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Steven Soderbergh’s ‘Mosaic’: Inside the Interactive Storytelling App

"Mosaic," the latest project from filmmaker Steven Soderbergh, is a multimedia experiment whose intent is to change the way stories are told.

Mosaic, the latest project from filmmaker Steven Soderbergh, is a multimedia experiment whose intent is to change the way stories are told.

Mosaic launched as a free app on Nov. 8 with more than seven hours of video content. In Mosaic‘s branching narrative construct, viewers are given choices periodically, allowing them to determine the way they experience the story, which concerns a mysterious death.

This production, developed in association with HBO, leverages new technology that enables viewers to follow the story by selecting the perspectives of different characters. In effect, viewers are building their own experience from the material created and curated by Soderbergh and writer Ed Solomon.

The narrative centers on children’s book author/illustrator Olivia Lake (Sharon Stone).

The interactive experience available through the app is presented by media technology company PodOp, and developed for HBO by Soderbergh and Casey Silver, in conjunction with Solomon. A linear version of Mosaic will be released by HBO in January as a six-part miniseries.

Mosaic stars Sharon Stone, Garrett Hedlund, Frederick Weller, Beau Bridges and Paul Reubens. The narrative centers on children’s book author/illustrator Olivia Lake (Stone) and explores her connections with two men in her life: handyman/aspiring artist Joel (Hedlund) and Eric (Weller), a potentially shady suitor.

The Mosaic story is divided into 14 “nodes,” which may be likened to episodes in a traditional television series. The story map charts the various paths the narrative may take through the nodes.

Once introduced to the characters, viewers must decide whether to follow the next sequence in the story from the perspective of Joel or Eric. Along the way, viewers meet a number of other characters with their own versions of the story to tell.

The app allows audiences to experience the narrative through several different approaches. Viewers may select “film view” for a straightforward, full-screen viewing of the film; “choice moments” to select which character’s perspective they want to follow; “discoveries” to dive deeper into the story through supplementary material including voicemails and e-mails exchanged between characters, police reports and news clippings; and “look again” for completists, which offers the ability to go back and view perspectives missed in previous viewings to get a fuller picture.

After completing a node, the viewer decides which character he would like to follow for the next segment of the story.

Solomon’s several-hundred-page script required Soderbergh to shoot all scenes from multiple perspectives and shoot multiple interactions to accommodate choices users would make. The technology developed to support the complex, node-based storytelling resulted in PodOp filing 14 patents, including script management tools for user selection-driven narratives and audience analytics tools.

Soderbergh and Silver developed Mosaic deliberately, taking advantage of technology available in smartphones and apps to let viewers interact with the characters they are watching. The challenge was to add a measure of interactivity to enhance the storytelling, but not to the point that Mosaic would feel more like a videogame than a film.

Screenwriter Ed Solomon sits in front of Mosaic’s nonlinear storyboard.
Photo by Claudette Barius/HBO

Mosaic was developed as mobile-first entertainment, increasingly the default mode of viewing for younger audiences. But PodOp and the filmmakers have taken pains to point out that the Mosaic project is built around storytelling, not technology.

The project was unveiled by Soderbergh at the Future of StoryTelling Festival in New York on Oct. 6. In a discussion with film critic Elvis Mitchell there, the director explained: “Mosaic is a branching narrative piece. While branching narratives have been around forever, technology now allows, I hope, for a more elegant, intuitive form of engagement than used to be possible.

“We weren’t reverse-engineering the story to fit an existing piece of technology; the story was being created in lockstep with the technical team. The fluidity of that relationship made me feel comfortable because I wanted it to be a simple, intuitive experience. I didn’t want moments where you are making a decision to feel like interruptions.”

“Discoveries” provide supplementary material—voicemails, e-mails, police reports, news articles—allowing viewers to go deeper into the story.

This brave new world of storytelling is, of course, not new at all. From the choose-your-own-adventure books of our childhoods to the branching narratives on early CD-ROMs to transmedia narrative experiments, storytellers have been attempting to crack interactive storytelling for a generation or more. These attempts have generally been novelty projects, complicated to produce and offering no real competition to mainstream narratives. But new delivery technologies are seeing branching narratives become more sophisticated and more commonplace.

But will these new tech-enabled story structures appeal to TV audiences, online though they may be? Is the HBO/Soderbergh Mosaic project more than just an experiment?

We have seen great filmmakers try to carry the banner for bleeding edge formats before. Ang Lee’s 3D work in The Life of Pi is some of the greatest ever created in the format, and last year he joined Peter Jackson in using high frame rates for Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. But so often, though they may lead to extraordinary work and advancement in filmmaking tech, these experiments don’t resonate with audiences.

If anyone can pull off a crowd-pleaser with interactive narratives, it should be the combination of HBO and Soderbergh. But no matter how brilliant the end result, success will still hinge on what the audience likes, not the filmmakers.

Download the December 2017 issue of Digital Video magazine