Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Phil Hettema: The basics of storytelling remain the same (as technology evolves)

Phil Hettema of The Hettema Group was interviewed for InPark by Morgan Richardson during TEA’s SATE ’14 conference, Oct 2-3 in Sarasota. Hettema was the Storytelling segment chair of SATE (Storytelling, Architecture, Technology, Experience).

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Does storytelling need to evolve for a new generation of audience, or is storytelling a constant around which other elements revolve?

As technology causes cultural shifts, the formats that we use for telling stories (such as pacing, length, visual complexity) evolve and respond to the way audiences absorb experiences. While the format may evolve and the tools we use continue to evolve both through specific technologies, and the immersive worlds we’re thereby able to create, the basic aspects of storytelling and communication remain the same.

How is the importance of storytelling perceived from one client to another, and how does this affect the design process?

The needs for storytelling vary based on the goals of the experience. For example, in a theme park experience, the goal of the attraction may be to evoke a specific visceral experience, or to invite us into the world of a beloved IP. In a museum or cultural attraction, the actual content and educational aims may be the primary goal. In both of those cases “story” should serve those primary goals.

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Are there instances when solid storytelling is not essential to the success of an attraction or event?

I think that depends on how you define “Story” – a topic that certainly got a lot of attention and discussion during the SATE conference. The kind of storytelling which has traditionally been most successful in theme park experiences is situational: placing the viewer into a world where much of the story is already understood or already in place. It’s very hard to tell a new story with a complex plot in a theme park attraction.

How often do you integrate technology into storytelling? Is it essential to consistently utilize new technologies to tell successful stories?

As creators of immersive experiences, we’re always anxious to use the latest technologies and techniques to tell the story. The right pairing of technology and story to create a specific experience can be the height of success in our industry, but it’s easy to be tempted by the “latest thing.” Technology always needs to be in support of the experience, enhancing the story. Anytime the technology becomes the reason for an attraction to exist, you can be sure of one thing: The attraction will become dated in a fairly short period of time. However, a memorable experience with a creative blend of story supported by the right technology will continue to be memorable long after the technology itself begins to age.

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Have there been times when you had to put a project on hold to wait for technology to catch up with the concept?

The realities of our business rarely let a project go on hold while we wait for the right technology to come along. Usually the needs of the project mean we need to take the best solutions available at the time to move the project forward – unless you’re a very large company with a substantial R&D budget.. by far the exception to the rule. We do, however, sometimes try to delay a final selection of technical equipment until the last possible moment within a project schedule to make sure we’ve made use of the latest version of the technology available. In addition, there are always ideas kicking around in the back of every designer’s mind which may not be possible today, or may not yet be realistic given the requirements of a specific real world project which is at hand… but they just lurk back there waiting for the right moment when the magic combination of technological advance and experiential requirements converge and a new breakthrough becomes possible!

Martin Palicki
Martin Palicki owns and publishes InPark Magazine. Started in 2004, InPark Magazine provides owners and operators the perspective from "in"side the "park." Martin has also written for publications like Sound & Communications, Lighting & Sound America, Attractions Management and others. Martin has been featured in Time Magazine, CNN.com and Folio. Martin lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA.

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