Where does storytelling overlap with experience design? If you ask James Buckhouse, these crafts are one in the same.
James is the founder of the Sequoia Creative Lab. There, he and his team apply story-driven design to products and experiences for Sequoia and its portfolio companies, during what his team calls “pivotal company moments”. It’s also home to a renowned design fellowship program.
James honed his storytelling skills by spending nearly a decade as an animator at Dreamworks, where he helped shape the Shrek and Madagascar franchises, among others. Eventually he found his way to Twitter as a Senior Experience Architect before linking up with Sequoia.
I hosted James on our podcast to learn more about how he’s applying storytelling to his design work at Sequoia. We cover what film can teach us about building products, exercises your team can do to uncover your own product’s story, how to get technical teammates involved with the storyboarding process, and much more. If you enjoy the conversation check out more episodes of our podcast. You can subscribe on iTunes or grab the RSS feed in your player of choice. Below is a lightly edited transcript of the conversation.
Stewart Scott-Curran: James, welcome to the show. Before getting into tech in the typical sense, you spent nearly a decade working on animated features at Dreamworks. What did the arc of your time look like there?
James Buckhouse: I worked on all the Shrek and Madagascar movies, and I started out in special effects there. I had a company called PDI, which was one of the earliest CT houses – I think it was started in 1980. They were bought by Dreamworks and became PDI-Dreamworks. And when Dreamworks made the shift from hand animated cartoons to CG cartoons, I started working there. I started working in a group that’s a combination of cinematography and choreography, called layout.
My particular subgroup of that was called rough layout. And rough layout was a place where you’d do the first pass, before the other animators got it but after the storyboard artists had worked. That’s how I started.
Over the course of a decade, I developed a specialty for a few things. One was that I would dip into the art department to work on costume and visual design. And I would dip into the story department to work on story arc and jokes, specifically this thing called, “punch up.” Say a film is going along, it’s fine, and then it’s dull. You can’t really change the arc of the characters, and you can’t change where they’re going and what they are doing, but you need something to make it better. Some of us would get into a room and do a punch up session to find that thing that would find the audience’s attention again.
It wasn’t just about making jokes funny, and it took me a little while to figure out what was actually good in story there. What was good wasn’t just having a character behave how the character ought to behave. Nor was it doing something that the audience doesn’t expect. It was about figuring out the emotional state of the characters as they entered the scene. Then, finding a way to transform them from that initial state to some other state by the end. So, if Shrek walks in happy, the scenes not over until he’s unhappy. If Shrek walks in sad, the scenes not over until he has hope again. Everyone’s job was to find those actions, find those moments, those ideas that we could transform that character from one state into the next.
You’re always designing
some sort of complement to the human condition.
We do this at the scene level, the sequence level, the act level, and over the course of the film, too. If ever we brought in a second character, usually the they were in the opposite state. If Shrek was happy, Donkey would be unhappy. If Shrek was unhappy, Donkey would be happy. Both would transform to the opposite state, and then back again, and back again, so you always have this contrast of emotional states between scenes. If anyone was ever on the same page, like if Shrek and Donkey were both happy, then you bring in a third character like Puss in Boots.
You’d always have a contrast between emotional states, which, weirdly, is exactly what we’re doing when we’re designing products. We’re never just designing features. We’re never designing just a new user flow. You’re never designing just a sign-up form. You’re never designing just a way to share. You’re never designing just pixels to click. You’re always designing some sort of complement to the human condition that takes you from some initial state to a transformed state. At least I think you are, if you’re doing it right.