You Me Bum Bum Train

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You Me Bum Bum Train

Sam Hill

24th January 2012



The extended 2011-’12 run of immersive theatre experience You Me Bum Bum Train (YMBBT) has now finished. This means it’s now pretty much okay to talk about what happens during a show. Whilst it was still running it was definitely, definitely NOT okay to talk about it. If you’ve plans to attend a future performance and don’t know anything about the overall format you may not want to read on.

The name doesn’t really mean anything, by the way.

The event was started in 2004 by artists Kate Bond and Morgan Lloyd. This is how they describe it in their own words:

You Me Bum Bum Train is an experiential form of live art that will leave you completely overwhelmed. As a sole participant, you are taken in a wheelchair on a bizarre voyage … Unlike any other theatrical experience, the show is based around you: the only audience member throughout the entire journey. The intense nature of the ride makes You Me Bum Bum Train a most unique, unforgettable adventure … You are continuously catapulted into unimaginable situations”

YMBBT is sort of like a haunted house ride taken to the extreme. However, instead of focusing all immersive activity around one theme – as seen in parallel productions from  Punchdrunk and Secret Cinema – the energy of YMBBT comes from the deliberately jarring nature of each successive scene – the experience is similar to walking through an episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. What’s lost in cohesive narrative is made up for in variety and intensity – some scenes are very quiet and intimate, others fleeting, and some requiring literally crowds of actors.

The show has steadily grown in the last seven years and has received increasingly more acclaim and attention. Critics and fans such as Steven Fry received it very warmly, tweeting:

“Holy hound dog! “You Me Bum Bum Train” the theatrical experience of my life. Exhilarating, scary, brilliant, breathtaking and SO original <3″

This year it occupied much of Holborn Tower’s cavernous interior – a former postal sorting office on New Oxford St. An audience member (or ‘Passenger’) wouldn’t have known this however, as within the aircraft hanger-sized space the ride/ show took the form of many variously sized rooms, connected by a series tubes and corridors like a giant hamster playpen. The sheer scale of the production was staggering – There were about 20 different environments, each one meticulously designed and built from scratch. Some scenes were enormous. Every night required a cast of 200, performing 70 times to as many audience members. Including stage hands, technicians, set-builders and administrators the contributors list quickly escalates into something like 2-3000.

This creates a very interesting situation. More people worked on the show than those who ended up consuming it. Or to put it another way, more people were experiencing the show as a contributor than as a passenger. Tickets were almost impossible to come by – the original 800 sold out within 10 minutes (and the site suffered over 80,000 hits during that time). As an odd consequence, many of the actors and other volunteers that became involved did so because they weren’t able to source tickets themselves.

Two members of PAN were amongst that number. We volunteered ourselves as designers and actors and had an amazing time. I did have some photos of the stuff we worked on but was asked to delete them to retain an overall element of secrecy. I suppose you have to respect that.

(One scene from a previous year of YMBBT – you can see how well each scenario is fleshed out)

The economics and logistics of an endeavour like this deserve some scrutiny, because it would be great if there was more stuff like it out there. YMBBT is not-for-profit, but it relies so heavily on goodwill that it could hardly exist in any other way. Generally, for a project of this sort, income opportunities would come from ticket sales, sponsorship, investors and governmental arts funding schemes/ grants. The tickets could have been prohibitively expensive and still have sold, but they were deliberately kept accessible and democratically available (having said that, at ~£35 a ticket, they would seem expensive if you didn’t know what to expect).

Typical expenditure for a project like this would include production, location hire, organisation and talent. For YMBBT, many of the materials and props were skilfully begged, borrowed and scrounged; amazing considering the attention to detail. The cast and crew were the real saving grace however – everyone I met appeared to be volunteering their time for free, with many people dedicating whole months to make sure the show went on. Within the community that developed the dedication to the cause seemed practically fanatical.

The most inspiring thing for us was seeing the potential of a good idea being scaled over several years to create something extraordinary. Many of the passengers have called the 40-minute show “the best thing they have ever done”. That’s not just their favourite theatrical experience, but the best possible experience of their lives’. To know that designing and engineering such events is possible is more than a little bit motivating.

