ACG Unabridged

A Creator's Guide: A Short Update

It's been just a bit over a year since the launch of A Creator's Guide to Transmedia Storytelling. Naturally time and technology have moved on, so I thought I'd take a minute to think about what's happened since then, and whether I have anything new to say.

As it turns out, I do.

Tumblr is Amazing and Facebook is Terrible

I didn't give a lot of time to specific platforms in the Guide, preferring mostly to talk about general rules for how to use a social tool. They're always changing; better to know how to critically examine a platform and decide how to use it for yourself.

But the social media landscape has changed in some very particular ways, and I'd like to address that a bit.

First: Tumblr is amazing. I wasn't very familiar with it yet when I wrote the Guide -- you could argue I'm still not -- but the way that fan communities develop and propagate on Tumblr is absolutely phenomenal. Tumblr is where people go to love things. And you want people to love you, right?

To a creator, I would say: Make yourself as Tumblr-friendly as possible. Make an account. Post art in various stages of completion. Share fan art and fanfic and inside jokes. Engage with the community -- not necessarily inside of your fictional world, but as the creator of your fictional world. You can put characters and in-story elements on Tumblr, but it takes a light touch and isn't the best use of the platform; it's fundamentally not in tune with how people interact with Tumblr.

On the other hand: Facebook has become a less and less useful tool to a creator. At this point I'd say it's close to worthless. Various policies have long made Facebook an iffy proposition... but in recent months it's become clear that even if someone likes or friends you, they may never see the bulk of what you post unless you pony up some steep cash. If your audience isn't likely to see what you put on Facebook, you're just wasting time, energy, and money by having a presence there at all. Don't bother.

Social Media is Not for Plot

There was a time when I felt that advancing plot through live action on social media was a good idea. I no longer believe this. The reason: volume.

As social media platforms has been more and more widely adopted, the average number of people any given person has friended of followed has climbed ever higher. That means the stream of updates going by is faster and faster. Which means it's very easy for any one update to be lost in the shuffle. And that means your fantastic, tight, tense action sequence may vanish into the ether, never viewed by man, woman, or child.

You don't want that. Better to stick to social media for what it does best... extras. Social media is still brilliant for characterization and for interaction. Use it to add depth and complexity to your characters. Use it as a place to let your audience and characters talk to each other. Use it for your non-load-bearing story elements; the decoration, not the stuff that holds the roof up.

The exception to this is if you know for a fact you already have a very highly engaged and attentive audience, and you've told them exactly when to be paying attention (or you can count on them to update one another later on.) But this is very strictly an advanced and late-stages move, not something you can get away with out of the gate. Be cautious. Be realistic.

The Lizzie Bennet Diaries

I've long been predicting the onset of a transmedia "web series++," as I've been calling it: a web series with light transmedia elements that deepen the experience at a fairly low cost, and requiring a fairly low engagement. That project finally arrived in the guise of a modern-day adapatation of Pride & Prejudice, The Lizzie Bennet Diaries.

I urge all of you to become familiar with the project -- I wish I could've written it up in the Guide. It's one of the landmark new structures of our day, and I expect a lot more along the same general lines, though likely with only varying degrees of success. And it won an Emmy, so that's nice, too.

Going Forward with A Creator's Guide

It's back-to-school season which means I'm seeing a spike in sales of the Guide -- thanks bunches! I really appreciate it! Please do reach out and let me know how you're using it; I'm absolutely tickled at the variety of schools and courses who have found it a useful resource.

I'm also starting to get back-to-school invitations to Skype into classes to speak. I did a lot of that last year and was flattered to be asked, but it played havoc on my schedule. And this year, on top of client work, I'm juggling production of Lucy Smokeheart while trying to break into genre print publishing... so my schedule is a little intense.

So... go ahead and ask if you'd like me to pop into your class on Skype? But please don't be mad if I say no. I don't love you any less, I promise.

I've also been asked if I'm planning on writing a new edition or companion to the Guide. The answer is no. I think I've said about all I have to say in the Guide. I could probably produce a companion volume with worksheets and what-have-you. But honestly I think it would encourage a formulaic result for people who use it, it would inhibit creativity in the space, and I'd only be doing it for the money and not because I thought it would be a contribution to the art.

I do not want to be That Girl. There may one day be a new edition of the Guide... but as this post shows, I don't have a lot of new stuff to say. So for now, we're cool.


