Thursday, November 10, 2011

Screenwriting, Transmedia, and The Future of Storytelling

I was recently interviewed by Latitude, a company that provides "creative research and unexpected knowledge for leaders in content, technology and learning" and "using leading-edge techniques and technologies, they uncover new opportunities for growth, tied to emerging trends and user behaviors."

Here is a transcript of that interview. You can read the original post on Latitudes website HERE.

We’re glad to connect with you, Sean. We’ve been following some of your writing online, and we know you’re a very active thinker about the future of storytelling. Can you give us a little background on yourself and how you got into the “transmedia” space?

I’ve spent the last twelve years as a filmmaker. I went to the USC Graduate School of Cinematic Arts, and I’m teaching there now. Mostly, I write screenplays to make a living, but also direct my own films, and I blog about the future of storytelling and the craft of screenwriting.

In the last five years especially, it’s become more and more difficult in Hollywood to get original projects off the ground. There’s a real focus on pre-branded content. So, I keep my eyes open for other ways to tell stories in emerging mediums. Movies are so expensive that I think many Hollywood filmmakers are looking for other, cheaper ways to tell stories—whether that be through webisodes, independent films, emerging mediums on multiple platforms, or transmedia. Transmedia in particular is becoming really attractive to storytellers, I think, because there really aren’t any rules for it yet; no one quite knows what they’re doing, and people are just sort of playing and goofing around with these new ideas and formats and seeing what happens. You don’t get to do that kind of experimentation in mainstream film or TV.

As a storyteller, why do you think transmedia holds so much appeal? Where do you see the most potential for it to change the ways stories are told? 

Every time a new technology emerges, artists and storytellers tend to hi-jack and repurpose it for their own ends. Right now, there’s so many new kinds of media for communication: a YouTube video, a tweet, facebook comment, a blog article, a web chat, an i-phone game, a webisode, a motion comic, an ebook—any activity on the web suddenly prompts us to ask, “How can I use this tools all-together to serve a narrative?”

Yet with all these new tools, the fundamental nature of a story remains the same. For me, a story always contains two things. One: a story is about somebody for whom the audience has some empathy. Two: that somebody has some sort of problem – something they want something very badly but are having trouble getting, and they are fearful of what will happen if they fail. With those fundamental elements, you can use almost any tool to create a world around those characters or around that situation and build out from there. 

What’s also appealing thing about transmedia—and one of the reasons I got into film to begin with—is that it’s highly collaborative. Transmedia offers opportunities to collaborate not only with other artists and storytellers, but directly with the audience. Otherwise, I get lonely sitting by myself in my office with my dog.

Going back to what you said earlier about Hollywood favoring pre-branded content and franchises due to cost issues—it sounds like you’re implying that transmedia is an attractive option cost-wise from a creator’s standpoint, offering a place to really experiment freely? 

That’s absolutely true. For me, transmedia is about brand creation rather than brand recycling. I mean, the only movies I’ve written that actually get made have been sequels, remakes, or adaptation—and I’m not complaining. It’s lucrative and it’s a lot of fun. But we screenwriters, filmmakers and storytellers got into the craft because we thought we had our own stories to tell. In transmedia, there’s an opportunity to start really small. Your project may eventually have seven branches in different mediums, but you start the project off on just one of those little arms to see how it takes off. Then, it can branch to another medium as it gets more and more popular and complex. If you are lucky, you get to a point where some of the more expensive medium like a movie or a TV show become viable because you’ve pre-tested the concept and built an audience.

One of the things we’ve definitely been hearing and thinking about is: is it best to conceive of a project as “transmedia” from the outset, or can you decide to go that direction later? 

You have to envision a transmedia project right from the beginning. If you think of it as just telling one story in one medium and then replicating it on a bunch of others, it’s not transmedia. You have to imagine how the world of your story and how the problem of your characters can branch out - you have think about how different elements of the story can be told in different mediums, and why these branching mediums are necessary. The whole should be greater than the sum of its parts, and that takes vision from the outset.

That said, transmedia is not about pre-planning every single little piece as it extends in all these different mediums and different platforms. It’s more like crafting a little piece of DNA; you know it’s going to grow up into something really big, and you can imagine its potential in all these different realms. But once it starts growing and lots of other people get involved, you are more like a farmer growing a crop - you seed it, water it, feed it and nurture it, but you can’t completely control it, or even be entirely sure of what it will grow into. A transmedia project doesn’t just burst from your head, fully formed, like Athena from Zeus’ skull. A transmedia storyteller comes up with ideas and potentials and then works with a multiplicity of collaborators, including the audience, as it grows. It takes on a life of its own.

