A long, strange trip of non-traditional storytelling and the stories amassed along the way.
By Jason Zada
Foreword: Recently, I was asked to give a talk on interactive storytelling and went into a deep dive of the past work that I have done over the past 20+ years. It was great to crate dig through so many memories. I’ve been very fortunate to be a part of so many groundbreaking and innovative projects over the years, so let this serve as a shrine to all of the people who helped bring them to life. Let’s start in San Francisco in 1994. The internet was just getting started and I was addicted to creating content for it. In the early days, it was the wild west and so many creative people were coming from all over the world to be a part of it.
I remember sitting in South Park in San Francisco with my tech partner Greg Hipwell, conceiving this strange project. We want to create a non-linear experience that could keep growing as we added more to the site over time. The result was SPIFF. The NY Times wrote about it in 1998, saying “you find yourself in something like a 24-hour diner where all types of weird characters converge”.
When I started my own agency with Daniel Stein in 2000, we quickly became known for incorporating video into a program called Flash. One of our first big projects was with Goodby Silverstein — multi-angle racing footage for the Eagle F1 tire from Goodyear. When we met with the team at Macromedia and described what we want to do, they told us it wasn’t possible. Not only did we make it possible, but it was really way ahead of its time.
‘Nothing like this had ever been done before’ had become a staple of what put us on the map. I remember sitting with our internal teams, dreaming up the craziest ideas we could think of, then a bunch of young graphic designers, coders, motion designers, sound designers, and producers passionately created some of the most memorable interactive entertainment.
One of my favorites projects we did was for Orbit gum. We create a cult called ‘The Cult of Bright’ — people who were obsessed with having the whitest teeth possible. Another viral favorite was a site we did for A&E that allowed you to type your friend’s phone number into a website and Criss Angel would prank them. Criss Angel would guess your phone number, then your phone would mysteriously ring and Criss Angel would be on the line. It blew people’s minds. I became obsessed with blurring the lines of traditional storytelling and interactive storytelling, creating entertainment that reached pop culture status.
2006. Elf Yourself.
There are a lot of people out there who have taken credit for Elf Yourself over the years, so let’s debunk them all. EVB got a call from a small agency called Toy in NY for their client Office Max. They wanted to create 20+ websites for the holiday season and had reached out to a bunch of digital shops. The budget was incredibly low, but we loved the concept and we were given a lot of creative freedom, so we took a few of them on. One of the ideas was Elf Yourself.
I worked with two young creatives, Max Meaneth, and Chelsea Tucker on the design and concept. We cast the elf dancer from Craigs List. I borrowed some greenscreen from a production company we had worked with countless times and we shot the live-action footage in the empty upstairs part of our office. We couldn’t afford a choreographer, so I worked with the actress to create the dance. We ingested the footage, composited it, animated it, and programmed the ‘upload your face’ technology in a period of a few weeks.
When the project launched, along with the other 20+ sites, we had no idea that in a few days we would literally bring the Internet to a halt. We crashed every server, and the project went viral, globally, in a matter of a few days. 165 MILLION hits. A simple storytelling technique of seeing your face on a dancing elf became a holiday tradition. Office Max created a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade float with the elves, rang in the bell on the stock exchange with the elves, and even created flash mobs across the U.S. one year. It still lives on as a mobile app today.
2007. Ms. Dewey.
McCann SF was working with Microsoft who wanted to promote their search engine, Bing, by doing an interactive video experience. The idea was simple… Ask Ms. Dewey anything and she will come back with a witty response, as well as the search results to your request. We cast the perfect actress, Janina Gavankar, and wrote hours and hours of responses to whatever anyone could search for. The end result was a highly entertaining avatar that created hundreds of millions of search results. People quickly fell in love with Ms. Dewey and the site became another viral notch on our belts.
In 2008, after directing quite a bit of the work within the agency, I decided to pursue a dream I have had since I was a kid — to become a director. I left my agency, met an executive producer named Brian Latt and signed to Tool of North America. Brian had the dream of transforming the traditional production company into something modern, hiring Dustin Calif in the process to head up the newly formed digital division.
