9 Things Digital Storytelling Can Learn from Cirque Du Soleil

The narrative techniques from Cirque Du Soleil effectively tell a dramatic, engaging story and are great sources of inspiration for digital storytelling.

Cirque Du Soleil Corteo recently stopped in Miami and I was lucky enough to attend a performance a few weeks ago. During this unforgettable experience it dawned on me that all Cirque shows utilize a distinct storytelling voice and style.

Digital storytelling has allowed for new styles and interaction methods that never existed before. For example, when watching a movie you are just a passive spectator, when reading a book you turn the pages, but when interacting with digital storytelling the journey has more than one path.

When creating interactive web experiences, we often strive to touch the senses and emotions of people in unique and engaging ways. These experiences are an important part of digital Brand building. After all, with Cirque Du Soleil – the experience IS the brand.

That said, there is a definite parallel that can be drawn between user experience on the web and the live experience at Cirque Du Soleil. I recognized 9 distinct points of inspiration that can be applied to online design.

1. Tell a CLIMACTIC story

We all know that many movies pay more attention to the special effects than to the storyline. Similarly, in digital, it’s easy to get caught up in new technologies or design trends. Still, at the end of the day, it’s not the snazzy effects that people remember — but how they were used to illustrate a great story.

A good story should take the user through a journey – be it sad, funny or educational; it should set up a conflict, be consistent and provide a resolution.

Cirque Du Soleil wraps a theme around every show and executes it via visual storytelling – a good interactive story on the web should follow the same logic.


Web Example
Hotel 626 is a great example of compelling digital storytelling. Hotel 626 is an advergame for Doritos. Mini challenges set up conflict where the user is asked to solve challenges and find a way out of the scary hotel. At it’s core, Hotel 626 puts the user at the center of the digital story.

2. Utilize audience participation to deepen the experience

Corteo encourages the audience to get directly involved in the show during the “Helium Dance.” In the segment, the charming Clowness is floating from balloons above the audience; the audience actually joins the performance as they work to push her high up in the air – a twist on the proverbial “beach ball at a concert” concept.

To create an online experience that stands out from the rest, invite your users become part of the experience by making it a dynamic (not static) experience. It’s more than just sitting back and watching something happen, it’s about giving users the ability to change the destiny or become a part of the story.

Web Example
Own Your C V2 - Own Your C 2.0 is a rich online community allowing teens to share their opinions about the choices they face each and every day. Teens can express themselves through text, photo, or video. From smoking, to fast food, to the existence of UFOs – every choice in this community matters.

3. Give your characters a back-story

Acting classes teach you how to enter a scene well-prepared and how to develop your character. Actors are told to create a back-story of where your character was prior to “walking through the door”. This is the history behind the situation at the start of the main story. Corteo uses this technique to create a vibrant world, each character has a purpose in the Dead Clown’s life. Many of the show’s characters are seen through the Dead Clown’s eyes: friends, lovers, coworkers, indeed, an entire village.

If your interactive story has characters, give them a back-story. Know who they are inside and out. Remember that even machines and tools can become characters, too. Why was it built? Who built it? Where is it kept? Your digital experience will be much richer when your characters have substance, even if the back-story isn’t spelled out in the execution.

Web Example
Love at First Sight was made for the Greek chocolate brand Lacta, this site invites you to give a happy ending to an interactive love story set in Greece. This 17-minute long web film is a great example of digital story telling with characters that have a back story. Users have to mouse over hot spots on screen and make the correct choices to help the narrative move towards its heart-warming conclusion: an unexpected reunion two years later.

4. Provide clever diversions during transitions

When creating online experiences, look at transitions as more than just a loading sequence that “kills time.” Well thought out transitions can tie a story together and add value to the viewer.

One of the great things about Cirque is that instead relying on stage hands — the actual performers set up the new acts. Through the use of mini-acts and continuous story telling they provide a seamless experience as they shift the focus of the stage. A great example is the introduction of the Cyr Wheel Act. A man rolls in on huge wheels providing a functional diversion that simultaneously introduces the act and allows the audience to shift focus without experiencing a disorienting lapse of story.

Web Example:
Ecoda Zoo
is a great example with well thought-out transitions. The site was developed in a custom 3D engine and rather than just swapping views or using overlays to display content, it takes the approach of using pop-up books providing hypnotizing 3D transitions from one page to the next.

5. Successful sound design should be able to stand on its own

On HTML websites, music and sound is a faux pas and will instantly make your site look circa 1993 but, for story-telling experiences, well thought-out sound design and the right musical composition can make or break an experience.