(edit: To further retain secrecy, mentions of specific scenes have been removed at the request of YMBBT)

Augmented Cinema

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Augmented Cinema

Sam Hill

24th October 2011

Last night I saw The Matrix Live at the Royal Albert Hall – a showing of the original 1999 motion picture, but with a live orchestra performing the score. It was phenomenal. The NDR Pops Orchestra perfectly captured the epic melodrama of Don Davis’ original soundtrack, with it’s relentless use of violins, and the big brass/ timpani crescendos. The venue was perfect for it and the film itself had aged quite well for such a stylised piece of science fiction.

The experience was similar to a treatment of 2001: A Space Odyssey by the Philharmonia Orchestra and Philharmonia Voices, which I caught last year at the Royal Festival Hall and was absolutely bowled over by. It was brilliant and haunting and an unparalleled sensory experience. Loads of other films (Star Wars in Concert for example) have received a similar treatment, and cinematic performances have diversified in many other ways too.

This brings to mind a number of questions about what makes the cinematic experience brilliant, as it is, and when it’s appropriate to toy with the format.

It might be helpful to analyse what the two film have in common to see why they were chosen:

  • To start with, 2001 and The Matrix are both excellent, popular movies with incredible scores.
  • They have a large replay value.
  • They are oscar winning classics and have endured long enough to remain relevant.
  • They are both unashamedly ostentatious and ambitious works of cinema.

I doubt this style of adaptation would work for films that do not obey theses criteria, as good as they still might be. Shrek (2001) for example, is a perfectly good film – funny, innovative and enduring, but it probably lacks the gravitas to warrant a full blown orchestra. Though new, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is, at the time of writing, a critically acclaimed release; but to build a proximate intervention between it and the audience would be a disservice: the movie-goer has not yet seen it as it was meant to be seen, so it shouldn’t be tampered with yet.

A rough logic is beginning to fall in to place.

Already Good

Going to the cinema is a fairly unique activity: it can only really be considered a semi-social event, seeing as talking is actively discouraged. Despite this, it’s one of the most popular public leisure activities of the last century. In a way, it’s incredible to think that though we can spend most of our working day looking at screens, and have the opportunity to go home and watch anything we want off more screens from the comfort of a sofa, we consider it a treat to instead occasionally leave the house and view another, bigger screen, at a relatively premium rate. There must be good reasons for this, surely?

Progress in delivering new experiences is important, but if the following assets of cinema are undermined too far then any intervention will be rendered distracting rather than immersive; a diminishment of the cinematic experience, not an augmentation.

What makes cinema great? –

  • First off, there is the complete, unavoidable immersion – the film stretches to the edge of the viewer’s peripheral vision and the audio overrides all other noise.
  • It’s romantic – the ritual of the popcorn, the trailers, the sense of shared experience and the analytical post-drinks.
  • It’s an easy, comfortable and passive activity to take part in, the viewer need only sit, look and listen – sometimes that’s all we want to do.
  • Finally, there’s the quality, of both narrative and production. Cinema is arguably the king of story-telling and continues to remain at the very frontier of our qualitative expectations in so many respects.

Future Cinema

(photo credit: Saulius Patumsis via Flickr)

I mentioned cinema performances have diversified in other ways. One group that seem to consistently nail immersive, film-centric nights are Future Cinema. As their site reads:

Future Cinema is a live events company that specialise in creating living, breathing experiences of the cinema…Future Cinema aim to bring the concept of ‘experience’ back to the cinema-going world.

Specialising in bringing events to life through a unique fusion of film, improvised performances, detailed design and interactive multimedia, Future Cinema create wholly immersive worlds that stretch the audience’s imagination and challenge their expectations.

The activities they organised for Blade Runner, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Top Gun and Watchmen have become somewhat legendary in London. Future Cinema are currently the authority on cinematic experience.

What Else?

As well as use of theatre to blur the edges of the screen, there are further tools both upcoming and established, that are employed to affect our cinema experience. 3D glasses for example, faced their first seriously commercial acid test with Avatar (2009), but seem now to be well established. The super-wide IMAX screenings are arguably even more immersive than conventional cinema and showings are often very popular. New and unusual locations for temporary cinemas are always cropping up, which provide a break of style from the multiplexes we’re used to. Olfactory stimulation (“smell-o-vision”) is a gimmick occasionally used with films for kids (see Spy Kids 4 in 4-D Aroma-scope(2011)) and in a dozen or so theme parks internationally they go a little further with a show called Pirates 4-D, a slightly cheesy film (starring Eric Idle and the late Leslie Nielsen) with “4-D effects” involving water cannons, bursts of air, vibrating seats and wires which push against the viewers feet

A friend described once how he went to the cinema to see a preview of Danny Boyle’s Sunshine (2007), a film set on a space ship heading towards the sun. He saw it in the middle of the 2007 summer heatwave, and the cinema’s air conditioning broke down. Sweating as he sat, he didn’t know if he was a victim of a PR stunt or was suffering an onset of psychosomosis caused by the film. In any case, the experience stayed with him.

