WEI OR DIE: Behind the Scenes of an Interactive Drama
WEI OR DIE is an immersive drama and a real-time thriller set during a student orientation weekend (known as a “WEI” in France), where anything can, and eventually does, go wrong—as the shocking imagery shows. Here’s a behind-the-scenes look at this boundary-pushing format distributed by France Télévisions Nouvelles Écritures.
What is WEI OR DIE?
Sex, drugs and interactivity—that’s the killer cocktail served up by WEI OR DIE, released online on October 28. A cocktail that has put the issue of interactive drama in the foreground, with numerous articles in the French media and nearly 300,000 visitors to the portal after only one week.
In the introduction, which is told in a linear narrative, we watch as a group of students come across a corpse. When the authorities arrive on the scene, they confiscate all of the event-goers’ video footage in order to piece together the events of the evening. This bit of exposition sets the scene for the drama that will then unfold and justifies the use of interactivity to drive the story forward, giving users the freedom to switch from one video source to another, as they explore the content of the students’ smartphones, handheld cameras, GoPros, drones and other devices.
The brainchild behind the film, Simon Bouisson, barely 30, is a graduate of Paris’s prestigious Fémis film school. His past directorial credits include interactive productions Jour de vote and Stainsbeaupays, and the “slow television” film Tokyo Reverse.
WEI OR DIE is Bouisson’s first dramatic film, strictly speaking. The idea has been percolating in his mind for several years now, as he mentioned in the introduction to the project at the most recent I LOVE TRANSMEDIA festival: “I was at a friend’s birthday party and noticed how a bunch of people took out their phones to film her blowing out the candles on her cake—the same event from multiple points of view. That’s when I started wondering what it would be like to get a hold of all those videos and re-create the evening based on that footage.”
The first version of the story, written in 2012, was called Party. It revolved around a murder during a get-together by a group of Parisian thirtysomethings. But Bouisson and his co-screenwriter, Olivier Demangel, decided to shift the focus to the depraved world of student orientation weekends (WEIs) at France’s top business schools. “It’s a world of power struggles, where rituals play a central role—not unlike a wedding,” Bouisson adds.
The long and winding development road
After his initial brainwave, it took two years of development and one year of production to get the film made and online. In 2013, development assistance from the CNC (Centre national du cinéma et de l’image animée, nouveaux médias) and Pictanovo (La Communauté de l’image de la région Nord-Pas-de-Calais) helped him move forward.
“Thanks to the CNC and Pictanovo, we were able to develop a prototype in a short amount of time. We shot a few things over two days and tested the interface. It was like we were filming at the same time as we were inventing a video projector,” he says excitedly.
Not long after that, France Télévisions was brought into the loop, becoming a vital partner in the project. According to Voyelle Acker, Deputy Director of New Storytelling and Transmedia, “WEI OR DIE epitomizes our department’s policy. We’re big on experimentation, hammering out new applications and empowering visionary filmmakers.”
The cost of this development phase, which was borne by production companies Temps noir and Résistance Films (Sara Brucker), amounted to roughly €75,000, €32,000 of which came from the CNC’s multimedia development assistance.
Nearly 18 months later, the total budget for the project had risen to €660,000, according to David Bigiaoui, Executive Producer, New Media, at Cinétévé, which has been on board as an executive co-producer for about a year.
To meet this budget took the collective support of France Télévisions (€225,000) and Web Cosip; CNC’s automatic support fund (€150,000); Ciclic – Région Centre for the production aspect (€75,000); and Pictanovo (€37,500) for both development and production. The rest (nearly €100,000) was covered by a direct contribution from Cinétévé.
A production odyssey
Despite its sizeable budget for a web production, the shooting of the dramatic scenes was by no means stress-free. The entire team had to be particularly resourceful to avoid cost overruns.
Prior to filming, Lille-based Keblow, the agency in charge of web development, created the first prototype of the interface. This made it possible to reconstitute the “real timeline,” the interactive chronology of the weekend’s events. At the end of every shooting day, the rushes were loaded into the prototype to test the workflow and the real-time effect.
The shooting schedule itself lasted 11 days, with a cast of about 40 actors and nearly double the number of extras. Eleven days to film the equivalent of a feature film, i.e., nine minutes of final-product footage per day. It made for a frantic pace of production, even though it is obviously difficult to draw comparisons with standard film or even television shoots, given how groundbreaking the entire approach was.