2009. Salt 101.
An interactive video website, featuring Alton Brown, about salt. An experience that educated and entertained people on how and where and why to use salt. The site had interactive games, tutorials, and recipes. If you were into food, Alton Brown and salt, you were in heaven.
More on Salt 101 here.
2010. Touching Stories.
When the iPad was first released in April of 2010, Tool wanted to create the very first interactive iPad film. A few of the directors wanted to contribute their own films, so the project became a showcase app called Touching Stories. The film I wanted to create incorporated some pretty innovative storytelling techniques. The story was a Lynchian adventure narrative called “All End, Ends All”. You could use the iPad’s accelerometer to switch between two characters' perspectives, dial numbers on an old rotary phone, shake the iPad to run away from people shooting at you, and even ask certain characters a series of questions.
The finale, which allowed you to see the same scene from two different viewpoints, was a nail-biting finish that looped you right back to the beginning- hence the name. A project like this was perfect for someone like me, as it combined unique live-action storytelling, interactivity, video game mechanics and was a “first”.
Fast Company did a great cover story and in-depth articles on the app.
2010. OG Augmented Reality.
Remember when you had to print out a tracking marker and sit in front of your webcam to do AR? Yeah, most people don’t either. Using your marker, you would interact with the Hotels.com animated claymation figure, voiced by Ed Helms, and transport yourself around the US of A. We built in lots of crazy cool things to do, such as virtually riding a bull using your webcam in Texas, clapping your hands to make fireworks in San Francisco, or send your friends a postcard from any of your destinations. It was the first truly interactive form of augmented reality that was way before its time.
2010. David on Demand.
Leo Burnett called Tool and asked a crazy question; would it possible to strap a camera onto an actor and live stream their every moment in Cannes — and could we allow the internet to control him? Difficult, yes. Impossible? No. We agreed to it, boarded a flight to Cannes with a plan and a bunch of technology that would HOPEFULLY work. Let’s be clear — 9 years ago, live streaming from a remote place like Cannes was not simple. There was no Facebook Live. There was no Twitch. Even Instagram launched one month after we completed David on Demand. We were in the dark ages of remote live streaming.
As soon as we arrived in Cannes, we did a ton of tests to see if it was even possible. We strapped a backpack outfitted with a full-sized computer and a shitload of cell phones that triangulated into a broadband connection to a humble recruiter named David Perez. What could go wrong? Turns out everything and anything. But miraculously, things ended up working and the world tuned in. People wanted to try out the “world’s first Twitter controlled man™”. News outlets around the world followed what we were up to and we became the most buzzed-about “thing” at Cannes. After a week of no sleep, non-stop work, and a little partying, we pulled off something pretty miraculous — all without killing anyone or landing anyone in jail.
Watch the DOD case study.
2011. Take This Lollipop.
Where to begin. The whole project came together really quickly. I was shooting a TV spot the week I decided to make Lollipop. I wrote a script, got my tech partner, Jason Nickel to agree that it was possible, and asked Danielle Eskinazi to helped me cast it. We looked high and low for our stalker but couldn’t find anyone who I felt could play the role — that was until the last minute when we finally found Bill Oberst Jr. I remember being completely convinced the second I saw his first performance that this was our guy.
I had seen a few Facebook Connected websites in the past and remember thinking that the technique was quite effective when used right. I have been long obsessed with scaring people, Halloween, and horror movies, so I thought it was worth a shot. The entire project took under 3 weeks. I designed the site, edited and colored the video, and found an incredible song that was so perfect it almost felt like it was written for the project. My good friend Maxwell Gosling helped me secure the music rights from Bobby Jameson and on October 17, 2011, we launched Take This Lollipop.com with a tweet.
I wasn’t really prepared for the response it received in the first 24 hours. The next morning, The NY Times posted a blurb about it and quickly it spread around the world. It crashed every server at Dreamhost. Within the first 48 hours, I was fielding reporter calls and emails from every country around the world. Within the first 29 days, Lollipop received 10 MILLION Facebook likes and had been seen by over 60 MILLION people.
