Portal: Interview: Mark Ashmore

Portal Hero ShotPortal is a new SF web-series, which quickly achieved over 100,000 hits when it went live at the end of March 2015. Co-producer and director Mark Ashmore explained to Paul Simpson the thinking behind the rather different story…



There seems to be a certain amount of imagination run riot in the fiction of Portal and the creation of it – or certainly that’s how it looks… What’s the set-up of the series?

Basically there’s a new drug on the streets, called Portal. You go to a hospital environment where you’re put into an induced coma; when you’re in that induced coma, in the beautiful surroundings, you’re uploaded and you can have this virtual existence. Obviously it’s quite expensive to do this, and about 90 percent of the population are on it at the weekends. They work hard all week and then that’s what they do. (There’s a bit of social commentary in there as well.)

Our series starts at the stroke of midnight on the day when Portal has been outlawed. The beautiful nice hospitals have now become backstreet abortionist kind of set-ups, which is where we meet our doctor. The drug is now illegal, so there’s a huge lucrative black market which has opened up; that’s where we meet our dealer. And online, selling sex, which is what a lot of online is and why people want to lose themselves in this fantasy world, is the pimp – and that’s where we meet Sophie.

We really establish the characters and the world in the first episode, and then the backstory and all the double crosses and everything that starts to happen are in episodes two to five. We explore what happens when you make something illegal, the rise of the black market, people with good intentions going bad, and people having ethical decisions to make. Some people turn out to be not what they seem; people you think are the bad guys become the good guys. It’s a huge story-world that we’ve set up and created for a long series.

Portal 2You’ve got the online world, where anything could happen, and the offline world where everyone’s fighting to get into Portal, or to be part of that world.

The online world is a shared universe? Are they all going to the same place?

Could be… It’s a little bit like Minecraft, in that you can build your own world, your own environment, so within this there are millions if not billions of subscribers.

The social commentary is about the role of social media and what’s the extreme of that. To me as a storyteller, I’m like, I’m sitting on the train watching everybody on Facebook or glued to their phones, and now there’s Oculus Rift where everyone’s going to have a helmet on. What’s the extreme of that? Oculus Rift is owned by Facebook so will everyone all be sat on a train doing that, or will they all go home and do that instead of watching TV? What will happen?

Portal is pushing that to its absolute extreme and saying, this is what could happen. What happens if it’s banned? Everyone goes cold turkey, what happens then? A new market opens up and you look at the economy as well.

Do we discover why it’s been banned?

We do within the series. The ban comes from someone in politics who can make more money from the black market from Portal than they can from having it legal.

I’m a big fan of The Wire, so all the layers that are in The Wire the writer is trying to bring into Portal. It’s a web series so we don’t have much time to start with but it’s set up to be really intelligent. It’s intelligent sci-fi very much in the Blade Runner sense or The Prisoner. It’s multi-layered: there’s a lot of meat in there and we want to challenge the viewer.

Portal 3What have been the production challenges?

Web series as an artistic medium is as old as the video platform. YouTube was founded in 2005, DailyMotion, our partners, maybe a year later. They’re less than nine years old; they’ve gone from start-up to major players, so they’re still figuring out how these things work.

As an artist and a storyteller, I’m figuring out how audiences want to consume my story. In ancient times, they’d be sitting round a camp fire at the end of the day. A few years ago, everyone was around the television, now everyone is around an internet-enabled web series. So where are they going to watch it? A little screen, or a big screen on a Smart TV?

The challenge is, how do we tell our story to a modern audience so when they go to the internet, they come to us, rather than the default button, which is to look at a funny clip or something of lesser value. We need to put our point across in an entertaining way but also have those levels I spoke about earlier.

The way we’ve edited the film, the way we’ve used music and light, the production design, the costume design – we’ve tried to do something very different which you won’t see in the mainstream but will feel kind of familiar, particularly with certain things, but it takes you to a different world.

The world of Portal can only exist on this web platform, and we’ve designed it in a certain way that pushes the boundaries of cinema. We did this on a relatively small budget – the twelve of us made it over a twelve-day shooting period, and pushed the boundaries of what we could do as creatives. People brought in their full creative abilities and came up with something quite epic.

If you’re releasing something that’s in parts, there’s a need for a dramatic built to entice your audience back; it’s not necessarily the same feel as you’d have in a feature film…

The way that we shot it was with cinema in mind. You don’t get the traditional end of episode 1 as a cliffhanger because it’s not Indiana Jones! It’s a piece of cinema that you’ll get different experiences from: you’ll get some extra bits if you see the cinema version. We’ve cut some stuff out of the web version, and when it comes out later out in the year as the full feature version, there’ll be extra bridges and maybe another character you’ll become aware of. But for the web version, and a web audience, we tell one part of the story: Portal, remember, is a multifaceted story world, so we’ve done that in our presentation as well. When you see all the pieces laid out, and look back at it retrospectively, you’ll see what we did.

I’m a big sci-fi fan and I love the jigsaw element of a great piece of work. If it’s all laid out for you, there’s no fun there. I like the audience to piece it together and come to their own conclusions – sometimes a conclusion that maybe I wanted them to. I want people to have a really dense, fulfilling experience and figure out what it means to them in 2015.

Mark2ColourWhat elements have influenced you?

I’m a big fan of the design element of what Terry Gilliam does; he pushes what a world can be. Maybe not so much his direction, but his design – he’s very brave in the way he can push and find a world.

Ridley Scott for the pacing and the tension, and building the layers to something.

Then a big one for me – and those of my age (I’m 34) – is Star Wars and George Lucas. What Lucas did with THX and did with Lucasfilm, and what he tried to do with Star Wars – he read Joseph Campbell’s book and brought myths and legends into something that a modern audience could take and understand and make their own.

That’s what I’ve tried to bring in as a director: it’s about what’s happening in the world now.


Click here to go to Portal Episode 1


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