[Editor’s Note: Dashiell Reinhardt is the Partner and Head of Post Production at Happy Little Guillotine Studios, one of the web’s first and most successful creative agencies and production houses. Reinhardt has been on the front lines of digital production and advertising for the better part of the last decade and has an incredible amount of fantastic thoughts on the industries. Here he is sharing a few of them.]
We live in an age of almost seamless media connection. From our smartphones to our laptops, from Facebook to Twitter, it is entirely possible to fill every second of every day hopping from one media experience to the next. And from this unbroken stream of content, a new method of storytelling is evolving, a crossbreed of traditional, social, and digital media. Transmedia is the next level of immersion and interaction brought forth by the digital age.
It’s an exciting time, ushering in a new era of immersion and interaction. Of course, Transmedia is still in its early stages and as with any newly evolving concept, there are still quite a few ups and downs. With experimentation comes success and failure. So, as owner of a self-described forward thinking company built in the digital realm, I’d like to take a little time to share some musings on the makeup of a successful Transmedia campaign.
Independent but Interconnected.
If you’re going to create a world that spans multiple mediums, each individual experience should be able to exist as just that, an individual experience. Yet, they should also be parts of a larger whole, expansions of the main world that offer deeper understanding and connect the weaving threads of its story throughout its multi-media reach.
An early example of Transmedia, The Matrix trilogy saw an expanded universe through its series of anime shorts The Animatrix. Along with comic books, video games, and more, each element could be enjoyed independently, but when experienced as a whole the world gained a new level of depth. Revealing moments not shown in the films, providing looks into backstories of the franchise’s characters, and building a rich history of the universe most viewers only saw in theaters and on DVDs.
You can’t expect your audience to take part in every aspect of your campaign. It’s a huge commitment to ask. Each element has to be treated first as independent, before it is woven into the larger picture. Never a requirement, but an expanded experience for those wishing to delve deeper.
Different stories have different strengths and weaknesses and knowing how to expand upon them is the key to a strong Transmedia experience.
A great example of this is the Twitter accounts of professional wrestlers. In a world based around big personalities and plenty of smack talk, it’s hard to think of a more natural expansion than into social media. The world of wrestling is essentially a soap opera with 300 lb. monsters beating the snot out of each other. If half the fun is seeing what drama they stir up as they do the beating, continuing that drama in the world of social media spreads the fiction. It brings the characters to life and gives fans a deeper narrative to delve into.
Looking at more traditional forms of television entertainment, Breaking Bad has some fantastic Easter Eggs, including the “Save Walter White” website and the infomercials created for the series’ sleezy lawyer Saul. Both examples are simple, fun, and natural expansions of the world.
(Just like every other meth dealer, a misunderstood family man.)
A great experience isn’t forced, it flows. Not every story needs its characters to have twitter accounts, and not every series will naturally need a detailed encyclopedia of its history. Universes such as the one created in The Matrix are compelling enough that any strong story told within it can capture our interest. We don’t necessarily need to see Neo and Morpheus in action. Conversely character-study driven series such as Breaking Bad require development of their core characters to keep us invested. Know your story, and know what mediums into which it naturally flows.
If you’d like a great example of what not to do, the webisodes created for the NBC series Heroes are as good as any.
An obviously reduced budget and lack of any sight of main characters isn’t the best starting point, but follow it with weak acting, writing, and production value and you’ve got yourself a nice trifecta of terrible. The main NBC series itself created a compelling universe, but was plagued by weak characters, lame plot developments, and substandard writing. So, it would seem natural to assume its additional content would be even worse. But that assumption signifies a larger problem.
(No, stop it.)
Often it seems that it’s not just the viewers, but also the creators who deem their additional content inferior by placing less care, time, and effort into the creative process. It’s examples like these that hurt the overall potential of Transmedia. Working with less money and having to introduce new characters is certainly a challenge, but doesn’t instantly equate to inferior content. A good creative team works with their restrictions, not against them. The webisodes actually had the potential to be better then the main series given the right creators.
Creating an inferior experience only hurts your series as a whole. It doesn’t matter what your restrictions are or what medium you’re working within. The point is to expand a world and provide a richer experience. If you can’t accomplish that with whatever resources you have at your disposal (and again, it doesn’t have to take much), then don’t bother creating a Transmedia experience at all.