When it came time for awards season, Lollipop took home a plethora of awards, including a few best of shows. I flew all the way to Cannes to potentially some awards but walked away with nothing. I flew from Cannes to Los Angeles to attend the Daytime Emmy Awards. We were nominated against The Ellen Show, Days of our Lives, and The Today Show. I remember when the cast of The Doctors read our names from the winning envelope- it was one of the most surreal moments in my life. That moment changed everything. I was signed to the United Talent Agency and was reading feature film scripts and meeting heads of studios.
We eventually took Lollipop offline in 2018 as Facebook changed all of its privacy settings and it no longer worked correctly. 7 years after it launched, almost ONE BILLION people had seen Lollipop, making it one of the most successful viral campaigns of all time.
Check out the Lollipop case study.
2011–2012. Rise of Interactive Video.
After Lollipop became a cultural phenomenon, Nickel and I found ourselves involved in almost anything that had to do with interactive video. We did experiences for dozens of brands like McDonald's, Trident Gum, and Dr. Pepper. The branded interactive video microsite was popular, so we were incredibly busy. While most of these experiences weren’t innovating anything new, it was a fantastic time to be involved in interactive video.
2012. Linkin Park.
We got an email from Mike Shinoda of Linkin Park. He had seen Lollipop and wanted to do an interactive music video. Since they didn’t want to be in the video, the concept was wide open. Ultimately we decided on an apocalyptic story— a mysterious stranger comes into town and hands out photographs to people who have lost loved ones. The photographs brought those people back, but with a twist- the photographs actually stole that person’s soul.
We start production in Detroit and captured dozens of sequences with a sizable cast. Shooting in Detroit was an incredible experience. Years and years before Thanos snapped his fingers, we disintegrated our hero characters at the end of the video. It was a dual-medium music video- traditional on YouTube / MTV and an interactive video as well. In the interactive music video, all of the photos that the stranger handed out were your photos from Facebook. Fans and the media went nuts for the project. The traditional video has been seen by nearly 150 MILLION people to date.
Check out the traditional video on YouTube.
2012. Paranormal Activity.
Paramount and Insurge Pictures, which produced the heavily popular Paranormal Activity franchise, were filming the 4th installment and wanted to do something innovative around the launch of it. I was brought in to work with the filmmakers, producers, and writers to create an original piece of entertainment that would virally engage fans right before the theatrical release.
I came up with the idea of creating a fictional character, Jacob Degloshi, and making him real within social media. Nathan Atkins and I teamed up to write over 40 minutes of filmed content, social media posts, and strong mythology that tied our characters to the overall Paranormal universe. We made Jacob a real person with his own Facebook page, Twitter account, Instagram, and YouTube channel. The story revolved around his daughter moving back in with him, bringing an old mysterious VHS tape with her. The VHS tape was a gold mine of opportunities to use dozens of scenes that were cut from various Paranormal movies and allow Jacob to post them to his YouTube account. Once we launched our campaign, horror and fan sites picked up on what we were doing and followed our every step.
Two weeks after heavily posting across all the social channels, we killed Jacob off in a live-streamed final moment. You see, his daughter was the best friend of the lead character in Paranormal Activity 4. She’s actually in the film. In the end, we create dozens of videos, photos, hundreds of posts and made Jacob as real as possible, even having him interact with the audience. Ultimately, it was an incredible opportunity to do transmedia storytelling with a popular film franchise and really immerse the audience into a piece of the PA universe.
“If you are a fan of the series and looking for an alternate way to experience yet another possession of crazy women, I recommend this viral campaign. He felt like a real person and responded to tweets.” — MovieViral.com
Watch the Paranormal Activity case study.
2013. Virtual Reality.
Before there were readily available VR headsets, I was fortunate enough to direct the first-ever virtual reality test drive for the launch of BMW’s first-ever electric car, the i3. Using your mobile device, you could partake in a futuristic story that puts you right in the middle of a high-stakes driving adventure. A mysterious stranger hops in your car and needs your help to save the world. We created an incredible spatial audio mix that really made you feel like you were there. The film was also interactive, so you had to participate in a few scenes to progress the story.