Edit (I): London Dungeon have further strained the idea of extra-“dimensional” cinema by introducing a 5D ride – ‘Vengeance‘. This includes 3D vision, a number of techniques similar to Pirates 4-D (air blasts, water sprays, vibrations etc.), and laser-sighted pistols which allow the whole audience to play a cooperative, interactive game onscreen.

Edit (II): Another phenomenon that deserves looking at is audience-initiated or cinema-facilitated activity associated with certain cult films. The Room (2003), often cited as the “best, worst film ever made” serves as a really good example. A ritual has grown around the film – the audience join in with the dialogue, greet the characters as they appear, shout satirical comments and throw plastic spoons at the screen. The effect is that one of the worst films ever produced allows for one of the most energetic and entertaining cinematic experiences possible. In a similar vein, Grease, Rocky Horror and Sound of Music are often shown in independent cinemas on special sing-a-long nights, and tend to feature a degree of cosplay.

An infamous clip from "The Room":


Interview: Batman – Arkham City

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Interview: Batman – Arkham City

Sam Hill

21st October 2011

Yesterday I had the fortune of meeting David Hego, Adam Vincent and Paul Crocker; Art Director, Animator and Lead Narrative Designer respectively at London-based Rocksteady Studios. They commented on being a little dazed, stepping out into the daylight after having spent the last two years working on the new Batman: Arkham City game (and two years on Arkham Asylum before that).

The title looks set to be one of the industry highlights of the year. Set in the “Arkham verse” of the DC Batman world, the story arc revolves around arch-criminal activities set within a Gotham City ghetto – a district re-appropriated as an enormous open-air prison (à la Escape From New York (1981)).

It was refreshing to hear professionals at the top of their game (Arkham Asylum holds a Guinness World Record for critical acclaim) discuss their experiential considerations during development. Crocker explained the central tenet of both games:

“It was designed specifically to make you feel like Batman. We looked at what the character was; we looked for key game mechanics we could extrapolate from who Batman is, and built a game around that – having fighting, detective and predatorial modes.

…Batman should own the night. We wanted you to feel that you could jump off any building and glide and really feel like him… and we built a city to do it.  That’s the purpose of the city, it’s not the other way round.”

Hego agreed. Adding:

Every square meter of the game needed to be injected with Batman’s DNA, so that was the idea – to expand the world we had created in Arkham Asylum.

Adam Vincent commented:

“From the animation point of view – we make sure that the characters feel like themselves – Batman’s gotta feel like Batman and move like him – if we don’t think that it’s as ‘Batman’ as it can get at any one point, then we won’t do it.

How would Batman take down 3 thugs? You have to think about it… Your first design as an animator might not always work – or there might be problems with the actual mechanics of what you’re doing (the coders can say “you can’t really do that”). You’re always speaking to different departments.”

That might be the measure of the game. Though the project was run across a team of over a hundred, across many different departments with their own commitments, and with obligations to the fans, to DC, marketers, investors and Paul Dini (the games writer), they still collectively managed to maintain a single idea as a focal point and drive it through consistently, and that idea was creating an immersive and engaging feeling within the player – that they really are Batman.

A Brief Musing On Theme Parks

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A Brief Musing On Theme Parks

Chris Waggott

29th August 2011

I’m fascinated by theme parks. Not because of the roller coasters or thrill rides, I can take or leave them…

What gets me going is the childish delight from entering imagined spaces, with their caricatured constructs of fibreglass rocks and hessian sacks.

Image taken from

Images taken from and

One of my personal favourites is the Transylvanian area of Chesington world of adventure, with large cartoonish Germanic half-timbered buildings, gargoyles, bat motifs and eerie organ music wafting out of cobwebbed windows.

When walking into one of these areas reality becomes suspended, and a fictional scenario is played out around you through every device possible;

The physical constructs of the space and layout; the sounds that are pumped out of small speakers hidden in the rocks; the strange musty smells; they all add together to create a multi-dimensional story that you can interact with. What’s especially interesting is when this narrative bleeds into the rides – this is something I think deserves looking deeper into.

