ACG Unabridged: Caitlin Burns

I've been lagging a little with the ACG Unabridged posts, but you can rest assured the ones remaining are all spectacular. Case in point: Caitlin Burns, who is not just an indie creative light with Jurassic Park Slope, not just rocking the Hollywood IP at Starlight Runner Entertainment, but is also the PGA's first official Transmedia Producer and is now serving on the PGA's New Media Council as well. How's that for an impressive resume? Caitlin had so much great stuff to say, it broke my heart to cut any of it from the finished book. So just wait to see what made it in!

Q: How did you get into transmedia?

A: Well, like most people I started out thinking I wanted to do something else, I  wanted to be a paleontologist. Paleontology seemed like a lot more stable a career path to me than the whirlwind world of Film or TV, or at least it did to me as a teenager. I also loved theatre, though I knew that acting and production were cutthroat career paths, and applied to only one school for the arts and got in. Eventually this got me to Theatrical Production Design, with a minor in Environmental Systems Science and shockingly, I realized that the way storytelling structures and systems worked were as robust an ecosystem as any other I could find in nature and that they were only getting more complex. 

I was studying (and working) in New York in off-off and occasionally off Broadway and became fascinated with experience design in strange venues, warehouses, under bridges, etc... Every production required projections, film; marketing was just getting online as well. I was still in College when I was fortunate enough to get my first opportunity to work with Jeff Gomez at Starlight Runner Entertainment. My skill set from production design, a really thorough research methodology and an attention to the oft-overlooked details of a production really translated well into the complex projects that Starlight takes on.

Once I realized just how exciting and interesting the process was there was no getting rid of me, it’s very hard work but it can also be fantastically enjoyable. 

It was immediately clear to me that a lot of the things I’d already been talking about in terms of theatre were being applied across platforms to film, gaming, publishing and everywhere else one can imagine, and that I had a knack for this sort of development. Transmedia Storytelling also requires a certain type of collaborative mindset, it’s a very fun and creative process and it was abundantly clear that one of the most important elements of working on these transmedia projects is being able to foster and inspire that sense of active sharing of ideas and artistic work with groups who haven’t necessarily been given the opportunity to engage with one another that way. Being able to join in and to see the amazing results of getting different types of creators, even in staid corporate systems, in the same room never gets old.

Q: Can you tell me a little about your favorite projects?

A:  Every project we work on is really vastly different and I love them all. Admittedly that sounds like a line, but when you’re doing deep dive research you definitely have to find something about the content that you love or go crazy in the effort.  I’ve been supremely lucky in the variety of the projects we’re gotten a chance to work on. The first one I was really involved with was Pirates of the Caribbean for the Walt Disney Company, and I must have watched that movie 45 times in the first 6 months. We came on between the first and second films’ release and it was amazing to see the sheer scope of narrative that was being created in all their divisions and the creativity that was being brought to bear on a really entertaining property. I ended up fascinated by pirates and wrote a blog about them for a few years to vent the stuff that had nothing to do with the active fiction. 

Halo was an amazing project as well, I had been playing the game casually for  years, and the combination of a truly epic chronology detailing the entire history of the galaxy and an enjoyable console game are hard to beat. I absolutely love the work we’ve done on projects I can now watch with my kids, Disney Fairies and Transformers Prime for example; it is a comfort to know how much thought was given to how these stories would impact them and their development above and beyond the obvious profit lines. Tron hit me right in the cool-sector of my brain and I love the music and remixes that are still coming out of the fan space. 

Obviously though, as a lapsed student of environmental science, Avatar has to take some pride of place in this list. We literally worked with hundreds of hours of interviews and dozens of designers who had been working with James Cameron to create Pandora and the detail that had gone into that work, and the building of the story world was really unparalleled. In truth, the starship that is onscreen for about 90 seconds in the beginning of the film, they could likely build it. 

Q: What would you recommend a transmedia creator learn about to improve their craft? 

A:  The first thing I recommend is to get to know people outside your specialty as well as who work in it. If you already know someone with expertise in a field you can call up and ask questions you’re in a good place. There are all sorts of ways to do this, professional networks, online, etc… Follow your interests, chances are they cross into other fields and that the people you meet pursuing things you already enjoy will be able to help you out down the road. 

This also helps with my second recommendation; learn how to talk to people in fields you don’t work in directly. Many groups use different terminology for the same concepts, learn how to discern those and chat with people unfamiliar with what you do before you have to do it on a project. 

Finally, get to know the different platforms that are out there, it’s a common problem I see that someone starting out on multiple platforms knows they need a certain thing (a game, twitter, a novel, a live experience) but don’t know why. The answer may be that it’s not necessary and it doesn’t fit the story, learn about the  platforms, think about your story, and choose what really fits for good reasons. 

Q: Is there anything you can do early in a project to make sure it's easier to manage over the long term? 

A:  To bring it back around, write it all down. If you have notes from you earliest development meetings, and you organize those into sensible documents that you can look back on later 

Q: Jeff has (as you know) spoken out about the culturally transformative power of entertainment. Do you have any thoughts on that you'd like to talk about?

A:  Mass Media combined with the Immersive power of Transmedia is one of the most culturally potent tools for social education and change that the world has ever seen. The potential for social good, expanding horizons and bringing people together with stories is incalculable. But, at the same time, it must be treated with a real respect, what can spread a strong message can spread that whatever the message may be. When you are immersing even a single person in a narrative, there is an ethical responsibility to treat them respectfully and  to take that relationship seriously, because your audience certainly will. When you are immersing a greater number of audience members that responsibility is exponentially larger. The way to maintain a grounded relationship with one’s audience is to actually listen to them. Feedback mechanisms, from social media, online forums, fan groups are easy to access and if there’s one thing fans love to do, it’s talk.

 One need look no further than The Arab Spring to see what can be accomplished when groups with a goal join together with multiple platform tools at hand. This is the way the global population communicates now, the possibility for its uses in and out of entertainment are profound. They will change the world as we know it.  Whether you’re approaching a fictional or non-fiction property, you can find out what people think. If you’re engaging them, you can learn how and why, if you make a choice transparently your failures will be defended by an audience that knows you’re trying to work for them. The job of the creator is more complex than ever, asking often introverted artists to look outside their work to see its effects on the world and then to respond, the response can be “Go Away” or it can be “Maybe you have a point” but either way, showing that your audience is a valuable part of the story is the most powerful experience of all.

 



This is bonus material from 
A Creator's Guide to Transmedia Storytelling, officially out on June 22 -- that's this Friday! But it's shipping now from the internet retailer of your choice, including Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powell's, and others. Pick it up and let me know what you think!