Shooting during summer in Madrid and finishing in London with Glassworks, we were able to give people a true first that combined interactive storytelling, game mechanics, and 360-degree virtual reality filmmaking.
2013. Remote Control Tourist.
I remember getting the boards for this project. I read the headline, REMOTE, CONTROL, TOURIST and I knew that I had to be involved. It was everything I did on David on Demand but on a much larger scale. We had a real budget, time, and a client that seemed absolutely fearless. It was a dream project.
I flew to Melbourne 5 weeks before the project was going to launch and instantly started scouting the city. We started working on a “script” of sorts, getting clearance from hundreds and hundreds of businesses in Melbourne. We worked countless hours testing technology that would allow us to broadcast anywhere in the city. We set up a mission control at the production company’s offices. What we were doing really hadn’t been done before and it was exciting as hell. The deeper we dug into the project, we realized we were creating a real-time city guide that was created by the audience.
My tech partner in crime, Jason Nickel, flew to Melbourne a few weeks before we went live to build custom tools for monitoring and responding to the audience. If we were successful, we would need to sift through hundreds of responses, sometimes in a matter of a few seconds, and be able to respond to people in nearly real-time. A lot of the tools for live streaming and monitoring audience participation came a few years after RCT, so we were developing and building all of this from scratch.
It took a few weeks to interview and screentest actors and actresses, finally casting 4 incredibly talented people who could perform OFF camera for hours and still be entertaining. You see, all we would see would their hands and body, mostly hearing their voices. We had two crews that would travel with each RCT, providing behind-the-scenes support and running the logistics.
When we finally went live, the project went instantly viral, not only within Australia but also all over the world. We had people tuning in from almost every country. People were obsessed with the experience, spending hours watching and interacting with the tourists. Each day was an adventure and by the end, I was exhausted, but completely blown away by the tireless work the entire team, both agency and production, put into making the project a success. In the end, 150 MILLION people in 158 different countries helped us create the world’s first crowdsourced city guide, containing thousands of photos and 80 hours of video content- paying off our tagline, “Go before you go.” The project ended up being one of the most awarded that year, taking home 5 Cannes Lions and a handful of Best in Shows.
Check out the Melbourne Remote Control Tourist.
2014. Target Everyday Fashion Show.
The ad agency MONO wanted to do a live fashion show for Target with an incredibly genius twist — the models were to read the internet’s tweets while showcasing everyday household items. Most clients who buy a crazy idea like this are brave, but I would have to say that the Target clients were extra brave. First, the internet is extremely fickle and could turn on us in an instant. Second, it’s a two-hour live broadcast — anything could go wrong.
We had over a dozen models that were to read people's tweets out, live while holding a roll of toilet paper and other household items. No matter how much we rehearsed, the dialog would be pulled, in real-time, from live tweets. We also had to have thousands of items readily available to match tweets from the audience.
We built a large set, rented a live satellite truck, composed a 2-hour music track that would guide the entire show, rehearsed with our models, and crossed our fingers. We wondered, would how would the internet respond? Love and hate are closely tied together in social platforms. Miraculously, Twitter loved it and the entire campaign was hugely successful.
Check out the Target case study.
2014. Touchin Lovin.
Eko, formally Interlude, makes software that allows interactivity in videos. Trey Songz wanted to try something new and do an interactive music video for his song, “Touchin Lovin” featuring Nicki Minaj. My concept for the video was simple — allow fans to control a crazy dream Trey is having and help him live out his fantasies with dozens of beautiful women in a surreal fantasy world.
Sounds easy right? What most people don’t understand about choose-your-own-adventure style video is that every choice is a splinter point in the video that will cause multiple outcomes, equally a ton of additional footage. Budgets for music videos these days were never great, but when you factor in needing 3–4 times the amount of content as a regular video, we were essentially creating multiple music videos. I wanted snow and fire and snakes and butterflies. My dreams were big, our budget was not. While the video didn’t have super sophisticated interactivity, it allowed fans to immerse themselves into Trey’s world and was a hell of a lot of fun to watch.
