Westworld Live Without Limits Weekend. Photo by Merrick Ales

 

Inside Westworld 's "Live Without Limits Weekend"

Find out how creatives brought Westworld to life at SXSW 2018

By Chris Cantu

10/19/2018

SXSWorld



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Even before the first attendees arrived in Austin for SXSW 2018, news that HBO would be recreating the theme park from the hit sci-fi drama Westworld set the internet ablaze with anticipation.

Faithful re-creations of well-known film and television sets have become a beloved fixture among the immersive activations at SXSW. Recent examples have included the Los Pollos Hermanos restaurant from AMC’s Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul and the iconic The Double R Diner from David Lynch’s Twin Peaks.

“The universe of the show makes it a marketer’s dream to find new ways to keep fans engaged, and we’re always looking to go beyond the impression of a general advertisement to create an experience that feels both authentic and impactful.”

The HBO activation wasn’t even the first theme park to appear at SXSW; in 2016, a Mr. Robot inspired Coney Island, complete with a 100-foot tall ferris wheel, took over downtown Austin. However, actually setting foot in Westworld’s town of Sweetwater seemed like an even more difficult feat to pull off.

 
Westworld Live Without Limits Weekend. Photo by Merrick Ales

Welcome to Live Without Limits Weekend. Photo by Merrick Ales

 

That’s because Westworld is no ordinary theme park. In the show, set in the near future, Westworld offers guests the chance to “Live Without Limits” in a meticulously detailed and managed park populated by hosts: hyper-realistic androids virtually indistinguishable from humans, whom guests can treat however they desire, free from consequences.

The task of building a real experience around a fictional theme park whose key feature is technology that doesn’t exist outside of science-fiction fell on the Los Angeles/New York City-based Giant Spoon agency.

“In keeping with the show, we wanted to take people away from the world that is familiar to them … in this case, downtown Austin. We identified a ghost town venue thirty minutes outside of Austin,” says Adam Wiese, VP and Strategy Director at Giant Spoon, “Our job was to turn this ghost town into a lively, fully-operating American Old West town that was worth the drive,”

The experience began even before guests reached the Sweetwater site. First arriving at Mesa Gold Station, near the Austin Convention Center, guests were sorted into white hats and black hats before boarding shuttles to Sweetwater, just like in the show.

 
Westworld Live Without Limits Weekend. Photo by Merrick Ales

Mesa Gold Station. Photo by Merrick Ales

 

“In recreating Westworld at SXSW, our goal was for fans to feel like they were stepping off the train and looking down the main drag into Sweetwater,” explains Steven Cardwell, director of program marketing at HBO. “We wanted to inspire that sense of wonder or apprehension or curiosity that takes over when a new guest visits the park in the show.”

Although we’re still a few years away from quasi-sentient AI-powered androids, Westworld would be nothing without its hosts. In lieu of lifelike robots, a cast of 60 actors, 6 stunt people, 5 bands, and 6 horses was assembled for “Live Without Limits Weekend.” Following a 444 page script playing out elaborate narratives, as in the acclaimed series, hosts also interacted and improvised conversations with guests, fully immersing them in the experience.

“We knew we couldn’t do a 100% accurate recreation of Westworld,” Wiese points out. “So we incorporated visual cues from the show that place you into that world including the actual train, the Sweetwater water tower, the McIntyre sign. And of course, the horses, hosts, dusty streets, and whiskey.”

Fans of the show immediately picked up on much more than those visual cues, though. After all, secrets and mysteries abound just under the facade of the Old West in the show.

 

Hosts performing for attendees. Photo by Merrick Ales

 

“The universe of the show makes it a marketer’s dream to find new ways to keep fans engaged, and we’re always looking to go beyond the impression of a general advertisement to create an experience that feels both authentic and impactful,” Cardwell adds.

Just like the show, there was much to be discovered in “Live Without Limits Weekend.” From glitchy hosts to hidden scenes, clues about the second season of Westworld were everywhere for those willing to take a closer look. One easier to spot than others was the lone samurai mysteriously walking through Sweetwater, unnoticed by other hosts, teasing a major plot development in the most recent season.

Of all the memorable moments, though, one at the end of second day of the activation stood out to Wiese: “After all of our guests had left, the cast and creators of Westworld arrived for a private tour of the park. We showed them around – walking them through the train and the Mariposa Saloon and through the entire town- and then we all huddled around the campfire for celebratory drinks and conversation. It was surreal, in a way, to be surrounded by the people who starred in and created the series, in a town that we built. There was a celebratory sense of ‘Wow, we did this!’ from the entire HBO and Giant Spoon team.”

The awards and accolades began rolling in for Giant Spoon and HBO for pulling off one of the most memorable and immersive activations ever at SXSW, including a Cannes Gold Lion and the inaugural Arrow Award for Best Immersive Experience at SXSW 2018, among many others.

 
Westworld Live Without Limits Weekend. Photo by Diego Donamaria

Mariposa Saloon. Photo by Diego Donamaria

 

“ ‘Live Without Limits Weekend’ seeped beyond marketing or technology; it became an experience filled with memories that our guests are talking about half a year later,” says Wiese. “People who visited are still creating social posts, while many of the actors are touting it as one of the best acting experiences of their lives.”

While any agency would be thrilled to take home honors at the Cannes Lions Festival, Giant Spoon personnel found the long-lasting impact they made on people who were involved and who visited the activation to be the most fulfilling part of the experience. “It’s incredible to think about it when it lasted for only a moment over the course of four days,” Wiese says.

HBO set the standard for television programming years ago, and with the help of Giant Spoon, they managed to elevate experiential marketing to an entirely new level at SXSW 2018. “We also want people to look at our marketing as a standard-bearer, just like they would with our content,” says Cardwell.

When asked how an agency might make a splash at SXSW, Wiese advises: “Don’t make ‘make a splash’ your goal. Don’t just try to be the loudest, biggest, or flashiest … Develop a simple concept that focuses on the most authentic way to engage with your brand and build a fun experience around it.”

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