Carly Fleischmann’s story is incredible. By the age of two she was diagnosed with severe Autism and apraxia, an oral motor condition that prevents her from speaking. Her parents, Arthur and Tammy Fleishmann, were told she’d likely never develop intellectually beyond the mental age of a small child. Despite these predictions and after many years of intense therapy, Carly made a breakthrough in communication – she learned how to type.
Now at the age of 17 she has co-authored a book with her father Arthur Fleischmann who is also the president of john st., a multi-platform Canadian advertising agency responsible for the creation of Carly’s Cafe. The book, Carly’s Voice: Breaking Through Autism, is a very personal and honest glimpse into their lives, sharing their experiences from the inside out; what it’s like raising a daughter with Autism and from Carly’s perspective, what it’s like living with Autism.
The Concept - The Interactive Autism Experience
One of Carly’s missions is to have people understand what it’s like living with Autism. So we took the following passage from her book where she explains her experience and used it as the basis for the project:
“Picture yourself in a coffee shop with just one other person. The person starts talking and you are able to focus directly on what they are saying. For me that is a different case all together. The woman who brushes along our table leaves an overpowering scent of perfume and my focus moves. Then the conversation over my left shoulder from the table behind us comes into play. The rough side on my left sleeve cuff rubs up and down on my body. That starts to get my attention, as the whoosh and whistle of the coffee maker blends into different sounds all around me. The visual of the door opening and shutting in the front of the store helps completely consume me.”
We wanted to bring people as close as possible to the feeling of living a moment in Carly’s shoes. Since Autism inhibits “normal” social interaction, we used interaction and subsequent loss of interaction as a way to mimic the loss of control and focus Carly describes. By adding this dimension to the already powerful story of a young woman unable to communicate with her family members or get across the simple request of wanting a coffee, we hoped to create an overwhelming, emotional experience that would lead people to want to learn more about Carly’s story, as well as increase awareness and sensitivity to the experiences of people living with Autism in general.
How it Works
When you enter the café you are able to use your cursor to shift your POV between five different perspectives of the café. You are situated in the first person perspective as Carly and you have a sense of control over your environment. Intense distractions then start to take over the experience: the coffee grinder, the sound of a sip of coffee, a slamming door, etc. When a distraction occurs, you lose control of the interaction and can no longer shift perspectives. Every time a distraction ends you regain control of the perspective. This happens with increasing frequency until you reach the climax of the film where control is completely lost. Following the interactive experience the POV shifts to reveal Carly. Our hope was that revealing Carly immediately after the interactive experience would deepen the emotional connection to her story.
To create as organic an experience as possible, the cinematographer, Chris Mably, hand operated shift and tilt lenses as well as a lens baby to give Carly’s vision a human feel. To do this we gradually shot on longer lenses and added more movement as her vision becomes more chaotic. Creating this visual arc was a challenge as it wasn’t just done through one angle but had to be matched in all 5 angles that could be dynamically edited by the user.
Carly’s Cafe also used a significant amount of VFX. To minimize the feeling of being digital we shot light through water, glass and other clear and reflective surfaces with Sean Cochrane from The Vanity and then composited them over top of the image. This gives the sensation that light is slowly bleeding into her vision and overwhelming Carly.
For Carly’s Café our goal was to give people a real sense of how someone with severe autism hears the world. To achieve this we took a café’s everyday sounds (coffee grinder, slurping) that go un-noticed by most of us, and amplified them to illustrate how overwhelming and distracting they can be for Carly. The challenge was to try and find the balance between creating an audio sensory overload while still having the site remain listenable.
To help with this we felt it best to have the sound design feel as organic as possible. We worked with the environment’s natural sounds and experimented with processing and adding numerous tonal layers to help intensify the sounds. As the site progresses to its chaotic peak we also incorporated and manipulated the elements of the hauntingly beautiful music track that opens and closes the site (written by Rob Simonsen) to help add more tension to the final scene.
