Brian Cain is a freelance Creative Director, currently working for Loud & Clear(and formerly of GMD Studios and Campfire) who has had a hand in creating some of the most inventive storytelling experiences for some of the biggest entertainment properties and brands out there – including HBO’s True Blood and Game of Thrones and feature film Terminator Salvation.
You can see some more of his left-of-field creative work here.
We had a most excellent conversation with Brian from his home in Florida.
What things were you obsessed with at ages 5, 15 and 30, and are any of these ideas still present in the work that you do today?
This is easy. At age 5 I was obsessed with Evel Kinevel. I wanted to be Evel Kinevel, I wanted the jumpsuit, I wanted the cars, I wanted the lifestyle. I would get all his toys out and I would do practice jumps in my front yard. I would try to charge admission to the other kids. 15, obviously girls. Puberty has a wonderful way of clearing your mind. And 30, well you could almost go back to Evel Kinevel and girls. It becomes much more about “how can I apply these life lessons?” now.
Is there something that stands out for you that’s been the most personally satisfying thing that you’ve ever been able to create for an audience?
Yes – we had this tactic for True Blood where we had to tell the backstory of how vampires came out to the broader world. And part of that was a big vampire meeting where all the vampires would get together online to discuss things, particularly this new serum that allowed them to not drink real human blood.
So the way that we told that part of the story was creating a website that was locked and if you wanted to access it you had to get permission. The way you got permission was that you went to the website where we had an actress who was there for about 5 or 6 hours a night who would interact with you. You would log in and have a video chat with this girl. And she was very coy. In our story, she was a vampire, and she was trying to determine if you were a vampire. If she believed that you were, she allowed you into the website.
And it was just so interesting, the interactions we got as word spread about the mysterious website. So people were trying to convince her and say the right things. And we were lucky enough to get linked to on somethingawful.com. So huge, huge underground, nerdy. It’s like where all the memes are born, one step up from 4chan. And it exploded. Our traffic just went through the roof. And at that point we said, “Okay, let somebody in, let’s let a couple of people in.” Because people would keep calling back and back, they were so into it, they just loved it so much. For me, that really transcended advertising. It became this fictional creation that had a life of it’s own. I really, I really had fun with that.
What was the experience for you as this was happening? Were you able to observe the interactions as they happened with the vampire gatekeeper?
We had the studio set up in our agency, in the conference room every night after everybody had left. This actress was really good. We got really lucky and found someone who could ad-lib and free form act. As long as she knew the story, she could say on key, but you could tell these people were trying to trip her up and poking fun. And to her credit, she did not break character whatsoever. It was hilarious.
In your work you’re utilising a whole range of kind of technologies and mediums to connect with audiences. Do you have an intuition for what kind of technologies might matter to us in 10 years’ time, or how they might evolve into the future?
That’s such a loaded question. Did you see that, that Microsoft demo for their new VR goggles? It’s pretty amazing, pretty cool in the demo what it could do. To me, the whole wearables thing is just like making do till the next really cool thing comes along. When I first saw Google Glass, I was like, “This is like the 8 track technology of the 21st century”. And they’ve even stopped selling it now because it was just deemed too offensive to people. Society frowns upon having a camera stuck out there all the time.
But how would anybody know what will be there in in ten years from now? When I think back to being in high school in ‘86 I had no idea that my '96 the beginnings of the Internet would be coming on.
Sometimes we forget with iPads how recently they kind of came into existence. They’re proliferated as this tablet technology that’s everywhere now. But, it’s actually not that long ago that they didn’t exist.
My kids are 4 and 7, so their entire life they’ve been surrounded by iPads. They love the iPad. And what’s really fun is that my daughter who’s 4 thinks that the TV is broken because it won’t do anything when she touches it.
That’s excellent! There’s a whole other viewpoint of what a screen should be doing!
"It’s not, it’s not working right, Dad, you’ve gotta fix it.”
That’s quite amazing isn’t it? That comes back to your point, of how rapidly all these things change.
