World Building for Immersive Storytelling

05 Oct, 2023

World Building for Immersive Storytelling


We understand the world we inhabit through storytelling. At the same time, the stories we tell are only compelling to the extent that they immerse us in worlds that we believe in. Designer and storyteller Alex McDowell RDI will visit the XR Lab at the College of Environmental Design to introduce his world building methodology (deployed as a production designer in films including Fight Club, Minority Report, and Man of Steel), and examples of his practice, sharing how immersive storytelling can be incorporated into any media, discipline, or narrative to create change. Prior to his talk, he kindly offered some insight into his practice in discussion with Botond Bognar, a Ph.D. student at the XR Lab.


Your career in narrative design has spanned across industries, from music, through cinema, to immersive media. You worked with musicians like Iggy Pop, Madonna, and Michael Jackson, went on to work in the film industry directors like David Fincher, Steven Spilberg, and Zack Snyder, and recently you’ve worked with technology companies like Intel and Unity. Oh, and I forgot to mention that you are a professor of cinema practice in the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California. What is the thread that connects all these endeavors?

My career has been an ongoing narrative of falling forward. There's very little connection other than an ongoing kind of organic movement, which is driven by the fact that I'm extremely curious and easily bored. When I arrived in London it was to study fine art but then I accidentally found myself booking the Sex Pistols first ever gig and then I catapulted from that into working with the Pistols and [fashion designer] Vivienne Westwood, which catapulted into working with Glen Matlock, the original bassist for the Sex Pistols, who became my partner in a music design studio called Rocking Russian. And that led to working with Iggy Pop, which led to making a music video for him, which turned me to music videos rather than music graphics, which brought me to the US which led to working with directors like David Fincher designing music videos, and then commercials, which led to working with those directors who were beginning to become feature film directors. And that led to The Crow and then to Fight Club.

So it was a continuum of events, of falling forward into interesting opportunities and being drawn to them. Following that thread, going deep into feature films was definitely rich and deep and interesting enough for me not to get bored for 30 years. But ultimately, being offered a position at USC (and finding it interesting, though bizarre, that I'd been asked to teach) coincided with film becoming less engaging for me. Forming a design studio as an augmentation of my teaching practice was a sensible idea that allowed the ongoing threads, once parallel, to start weaving together, framed around this idea of world building

For 20 years now, my practice has been world building as a universal platform for creating change, for learning how to use storytelling to put multiple different disciplines to work.

I have participated at one of your world building exercises, which was an intensive few hours of in-person ideation and collaboration with dozens of individuals coming from various backgrounds. My impression is that what I experienced was only a small part of world building. Can you tell us more about the overall framework and underlying principles of your process?

The applied practice of world building has three stages.

One is the deep research, which gathers existing knowledge into a holistic space so we can begin to understand the foundation of the world. We look forward and say, with this knowledge, “what if we apply this to a future space that will give us distance, and allow us to engage with a narrative that is fictional but based on a powerfully reshaped but factual base of research.” Generally, we're working towards aspirational futures because that's often what our partners are interested in investigating. But a key element creating an aspirational future is that it must be a completely immersive space, a space that you can stand inside. And at that point, you start inhabiting that future and now everything of our present is in the past; having had that relationship of living in a future that does not yet exist, you can then look back and see how you could steer towards that from the present.

The next stage is prototyping the kind of narratives you want to tell in that world. That starts engaging the tools that you want to use - whether it's specific to a platform, a specific kind of media, or a variety of media - to tell those stories best. At this point, we're moving directly into the design practice, you're literally modeling the space, you're doing it volumetrically, you're stepping inside it, or you’re on the ground working with people and you're in a physical relationship between the present and the future.

And then the third stage is production. So having just determined what media we're going to use, we move into a relatively conventional production phase, which involves hiring a team, deploying the tools, and beginning to produce the final work. And then when that something is produced, you're delivering the outcome of that entire arc of world building.

What is the role of immersive media in your world building practice?

It might be worth taking a slight detour here to talk about the way in which we consider world building in relation to storytelling. Storytelling emerged at the start of human history to make sense of the world around us and took the form of dance and music and art and, ultimately, an oral tradition of gathering stories. I think it's reasonable to say that we exist now because of storytelling, we survive because that knowledge that was accumulated through generations has been passed down from generation to generation, and is an increasing foundation of knowledge that has supported our evolution.

But there was a cataclysmic change that I believe undermined the power of storytelling in the West. 600 years ago, the printing press slams down and the role of story shifts. It becomes authored, it becomes printed and packaged and captured in time and then distributed as a locked object, often as propaganda, that no longer evolves. So the writer, the painter, the playwright, composer, are single authors who now drive those stories that they choose to tell. The oral storyteller and those who actively collaborate in the dissemination of those stories changes to a proscenium relationship between the author on a stage and the passive audience listening to that story, and sort of waiting for the next one to be delivered. To us, world building involves paying attention to the real function of storytelling, the idea of making sense of the world around us.