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ACG Unabridged: J.C. Hutchins

In today's penultimate installment of ACG Unabridged, I bring you J.C. Hutchins, podcasting pioneer and master storyteller known for such projects as Seventh Son and Personal Effects: Dark Art.  J.C. is the picture of an indie creator building his own fanbase. He's inspirational, energetic, and on top of all that, my god such a good human being. Clearly he has made a deal with the devil.

Here's what I had to cut from his interview for A Creator's Guide to Transmedia Storytelling -- but this is a mere fraction of his wisdom. The rest? Inside the covers of a certain book, on sale now!

Q: Where do you see the art and business of storytelling headed over the next few years?

A: To be clear: There will always be stories best-told through a single medium. Folks need not worry about their novels or movies going away. But I believe transmedia narratives will crack open storytelling in new ways that we’ll be exploring and experiencing for decades.

We’re already at a point where storytellers can economically craft narratives in which their characters can receive and send emails and phone messages from real people (aka consumers), post video blog “confessionals” or handheld location shots, and leave behind “evidence” in real life locations that can be documented and shared online by audience members. What I just mentioned is kindergarten, low-cost stuff that nearly any creator can execute.

The future of storytelling is so bright, and is gonna be so cool.

The true and disruptive potential of transmedia storytelling is that nearly everything around us — your phone, a billboard, a mailed letter, a t-shirt, a Twitter update — can be used to contribute to a cohesive narrative. Your narrative. That’ll blow your mind if you let it. And you should let it, because storytellers need to be thinking about this stuff.

There’s a trade-off, however: When you start adding additional media or channels to tell your story, you start adding time, effort and risk to the project. You also add expense, which can sharply decrease your number of achievable cross-media / cross-channel storytelling opportunities. I reckon this is why the most famous transmedia stories — such as the brilliant alternate reality game Why So Serious? — are funded by mainstream entertainment entities as promotional vehicles for films, video games and TV shows. These stories have many moving parts. You gotta cough up cash for those parts, and for creatives like me to make them go.

 


 

This is bonus material from A Creator's Guide to Transmedia Storytelling, in stores now! It's also available from the internet retailer of your choice, including AmazonBarnes and NoblePowell's, and others. Pick it up and let me know what you think!


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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!

 


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ACG Unabridged: Brian Clark

Brian Clark is a mad genius. A creator, a marketer, a thinker of deep and provocative thoughts; he's a founder at GMD Studios, and if you know me, you certainly know him. Brian has famously evolving opinions on the term "transmedia," but here, at least, is a snapshot from his brain some months back.

Q: How did you get into transmedia?

A: I got so lucky. I'm about as old as you can be and have grown up with "the network" — I was running BBS systems in the 1980s and volunteering to design MUD platforms in the early 1990s, but never really thought of computers as anything interesting professionally beyond being a tool to do something else that was interesting. I was working as independent music producer and recording engineer up until we started the collaboration that became GMD Studios in 1994, so the indie D.I.Y. necessities of that music scene were always multi-modal. To make a living, you needed to know how to do small presses of CD, how to build up a touring network, how to promote your work from city to city. 

What the Web suggested that the network might become seemed like an extension of that D.I.Y aesthetic, so most of our work has always utilized the opportunities of integration in a similar fashion. For me, that all hangs together under the concept of experience design — how do I create more meaningful experiences with and for participants?

Q: Where do you see the art and business of storytelling headed over the next few years?

A: The next big wave of innovation isn't going to be in the art, it is going to be in the business. Enough of us have done enough work over the last decade to prove that there are very few limits and what we can do from the artistic side or how many models of storytelling can work to create meaningful experiences for audiences. Now, those experiences are really limited by the business models, because every major piece of work audiences sees, whether from an entertainment property extension or a brand marketing experience or a "serious" issues piece, works from the same business model where the funding is connected to a tactical outcome. That movie studio is really paying for butts in seats on opening weekend, that brand marketer is really paying for awareness and consideration, and even the issue funders are measuring an outcome in attitude and a size of reach. That reduces the role of the storyteller to tactician, and means most of the work created is disposable from the funder's perspective once the goal is reached (or if it fails to reach it.)

So as storytellers, we have to turn all this cleverness towards solving the business model problems the way touring brands and self-published authors and independent filmmakers and other non-commercial artists have created. Which means these can't just be our private little secret business plans — they have to be something that can be taught to the next generation of storytellers the way we got to learn from half-a-century of artists that preceded us.