Every scene was meticulously planned, all while maintaining the look and feel of on-screen spontaneity. Some of the actors doubled as camera operators, with mini-cameras, smartphones and GoPros. Conversely, the DOP actually appears as a character in the film: Ludo, the videographer hired by the student association to record the event. This allows him to show up in other video feeds and explains why his camera is so much more professional-looking than the students’.
Other sequences involving washrooms or mirrors were shot without any technicians in the room. For group scenes in the bus or on the dance floor, there could be no sound engineers or boom operators visible on screen. The cast were therefore all fitted with HF microphones, “at least whenever their clothes were on,” says Bouisson with a mischievous glint in his eye.
Postproduction: A multiple-choice exercise
Things heated up in the editing room. The rushes needed to be organized effectively in chronological order to ensure viewers’ ease of use. It was an operation of immense complexity—all in the pursuit of simplicity in the final product.
Like in any “found footage” film, the question inevitably came down to point of view. “The cameras didn’t end up following the narrative threads with exact precision, but after about 10 minutes, you stop asking yourself who’s doing the filming and who the camera belongs to,” David Bigiaoui explains.
“The narrative system became clearer three weeks into editing, when we understood that the sequence queues were more important than the beginning,” Bigiaoui adds. “Users come in at the end, which prompts them to go back and find out what they missed.”
It made for a sort of backwards editing process, which was actually consistent with the film’s countdown approach.
The site is tablet-friendly (albeit not mobile-friendly). The player makes it possible to toggle between the videos, which were developed in HTML5. “Because this format can only exist on a dedicated URL, it turns out it’s great protection against illegal downloading,” Bigiaoui remarks.
After the home page and the non-interactive introduction, the browsing experience becomes very intuitive. The video sources are represented by easy-to-read icons. Two keys are all it takes to move from one feed to the next, or to open the timeline to see where you are in the story.
Astonishingly, “the keyboard ‘switch’ is a feature that came to us later in the game. In hindsight, it seems so obvious,” admits Bigiaoui.
The changes that came about during production were made possible by a partnership with Numa, an innovation and startup hub based in Paris.
Numa’s involvement enabled the team to organize multiple user tests throughout the development and production phases. This invaluable feedback was instrumental in formalizing each click and validating the purpose and outcome: “Why are we clicking here? What do we get out of it after X seconds?”
Easy, fluid access to the content was essential for the team. Full-scale test sessions confirmed the wisdom of the single-click approach to toggling between the home page and the beginning of the film and displaying the total duration of the experience before starting.
Now that the film is online, more in-depth study will go into how various users interact with it. “We put tags everywhere,” Bigiaoui confirms. The goal is to assess several key metrics, including viewing time outside the introductory sequence and the number of changes in video sources.
Until a more detailed analysis becomes available, the figures for the first week are quite compelling: 185,000 visits in two days, and a total of 285,000 visits in five days, including the “sneak peeks” given to media partners Les InRocks, Konbini and Libération.
The producers are already thinking ahead to the next step: an English-language version for the international and festival market. For now, WEI OR DIE is limited to France to maintain market exclusivity for other distributors.
“Geoblocking does not represent the reality of today’s web use, but it is an unfortunate necessity for us if we want to stay on budget,” said Bigiaoui. “If we hope to sell the film to foreign markets, we have no choice.”
It would seem discussions are also underway with France 4 for a linear narrative version. This would involve a complete re-edit of the film and would therefore require additional funding. VOD and SVOD opportunities are also being explored. “I think the interactive drama works well on its own terms,” the producer asserts with confidence.
Since WEI OR DIE was released, numerous articles have been written about the project, using words ranging from “e-cinema” to “news story.”
WEI OR DIE is a drama shot in documentary style, although it is far from realistic. It paints a not-so-flattering portrait of the selfie generation, whose use and manipulation of images comes as second nature, in a clever story-within-a-story construction. The difficulty in finding the right words to describe the final product speaks volumes about how complex interactive storytelling can be for the uninitiated. Here’s hoping that WEI OR DIE will help bridge the gap between these types of productions and the general public.