Yeah its amazing how the technology changes society in ways you don’t even think about. My wife is – I wouldn’t say obsessive – but she very much loves to make videos of the kids and post them. She does it weekly. My son, who’s 7, has over 1000 videos on YouTube of himself.
And at a certain point, you wonder, “When he grows up, will he have a real memory of these things? Or will he just be remembering the YouTube video that’s probably still up on the internet that anybody can watch?” One of his Christmas videos of him opening presents has over a million views. So a million people have seen my son opening his presents at Christmas. It starts getting really strange. It’s like what William Gibson said about how the street finds it’s own uses for things. You don’t know how this stuff is going to affect us, or how it’s gonna change us.
And it’s not anything nefarious. It’s other kids watching other kids open presents. When you’re a certain age, you will sit there for hours, and watch another kid open up his presents, and that’s what happens with these videos – the Christmas present. So if you want to make some money, make some Christmas present videos and put ads all on them!
A lot of the work that you’ve been doing is looking back to older technologies or mediums that sometimes get forgotten about. Do you want to talk a little bit about these more analogue or tactile ways of engagement?
There’s a great one that we’re doing that’s out right now in Melbourne and Sydney forNoirhouse, the Australian detective comedy series. We didn’t have a huge budget for this campaign. We can’t do flashy Facebook ads or grab people’s attention in the over the top ways, or hold a big concert like Sprite does. We set up this one tactic that has actually paid huge dividends for the client.
We put up "Roommate Wanted” posters. You know those posters you see at laundromats that have the picture and then the description, and then there’s a thing that you tear away at the bottom with a phone number? So we put up hundreds of those in Sydney and Melbourne. With a real phone number at the bottom, with a picture of the characters (it’s a film noir, so it’s a typical detective with a gun and a femme fatale and a Russian hitman looking mean). And the description is, “Roommate Wanted.” And it doesn’t say noirhouse.com, it doesn’t talk about a web series – it just is there to make you say, “What the hell is this?”
And then there’s that question mark, which is that phone number. And people have been tearing that sucker off and calling it. We have gotten so many calls and so many recorded messages of people calling and saying, “Who is this? You really have a house for rent? What’s going on?” And if they listen to the recording, they’ll hear that we have a Facebook page for Noirhouse. So we’re getting people going into our Facebook page and going, “Ah you guys, that was really clever, you got me. Very cool.” And people are starting to talk about it on Twitter and stuff, so we’re really getting a lot of attention in an effective but low budget way.
There’s something very playful and refreshing about going back to these kind of physical tactile things. I guess the digital arena for us now has become like the new print arena. We’re saturated with all of these kind of digital forms of communication, adverts and the like. So there’s something refreshing about encountering these physical things.
You can create these rabbit holes that people can discover, and talk about, and start to form a community around. And then they can go online and discuss it and get more attention, hopefully for the client. If you’ve got a smaller brand, you can’t compete against that bigger, louder nonsense, you’ve got to find a way to get people’s attention – in a way that they’re not expecting.
What are the challenges of designing a ‘rabbit hole’? If they’re about peaking curiosity – is that process for you about following your intuition and then beginning to test it? Or do you have a particular kind of method about how the rabbit hole is constructed?
We’ve been doing this since '99, so there’s some – I don’t want to say tried and true – but there’s some ways that will grab people’s curiosity. But the biggest challenge, to be totally dead honest with you – is getting the right client. Because you’re not really creating advertising, you’re creating a story extension. You’re starting to mess with what they’ve done and what they’ve created. Especially if it’s a narrative brand, like a movie or a TV series – they can get really touchy about your ideas. That said I’ve had some great clients who are so open. You can have this exploration of ideas, and they’ll bring something to the table that you’d never think of.
Is there a time that you’ve worked with a technology and realised that it just didn’t work?
For Audi, we tried having live streaming video back in the day, and it was just right when that was technically possible. And I remember how many thousands upon thousands of dollars we spent to get that happening as a live event, so people at home could watch it with whatever modem speed they had at the time. And it was an idea that I think came up just a touch too soon. Because nowadays you could do that for 20 bucks, right? You just sit your cellphone up there in the shelf.
