It’s always interesting to check out a new Campfire project. They’re the creative marketing agency behind HBO’s “Game of Thrones” food trucks (Tom Colicchio serving up squab, anyone?) and Cinemax’s Hunted (are you “the 1 percent that matters?”).

Their latest project, “Deja View,” lives only on the Infiniti website and is an interactive film created to promote the Q50, a luxury sports sedan from Infiniti. If throwing the “transmedia” label around, it would land squarely on this form of brand storytelling, an area where interactivity is flourishing and pushing creative boundaries. Campfire describes “Deja View” as “a ground-breaking film that dynamically responds to each viewer depending on their spoken interactions with the onscreen characters.”

When you visit “Deja View,” you’ll be asked to input your phone number before the film begins. How long the film actually plays will depend upon your conversation with the couple onscreen; each participant will reach a different conclusion, in a different amount of time, dependent upon their engagement with the actors on the phone. “No names. No memories” is how the trailer begins, and it sums up the “Deja View” storyline — a couple lost, on a road, perhaps going in circles, certainly dependent on you to save them.

Visually striking, the project immediately intrigued me because the trailer reminded me of “The X-Files” with Charlotte Sullivan stealing about in her fitted government issue-esque suit reminiscent of Gillian Anderson.

Trailer for “Deja View.”

It’s not surprising that movies are a constant reference point in my conversation with Campfire Creative Director Steve Coulson, who often uses cinematic inspiration to describe the creative process in “Deja View.” Two of Campfire’s founders, Mike Monello and Gregg Hale, worked on “The Blair Witch Project,” a film known for its groundbreaking marketing campaign that treated its audience like a fan base, engaging them to contribute to the film’s mythology even while the film was still being edited. This approach is typical today but was unusual in the late ’90s. “The Blair Witch Project’s” multi-platform story world expansion blurred the lines between IP and marketing. It taught fans that by evangelizing the story, they can become part of the phenomena.

“Deja View” was the first time Campfire worked with Infiniti and in the advertising and marketing world, as everyone knows from ”Mad Men,” winning a major car brand is a coup. In this case, Campfire had them at hello.

Erika Santos, a senior planner and pricing strategist at Nissan North America, said, “Campfire pitched something that really stood out against the other competitors. On our side of the table, many people were like, ‘I’d personally be interested in going through that experience.’”

Infiniti’s hope in sending out the brief was simply that folks would create something that would align with what the car is about and excite the intended audience.

“An older version of the Q50 had been around for a while, but the new version had a lot of new technology that would particularly appeal to people that have a lot of their connections in a digital world,” Santos said.

I sat down to speak with Coulson to learn more about “Deja View” and Campfire’s bespoke (Coulson’s word) approach to creating new storyscapes and entry points for audiences. I was surprised to discover that what I thought was an interesting, polished, interactive, Choose Your Own Adventure-style brand project was actually so much more.

And it begins with trust.

NOTE: Some spoilers below.

Q&A

AC: Can you tell me a little about the brief Infiniti sent out, and how you ended up taking the lead in this project?

SC: Infiniti sent out a brief to various agencies that was fairly broad. It discussed social platforms, and YouTube or a video platform, and being immersive. It was focused around the Q50, a luxury sedan with a lot of technology integrated into it. They knew the car’s market is sophisticated, shifting away from television and now consuming across multiple platforms, and they wanted to raise the profile of the car.

Who’s on a project (at Campfire), often depends on who’s free. I was free. I had just come off “Hunted” and that was a very visceral experience. So often you see things online and think, “Oh, that was clever” but you don’t feel anything. At the end of “Hunted,” participants realized they had been manipulated the entire time and it’s like the ground shifts a little bit. When you can make the technology disappear, it is a very rich moment.

AC: So the brief didn’t actually specify a movie or anything interactive with phone calls — how did those come about then?

SC: There is a long tradition of short films in car marketing; the BMW films, for example, everyone still talks about them. If BMW is more like action — John Woo, Guy Ritchie, then Infiniti is more like Hitchcock. We also spoke of Christopher Nolan and psychological suspense.

Still 2 Deja View

Still from “Deja View.” Photo courtesy of Campfire.

Then we had that moment, “What if you are part of the story? What if you are a character in the story?”