So why all the excitement about “transmedia” now? And is it really something new?

 I think it’s because of the Internet. Even before the Web, there was always the possibility of a popular movie inspiring a line of original comic books or an original line of novels or toys. However, it was always a top-down process. Now everyone can sit in front of the computer and access all these different kinds of media. Anyone can be a writer, a filmmaker, a designer, or a visual artist and put their work in front of an audience. The internet has made us all active storytellers. This creates a different kind of opportunity for career storytellers because not only they can put all their stuff online, but they can interact directly with their audience through their phones and their pads and their computers. They can co-create. It’s a massively new feedback loop.

Furthermore, storytelling always has to reflect the lives and the consciousness of the people of its age. We’re at the point now where everyone’s consciousness is constantly being expanded, taxed, overwhelmed, and sometimes even enlightened by all these different communication mediums that we have at our fingertips. So, the stories we tell have to reflect that, and utilize these very mediums that have so deeply affected, expanded and fragmented the human experience. There is no better way to do that than with a transmedia project.

One of the most striking things for me is the role of mobile and what it enables; there’s this expectation among consumers and audiences that they can bring the story or content to a level of personal relevance that they couldn’t before. In other words, it’s not just about me going deeper and deeper into the storyworld and finding out more about a character or a storyline. In some cases, it’s also about opportunities to bring the story out into my world. 

Yes, exactly. In other words, stories used to be told in such a way that either you were alone in a room with a book or you were in a dark theater watching a screen or in a living room in front of a TV set. It was sort of locked down, but now it can come out into the world. It’s going to be really interesting. Of course, there are all sorts of gimmicks and games now – from flash mobs to planking to geo-caching, but, beyond that, I think there is an opportunity for storytelling to truly leak out into the real world, not only in the sense that you’re taking it with you everywhere on your phone, but that part of the story itself is experienced in public, physical locations.

 I mean, when followers of the The Dark Knight transmedia campaign were going to bakeries and finding cell phones from the Joker hidden in cakes, the “medium” of the story became the real world.

From your perspective, what makes the difference between novelty or gimmicks, as you say, and really meaningful, good experiences?

The difference is that all the platforms, gimmicks and surprises that the storyteller uses in a transmedia way has to come from the characters—whatever problems, needs, hopes, schemes or dreams the characters have. The audience should feel that they’re moving from one medium to the other because the flow of the story and the goals of the characters call for it, because the story couldn’t be told in any other way.

Then, not only does the audience accept it, they become that much more engaged because it’s reflective of the way we actually live. We live life in transmedia: We read a kindle while watching TV and are interrupted by a text. We talk on the phone while driving a car and are distracted by a video billboard. We tweet our location, share what we see, and comment on what others are doing hundreds of miles away, all in real time. So, it makes sense that fictional characters would be expressing themselves in this fragmented way, and that a story would unfold on multiple sites.

 For me, the key is to think: “What are the needs of my characters, how would they express those needs and pursue their goals in today’s world, and how can that be expressed through transmedia?”

Transmedia, when it works, is not about plot. There are multiple plots all co-created and supported by the mob. Transmedia, at its best, is about the characters.

So, to what extent should the audience have input into how the story plays out? 

I think it really depends on the particular project. What’s key is that the interactivity has to spring from the desire and engagement of the people involved. Otherwise it can be very disruptive of the experience. The joy of listening to a story around a campfire comes from having empathy for the characters—really feeling the joys, terrors, and heartaches of that character—and also believing in the character’s world. Too often a clumsy interactive device - a simple, choose-your-own-adventure for example – can disrupt that magical dreamstate. When I’m suddenly making a choice for my character, I’m not feeling for the character; I’m made aware that, “Oh. This isn’t a real person. This world is fake.”

So, the interactivity should be based on the audience believing – or suspending disbelief - that the characters and story are real, and specifically, that their own actions in the story have an effect on the emotional lives of the characters and the choices they are making—not that they’re making choices for the characters, but their input changes the quality of the fictional world—then that world and the people in it become more and more real. Then the audience becomes a charater interacting inside this world. Then, there’s the opportunity to become even more empathetically connected to the characters moving around the multiple mediums. The characters feel more like real people, and we feel for them more.