In terms of the tools, we are always looking for the most effective ways to engage the audience, the viewer, the consultant, or the collaborator. Coming from entertainment media, we're versed and trained in the notion of an audience that needs to believe in the world that has been created. So a film is immersive, because it's empathetic; it may be two-dimensional and you don't have an interactive relationship to it, yet it's only going to work if you can occupy that world for two hours, if you are in an empathetic relationship with characters in that world.

The game space, obviously, is more traditionally understood as being immersive because you do have an interactive relationship, and even though you're not really in control of the narrative you're being given the opportunity to engage and enter the world. If you take the notion of an open world in games and you place that in parallel with the world we actually live in, what we're really trying to get to is something that is as familiar to us in terms of engagement as it is to walk out of our front door into the complexity of the physical world.

World building is really just a system and a methodology for reproducing our ability to tap into the way that we expect the world to behave and the ways that we expect to be able to engage in the world.

Can you give an example from your recent work where immersive media had a key role in your narrative design?

The current project that I'm working on, that's perhaps the most exciting to me, is called Inner Space. It's our research project at USC. Inner space is taking on the challenge of creating a new visual language for molecular biology. The challenge is that scientists don't know how to tell stories. There is a real separation between the complexity of science and the ability for people to understand or enter into any kind of relationship with that complexity. The work of the project has been to build an intimate collaboration between artists (architects, designers, programmers, artists, writers) and scientists (molecular biologists, crystallographers, and structural biologists) in order to create a new visual language for molecular biology. How can we create this new language that can translate an incredibly complex system, a system that has the same complexity within a single cell as an entire city, into a world that can be navigated with comprehension?

We’re developing Inner Space in VR because in full immersion you have the first opportunity in history to see the relative scale of the elements of these complex systems, which are as widely separated in scale as a mouse is to a mountain, in the same space. VR is the only platform that can really engage these stories comprehensibly.

Of course we’re just scratching the surface of this after five years of development. While we have generated about 30 of the proteins in a pancreatic beta cell, our first focus because it is the source of diabetes, there are thousands of proteins in a single cell. The mission is to map the whole human body using this visual language. So we have a ways to go. But we’re exploring every possible way in which we can immerse the high school student, the undergraduate, the graduate, the museum going public, and other scientists in the space inside our bodies.

To understand what the project is capable of, consider the story of a family who enters a forest. The mother is a mycologist and is deeply interested in the mushrooms and the fungus that are growing in the forest; she's on her hands and knees examining the forest floor at the finest level of detail. The father is an engineer and he's gazing up into the trees, looking for ways to translate the forms of trees into his practice of engineering. And their daughter is running around catching butterflies. Those three narratives can coexist with no conflict whatsoever in that forest. What we're trying to do with Inner Space is to build a world that has the same capability of allowing complete engagement with the interior world of the human body, crossing a very broad range of interests and levels of complexity.

We are very excited to welcome you at the XR Lab in less then two weeks; can you say a few words about the talk you’ll be giving?

What's always most interesting to me to talk about, and really to engage in a dialogue about, is how this methodology of world building can be applied to any discipline, to engage any narrative, and to fully immerse those who are invested in the outcome of the development of any world. I hope to share the breadth of opportunities offered by world building, to demonstrate that we're developing new muscles and tools and capabilities of design to tell stories that have the power to continue to change the world.

Interested in hearing more from Alex?

World Building for Immersive Storytelling

RSVP here

We understand the world we inhabit through storytelling. At the same time, the stories we tell are only compelling to the extent that they immerse us in worlds that we believe in. Designer and storyteller Alex McDowell RDI will visit the XR Lab to introduce his world building methodology (deployed as a production designer in films including Fight Club, Minority Report, and Man of Steel), and examples of his practice, sharing how immersive storytelling can be incorporated into any media, discipline, or narrative to create change.

Friday 2-3pm, October 13, 2023

XR Lab, Wurster Hall, Room 501

College of Environmental Design

University of California, Berkeley


Alex McDowell RDI is a storyteller and award-winning designer working at the intersection of emergent technologies and experiential media. For 40 years, he has designed for theater, animation, interactive media and as production designer in film for directors David Fincher, Steven Spielberg, Terry Gilliam, and Zack Snyder, amongst others. In 2000 he originated the narrative design system called world building. He is co-founder and creative director at Experimental Design, a narrative design studio world building the future for corporate, entertainment media, institution and education clients. He is a Professor of Practice in the School of Cinema at University of Southern California and William Cameron Menzies Chair of Production Design. He is director and co-PI of Inner Space at the USC World Building Media Lab and leads the World Building Institute. He is on the board of the Johnny Carson School for Emerging Media, the Academy of Motion Pictures Science and Technology Council, and the National Academy of Science Science and Entertainment Exchange. In 2006 he was appointed a UK Royal Designer for Industry.