Inside story

Dr Shreepali Patel

Fast-developing media technologies are enabling us to tell stories in innovative and powerful ways. StoryLab, led by Dr Shreepali Patel, is using these tools to set a new standard for immersive storytelling, designed to empower some of society’s most marginalised voices.

'This a convergent landscape,' Dr Shreepali Patel says. 'We’re in the middle of a new industrial revolution.'

She is talking about technology – specifically, the technology we use to tell stories about our world. Barely a week goes by without the emergence of another ingenious device that allows us to share ideas and information, whether it’s a smartphone app, a new digital video camera, or the latest interactive device.

But this bewildering conveyor belt of communications technologies raises a number of questions. With all these tools at our fingertips, how can we tell each other about our lives and experiences to maximum effect? Can we find better ways to engage and motivate audiences? If so, what are they?

Making a connection

Answering such questions is one aim of our University’s StoryLab research institute. It experiments with the developing storytelling possibilities offered both by different media (film, sound design, analogue and digital design) and different platforms (like cinema, multiscreen systems, and ‘alternate’ realities such as VR).

"Storytelling is evolving so fast we can barely keep up. But the questions are constant: what are we really saying, who is the audience; how can we best connect with them?"

Shreepali, StoryLab’s Director, has 25 years of filmmaking experience, mostly in documentaries. She is particularly interested in drawing together these tools to create new, immersive stories about important social issues. Through these new storytelling techniques, she hopes to enable audiences to understand and engage more with some of society’s most marginalised voices.

'Storytelling is evolving so fast we can barely keep up,' Shreepali says. 'But the questions are constant: what are we really saying, who is the audience; how can we best connect with them?'

Immersive experiences

A recent StoryLab project, The Crossing, exemplifies this. It is a film about international sex trafficking, inspired by an exhibition on the same theme curated by the actress, Emma Thompson. Thompson was a patron of The Crossing, which was also supported by seed funding from our University, and made in partnership with the production company Special Treats, as well as the award-winning cinematographer, Nicola Daley, and drone operators The Helicopter Girls.

It is based on real-life accounts of trafficking victims, and tells the story of a young woman who is lured to London with the promise of a new life, only to be exploited and abused. 'We wanted to find out how far we could make the audience feel what it would be like to be trafficked,' Shreepali says.

The Crossing uses an intense, binaural soundscape that mixes a compelling script with irregular breathing, heartbeats, and other effects. In the online video, this runs alongside numerous splitscreen images: a girl alone in a park; drone shots of a dark, foggy London; data about the sex trade projected on to her body; the girl walking towards the screen and finally appearing to break through, shattering her story into sharp fragments, before the cycle begins again.

The Crossing was released cinematically and in galleries. But Shreepali also experimented with other, more immersive screenings. A multiscreen version was shown in our Ruskin Gallery, while at the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) research showcase, Common Ground, in York, audiences were surrounded by wrap-around screens.

Interactive and online versions have also been created, as well as a virtual reality edition, which places uses ‘inside’ The Crossing. Some of these have been trialled with key audiences for the subject matter – including 14- and 15-year-olds (an age group often targeted by traffickers), police officers and charities.

Their responses show just how powerful this immersive storytelling can be. Consistently, Shreepali found that audiences felt like they were inside the girl’s body; an impression many found it hard to shake off after the film was over. 'I felt as if her heartbeat was mine,' one teenage girl reported. 'I felt completely engulfed.'

A new style of storytelling

The team is now working on a plan for disseminating the film that will engage more of these target groups. This includes an educational package, created for Anti-Slavery Day, which will involve a simultaneous live broadcast. The Crossing has also won, and been nominated for, several awards, including AHRC film of the year, and several industry awards.

"The long-term aim is to develop a new style of creative storytelling that does real societal good."

StoryLab is also developing various new projects that build on various techniques and formats that they used for The Crossing, and which will address a range of other social issues, particularly those of relevance to Generation Z, as well as questions of identity and cultural heritage, health and wellbeing.

'We are interested, probably next, in applying The Crossing template to addressing knife crime,' Shreepali says. 'The long-term aim is to develop a new style of creative storytelling that does real societal good.'

StoryLab: innovative multimodal stories

StoryLab is an interdisciplinary research institute that experiments with different approaches to storytelling and explores their role in transforming and informing society.

Multimodal storytelling uses multiple forms of narrative to tell a story in an experiential way, including: film; data visualisation; sound; photography; generative art; digital media; creative writing, illustration, painting, music and performance.

Through a variety of distribution platforms, StoryLab explores traditional and contemporary issues related to complex issues such as culture, identity, wellbeing and climate change, aiming to connect with diverse audiences and drive positive impact.

Access our research expertise

Find out how you can access our research expertise: contact Amy Mitchell, Partnerships Development Manager, on 01223 695139.