2014. Taco Bell.
It started off innocently enough — the first-ever branded short film done entirely in Snapchat. Using the social media celebrity, Logan Paul, we wrote a short film that would be shot in 10-second increments, all during the MTV Movie Awards. Taco Bell and their agency Deutsch wanted it all shot in real-time, authentically on an iPhone. No brand had ever done this before, so it was a fun first.
The script called for a variety of locations sprinkled throughout Los Angeles, but it all culminated with an appearance on the red carpet during the MTV Movie Awards. I never choose jobs because they are easy, in fact, I am mostly drawn to jobs that are impossibly fun and challenging. If it were easy, it’s usually not worth doing. Snapchat at the time was HUGE and the Taco Bell audience really got into it. A short film, shot 10 seconds at a time. Let’s just say I earned my adult beverage at the end of that 16 hour day.
In 2015, I directed a feature film for Focus Features called The Forest. It took 9 months to complete and was released in theaters on January 8th, 2016. It made $40 MILLION dollars globally. While I was away from the advertising world, the interactive video microsite died, most innovative projects switched to experiential installations and VR became all the rage.
2016. VR 4D Ride.
MediaMonks and I partnered with Saatchi LA for the launch of Prius Prime. We set out to create a thrilling adventure in virtual reality where the new car was the centerpiece. I was able to create something that had been bouncing around in my head for a while — a cinematic, 4D “ride” with haptic feedback, immersed in virtual reality film.
In an extremely accelerated timeframe, we were able to build a car ride using some innovative techniques to really immerse the viewer. When the car windows roll down in VR, we would blast the viewer with a fan. Vibration, movement, and being able to reach out and touch the interior of the car provided even more immersion. We had one of the most talked-about experiences at TechCrunch when it launched and thousands of people were able to virtually ride in a new Prius Prime — all while participating in an animated adventure.
2017. Honey Bees.
Working with the amazing folks at Reach Agency I was offered the chance to come up with an idea for Häagen-Dazs that showed their continuing commitment to the honey bees. You see, if honey bees disappeared, life as we know it would cease to exist. I realized that the cause was bigger than just a marketing campaign.
By using virtual reality, I wanted to shrink the viewers down to the size of a honey bee, and hear from a bee’s mouth the issues they were dealing with. This powerful experience could not have been told as effectively in any other medium. That’s what I love about technology. Lollipop wouldn’t have been effective with the technology that empowered it. Controlling a tourist all the way across the world wouldn’t have worked with the technology behind it. And seeing the world crumbling from a honey bee’s perspective would prove to be a powerful experience.
We announced the film at Sundance in 2016 to much fanfare. VIVE also helped fund the film and provide the top platform for distribution. It was a cause and a film that I really believed in. The actress Constance Zimmer provided the voice for the honey bee. Sure we won a few awards, but more importantly, we showed people how essential honey bees are to our ecosystem.
2017. San Francisco.
RYOT and my friend Josh Gold wanted to create the ultimate love letter to San Francisco and capture the best moments the city had to offer in VR. San Francisco is my home, so this was the ultimate passion project. What better way to launch Verizon’s flagship store in San Francisco than to provide an incredible, up close, and personal view of the city’s best moments in virtual reality. Working with a long-time collaborator, cinematographer Andrew Shulkind, we split into two units and covered all the best that San Francisco could deliver.
We used every type of high-end virtual reality camera that was available, in addition to creating something brand new in the process — a new 270-degree lens on a RED Scarlet mounted to a helicopter, piloted by one of the best movie pilots in the business. We were able to get scarily close to all of the San Francisco iconic landmarks via helicopters, drones, and boats. The San Francisco police department ceremoniously chaperoned us around the city, blowing through any traffic we came across. Dream project.
2018. The Homeless.
Working through MediaMonks, I was hired to direct the augmented reality experience “In Someone Else’s Shoes” for Santander Bank and Arnold Worldwide. A significant percentage of the homeless population in America lives out of their car AND works at a full-time job. This fast was mind-blowing. How could someone work a full-time job and still not have enough money to afford rent?
