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Industry Icons: Alexandra Payne

Nobody understands using technology for creative storytelling better than Alexandra Payne. With an impressive career that has been sky-rocketing through the media landscape, she now heads up creative at Outernet London, an innovative entertainment, arts and culture district located in the West End. Dubbed by The Times as ‘London’s most visited tourist attraction’, it is the largest digital exhibition space in Europe – boasting one of the world’s largest LED screens, and pushing the boundaries of creative expression.

Tell us about yourself and how you landed in the creative AV space.

I’m from Sydney and my career began in traditional broadcast, in the promotions department for one of Australia’s largest free-to-air broadcasters – the Nine Network.

It was a really hands-on role and exposed me to all the fundamentals of storytelling. When you are in a promo department, you’re dealing with editing, storytelling, graphics, talent – and then condensing all of that into short-form storytelling, which is a pivotal tool when starting out.

I’ve always considered myself to be a multidisciplinary creative; I’m not just a producer or creative director. All the roles I have taken on to date demonstrate an accumulation of those skills.

After that, I went freelance for a bit as a producer, and then I ended up at MTV Australia, where I worked on the triple-A programming across content, live events, commercial and branded content experiences. I was also on the team that produced the first MTV Unplugged in Australia.

That gave me experience in live music broadcasts, programming and all the content surrounding that. It was an incredible experience to bring such an iconic show to Australia. We did MTV Cribs, a version of Teen Mom Australia, Geordie Shore Down Under and plenty of other big-ticket programming.

I then went to work across the entire book of Viacom Australia portfolios, so MTV, Nickelodeon, Comedy Central, etc. That involved their live action shoots, events, promos and branded content. That was everything – from EP-ing to writing and directing on some projects as well.

After that, I decided to up sticks and move to London with my partner, who is English. It was just pre-pandemic and an ex-creative director of mine at MTV called me up and said: ‘Do you want to work with me on this new project?’

I turned it down a few times – I didn’t want to work on this start-up I’d never even heard of before – but he was very persistent and kept on calling. I’m so glad that he did because it’s been an incredible three-and-a-half years at Outernet London, with many highs and lows. That’s part and parcel when you’re building something from scratch – when you’re working on something that is unlike anything else in the world.

The Butterfly Trail  by Pixel Artworks is  a pioneering marvel, taking audiences on an interactive escapade
The Butterfly Trail by Pixel Artworks is a pioneering marvel, taking audiences on an interactive escapade

What is Outernet London?

Outernet London is an entire district on the corner of Tottenham Court Road and Charing Cross Road in the heart of central London. The district spans its three landmark immersive screen spaces. The Now building stands tall as a landmark with its four-storey-high, 360° screen space.

Adjacent to that is Trending, a smaller yet more immersive and experiential space. Finally, the Now Arcade is a 21m-long digital walkway connecting Denmark Street to this new district. Part of the development also spans offices, high-end apartments, bars and music venues. We are also building a pro-bono recording studio.

Outernet is combining traditional entertainment venues and spaces with advanced technology. We like to say that it’s the world’s most advanced public building, as well as the largest digital experience in all of Europe.

It’s part immersive entertainment, but also two highly important music venues. There’s Here, which is a 200-capacity live events music venue. Then there’s The Lower Third, another music venue.

In the Now Building itself, we have more than 2000 sq m of 8K and 360° floor-to-ceiling LED screens. Those screens were provided and built by AOTO Electronics, and display all our immersive and cultural experiences. We also have fully spatialised audio systems in the space.

Like the talented and multidisciplinary creatives and technologists who worked on creating Outernet, we made sure to source something similar when it came to our providers for the district.

We brought the very best-in-class suppliers – from AOTO and Solotech to Ventuz. In turn, they brought in the very best people to work alongside, adding to this incredible patchwork of specialised people that are able to do it all. Thanks to all of these elements in combination, it unleashes an ultimate canvas for storytelling.

On top of this, all the AVs were supported by an incredibly advanced tech stack. The entire district is run by real-time engines provided by Ventuz. They are fantastic at being able to handle the amounts of media we’re playing on screen at any one time.

All the screen spaces have immersive interactive cameras built into the system because interactivity is at the heart of building immersive experiences.

It allows us to push out content, changing it from being a passive experience to an active one – asking our audiences to engage with that content and play a part in the co-creation of it.

This, in turn, encourages a change in viewing habits – from simply coming in to look at pictures on screens to actually engaging with them.

Some examples include using a phone to engage in augmented reality experiences within the space, walking up to cameras and being able to have gestural emotional experiences – whether that’s gamified into literally being able to play games or walking up to a wall and flapping your arms to create digital snow angels.

It’s very important for us to layer in that creative and immersive experience technology into everything we’re doing.

The Summer Palace is an enchanting journey through time and space
The Summer Palace is an enchanting journey through time and space

You mentioned cultural experiences being at the heart of Outernet. Could you share some examples?

Being a space in the heart of central London, there are key cultural moments that matter to our audiences and us as a space. Historically, that’s been things like International Women’s Month, Pride, Black History Month, Christmas – and creating experiences around those key cultural moments.

