Mother’s Pride – an interview with Elan Lee

By Rosie Lavan

The keynote address at this year’s Cross-Media Forum will be delivered by Elan Lee, Chief Design Officer for Xbox Entertainment Studios. We were lucky enough to speak to Elan about some of the experiences which have shaped his approach to cross-media storytelling, and why, confused though she may sometimes be, his mother plays such an important role in helping him take his ideas to the world.

You might think that Elan Lee had gone past the stage where he needed to worry about the basics of his business. The Chief Design Officer for Xbox Entertainment Studios is after all one of the co-creators of the ARG genre, and co-founder of both 42 Entertainment, the company which brought us I Love BeesNine Inch Nails: Year Zero, and The Dark Knight, and the brilliantly innovative EDOC Laundry. That’s not even to mention the fact that he is founder and Chief Creative Officer of LA-based Fourth Wall Studios — and all this in a career he began as a lead designer on the original Xbox. But Lee remains committed to resolving what he sees as the big problem for the cross-media industry, and so he has turned to his Mom for help.
For Lee it’s all about communication—finding the right way to express to people who aren’t up to speed with what’s happening in cross-media just what it is that he actually does all day. “I find that because interactive television, transmedia, cross-media storytelling—whatever it is you want to call it—is such a new industry and we are figuring it out as we go, there’s this really interesting reflection between how the industry looks at it and how my mother looks at it,” he says. “I have just as much trouble explaining to my mother what I do for a living as I do for the world. She’s kind of a litmus test. The more I can explain it to her, so she knows how to brag to her friends about her son who’s doing these interesting things, the more I find that I understand it and I’m able to explain it to the world, and put out these high-quality products—there’s that clarity and focus.”

The title of Lee’s keynote, ‘My Mother Has No Idea What I Do For a Living’, seems to throw up the old familiar point about new technology and the generation gap—but for Lee it’s not that simple. Younger people might be quicker to adapt and adopt new technologies and new forms of storytelling but, Lee says, this isn’t necessarily going to do cross-media any favours in the long term. “The reality is that as long as we cater to them [younger people] and as long as that’s a core of our audience we are never going to reach mass media, we are never going to be an accepted new form of storytelling because we will always be limited by the fact that we can’t explain it,” Lee says. “While it’s true that I have a very targeted audience demographic that I’m trying to hit I believe that a really fine measure of my own success is the ability to have my Mom speak about this—to say ‘I know what this storytelling is, it may not be for me but it’s not just for the kids’—it’s a kind of storytelling that makes sense and she can opt into it just as easily as she would a TV programme or a movie.”

Getting the message across to people beyond cross-media is one thing, but there are also things he’d like to see people within the industry confront—not least failure, because that is what success is built on. “There’s this wonderful notion that you build upon the successes of those who have gone before you. The tricky part of this is that the successes are few and far between, and the failures are everywhere—they are abundant. That’s exactly how it should be.” Failure has its costs of course—personal and financial. As Lee says, you need perseverance—and understanding investors and clients—in order to get through it. The really hard part is actually going back over what went wrong and learning from it and, he says, “it’s hard to study failures: it’s hard not to have the answers in the back of the book. The only way to deal with it is to embrace failure: to say, ‘it’s okay that I’m messing this up’.”

They’re encouraging words from a true pioneer in cross-media, but even pioneers need their mentors and for Lee, Jordan Weisman has been a source of wisdom and inspiration since his earliest days at Microsoft. It was with Weisman and Sean Stewart that he co-created the ARG genre, and with Dawne Weisman, Jordan’s wife, that Lee devised EDOC Laundry. When he was working on the original Xbox Lee got frustrated: “I was working with quite large teams and things, as always, weren’t going quite the way I wanted them to.” But Weisman helped him step back from the situation and see his relationship with those teams in a new light. Weisman told him, “What you have to keep in mind is that other people’s ideas aren’t worse, they are just different,” and the advice has stayed with him. He has hung on, he says, to “that perspective that my ideas are not holy, they are not so important that they are the only way you could go, and the ideas that come out of a collaboration will always be more powerful than those that come out of isolation—and that other people’s ideas are just different. It’s in that conflict, that difference of opinion that you are going to be able to find a really special magic to make something succeed. It took me a while but I think the more I’m able to embrace other people’s ideas, the more success I find in my career.” Mom and mentor both must be proud.