Digital Design, EDAC life, yegarts

A Heliocentric Model of Transmedia


The media production community is gathering in Banff this week for the Banff World Media Festival. BWMF is where much of the Canadian Film and TV (TV is such an antiquated term to me) production deals are made. The time honoured process of pitching, drinking, schmoozing and closing the next great series is one that is interesting from a distant cousin like me. I come from theatre and digital media production environments. Substantially less budget, but substantially greater freedom. It was about three years ago that I spoke to a small group at the BWMF about the ideas of transmedia. I wanted to share these ideas again here.

Transmedia is a term that has been popping up amongst digital media producers of all stripes. Many producers have been adopting a transmedia approach to their productions and even the Canadian governments (provincial and federal) have started funding transmedia based work. Yet, when I try to find out what the term means, any definition I get, or examples I see, save for a very select few, really do justice to the theoretical ideal of transmedia.

I have been doing this digital media stuff for a while. When I started the catch all term was “multimedia,” which meant media that is produced using multiple forms of media in one piece. Then came “new media,” media produced primarily through digital means. “Interactive media” was used to describe interactive content that was digitally produced. Then comes “transmedia” which is the use of a variety of formats to engage an audience in a central story idea. Simple right?

Several years ago, I had the privilege of presenting to an audience at the Banff World Media Festival. In this presentation I shared an analogy that fit my perception of what transmedia production in Canada seemed to be following. I described it using Copernicus’ theory of heliocentrism. The common understanding, during Copernicus’ time, was that the Earth was the centre of the Universe. This was referred to as the Geocentric model. Copernicus discovered that the Sun was actually the centre and the Earth orbited the Sun. This was referred to as the Heliocentric model. This was a fundamental shift that was needed for astronomers to start to better understand the cosmos. As a result, discoveries blossomed.

I used this analogy to help describe how our understanding of transmedia is a bit geocentric and if we are to truly take advantage of the opportunities of transmedia production, we need to have a fundamental shift. Recently, during a workshop with Patrick Finn, where we worked to turn a book written by Clem Martini into a play, we happened upon an interesting perception. It had to do with the difference between translation and transposition. In an effort to honour the source material, we were focused on transposing the material from book to script. We realized that, while transposition can mostly work, to really breathe life into the show, some translation is required. This lead to an epiphany for me. This is at the core of the challenge of transmedia production from what I can see.

The geocentric model of transmedia production is a common perspective. Often, the script or book is the source and other media are produced from that. What I realized is that this would lead to a transposition approach to the creation of other media. Often the other media seem lacklustre compared to the original production. The movie version of a book isn’t as good. The game based on a movie is not great. Movies based on games are often box office busts.

When searching for examples of successful transmedia, it is possible to find a variety of “accidental tourists.” In fact, most early examples of transmedia developed as a natural extension of the brand because the audience either was willing to pay or create their extensions of the original source. Star Trek developed into a convention experience, a Saturday morning cartoon, several movies, board games, video games, and a gargantuan pile of fan fiction. Star Wars has seen similar ongoing development of its intellectual property (IP). There are many more.

But, what are the conditions that allow an IP to successfully move into the transmedia realm? Can this be deliberate? How does a producer/creator keep reign on the IP but also allow for the multi-faceted expression of the story that is necessary for true transmedia?

This is where my analogy for the heliocentric view of the story-world comes into play. It is a subtle shift, but an important one. The key to this perspective is to acknowledge the importance (and value) of the story-world itself. This is the raw data of the creative IP. It is the rules of the universe you are creating, the characters, the civilizations, the physical settings, all of it. When the creators of Lost were developing the series, they started with a story-world core. Over time it developed and was vital for the overall cohesion of the series and its various off-shoot media.

Below is a diagram for this heliocentric view. It serves as a model for not only entertainment, but also news coverage, and esoteric data sets.  This model can serve to aid a developer of GIS tools, an editor for a breaking news event, or the creator of the next epic storytelling adventure.

Transmedia Production Model
click to embiggen

In this model I am hoping to simplify the distinction between a story-world/idea/datasource/news-event and the various forms that core can be expressed. Decoupling the idea from its expression frees that idea from its bonds and allows it to be translated to another form. Recognizing the McLuhan adage, “the medium is the message,” is to recognize that the story-world requires experts in the various domains of media production to express that world through the parameters of that domain.

This is just scratching the surface. My next goal is to explore a way of documenting and expressing a story-world in a means that avoids entering the storytelling realm as that is just one form of expression. Patrick Finn, who I mentioned earlier, and I are building this around a core idea of object oriented design. So far, it is yielding some great discussion. I am curious to see how we can begin to apply this to various projects. My friend, Karen Unland, is embarking on a study of entrepreneurial journalism that deals with the changing face of journalism and the work journalists do. This transmedia model plays nicely with the new journalism that is expressed in a plethora of intensely immediate forms. Social media is today’s fastest means of communicating the ephemeral. Smart journalists understand that news is ephemeral and social media is the ideal venue for initiating awareness about the breaking news.

This is a pack of ideas that I am ruminating on. Now for some research and studies to see if this whole thing plays nicely with others!