Image taken from

The best example I can think of is ‘Hex’ at Alton Towers.

On it’s own, it’s a rather mediocre ride, but incorporating the queue into the experience takes the visitor on a trip through a  semi-fabricated history full of witches and cursed trees. The attention to detail is amazing, with film, sound and set dressing all coming together to give the audience a complete narrative experience.

Over the next couple of months I’m intending to look deeper into the subject of theme parks as examples of multi-dimensional narrative constructs and experience, and discuss people using similar ideas in their work such as Brendon Walker and his Thrill Laboratory, but for now I’ll leave you with the radness of the film from Hex:


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Sam Hill

8th August 2011

Playmakers is a film on immersive gaming – a collaborative project between Hide & Seek, NESTA and ThinkPublic.

It features a good range of speakers from the sector and contains some interesting insights. It also demonstrates (in a surprisingly frank way) the ad hoc and experimental nature of immersive game development, illustrating why it’s important to remember the KISS principle when orchestrating events that are designed to be engaging and fun.

Some of the other difficulties and objectives of experiential events are outlined – the need to avoid esoterism, the importance of having objectives and narrative seamlessly work together and the psychology of keeping players immersed. Interesting parallels are drawn throughout to other social activities that “share DNA” – protests, carnivals, parkour and theatre. Obviously, theatre is a biggy. Computer games are slightly conspicuous in their exclusion.

An interesting idea is presented near the beginning of the film [01:50] by Hide & Seek’s Alex Fleetwood. He appears to be describing the four quadrants of their interest. Here it is visualised:

It’s a really nice territory for enquiry. What’s more, Alex’s criteria reveal a robust set of parameters when extrapolated:

Immersive gaming incorporates a dedicated core of researchers and creative thinkers. The industry seems to be gaining plenty of momentum and makes an excellent case study for the development of a broader experience culture. A lot can be learned from a decade of keenly analysed experiential events and the potential within the sector remains huge and continuously changing.

The Secret Life of Buildings – “Home”

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The Secret Life of Buildings – “Home”

Sam Hill

1st August 2011

An interesting enough quest-u-mentary into improving housing standards in the UK, the first part of The Secret Life of Buildings takes about half an hour to get interesting, from an experiential viewpoint. Unless you’re happy to sit through some fairly contrived experiments to “prove” that 1) lack of sunlight is unhealthy, 2) people are unhappy living in cramped spaces, 3) the golden ratio looks nice.

However from the mid-point onwards the researchers pull up a couple of nice case studies.

The first is a West London drop-in centre for cancer victims, Maggies.

The architects responsible made tactful decisions on materials to give a homely feel that “inspires, relaxes and stimulates” – using inexpensive softwoods, strong colours and polished concrete to create an environment with a warmth that stands apart from the “stark, alienating spaces”, sterility and cheap plastic nature of hospitals and surgeries. The effect this environment has upon the people that use it makes some compelling further arguments for the commonsensical but often forgotten psychology of materials theory outlined by D. Norman[1] – that the appearance, finish and textures chosen for a designed object or space will affect how people feel whilst using it. This is a very good environment, in other words, to temper a bad experience.

The other relevant case study is the 1920’s Rietveld Schröderhuis, a playful Mondrian-esque structure that avoids fixed corners and has flexible internal walls for re-defining spaces through-out the day (open plan in the morning, enclosed in the evening). The mood of the house can therefore be changed enormously according to the needs of the people within it. An attribute, the programme notes, that most UK housing is lacking enormously.

The series has a further two parts – one relating to work spaces and one to leisure buildings. The third episode, likely to be aired 8pm August 15th should be considered a must-see.


The third part of the series is largely criticized the corporate-funded, superstar-architect-designed pavilions, galleries and museums that have more going on the outside than the inside. I’d agree that public spaces should show more consideration for the way they’re used, and be designed to be more engaging than passively observed. However, I’d disagree with the implication that buildings can either be impressive but alienating, or “undesigned” and engaging; that we only feel comfortable in spaces is if we can imprint our own identity on them. I see no reason why a structure, or any other piece of design, cannot simultaneously be sensationally stimulating and conducive to engagement.]

[1] Norman, D (2002). The Design of everyday Things. USA: basic books. p9.


