Yoni Bloch talks quickly. The musician, interactive music video pioneer and former American Idol (Israeli version) judge has just been speaking to 2,000 people at the Design Indaba conference in Cape Town for nearly an hour, but still the words come pouring out, one thought tripping over the next in the headlong scramble to get into the world. It’s electrifying, and slightly overwhelming.
Yoni grew up a musical prodigy and a self-confessed nerd (“a childhood of classical piano and computer games”) and released his first album in 2004, aged just 23. But his career took an interesting swing in 2011 when putting together the video for his single Pretend To Be Happy. He wanted an interactive experience but found the technology didn’t exist to realise his ambitions. Undeterred, he built it and used that patented set-up to form Interlude, his interactive video company.
The idea behind Pretend To Be Happy is simple; it begins with Yoni wandering through a party wearing headphones, and part way through we the viewer get the chance to choose who he passes the headphones on to. The camera then follows that person until the next decision and so on and so on. Yoni found he loved the challenge of creating an interactive world that had to keep pace with the song. “Music can’t stop,” he says. “The show must go on, and because of that the timeline has to be constant and has to be linear. That led us to the kind of thinking that bringing the user or the audience or the player in needs to be part of the song, part of the creation, part of the story. So seamless became our thing and that was the biggest challenge.
“It ruins everything if everybody knows where the stitches are. It’s like the Wizard of Oz.”
Once Interlude worked out the technology though there was no stopping them. To date they’ve not only made music videos for the likes Coldplay, Wiz Khalifa and Aloe Blacc, they’ve also moved into creating interactive adverts, games, short films and even a two-way chat with the President of Israel. For the latter, viewers could choose what topics they wanted to cover and in a neat touch returning users would be greeted by the President saying “Hello again!”
Yoni’s biggest hit though was the interactive video he created for Bob Dylan’s Like A Rolling Stone. Users can flick through 16 channels from home shopping to a gameshow, a tennis match to The History Network and on each screen the subjects are perfectly lip-synched to the song. It’s a dazzling technological feat that went viral within hours. Yoni is particularly pleased that as well as racking up millions of views, the average time spent on it was 18.5 minutes (for a five minute song) – so desperate were people to try new combinations.
Watching it you can’t help grin idiotically at the sheer joy of it all, but Yoni doesn’t mind that most viewers might not even consider the technical wizardry that went into the final film. “That combination of simple and complicated is the magic in art generally. I always try to play on those terms. Even as a musician I would try to make a really complicated song that would sound really really simple because for me it was an interesting challenge. There are things on the platform that are more complicated but it needs to be simple and inviting and create some kind of dialogue with the audience because otherwise it becomes a gimmick very quickly.”
That’s not to say that everyone was a fan, as becomes apparent when you read down under the YouTube fold. “Oh don’t talk about the comments!” he laughs. “Like everyone I only read the bad ones and I just go crazy.”
Not one to rest on his laurels, Yoni has big plans for the future and believes that interactivity could create a whole new kind of mainstream content (he’s so committed to the form he even made an interactive video through which he proposed to his girlfriend. It was programmed to crash if she clicked “no” at the crucial moment).
He is working with brands but admits sometimes it’s a struggle to convince them to embrace the platforms’ true creative potential. “A lot of brands come in and their first idea is always ‘You can choose between going down the elevator or down the stairs.’ Who cares? Why is that important in any way?”
Now it’s about helping the next generation harness the power of interactive films. He has begun teaching an Interactive Storytelling class at New York University and is clearly really motivated by giving young writers, directors and animators the tools to take the form in new directions.
“Storytelling always used to be an interactive thing,” he explains. “When I sat and told you a story, if I could see you weren’t that interested I would start changing the story; maybe putting some more sex into it. Storytelling in its essence is really interactive. Another really interesting thing comes when you look at how stories go from generation to generation.
“In Judaism we have Passover where we celebrate going from slavery into freedom from the Egyptians. And you have to sit around the table and tell everyone that story, but every family tells it differently because kids like different stuff and they listen in different ways, so the original storytelling was completely interactive – you had one point you wanted to tell but then there was a lot of ways to tell it.
“We feel the interactive devices we’re using allow that to become a common thing again, a medium of its own.”