Which you are sometimes in games, but you’re still not the character. We wanted to figure out how the viewer could be the third character. We realized the characters had to reach out from the screen and talk to me and I talk back to them. It needed to be as if you are watching the couple not in a movie but as a live event, then you can have a conversation with them, and they will react to the conversation.

AC: So which came first, the story or the technology?

SC: We started with the interactivity: “How could you be part of it without creating an avatar or backstory?” Which led to, “If I knew this couple, then they would remember me, and know me” which led to, “What if they had amnesia? If they’ve called me before and I don’t remember, or I’ve called them and they don’t remember?” and that’s when we said we have to start to play with memory; they wake up in their car with your phone number and that’s how you explore the mystery together. We talked about “Fight Club” and what’s real and what’s not, and the perception of reality and memory in “Memento” and “Inception.”

We worked up what was essentially a Hollywood pitch, not a typical marketing pitch. The deck didn’t have any words, just pictures, and I told them the story. At the end they were like “We have to do this!”

AC: What was on the deck?

SC: It was like a mood board with images of the desert, and Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke in “Gattaca.”

AC: I can see that. So Infiniti gave you the green light and what was the next step?

SC: We then defined that idea into a treatment, discussing the technology and strategy. The idea of something being social isn’t about whether it connects to Facebook or Twitter. Social pieces are something you want to share because you went through it and are like, “I have to tell you what happened to me!” You don’t share because of the Like button, but because it says something about you.

There is a moment when you see your phone number on his (Ryan) screen and he calls you, and looks out from the screen towards you and that is the moment you stop thinking about the technology. That first call is like a training call. You’re more invested in the story than the technology by the end of it.

Still Deja View

Still from “Deja View.” Photo courtesy of Campfire.

AC: Receiving that first call is a very strange experience, but then a shift does happen as you participate in the story. Tell me more about the story, and how do you present an interactive script to Infiniti?

(Coulson chuckles)

SC: We told Infiniti we had a 15-minute movie and they received a color-coded 80-page script; and the phone scripts looked more like flow charts.

Infiniti Call Script

Example of one of the “Deja View” phone call flow charts.

It was a complicated script that went in multiple directions, but with a central thread. We didn’t want it to be just a Choose Your Own Adventure. We didn’t want it to be just, “Go left. Go right.” We were much more interested in you building a relationship with the characters. On the backend, the way you affect the story isn’t by telling them what to do. It is about whether they trust you or not. If you tell them the truth, they instinctively trust you more, and if they trust you more things go better for them.

AC: Wait, what?

SC: Did she (Ellen) go in the gas station?

AC: Yes…

SC: Then she trusted you. If you lose that trust, and you can do that by lying to them, giving them bad advice or disrupting them, like if you try to chat up Ellen and tell her she’s hot or sexy, she gets very upset, then things will go badly for them and they begin to argue, and eventually split up.

AC: Interesting. Now I’m going to have to go back in and try to piss them off. What are you calling this experience?

SC: We’re calling it a responsive film. It responds to the three relationships: the man and the woman, you and the woman, and you and the man. We are constantly weighing the status of that three-way relationship. This is very important. It is why the last call is a conference call where you can decide if you want to side with one or the other.

The entire script is based on emotional states. What if she is angry, how would she play the scene? It is story of a couple stuck in a loop and they begin to realize this. Each place has different moods and different scenes; more options build the longer your relationship with them exists.

AC: How long can you “play/watch”?

SC: Some people went through 10 times. You could spend an hour or less. People compare notes, “I went to the gas station. You went to the diner?” Each time you log in it starts again because Infiniti doesn’t track the phone numbers. You may have a completely different experience based on your answers.

AC: How long was the actual shoot? Who directed it?

SC: It was a seven-day shoot. Philip Van directed it. We looked at many directors, some even very well-known Hollywood names, but it was difficult for them to get their heads around non-linear. “We have to shoot every scene multiple ways and you won’t be editing it” — that threw a lot of directors, because essentially “you” are editing it as you go through the experience. Philip got that immediately.

We really wanted it to look beautiful. I had just seen “Tree of Life.” The director of photography is the second unit DP from “Tree of Life.” We shot on three Red Epics, sometimes running simultaneously, and shot it indie film/guerrilla style, not like a typical commercial.

