CtrlEdit: a new tool for producing interactive movies

Baptiste Planche talks about his software CtrlEdit, a new tool for producing interactive movies in a simple and cost-effective way.

By nature and use, cinema is a linear media that excels at having us lose track of time and plunging us into increasingly complex stories. This is due in part to cinema’s extreme industrialization. Today’s cinema is the most highly normalized cultural experience around—maybe even more so than the book. The same dark movie theatres, the same seats, the same popcorn, the same image ratios, the same projection technology and the same social contract between moviegoers.

However, UFOs sometimes emerge on the fringe. Some propose film concerts in which the music is performed by an orchestra. Others such as Xavier Dolan shoot their films almost entirely using a square image ratio. And a few explorers who focus on new forms of storytelling go so far as to experiment with an even more subversive component, i.e., interactivity.

To get a greater number of creators interested in interactive cinema, what may have been missing was an integration tool that made it easier to produce films that branch out and give the public the power to decide.

That’s exactly what CtrlMovie proposes. The Swiss company produced the Late Shift interactive film in 2016 and developed CtrlEdit, an application that provides access to all of the technology needed to produce interactive cinema experiences and broadcast them in movie theatres as well as on the screens of mobile devices.

The CtrlMovie application makes it possible to live the experience at home or at the movie theatre. From a mobile device or tablet, users make their choices by simply pressing on the large buttons and guide the hero as they please. However, in cinema version, the decisions are shared by the entire audience. Individuals are provided with a phone app that they use to express their opinion when a choice needs to be made.

Once the time for making a choice is up, the majority rules and the film continues. However, the narrative does not stop throughout the process.

A look back on the creation of the Late Shift interactive film

To better understand how such a project was thought up and developed, I interviewed Baptiste Planche, who produced Late Shift and cofounded CtrlMovie.

Q: How was a project like Late Shift scripted and designed?

Baptiste Planche: Late Shift is the work of two screenwriters: Tobias Weber, who became my partner within CtrlMovie, and Michael Robert Johnson, who has written linear films the likes of Guy Richie’s Sherlock Holmes.

Tobias began writing this script in a linear fashion by building on the thriller’s basic mechanism. Also, he gradually developed ‘forks in the road’ that he incorporated into the story while ensuring that everything remained logical and engaging, regardless of which fork was taken.

From the onset, our priority was to always maintain a balance between the intent to offer a maximum number of choices to the public and the intent to concretely develop the story and its characters. We also knew that we would not be able to provide an infinite number of choices without running the risk of not being able to produce and finance the project... Things had to remain reasonable.

Q: How many minutes of film were produced in total?

We have about 4 hours and 30 minutes of film. It seems to us that a multiplication factor of three or four with respect to the duration of the public experience makes it possible to offer a sufficient number of choices while keeping the project realistic to produce. Luckily, the budget is not multiplied by three or four because there are many ways to optimize production costs.

The experience lasts between 70 and 90 minutes and the audience has a choice to make every two or three minutes. In total, the project proposes 180 choices that lead to seven different endings. Each decision truly has a specific consequence; we especially want to avoid misleading the audience as far as the value of its choices are concerned.

Q: How do you manage to credibly have the main and secondary characters evolve according to the choices made by the audience?

Generally, in a cinema setting, developing the characters requires a great deal of reflection. As far as our main character is concerned, we set a point of departure in his life before imagining multiple versions of his persona.

Regarding the secondary characters, we arranged for them to react differently depending on which choices had been made previously. How you treat a given character will determine how he or she will react later on in the film.

Q: Isn’t this latest mechanism inspired directly by some narrative video games?

Yes of course. What we have created fits in somewhere between a film and a video game. The experience may be closer to that of a film, but we’ve incorporated a few gaming mechanisms into it. Although we did not work with game developers, we did inspire ourselves from games such as those developed by Telltale (the editors of The Walking Dead games among others).

However, we sought to avoid certain aspects of video games. For example, there is no ‘game over’ or precocious ending to the film if you prefer. It goes from start to finish with no way to go back whether the story takes a good or bad fork in the road...

Q: Does a film like Late Shift change the movie theatre experience? Is the public still plunged in the dark and asked to remain silent?

Yes, we are still in the dark and we designed the app such as to allow the public to make decisions as discretely as possible. However, what changes is that people talk a lot more! People laugh and converse, it’s really fascinating.

We recently had a theatre filled with 260 people during the Strasbourg Fantastic Film Festival and people in the hall laughed from beginning to end! Some told us that this type of experience was perfect for the movie theatre because it can’t be lived at home or on a smartphone…

Q: Do some people return to watch the film a second time?

Absolutely! I’ve already witnessed two or three people do that, hoping to see another ending to the film. Moreover, we have been able to confirm that the public will not make the same choices from one viewing to another...

Q: Are some people shy about interacting in a movie theatre?

We have tried to make the experience as fluid as possible, in terms of both using the application and producing the film, to maintain the right balance between watching the film and interacting with it.

Some people choose not to participate and simply watch the film. It’s perfectly possible to do so, including with the version of the film designed for mobile devices.

Q: Did you ever fear that the film and mobile experiences would end up ‘cannibalizing’ one another?

The risk exists in theory. Certain movie theatres do not appreciate us presenting something that is also available on the web. However, we believe that people today want to consume content where they want and when they want. We therefore need to deliver what they want.

First and foremost, though, both experiences are very unique in their own respects. Although the content is shared, the experience is different and I believe that people who choose to live the experience in a movie theatre want to live this particular event in a group setting.

CtrlEdit: a software application designed to create interactive films

In addition to the cinema and iOS versions available at launch time, the project has since been adapted for Apple TV and it will soon have been adapted for Android and Smart TV as well as the Steam gaming platform and PS4 and Xbox consoles. Why make such investments? Because Late Shiftis today much more than a simple project.

Along the way, the team developed a software solution offering the possibility of producing such works in a simple and cost-effective way. Baptized CtrlEdit, this solution is potentially accessible to all interactive cinema project initiators.

Q: Today, do you consider yourself as a content producer or software developer?

Baptiste Planche: Actually, a little of both. Originally, we only wanted to produce Late Shift. Later, we realized that we had the potential to create a business that developed software tools for film creators and producers who felt like delving into interactive cinema.

However, we knew that to demonstrate our tools and our know-how, we would have to take the initiative and produce some content ourselves. We worked only on Late Shift but henceforth wish to work on co-productions and projects to which our contribution will be limited to the technology and advice.

Q: How is the collaboration with other creators and producers?

We propose a software called CtrlEdit, which is used once all video segments have been edited to incorporate them into an interactive whole. The solution costs nothing to purchase if we are able to set up a revenue sharing system with the producer.

It goes without saying that the model is adaptable. For example, if the final project is not profitable, we can set a price for the software license. In all cases, we are very open to encouraging creators to make maximum use of our tool. The only aspect to which we pay attention is compliance with a certain level of quality regardless of the project.

At present, we are receiving a lot of requests from creators and producers and some ten or so projects are underway—including two or three at an advanced stage.

Benjamin Hoguet
Benjamin Hoguet is a writer and a designer of interactive and transmedia works. He has contributed to many interactive documentary, fiction and comic strip projects. He has also written for Éditions Dixit four books on new forms of storytelling that make up the La Narration Réinventée collection.
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