Alex: A Life Fast Forward

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Alex: A Life Fast Forward

Sam Hill

26th July 2011

Alex: A Life Fast Forward is a documentary about Alex Lewis and what he did after being diagnosed with terminal cancer. The synopsis is as follows:

Alex Lewis knows he does not have much longer to live. Aged 21 he finds himself falling hopelessly in love and can’t quite believe what’s happening.

Alex was first diagnosed with bone cancer shortly before his 18th birthday. After over three years of intensive treatment, he realises he is running out of options. He decides to cram as much life as possible into the time he has left. His remarkable zest for life is contagious.

But this wasn’t the “bucket-list” extravaganza I was expecting from the trailer – three years of globe trotting, dune buggies, parties, falconry, sports cars, romance and adventure compressed into 60 minutes; a  bitter-sweet roller-coaster ride with a Carpe diem message. No. Inevitably, it was actually an account of a very young man with an aggressive, painful and debilitating disease, spending his remaining time at home, with friends and family.

Instead the documentary focused on the term ‘Gezellig’.

The word came to mean a great deal to Alex and he used it to describe his desired state of mind. The Wikipedia description is as follows:

Gezelligheid is a Dutch abstract noun (adjective form gezellig) which, depending on context, can be translated as convivial, cosy, fun, quaint, or nice atmosphere, but can also connote belonging, time spent with loved ones, the fact of seeing a friend after a long absence, or general togetherness. The word is considered to be an example of untranslatability, and is one of the hardest words to translate to English. Some consider the word to encompass the heart of Dutch culture.

Many other European languages seem to have a similar term (Gemütlichkeit, hyggelig, etc.) but there is no real parallel in English (‘Cosy’ probably comes closest). It seems odd that without knowing an equivalent word, such a concept is so easily recognisable. The description is reminiscent of family holidays as a child; an emotional cocktail that creates something unique. It is a significant and powerful idea.

Interestingly, the experiential value of gezellig is grounded in emotional satisfaction, not sensational exploration like so many other ideas we focus on at PAN. The fact that this raises many questions on the relative values of contentment versus ambition shouldn’t be ignored. Alex understood the great emotional depth of this concept and was able to master it.

Other interesting questions from a creative perspective arise. How can design augment gezellig? Or generate it in absence? Answers could take Alex’s example and use it to improve the experiential wealth of other people’s lives.

Pipe Dream Restaurant

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Pipe Dream Restaurant

Sam Hill

24th July 2011

“A pipe dream is a fantastic hope or plan that is generally regarded as being nearly impossible to achieve. At Pipe Dream we don’t believe in the impossible!”

Pipe Dream Restaurant, which is based in Southgate, takes a novel new approach to selling experiences. It serves two distinct but reciprocating clientèle:

  1. restaurant goers willing to take a risk on their dining experience;
  2. people who dream of running, or cooking in, a professional restaurant.

The concept is brilliantly meta – a case of business-as-entertainment come full circle. It appears heavily inspired by programmes such as The Apprentice and Four in a Bed, but mostly the glut of competition cookery shows such as Masterchef and The Restaurant which have become a staple of British television. Pipe Dream gives participants the opportunity to live-out the “if you can’t stand the heat” drama that they’ll recognise from Ramsay-esque bootcamp quest-u-mentaries. Perhaps for an additional cost the facilitators provide realtime sarcastic narration in a Come Dine With Me style.

It’s not clear from the website how the model is financed. Do the have-a-go chefs pay for their experience (something Gilmore and Pine would condone), or share a cut of the evenings profits? Do the restaurant’s guests have their bill subsidised to compensate for the jeopardy? Or is there a no-quibble returns policy on the food?

It’s seems like a very British, foodie take on ARK Music Factory. ARK are best known for being the vanity label that produced Rebecca Black’s notorious pop song Friday. From our perspective the criticism they received always seemed a little unfair. It’s arguable that rather than working as an “independent label” as they maintain, ARK are actually providing a bespoke premium experiential service, an immersive fantasy, for which the market is in fact the ‘talent’, not the prospective audience (Rebecca’s mother paid $4000 for the release).

Pipe Dream might be seen then, in other words, as a “vanity restaurant”. This isn’t at all a bad thing. They should be congratulated for being an adventurous enterprise and we wish them all the best. If delivering a compelling service means occasionally learning lessons from the entertainment industry, then why not?

Perhaps we could see Ice Road Trucker For The Day or Pipe Dream Alaskan Fishing within the year.