Carly’s Café was a challenging edit to undertake. Telling one story through five perspectives in an interactive experience changes how you approach the editing process. It can get very confusing. It’s almost like cutting film on a Steinbeck, you need to measure five times and cut once. It’s a notion sometimes lost in this non-linear age of editing.
We used the relationship between Carly and her father as the primary perspective to film and then edit from. As the layers were added and timings changed, there was a domino effect that changed the other perspectives simultaneously. All the while, it was our task to try and maintain emotional performances, continuity, and an honest representation of Carly’s experience.
There were two main challenges the team negotiated throughout the entire process.
The first was choosing the correct interactivity to achieve a balance between control and subsequent loss of control without detracting too much from the overall emotion of the piece. Since so many other elements were already contributing to the emotion: the narrative, the visual effects, the sound design, the acting, etc. we wanted to make sure the interaction did not overwhelm but rather served as a complement to the overall piece. Finding the balance involved a lot of discussion and testing.
The second challenge centered around how literally we should interpret the quote. Obviously, creative interpretation had to be taken since not everything described in Carly’s writing could be directly represented through film. For example, how do you show an overwhelming smell? The only limit that was placed on the interpretation was that everything would have to feel true to Carly’s experience. Whether or not something was “true” however, was hotly debated as it fell into a subjective realm of interpretation. But ultimately, it led to a lot more care being put into every decision on the project and a better final product.
The biggest challenge we faced with Carly’s Cafe, was how do you tell a story when you’ve given the user control of what they are looking at? We ended up maintaining the narrative arc by controlling which perspective users returned to following a distraction take-over. That way we ensured that key moments were not lost in the story. The transitions between perspectives were disguised as blinks so that the experience never feels interrupted.
From a development standpoint, the largest challenge was syncing all five videos together and then having them edit together without going out of sync. Heung Lee at Ransom Profit, slaved over this issue and then was able to solve it at the eleventh hour.
Another challenge was minimizing the load time. One solution to this was including the home video montage at the beginning while the video loads. This was is a great solve because it gives people a quick and powerful introduction to Carly’s story and allows the video to load imperceptibly at the same time.
Project: Carly’s Café
Agency: john st.
Creative Directors: Angus Tucker, Stephen Jurisic
Copywriter: Kelly Uman
Art Director: Marie Richer
Producer: Ryan O’Hagan
Technologist: Marc Cattapan
Interactive: Heung Lee, Ransom, Profit
Production Company: OPC
Director: Miles Jay
Executive Producer: Harland Weiss
Executive Producer: Donovan Boden
Line Producer: Dennis Beier
Director of Photography: Chris Mably
Editor: Chris Murphy, Relish
VFX Artist: Sean Cochrane, The Vanity
Audio Director: Stephanie Pigott, Pirate
Phantom Tech: Brent J. Craig
Colourist: Wade Odlum
Composer: Rob Simonsen
Casting: Michael Stephenson
Logo Design: Jan Avendano
Marie Richer: I come from an anthropology and interactive design background. As such I’m very interested in the power of new interactive methods to create emotional connections to social issues. I’ve lectured about using interactive installation art to create an emotional connection to water contamination at the University of Toronto. I’ve also exhibited interactive work at le Lieu du Design in Paris and as part of the LOOP festival in Barcelona. I’m currently based in Toronto where I work as an art director at John st.
Kelly Uman: I used to be a professional chef. Now I’m a copywriter. Both industries are surprisingly similar. I used to spend long hours creating interesting, visually appealing and delicious food for people to consume. Now I’m doing the same thing only with ads, minus the delicious part.
I was a contributor on the Tourette Syndrome At Random project having created and co-directed one of the short online documentaries. Like Carly’s Café, both of these websites are new, non-linear forms of interactive advertising that approach the message in unique and meaningful ways. I’m interested in creating advertising that doesn’t feel like advertising because it’s interesting, funny, emotional, or just cool.