Just recently, I created an experience called the ‘enchanted snow globe’ for Christmas within the district, which involved creating a life-size, enchanted alpine globe – with a beautiful, hand-animated scene that involved real-time technology. We had snow falling from the sky and interactive snow angels. We brought Uniqlo on to sponsor that experience and work it alongside their brand.

Is the advertising landscape shifting?

Over the past 12 months, we’ve worked with some of the biggest cultural organisations in the UK and abroad.

Everywhere from the Royal College of Art and National Trust to the BBC and Abbey Road Studios – plus major brands like Netflix, L’Oréal, Marc Jacobs, Uniqlo, TripAdviser, Peugeot and Amazon.

Some of the biggest blue-chip brands in the world are coming to us as a space to do brand storytelling and immersive experiences through experiential activations. One of the best things about Outernet – in my opinion – is that it has all the technology and AV built to bring these brands and organisations’ ideas and storytelling to life.

Brands are realising that it’s not enough to just push out a 60-second video on social media.

They are starting to embrace the technology they have at their fingertips at spaces like Outernet, to create deeper levels of engagement with their audiences. I think that’s what immersive and experiential advertising does: create connection and memories by allowing consumers to step into the world of the brand.

L’Oréal was an amazing example of that. They transformed the Now building into a Parisian street. The screens built out beautiful Parisian storefronts – they had a photo experience where you could get into one of the cars with a big lipstick on the end.

Several different brand touch points throughout the space were so memorable for audience members. I think this kind of approach is an example of pushing advertising beyond where it has ever been before – and in a really positive way.

I believe originally – years ago when first talking about what this space was going to be – we were cognisant of becoming a space purely for screen advertising with none of the physical, experiential elements.

We’d run the risk of alienating audiences and turning into a space they wouldn’t want to come to.

Nobody wants to go into a room and just be screamed at by ads. That would have detrimental effects to brands – and for us as a space.

The Royally Big Portrait combines hundreds of thousands of images
The Royally Big Portrait combines hundreds of thousands of images

What does your role as creative director entail?

The first years were spent building the creative and content strategies for Outernet, as well as producing the immersive experiences. That meant any day could involve producing experiences through commissioning artists – or production companies.

It also involved overseeing the creative studio from a content creative side for our events.

Commissioning and curating using our in-house studio, which consists of a range of producers, designers, real-time technologists, audio specialists and editors that we oversee from our creative side within the team.

Aside from making in-house content, editorial and branded experiences, we also work directly with our brands as well. From my perspective, that could be in an advisory capacity – on what’s the best way to bring creative to life on our screens.

Are there any standout AV tools?

Coming from a somewhat traditional content creation background – rather than immersive experiences – I knew very little about real-time technology.

The entire world of creative technology was a very steep learning curve for me, but I think it came at a perfect time as the world was beginning to awake to the possibilities of interactivity and real-time technology.

We’ve always had an ambitious vision for Outernet from a content perspective – but on a canvas at this scale, it came with many challenges and raised questions. How do we create content quickly, at scale? How do we make amends to that content? How do we rotate through pieces of content? It meant that, from an AV perspective, having everything built in real time was an absolute godsend.

We had an experience that went live in May 2023 in line with Mental Health Awareness Month, called Monolith by artist Jack Dartford, that is a great example of the power of real time.

Outernet’s official charity ADOT partnered with suicide prevention organisation Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM), to raise awareness around social anxiety.

Monolith was a crowd-reactive audio-visual installation, featuring audio work by sound designer Halina Rice. It  entailed a particle model on the main wall of the Now building, where the more people that came into the space, the more the model became frantic – expanding around the room to reflect social anxiety.

The screen was essentially mimicking what you can feel in real time. It also had real-time audio elements. This meant that, as the number of people coming into the room increased, the audio became more intense.

I think – from an audio-visual perspective – it’s about pushing these experiences much further and giving audiences something they might not have had a chance to experience before, as well as being able to promote an important message about topics like mental health.

Any advice for someone hoping to be a creative in the immersive AV world?

My advice would be to understand and educate yourself on the tools available. Also, there are so many experiences out there at the moment – the experience economy is constantly growing.

I would suggest to keep up to date and go and experience it. Of course, make sure you don’t forget about the story or narrative of what you’re trying to create.

Immersive AV is changing fast. What does the future hold?

Technology is moving rapidly. AI is a perfect example of that, considering where it was only 12 months ago. We’re in an incredibly exciting time and I think the audience’s understanding and desire for communal immersive experiences is going to keep growing.

We as content creators, artists and immersive experience producers have a responsibility not to get lazy – not only to do what we’ve done before, but truly keep pushing boundaries and give audiences something new, innovative and thought out.

As audiences become more savvy, they can quickly pick out something that’s had little effort put into it. I also believe that audiences will fatigue from the over-reliance on using AI models to produce content.

We have a responsibility to those audiences to be better than that – and really put a lot of thought into what we are creating and how we want to make them feel – creating the best experiences we possibly can.

This feature was first published in the Spring 2024 issue of LIVE.


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