Video games, apps, infographics—new media is increasingly breaking down cinema’s four walls, working in tandem with a film to build a more immersive, multidisciplinary experience for viewers (or “users”). But how do moviemakers tell one cohesive story across so many different platforms?
Filmmakers Tommy Pallotta (A Scanner Darkly) and Femke Wolting (My Second Life and Meet the Fokkens) recently teamed up to direct the powerful documentary Last Hijack, based on a Somalian pirate attack on a European ship. The film itself features highly personal interviews with both the pirates and the ship’s crew, combined with animation to make an intriguingly complex essay—complemented in no small part by a comprehensive website (or “online transmedia experience”). Designed by Mirka Duijn, the innovative site is an abundance of information on Somalian piracy, presented in the form of clips, interviews, infographics, and maps. It recently won Best European Online Project at this year’s Prix Europa media forum.
Thinking of expanding the boundaries of your film? We asked director Femke Wolting for advice on how to incorporate transmedia successfully into the story you want to tell.
1. Story + Code
Technology offers a powerful way to tell stories in a new way. It’s exciting to be a storyteller in this time, because there are so many more possibilities to make and distribute your work, from purely linear films to fully immersive story-worlds. With each project or idea, you can choose the best medium and technology to tell your story. Each piece of the story should stand on its own, doing what its medium does best, while also feeding into a bigger picture. A story might be introduced in a film, expanded through television, novels, and comics.
2. Stories still matter
A good story is still the key, whether you are making a film, an online interactive experience, or a game. If you are making an experience for one screen or five, whether it’s interactive or linear, the fundamentals of storytelling remain the same. You still need a compelling story to engage people.
Today, oftentimes transmedia components are created to sell something or to generate new revenue streams for existing franchises. But the meaning of storytelling is to find language that creates emotional impact. I believe in authors who have something to say. We tell stories to make the world around us meaningful. The best transmedia projects have a distinct voice—for example, filmmaker Marjoleine Boonstra’s first interactive documentary, Keep on Steppin’, about people surviving disasters like Hurricane Katrina.
4. Not everything has to be transmedia
Many stories are told perfectly well within a single medium and leave the viewer perfectly happy. Transmedia can offer a creative opportunity for certain ideas and stories, but it should never be a mandate for all entertainment.
5. Audience is king
In transmedia you often hear the line “content is king,” but remember that the audience is king. If the viewer gets bored or switched off, the story dies. Audiences are very demanding–especially today, with such an abundance of choices. When you can choose between a million different channels on TV, online streaming, games, and YouTube, the pressure is on the storyteller to create something engaging and fun.
6. Navigation should not be the puzzle
The best interface designs are invisible. The content should be complex and layered, not the navigation itself. For me, the most frustrating experiences are interfaces that block the user from the content. If the interface is not easy to navigate, users will leave very quickly.
7. It’s not about perfection
One big difference between films and transmedia is that a film is a finished product once it is released. With transmedia, you have the opportunity to test and learn from how people are using a website or app. This is called “user testing,” and for a long time it was something only big interactive agencies were able to do.
There are many things you can do to test a project that you are making. Things you think are obvious often are not; text that explains key points is not read; generally speaking, people do things they were not expected to do. It’s quite fascinating to watch what people actually do on a site. With our interactive film/game Collapsus.com we went through multiple iterations of the interface after its initial launch.
8. Make it easy for people to collaborate…
Your audience can become collaborators and help in the creative building of a story-world. The Johnny Cash Project is still one of my favorites in terms of collaboration from the audience. Working with a single image as a template, and using a custom drawing tool, viewers create a unique and personal portrait of Johnny.
9. …But not everyone wants to interact
A portion of the audience, perhaps bigger then you think, will never want to engage with a story in a highly interactive way. While a small percentage get involved, a huge amount of people prefer to just watch. Work on the percentage rule of 1:9:90. Out of 100 people, 90 are spectators, nine are casually interacting to a reasonable degree, and just one is an active player. A successful project has something to offer on all three levels of interactivity.
10. Take risks
We are in the silent era of transmedia storytelling. The grammar of how we tell stories in a participatory way is just starting to develop. Therefore, innovation, trial, and error is key. Don’t be afraid to fail. The beauty of transmedia today is that there are no set rules yet. MM
Last Hijack is currently in theaters, and available for digital viewing on Google Play, VUDU, and Amazon.com. Visit the website here.
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