For True Blood for example, we wanted to put stuff in ancient Mesopotamian. We had difficulty in finding a translator, as there’s only a handful of people that know ancient Mesopotamian. And then trying to decide if our audience would be savvy enough to translate ancient Mesopotamian. I think we were being too clever there as well.
I hope that there were 2 or 3 super proficient ancient Mesopotamian readers and speakers who would have loved it.
We ended up using a more broadly known dead language. I forget which actual dead language it was. And the audience was so smart that they figured out which professor we had contacted to do the translation, and they contacted him.
Is there a technological trend that you’ve observed in the world that you think looks like trouble?
I think it goes back to my 8 track comment doesn’t it? I don’t get the wearables thing at all. Maybe I ask this from a personal stand point. I think there’s going to be a real change in the way society views privacy in about 20 years, when all these teens that are sharing everything – including their genitals, are in positions where they have to be adults. In 30 years from now, the Presidential nominee is going to have to explain why he took that selfie photo of himself back in 2013. And it’s either going to be the same level of shock – although I don’t imagine it will be, because by that time everybody’s going to say, “Yeah, yeah, we all did that. Yeah, everybody’s got naked pictures on the internet.” I think it will just shift society to the left on a lot of subjects, because the privacy that we grew up with and how we share information about ourselves is no longer really relevant to the generation coming up after us.
Or even the fact that some of my son’s best friends are kids that has never met, that live thousands of miles away, that he plays Minecraft with. There’s a kid in Dallas that my kid plays Minecraft with almost every day, and they are best of friends. They’ve never even seen each other’s face. They just talk on the chat while they play.
It’s almost like that that’s like a new version of what like the penpal was – but with a completely different kind of immediacy and speed.
There’s the 7 year old in Dallas who has an avatar in Minecraft that I recognise. So when I walk in the room and I see him playing, I’m like, “Oh, that’s Sam from Dallas, I know who that is.” It’s bizarre.
How do you keep creatively fit or creatively inspired? Or what do you do when you get stuck when you’re in the work that you do?
Well I think plagiarism’s your best friend.
The truth is, and I don’t know about you guys, but for me when I used to go into an ad agency office from 9 to 5 every day, I would hardly ever have a good idea at the office. The good ideas always came when I was lying in bed about to go to sleep. And it got to the point where I would keep a notebook and pen next to my table, because that would be when the ideas would strike. It’s where you least expect it, and it plays off of stuff you would never think about where it would come from. I always try to trace back a kernel of an idea. Like - “Where did that come from? Oh, it was an NPR news article made me starting about this to this to that…”.
What you’ve said there about kind of plagiarism is really interesting. There are lots of schools of thoughts around ideas, originality and inspiration and the lines between all of those things. What’s your view on other creative ideas that you consume, and then how you might translate them into things that you make?
Oh man, these are tough questions! So you want to know my morality on stealing? Stealing is bad, I do not like stealing. I do not steal. That being said, civilization’s been around for how many thousands of years. You know there was a guy thinking about a hero going on an adventure back in the day in the cave. And that’s probably very similar to Star Wars right now.
Yes – many argue that every idea that can possibly exist has been thought of in some other guise. It’s about how you then take those ideas and process them?
It’s like Paul’s Boutique by The Beastie Boys - one of my favourite rap albums of all time. If you listen to the music, they sample 400 different artists in it, right? There’s not an original sound in that album. But if you listen to the entire thing, you’re like, “This is an entirely new beast.” It was so original at the time. And now it’s this critical masterpiece where everybody realises, “Oh, what they did was wonderful.”
There’s this band from the 80’s called Pop Will Eat Itself - did the same thing. None of their songs had any original music in it, I don’t think to any large degree. It was all just samples, and they would just cut for 7 seconds. But it sounded great together. So, as long as you can make an idea your own, put a fresh spin on it, I’m not going to give you any bad talk about it.
And maybe just a final question for you. What’s the most disappointing thing about living in the future?
No rocket jet packs.