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The Making of Dark London

Earlier this summer, The Museum of London launched a new app for iPhone and iPad to accompany their Dickens exhibition. We chatted to Digital Director of Brothers and Sisters, Kevin Brown, about making an ‘interactive graphic novel’

Can you briefly explain the format of the app – how much does the reader get for free? Why did you decide to do it this way?

The app is free to download and edition one, Seven Dials, is free. The idea was to get the platform on the devices, then have the ability to publicise future editions by allowing people to sample the content. The app itself houses up to five editions, which are geolocated on the 1862/contemporary map. As an incentive to users, they could also avoid paying £1.49 for editions 2-5 by visiting the location where each was set, or the museum itself.

What was it like creating Dark London? How long did it take, and what challenges did you come up against?

We were keen to create something that was akin to how Dickens’ work was originally published – partworks – plus we felt there weren’t enough engaging, interactive graphic experiences there. We wanted to distill Dickens reportage and show how that was reflective of the social history. Hence the introduction of the hotspots, which allowed the scenes to be contextualised. The app took two months to build, after that it was simply a case of putting the new illustrations into the engine to publish a bespoke edition, with Mark Strong‘s narration aligned.

What has been the most enjoyable part of the project, for you?

Storyboarding the animation and working with Mark Strong during the narration was an absolute joy. Having a blank canvas to create something wholly original and contemporary using technology to augment the original Dickens work was a creative privilege. It was challenging to do something that was reverent of the original work, but that gave it a wholly new interpretation.

The app comes with a map, and editions can be downloaded for free at certain locations. Do you expect people to visit the locations in the story? You previously worked on Museum of London’s Streetmuseum app; do you think it’s important for users to visit the locations or is the enjoyment more about looking at the maps and imagining the places and routes?

For us, it’s about getting people to take in the city and less about the collection or the museum itself. As it turned out, more people went to the locations than we’d ever expected and footfall to the museum increased each time we released an edition. The Museum Of London has a very forward-thinking approach to this, they are chasing visitors, but they understand that making the museum’s content shareable and going where the audience is, is key to creating an affinity with the museum.

Is it important for storytelling to have a visual accompaniment, and do you think this could see a resurgence in popularity, as reading transfers to digital devices?

We don’t think we should be illustrating for the sake of it. Dickens does a fantastic job of conjuring up visual worlds without our help. But being able to have his inspiration as a starting point is an incredible, humbling challenge.

It really is a native storytelling for digital devices – book-like but very intuitive to use. Because the story is read to you, it’s as much an audio experience as a visual one. Did you look to any other interactive audio (or indeed non-audio) apps for inspiration?

We were mainly inspired by the comic book apps we’d seen. They very clearly led the user around a story, but we also knew we wanted to do something above and beyond a mere enhanced audiobook. There wasn’t really a template out there for this kind of work, so it was great to just build our own, and create this unique hybrid.

Is all the written material taken from Dickens?

All of the writing is taken from Sketches By Boz – the Dickens reportage that informed his work. At the end of each edition we have a passage from a classic novel to show how the city informed his fictional writing. It’s incredible to see the lineage from the real world to the written word.

You are releasing Dark London in monthly instalments throughout the run of the exhibition, “to echo how Dickens released his writings”. Have we come a full circle to a more “edition”-focussed publishing style, and if so do you think that is about digital devices, changing attention patterns, or a new style of ‘casual’ reading?

We don’t want to be responsible for literary snacking, but these apps allow people to sample authors and then go deeper. They’re also designed to vividly engage people with their locations and the city in which they live. This is not a substitute for long-form traditional literature. The medium should never outstrip the content. Instead, it’s about giving people choices and the opportunity to showcase two parallel worlds – history and literature – using technology as a facilitator not as a means to an end.

Will there be another version released, and if so, have you thought of anything you’d like to change or add to the app, next time?

We have no plans to do any more Dickens Dark London – it will remain five editions for now. We would have loved to have produced a fully animated version of the app if we’d had more time and resource. But its final incarnation is pretty much as we’d envisaged from the original storyboards, remaining true to the original vision we had.

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