In an event in Boston, people were invited to step into someone else’s shoes and see what they were going through. I shot the AR video on a volumetric stage in Atlanta. The goal was to get someone to really FEEL what it felt like to be homeless and living out of your car. Through a series of short videos, we relive moments from a nurse’s life — chatting with her mom on a Facetime call, finding her car broken into and a ton of her personal items stolen, and finally getting a boot on her car. It was a powerful experience. Although the award season is just starting, it just won a Webby Award and a Shorty Award. I hope more and more people have the chance to experience this project.
2018. The Winchester Mystery House.
If ever there was a project designed just for me, this would be it. Goodby Silverstein and Partners wanted to do a fun Halloween activation for Xfinity, so I partnered with the Monks once again. The creative team was so incredibly trusting and was very receptive when I pitched my take on the concept.
Let’s have a group of amateur ghost hunters go into the Winchester House looking for paranormal activity, but never come back out — LIVE.
I have done all sorts of live projects by this point in my career, but nothing would be as challenging as this one. First, we had less than a month to write, cast, plan and rehearse what was essentially a feature film. Two days before we were scheduled to go live, we did a full tech rehearsal and pretty much everything went wrong. My awesome tech partner, 30 Ninjas, quickly worked with Xfinity to wirelessly enable every square inch of the Winchester House. In the end, not only did we pulling off something that seemed impossible the day before, but it was actually very successful. 5.1 MILLION people tuned into the live film, causing boatloads of people to lose some sleep that evening.
Watch it all here.
2020. Twenty One Pilots.
At the start of the pandemic, I was approached by Twenty One Pilots’ record label to develop a campaign for the new single, ‘Level of Concern’. We conceived an ARG (augmented reality game) that kicked off with a 24-hour live stream. During the live stream, we gave away 4 codes that unlocked 4 out of 20 virtual USB drives. On the 4th drive, the fans had to figure out a puzzle for the code for the next drive. Each drive unlocked another puzzle, each one getting hard and hard to complete.
The final drive contained a link to the website that allowed fans to upload a video and become part of the first-ever “Never-Ending Music Video”. The video premiered on YouTube and generated a new music video every 3 minutes and 41 seconds. The music video was up for 177 days and 16 hours, earning it a Guinness World Record.
Check out more of the campaign here.
2020. Take This Lollipop 2.
It took a pandemic to finally get us to update Take This Lollipop. It was the perfect storm of the rapid adoption of technology, worldwide isolation, and an entirely new generation to prey upon. We decided to use your webcam to put you into a real-life Zoom horror film.
But with the rise of AI and deepfakes, I was fascinated with how to apply this to a real-time horror film. So we used an AI chatbot, simulated humans, stealing of all your data, and a finale that deepfakes you. Over 250 MILLION people have experienced Lollipop across Tik-Tok, YouTube and TakeThisLollipop.com
Watch the case study here.
2021. Pokémon x Post Malone.
Pokémon’s 25th-anniversary party started with a massive virtual concert starring Post Malone. The 14-minute concert starts in a stadium, then transports you to several Pokémon lands.
I’ve followed quite a bit of the recent concerts that had the artists’ avatar performing and wasn’t very impressed with most of them. I wanted to capture the most realistic performance that we could of Posty, so we brought House of Moves onboard. Over the course of 6 months, we conceptualized, designed, and animated the show.
The final concert performance was a mashup of the toyetic Pokémon style, a realistic animated Post Malone, and beautiful lands inspired by Pokémon elements. We hid a ton of easter eggs through the concert, so it’s worth a bunch of repeat viewings.
Watch the concert here.
The last year drastically accelerated a lot of technological shifts that were already happening, so it’s a really exciting time to be at the intersection of storytelling and technology. Virtual beings, virtual worlds, AI, next-gen AR, Deepfake are on fire right now. So much incredible work is being done at this very moment that will lead to a bunch of exciting new things we haven’t even dreamt of yet.