Cinematic retrospectives can feel stiffer than a priest’s collar at Sunday mass. The films are frequently screened in poorly ventilated theaters, followed by tedious panel discussions and dreary receptions. Sometimes, they’re downright snobby. So, when the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) chose to celebrate one of its country’s favorite sons, David Cronenberg, they approached his body of work from a different vantage: from the inside out.
“We looked for an innovative way of taking the Cronenbergian storyworld and extending from his films into the gallery, and out of the gallery again, and into the minds of his fanbase,” says Ana Serrano, the Canadian Film Centre’s (CFC) Chief Digital Officer and executive producer for Body/Mind/Change, a virtual and real world extension of the film exhibition, "David Cronenberg: Evolution."
Curated by Piers Handling, CEO and Director, TIFF, and Noah Cowan, Artistic Director, TIFF Bell Lightbox, the exhibition features artifacts from Cronenberg's films including the helmet from Videodrome and the pod from The Fly. When Cowan approached Serrano about expanding the Cronenberg universe as a transmedia co-production, Serrano knew the man to head up the project. She hired Lance Weiler (Pandemic), a director and experience designer known for telling innovative stories over multiple media platforms, as Creative Director.
From the start, it was clear they wanted to widen the Cronenberg universe. To do that, Weiler assembled what he refers to as the "21st Century Writers' Room." Not unlike a typical television writers' room, Weiler serves as a director or showrunner. But this writers’ room is comprised of more than just writers. Digital strategists, video artists, and even fans gathered around a table to hash out the concepts and themes of Cronenberg’s work.
"The more holistic approach that I can take, the more it starts to really kind of expand in very interesting ways,” says Weiler. "I’m really interested in this space that is almost like a kind of mining collective intelligence.”
From these sessions, three themes emerged: Who is my creator? Who am I? Who are we? They dropped Cronenberg’s films into these buckets, mapping them against a hierarchy of needs. Ultimately, they devised the overarching narrative that Cronenberg “licensed” his films to BMC Labs to create biotech implants – or PODs – to evolve humanity.
The story cascades over three simulations. Part narrative/part Q&A, the POD “learns” about a user’s personality and gains emotional intelligence. Each simulation collects a variety of data points. The end result is a 3D printed POD – a physical manifestation based on answers users give during simulations.
“I’ve been fascinated by this idea of narrative objects and this idea of data gen,” says Weiler of the PODs. “As opposed to doing the classic user gen, we’re doing this concept of data gen, where their actions created something. So, I’m pretty excited about that part of the project.”
Weiler also enjoys playing on the Quantified Self Movement, asking the questions: “What kind of mirror is POD? What does data actually say about us?”
“I hope what we can do is create an interesting and engaging experience someone can step into,” says Weiler. “Doing it in a way that isn’t driven by codes and puzzles, but do it in a way that is experiential, almost hallucinatory.”
With that in mind, Serrano adds, "The experience also includes clues hidden in some of our videos, photos, soundtracks, and text for our hard core fan to decipher. These clues, if deciphered properly, could lead you to higher levels of POD-host status."
Like the exhibition’s title, the creative process has been evolving and surprising.
“The PODS have always been there as part of the value proposition,” says Serrano. “It wasn’t until we were close to the end of the design process when we understood, ‘Oh, my God, what we’re creating is a narrative experience that really generates this physical object.’”
To make the PODs, Weiler brought on two creative agencies, 1188 and Northern Army. J. Lee Williams and Matt Bilewicz at 1188 created video, special effects and the design of the PODs, while Northern Army spearheaded the web development and data gathering software to spawn the PODs.
“It’s Cronenberg, so it’s a little bit sexual, right?” Williams says about the POD aesthetic. POD certainly echoes Cronenberg’s films, especially “eXistenZ .” And Williams says other elements are recognizable throughout the experience. “There’s definitely some things you’ll see and you’ll, be, like, ‘Oh, that’s like ‘Scanners.’”
Users can sign up now for their own POD. On October 25, PODs begin engaging users with a story written by J.C. Hutchins, Atley Loughridge, and Chuck Wendig. Body/Mind/Change will print the user generated PODs at TIFF Bell Lighthouse, and the PODs will be part of the larger, traveling exhibition in 2014. Eventually, fans will be able to pick up their personalized POD as a souvenir.
“We’ve gotten amazing emails from people who want PODs and who are offering their DNA. Who are really just all over it,” says Weiler.
“It’s been a pretty wild ride,” Serrano echoes. “The value that Lance brought to the project was the large, big thinking combined with the introduction of a whole host of visionaries associated with the creative vision at the front end.”
A wild ride, indeed. And would you expect anything less of a Cronenberg film retrospective? At least, it won’t be boring.
The exhibition runs at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in the HSBC Gallery from November 1, 2013 to January 19, 2014 prior to an international tour.
Photos courtesy of Dave Todon and Joyce Wong