Tuesday, March 3, 2009

A Crass New Way to Shill to the Mice that Be

Jeff Gomez asked me about Transmedia storytelling. He asked:
'In the future, I would appreciate your thoughts on how transmedia storytelling either helps or hinders the driving of the points you ponder to the target audience. Is transmedia a legitimate aesthetic that allows the visionary new ways to convey narrative to today's audience, or is it simply a crass new way to shill for the Mice that Be?'
While I chose the title that I did because it just sounds great, I'm going to say that it's both.

Transmedia storytelling is storytelling that involves multiple different formats. This differs from multi-media in one significant way. Multi-media refers to the same aspect of the same story being presented in multiple medias. The movie poster, the trailer, the web site, and the guerilla marketing campaign are all examples of multi-media. Transmedia is when the story is told through multiple media but the story intersects but doesn't duplicate that being offered in another medium. Examples of this are movies like 'The Matrix' or 'The Chronicles of Riddick' that spawned cartoons, comic books and video games that were all successful products for the franchise independently of the focus medium, the film.

My answer to Mr. Gomez would be that Transmedia storytelling is the most complete way to tell a story. When I seek out current events, I watch the news, read stories, comment on message boards and blogs and listen to radio broadcasts. The same story is told in many different mediums. As it is, corporate media has been using transmedia internally for longer than anyone who is reading this has been alive. There has always been a treatment, a script, a storyboard, set pieces, actors, a media campaign with promotional materials, a soundtrack, parties, and possible other mediums I am not even thinking of, but I could go on forever if I started listening jello sculptures and sky-writing.

Not a single film, video game or any other audio-visual medium has ever been produced that did not use multiple mediums to convey the story. Now, no single person has ever experienced every single piece of media related to film, with the possible exception of a film's director, but even then some things are produced by others that do not make it in, often even published without consulting the director if it's a project made by a different department. With transmedia the story behind the story is just as important. The making of, and the commentary are now cultural standards for films and video games. These are considered part of the overall franchise, though they don't necessarily tell the story that is portrayed on screen in the final product. We spend billions on magazines that tell us the trials and tribulations of the actors and actresses that we see on screen.

To reference our dearly and recently departed friend Paul Harvey, we desperately want to know, 'The Rest of the Story'. Paul Harvey made his career out of bringing trivia about famous people to the forefront of our knowledge. His storytelling style was one where he took the focal point of the story and hid it, while telling us the story. It was not until the end that he revealed who it was that he was talking about. Every film has a focus, a protagonist, an antagonist and supporting characters who we get to know over the course of the film. We know something of the actions and motivations of the first, second, third, and sometimes fourth tier characters in a film, but what about the 107th tier characters? If it's true that there are six degrees of separation between everyone on Earth, then even the extra smoking a joint in the nightclub behind the fighters in the scene has a story, and on occasion he might even have crafted a character that he played. That might have even been noticed by the Producers in the editing process. This is part of the story, both in the film as it is produced and the background of the relationships between the auteurs from the Director to the extra.

What Transmedia does is it makes the lesser known characters stories known. Who knew that Gaeta was bisexual and that his gay lover would rescue him from his fembot aggressor? Of course you wouldn't know that if you didn't watch the Battlestar Galactica webisodes. If you didn't watch the webisodes then Gaeta's entire motivation for the final season might have seemed out of place to you. If, however you watched the webisodes everything made sense, you understood why Gaeta did what he did, and you knew who replaced him as Communications officer.

By the same token, transmedia can be used to sell you Battlestar Galactica toothpaste. Crass consumerism is of course its own cause and its own effect. We are all consumers, and unless you are some sort of ascetic living and austere lifestyle as a ferry man like our dear Siddharta, you are likely a consumer, are driven by your consumption. Though, even if Siddharta was driven by consumption, his need to woo an expensive lady drove him to a life of success and excess. It is this success and excess upon which our society is founded. It both drives the engine of commerce that creates our media, as well as many of the storylines that they enable us to envision. Without it we'd have no way to tell our stories, and no stories to tell. It is after all our worst characteristics that drive our stories. So as we watch Battlestar Galactica a TV show about how human sin has almost caused human extinction, we feed people's families by buying Battlestar Galactica toothpaste.

Our entire identities are crafted from symbols. There is very little reason to buy a CK T-Shirt for $ 30 when one could buy a cheaper T-shirt for far less. We do so in order to engage with a symbol the idea of Calvin Klein. This is one of the worst excesses, an article of clothing that merely has a logo on it being sold as some sort of status piece. It is empty, it is devoid of meaning. It is the meaning that separates something of value from something without value, and sometimes that line is spread very thin.

So the simple answer to you Jeff, is that Transmedia when crafted because there is more story to tell, has an useful purpose, but when it is merely there to craft a new article for consumption to fulfill the unholy Madison Avenue OCD completionist urge, it is merely a crass new way to shill to the mice that be.


Gomez said...

You raise a lot of good points, Erek. Transmedia storytelling is a narrative methodology, in many ways like most any other, and is therefore subject to the same abuse, exploitation and deficiency of talent as any other.

Keep in mind that by my own definition and those who ascribe to interpreting transmedia and transmedia storytelling by the parameters we've outlined to the Producers Guild of America, we consider the term "transmedia" to mean the dissemination of narrative across multiple media platforms in such a way as that each of the self-contained narrative elements also function in concert to form a non-linear narrative tapestry.

By this definition, the construction of narrative by use of screenplay, storyboards, film and soundtrack would not be considered "transmedia" per se. With transmedia, each platform is an instrument and you are bringing them together to form an orchestra of sorts. Great transmedia storytelling has the potential to be symphonic.

erek.tinker said...

I see your point about the way the term is being used.

In today's day and age it only makes sense to use Transmedia to craft the narrative. You're going to have a website, you're going to have whatever the primary media format is. You're going to have advertising materials. Why not present the media in some form like that?

One of the most complete Transmedia products I've ever seen is Eve Online. The dramatic commercials they have on Television are storyline vignettes that are considered part of the canon, and recently they have made it so that you can participate in the war between the empires, not just the wars between player run alliances.

Having lots of different facets to a story really makes it more complete. A few years ago people would have been irritated that there was way too much material to the story, but I think having more material than any one person can consume is the ideal way to tell a story, it makes the world seem more lush and complete.