So, with interactivity, there’s an opportunity there to enhance storytelling, by increasing engagement and empathy, and there is an opportunity to blow it, depending on whether things are executed skillfully or clumsily.

As you said, at the fundamental core of any story is the notion of relating to or empathizing with a character. That hasn’t changed over time, but what is changing about the mechanics of storytelling, or the way we capture and unfold stories? 

There is a major change that I think we’re on the brink of—closer than many people think – in the world of video games. Right now, video games are very immersive and cinematic in the way we can move through space and shoot at things, fight, manipulate objects, and so on. That kind of physical interaction with a finely detailed environment is very sophisticated. The big change happens when the user becomes emotionally involved in the unfolding action the way they do in a novel, a play or a movie .

I talked earlier about the idea of empathy. We can empathize with characters represented as simply as a scribbled cartoon—take Charlie Brown, for example. That’s because human beings can project an inner life onto almost anything – a doll, a pet, almost any object or animal. We can imagine, “what is that creature feeling?”

So, as soon as the characters in a game or some sort of interactive environment seem to have an inner life and authentic emotional reactions to the things we, the game player, do within that game, that’s going to trigger our empathy, and get us wondering, “What is that character thinking? What is that character’s intention? Is she sad? Is she happy? What is she thinking?” Suddenly, you’re not just shooting zombies. You’re not just beating up bad guys. Now you’re imagining how this pixelated figure might be feeling and motivated by, and you are becoming more and more engaged in the relationship you are forming with this character.

What do you think is the best way to get people to connect in that deeper, emotional way? Will we need more advanced technology, or is it just about conveying some other element of the narrative differently? 

We don’t need hard AI driving this kind of interaction; we just need enough of those triggers in the game character we interact with to make us project onto that image the idea of an inner life. Remember, we are capable of projecting an “inner life” on a stuffed animal, a cartoon character, or a marionette. We just need the right triggers.

Filmmakers have become adept at creating these triggers. In a famous experiment, a shot of an actor with a blank expression was inter-cut in three ways: it was intercut with a beautiful woman, with a banquet tablet, and with a coffin. These three different montages were then shown to three different audiences, and the audiences were asked what the character – the man with the blank expression – was thinking. Each audience read his expression differently. One said,“Oh, that man is so in love.” Another said, “Oh, that man is so hungry.” The third said, “Oh, that man is so sad.” It’s the same completely blank expression, but we project an inner life upon it.

As of now, most of the interactive environments available now haven’t really been able to access that capacity of the audience to believe in the inner life of the characters. But, when the people who design games move away from the rendering of the physical space, and into the development characters and behavior, then you can hit a tipping point; people are going to have entirely different experience inside this virtual world because they’ll be interacting emotionally and empathically with the characters rather than just moving around in space and shooting them.

That brings up a really interesting question: is it possible that the more immersive visuals we’ve been able to create for video games have reduced the effort we put into thinking about them, and actually diminished our ability to project an inner life onto characters? Often, if you look at a character in a game, it looks really close to being human but there’s something that feels creepy about it – like a wax figure or an automaton. In robotics, they call it the uncanny valley. We may find that, in the near, a much more simplified graphic character that nonetheless behaves as though it has an inner, emotional life, will be far, far more involving and engaging. Some movies – like Beowulf and The Polar Express - have animated characters that look almost human but not quite, and to me they are creepy and off-putting. That emphatic connection is completely broken. I’m more likely to believe bugs bunny is real. So, we may find that backing off on the photorealism actually helps to cultivate empathy.

Image from Polar Express
Very interesting. Switching gears a bit, do you have any suggestions for other storytellers who are interested in or working in the transmedia space? 

I’d say that no one really knows exactly what “transmedia” is yet. So, if you’re a storyteller, there is no reason you shouldn’t be telling stories and playing around with whatever you can get your hands on. We’re at a time now where digital cameras, editing software, online publishing tools, and so on, are literally free—or close to it. I think it’s too often that people write screenplays or books wait around for somebody to give them permission to publish, to produce, or to share that work with the world. There’re thousands of tools that can help a storyteller create content and reach an audience. Maybe you only get a hundred people to look at your work at first—but that’s a lot of people. To be a storyteller, you don’t have Charlie Kaufman or Steven Spielberg, you just have embrace the tools available all around you and be inventive.

P.S. Another great discussion of technology and the future of storytelling can be found on How will the craft of storytelling change in the future?

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