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

A: First off, a lot less talking and a lot more doing. Nothing improves your skills like practice. Which means you shouldn't try to start with that big transmedia opus that has been burning in your brain for a decade, you should start with smaller works that let you practice that craft. Second, realize that you want to have no limit on the kinds of things you can produce, which means you should learn as much as you can about the theory and craft of good storytelling in each of those mono-modal forms — learn to be a filmmaker, learn to be an audio engineer, learn to be a theatrical director, learn to be a code monkey. That knowledge will improve the way you design overall experiences and make you a better producer for interacting with the specialists you'll fill your team with.


This is bonus material from A Creator's Guide to Transmedia Storytelling, out on June 22 -- just three weeks away! Preorder your copy today. And once you do... why don't you get it signed in advance?


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ACG Unabridged: Evan Jones

Evan Jones is that rare combination: Creative, a great head for business, and a stand-up human being, too. That makes Stitch Media one of the companies I completely love working with (no, no, of course I love your company the most!) Evan has been in the transmedia business for ages, and he's got an Emmy to his name, so when he talks, you'd do well to listen. I sure do.

Q: How did you get into transmedia?

A: Complete and utter indecision.  Call it a fear of commitment, but I have always lived my life enjoying all aspects of storytelling and I couldn't see myself defining my own creative efforts under a single medium.  It's bizarre how you look back on life and see the path so clearly.  Some of my earliest memories involve scavenger hunts around my farm, telling stories on long car trips and getting immersed in stories so much I'd be creating spin-off stories in those worlds.  Silly stuff like making stop-motion videos of action figures after reading comic books all morning.  I was always experimenting.

I do remember the exact moment the light bulb went off as an adult though.  I'd been studying Computer Science for three years at University because the earliest days of the dot-com were upon us and everyone was talking about 'computers are where the jobs are'.  I was literally falling asleep in every class.  There is no way my brain needed to know that much about Machine Language.  At the same time, I was distracting myself with all these creative hobbies - I was Production Manager at my community radio station; I was acting in theatre; I was writing for school newspapers; etc.  And then I got a job as Tech Support for the local hospital.  They actually said "You know about computers - can you make us a website?" So I grabbed an HTML book and started cranking out the most embarrassing website you've ever seen.  I am pretty sure we had multiple blinking objects.  But the moment I launched it, I was hooked.  There were so many creative roles needed for even this administrative website that the next day I registered my own domain and started building a blog from scratch.  Somewhere to just start writing and tossing some of my work online where others could see it.

From there, transmedia was just built in.  I was constantly dabbling in all forms of media production and its underlying technology, so when an idea struck me it was only natural to ask "Which methods should I use to tell this story?" None was more important than any other because at that stage I wasn't thinking about business models or career paths - I was just tinkering.  As I was making different games and books and videos and organizing events, I started to see that the same people were finding them and giving me feedback.  I realized that I didn't have to start all my stories from scratch because many of the 'fans' would have seen my earlier work.  I could choose to start new projects by building on my past work like a sort of shorthand.  It allowed me to go much deeper into each project without reinventing the wheel, and it excited me to know that people enjoying a story enough in one platform to seek out the next portion of it somewhere else in a completely different but complementary way.

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

A: This is a challenge because it shifts from so many viewpoints.  I have favorites as a player, as a writer, as a producer and as an entrepreneur. Of course, some of the first alternate reality games I ever played will stick with me because they excited me enough to shift my career path entirely.  A completely self-serving favorite is my first mainstream transmedia project, ReGenesis - all my enthusiasm as a player went into that project and taught me a ton of lessons I use today.

I also feel it's important to stretch projects outside of straight transmedia.  I mentioned earlier that some of my work started to bleed into the next and those ideas really came from voraciously reading Kurt Vonnegut Jr. as I entered university - characters kept appearing in completely unrelated circumstances but carrying all the baggage that they came to symbolize in each story - it was a sort of narrative shorthand that I loved.  At the same time I was reading pulp noir mystery novels and studying film and realized that they were set in a mythic place where Los Angeles was always rainy and riddled with bullets. I was also a child of Star Wars and only as an adult do I see how early on the ideas of 'transmedia' and 'story worlds' were planted in my mind.  I still think of the oblique reference the Obi-wan makes to the 'Clone Wars' in 1977 that sent my imagination reeling as a child and now seeing it fulfilled a generation later.  I'm also a shameless fan of 'reality television' and how it parallels interactive narrative by taking unpredictable situations and putting them on rails.  You've spoken yourself about the 'illusion of interactivity' and I think reality television does this extremely well.

 


 

This is bonus material from A Creator's Guide to Transmedia Storytelling, out on June 22 -- just one month away! Preorder your copy today. And once you do... why don't you get it signed in advance?


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