If many panels at SXSW 2016 are to be believed, the question we should all be asking isn’t “are the robots going to take over,” but simply “when?” However, filmmaker JJ Abrams believes that the arena of storytelling is one that will always belong to human beings. And he might just know what he’s talking about; he’s the steward of the two most iconic science fiction franchises of all time, Star Trek and Star Wars, in addition to acting as producer on the newest installment of the apocalyptic Cloverfield saga.
People Before Pixels
Speaking at a packed panel with longtime friend and fellow storyteller Andrew Jarecki, Abrams recalls how he wanted to reclaim the Star Wars identity after its CGI-heavy prequels, and bring back the analogue feel that made the original films such classics. This meant having characters such as BB8 operated by puppeteers on the set rather than inserted digitally in post-production, so that they were physically a part of the story and the human actors could really interact with them.
Remembering to insert humanity into sequences that are by their very nature reliant on special effects is really the key to engaging audiences and ensuring that the journey of these characters isn’t lost in the sound and fury. “Experiencing amazing action through a character’s eyes is how you relate to it,” says Abrams. He acknowledges that a dependence on technical wizardry can alienate audiences, although he keeps the name “Jar Jar Binks” out of the conversation. “The technology should be invisible,” he says, “so the user is having as effortless an experience as possible.”
Small Screens Don’t Mean Small Stories
You might expect some directors to get a little bit precious when it comes to how their creations are viewed, but when asked about the prospect of consumers renting The Force Awakens on iTunes and watching it on their phones, Abrams is largely unconcerned. “I’ve seen movies and episodes of shows on my phone,” he says, “and in my memory, it’s not small. I just remember the experience of it.”
While he’s ambivalent about mobile media consumption, he’s downright excited when it comes to mobile content creation. “Everyone in this room has in their pocket a movie studio and a distribution system,” he says. “There’s no excuse not to tell new stories.” On the subject, his pal Jarecki takes the session as an opportunity to debut his new app, KnowMe, which essentially allows users to create quick-cut, easily shared content on their phones without investing in the hardware many YouTubers enjoy.
The panel included a sneak peek at the upcoming HBO drama Westworld, based on the Michael Crichton novel and film of the same name. For newbies, the premise involves a Wild West theme park populated by highly advanced robots. Abrams deems SXSW the ideal platform on which to debut the footage, calling both the series and the festival “the nexus of where technology and humanity meet.”