With Corteo, the music does more than help create a heightened sense of emotion; even if you close your eyes the music is enjoyable independent of the visuals.

As with the transitions, the performers are central to the experience and contribute to the music-making, merging the sound with the experience. The “Crystal Glasses and Tibetan Bowls” act is an excellent example. When several artists join in on the Tibetan bowls, it completes an aural experience that is quite unlike anything you have ever heard.

Sound can also be used to bring life to inanimate objects. Walt Disney was a master of this. One of the best examples from Cirque Du Soleil is the Varekai Sound Machine Act:

Web Example
AgentM09 does a good job of using sound to set the mood and tone of the digital experience.

6. Incorporate unexpected surprises for the audience


Cirque makes the most out of unexpected props. In Corteo, beds become trampolines and chandeliers add an unexpected twist to aerial acrobatics. On the web, this concept can be applied via hidden “easter eggs” or content deployed in unexpected ways. Added surprises increase your site’s sticky-ness and interaction time. One caveat, be careful to strike a balance or you’ll water down the site’s focus.
Extra touches of creativity often make the difference between a memorable experience and a forgettable one.

Web Example
Wario Land: Shake it up on YouTube – This clever YouTube viral definitely captures your attention when the unexpected happens.

7. Colors, Textures + Light work in harmony


Like any talented artist, Cirque du Soleil draws from a carefully coordinated, rich, visual palate. From the textured costumes to the colorful props, all Cirque du Soleil shows are a feast for the eyes. The three elements of color, texture and light are powerful tools for digital storytelling as well.

Texture adds a tactile element to an otherwise cold environment. It gives design the feeling of a surface. The “grunge” design movement is a perfect example of designers expressing tangibility on the web. Proper attention to texture will draw your users in and make them want to interact with the experience as if they could really reach into their screens and experience the sense of touch.

Color is an important consideration, especially when it comes to contrast. Contrast is vital to guiding a user’s eye through a site. High contrast items will jump out and everything else will fade back.  Make the important things stand out. Too much contrast will create visual clutter, but too little makes it difficult to find the key points. Also, when designing buttons and GUIs it is especially important to be consistent with the use of color.

Without light, there would be no depth. When rendering lighting or atmospheric effects watch out for shadow constancy. Mishaps can be easy to spot and hard to forget like this Time Magazine Cover.

Web Example
experience159.com creates an alluring atmosphere through the use of lighting. The dark palette creates a sense of mystery and the smooth lines and textures create represent mechanical innovation.

8. Start off softly – draw people in

You don’t always have to start out with a bang to capture your audiences’ attention. When you want a child to listen, the most powerful thing you can do is whisper.

Cirque Du Soleil has used this technique to begin every show I’ve attended. In fact, their openings are so subtle that you don’t even realize the show is starting — the overhead lights are still on and people are still shuffling about and getting settled into their seats. In the opening act, the performers will interact directly with the audience (posing as audience members) further blurring the lines between performance and audience.

In Corteo the show begins with a “costumed” family trying to find their seats but when they discover other people are already sitting in them, chaos ensues. This triggers a hilarious introduction that slowly, but with great impact, starts the show.

Digital experiences can use the same logic and set up introductions that draw the user quietly into the experience– like candy to a baby, it sucks you in.

Web Example
The Girl Effect draws a user in through the use of simple text to powerfully tell a story.

9. Consider alternate points of view


Cirque Du Soleil is unlike other, more traditional stage performances because the curtain that separates the performers from the audience is removed — the audience feels like a part of a larger show. In Corteo, the audience surrounds the stage. The show is designed such that the performers look good from any angle and because the audience can view the show from any angle, no detail is missed. Drawing a parallel to digital storytelling and user interactions, a design should consider various perspectives and interactions. A site which has many facets is much more compelling than one which follows a linear path. For example, when telling a story with multiple characters consider each character’s point of view or perhaps allow the user to choose their view.

Web Example
Pencil Rebel goes beyond the linear experience by allowing users to explore site via mini games and challenges. With a multitude of choices and user interactions this non-linear approach encourages user playability and shows the user many views of a multi-media world.

The Take Away

Paying homage to these nine aspects of story telling, inspired by Cirque du Soleil, are sure to take your digital initiative up a few notches. If you ever have the chance to see Cirque in person, I recommend you do so. It is an experience that you will never forget.

Have you seen other amazing non-traditional stage performances? What stood out for you?

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