Reflections on the Pilot Project

Professor Graham Mort reflects on his experiences with Lancaster's Pilot Project.



In November 2012 I was asked by the Creative Exchange at Lancaster to get involved with a project that was already partially underway. The Digital Fiction Factory – a production company based in Media City, Salford - were collaborating with BBC Learning and two independent production companies to create new digital prototypes for user-testing in a ‘proof of concept’ process. As a creative writer working in academia and a former freelance writer, the project sounded interesting and challenging – if a little vaguely defined at that point.

My first meeting with the interested parties at Media City was a bewildering one – not only was there a language of digital production itself, but the BBC already had its own language and culture. What was a ‘white label product?’ What were ‘wire frames’, ‘UX’ and ‘IP’? I sat quietly, trying to absorb this new language, writing by hand in a notebook as a roomful of designer, producers and editors tapped away on their iPads. Fortunately, the project had a coordinator – Emma Hutson – who acted as a bridge between the companies, the BBC and the DFF and she did an excellent job of bringing me into the process. 

The project’s aim was to explore a range of narrative possibilities in relation to existing BBC resources. I can’t name these because they’re still under wraps, but each of the production companies was working on quite different ways of adapting and extending existing BBC assets (broadcast programmes). Atomhawk – a company based in Newcastle was working on a graphic storybook adaptation and Desq in Sheffield was working on the manipulation of actual digital footage. In both cases we were tasked with extending the viewing experience across four platforms – mainstream TV, Internet TV, mobile phones and tablets.

The idea in each was to enrich and extend the viewing experience as an educational one in line with the original mission of the BBC as a public broadcasting corporation. From my own perspective there was a definite tension between cultures: that of a fast-moving commercial sector driven by young designers in touch with the latest trends and audience tastes and that of academia with its much slower pace of development, its own language and concerns – including thinking for its own sake, rather than always being directly goal-oriented.

The work I was doing fitted a research paradigm: designing then testing new digital prototypes with user groups and gathering feedback – a classic model of R & D, in fact. Because of the sensitive nature of the commercial sector, I wouldn’t able to exploit this experience as research writings, to open out the process to an academic audience. This competitiveness seemed remote from ‘open access’ and the ‘intellectual commons’ of the Arts & Humanities in academia. It also meant finding reasons of my own for getting involved and persisting when the pressure was on, when deadlines loomed closer and radical decisions were taken to discard, edit or try new approaches.

Despite its difficulties – which included a very steep learning curve and always feeling that I was on the edge of a very complex process that I didn’t and couldn’t fully comprehend– the projects were rewarding at a number of levels. The first was working with highly skilled and motivated experts who took my own thinking and skills set forward. The second was a slow-burn effect of re-conceiving my own writing practice in the light of the experience of the projects.