small then constantly testing, prototyping and reiterating everything until we get to the best end point.”

Alice In Wonderland Projection 2

Make a Memory

James says the most important part of his job is hiring the right people and developing the agency’s culture. James and Claire focus on ways to get the creative juices flowing, from hosting daily “inspiration show-and-tell” sessions to trying out completely new art forms, such as playing drums and painting.

The agency’s key ethos, though, is written on the wall and encapsulated in a small, wooden figure of a grumpy sailor that stands in James’s office. When James looks at this item from his childhood, he sees more than a toy – he remembers being a kid. No matter the technology, this is the type of memorable experience this team of “Grumps” try to replicate in their creations.

“If you can create something people can feel, then you can create something they can remember,” James says. “I don’t remember the little sailor, I remember the tactility of it. We take the intersection of the tactility and the memory and try to work that into the projects we take on.”

Watch the video below to discover how Grumpy Sailor uses Adobe Creative Cloud for Teams to build original and creative digital stories.

Video credit: Lost At E Minor

Creative Dialogue, Design, Video

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