AC:  It looks beautiful. I particularly like the scene inside the dry cleaners. So back to if she didn’t trust me…

Actor Charlotte Sullivan being prepped on the set of Deja View. Photo courtesy of Campfire.

Actor Charlotte Sullivan being prepped on the set of “Deja View.” Photo courtesy of Campfire.

SC: Charlotte, she’s the Grace Kelly or Tippi Hedren of the story. She may have left the dry cleaners angry if you said something to make her mistrust you. The actors had to switch from reading in a good mood to a pissed-off mood. The continuity woman was going nuts, “Loop 3, Alternate 7B.”

At the same time, as we were shooting, a very technical team in Sweden was working on a very complex backend, one with a dynamic phone server connected to the web. The video plays and connects to the phone server, using voice-recognition technology from Nuance, the same technology that powers Siri on the iPhone. It listens, interprets and then sends it back to the server.

AC: Can you elaborate on this real-time phone conversation?

SC: Well, we took the talent back into the studio and recorded hundreds and hundreds of lines of dialogue. Depending on what you say to the characters, it fits together seamlessly. We did one big audio session, and then we did the edits of the multiple versions, and then cut the phone audio. Then we brought in an audience for tests.

One thing we didn’t anticipate was that people would say things we had not expected. So we had to go back in and record answers to the most popular questions. For example, you can anticipate what someone might respond to in a phone call, but it is difficult to anticipate what they will say when they are actually seeing what is going on. For example, when he (Ryan) asks, “Do you know where we are?” We anticipate people to say “No” or “Yes” or “Go look for a gas station?” but what we didn’t anticipate was people saying, “It looks like California.” They are responding to onscreen stimuli. So we went back and recorded him saying, “How do you know that?” because he doesn’t know you are watching them. Then, it plays on the idea of them being aware of themselves (Ryan and Ellen) being watched.

AC: The question if we are the only ones watching them adds an interesting dimension to the mystery. So let me understand this — what we say in the phone conversations doesn’t change what they do between “scenes” or “chapters” but between shots or cuts? As in within a frame? I think you’re blowing my mind right now — how does that happen?

SC: We are pushing the voice-recognition technology to the limit, and we can’t have buffering, so the technology does something fascinating and new; the computer actually downloads all the options, and what you are basically controlling is the timecode. The web browser is essentially editing all the footage from a bin on your computer based on your responses. The plot can change based on conversations seamlessly.

(In my silent awe, Coulson adds)

SC: You might find this interesting. Usually you do a mix with music, sound effects and voice. The voice is married to the picture, but depending on what you say a scene could go long or short, so the music is dynamic. The music stretches or syncs, depending, internally within scenes.

So back to the dry cleaners, if she comes out in a bad mood the music is different than if she comes out in a good mood. Also, the music loops back, mirroring the loop of the characters.

Infiniti Flow Dry Cleaner Scene

“Deja View” Dry Cleaners Scene breakdown.

AC: How much did this cost?

SC: I think the budget is about the cost of a television commercial’s production budget, but that includes all the backend. A lot of the money is spent on the backend and development. Infiniti pays for every phone call, so hundreds of thousands of phone calls are budgeted in. Because of that cost it is scheduled to only run through end of the year.

Behind the scenes Deja View 3

Actor Andrew Pastides and director Phillip van on the set of “Deja View.” Photo courtesy of Campfire.

This is just something interesting about the Q50 — when you get into the car it knows you. The wheel changes, the seat adjusts, the radio station changes, it even goes to my Facebook because the key fob is Bluetooth and I’ve setup the profile. When my wife gets in the car she has a totally different experience. Even as I walk towards it, the car always knows you. Which is interesting, because in this story the characters have lost their memory and the car knows them better than they do, and the movie responds to you, which gives you a very personal experience. You affect the plot, which affects the technology they use in the car. Pandora plays and she (Ellen) says, “I love this song” and he (Ryan) asks, “How do you know?”

So the technology of a movie that responds to you is telling the story of the car, thematically, a sophisticated experience that adapts to you. All this detail folks may not notice, but that is what Campfire does, create these kind of analogies.

Amanda Lin Costa is a writer and producer in the film and television industry. She currently producing the documentary, “The Art of Memories” and a feature film on Annie Londonderry, the first woman to travel around world on a bicycleYou can follow her on Twitter at @TheLoneOlive or visit her at theloneolive.com.

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