In a terribly clever campaign designed to promote the film Skyfall, Coke Zero designed a real world James Bond experience. Unknowing participants looking to grab a Coke were offered a chance to win free tickets to see the film. The catch, upon accepting they were immediately thrust into an obstacle filled race to the finish line. Distractingly beautiful foreign women, a beat-boxed Bond theme, and a stress-inducing countdown, completed the double-0 agent experience.
(Reliving the classic James Bond rolling orange hurdle.)
When my company HLG Studios released our series Leap Year, part of the marketing revolved around linking story elements to relevant real world examples. Set in the world of small business owners and the rising start up industry, many of our viewers enjoyed the show because of their own entrepreneurial and technical ties. Our audience engaged with relevant, real world information beyond the entertainment we aimed to deliver in the fictional world, and their association with the series (and its sponsor) was hopefully enhanced.
(I’m afraid I can’t be trusted to be objectively snarky here. You’re on your own.)
There are a number of fancy terms thrown about in the ad world like “call to action” and “gameification” and others that describe ways to get viewers actively engaged in a branded experience. This and more can be accomplished within a true Transmedia experience that creates immersion through active engagement.
Few are unfamiliar with the Old Spice campaign “The man your man could smell like”. One of the most memorable advertisements in recent years, the creative force at W+K capitalized on the success of their viral sensation starring Isaiah Mustafa by having the actor live tweet responses to questions asked by fans of the campaign. It was a brilliant move that brought even more awareness to the campaign and extended its life in a simple and engaging way.
Staying on top of current trends may take constant monitoring, but the results a campaign can gain are enormous. Social media has allowed for a more vocal and active viewer, and a proper campaign takes full advantage of that fact, ready to act at a moment’s notice.
Transmedia is built on the evolution of media. And as creators we must evolve with it.
The Lizzie Bennet Diaries is an excellent example of creating a unique experience, or at least a good enough example to win an Emmy. A modern adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, the series is built around its main character’s video blog and expands into the “real world” social media interactions of the characters within. Bernie Su, Hank Green, and their team set out to create a progressive Transmedia experience outside of traditional media and they succeeded.
(But the internet hates quirky red heads…)
There is untold potential in the way we seamlessly interact with our media, and as new and exciting technologies evolve that will only become more true. Those willing to push the boundaries of storytelling may find themselves stumbling upon an experience unlike any other.
As with any story, if you don’t have an audience you don’t have a show. Where Transmedia sets itself apart is it’s reliance on an engaged and active audience. Luckily for us, there is already an immense amount of active communities present, ready, and willing to build off a story that they love.
The sheer amount of memes, fan pages, and fan fiction spread across the internet are a testament to this. Online creations such as Red vs. Blue showcase an expansion of a world that the creators never intended. League of Legends, an extremely popular online RPG evolved from a custom map created using WarCraft III’s map maker. Hell, even Shades of Grey started as Twilight fan fiction.
(Snowqueens Icedragon is surely her given name.)
This era of social media has seen the rise of a connected creative force. The same fans that will hungrily devour your content are the ones that will take that content and create something new. And you should let them. Give your fans a reason to keep coming back for more, let them build their investment with your story and make it their own. You’ll be surprised what comes of it.
Blurring Fiction and Reality
To promote Ridley Scott’s film Prometheus, Peter Weyland (played by Guy Pearce) gave a talk at the TED Conference of 2023. The result was an instant viral sensation.
(No snark here, this is just cool.)
We are able to bring characters to life in new and exciting ways and have them interact with the real world in a way that was never before possible. Many viral sensations succeeded because they raised the question “Is this real?”. Don’t limit yourself. Stories grip us because they immerse us in a different world, but use what’s available to bring these fictional worlds closer to our own.
This really should go without saying, and clearly if you’ve read this far you are already qualify. Even so, I’ve seen plenty of examples of campaigns that are obviously more concerned with creating a flood of content than with quality. Half-hearted and lazy attempts thrown weakly into place in the hopes that fans will latch onto anything with a name attached.
The idea is to complement, not sacrifice. If you’re going to build a connected experience that extends a world, you need to care as much about each extension as you do about the main component. To be as passionate about it as you expect your fans to be.
There is still so much potential for this new evolution of media. We are still in its infancy, enough that I’d argue we’ve only begun to see what Transmedia has to offer. Our technology is evolving at such a rapid pace and storytellers must evolve with it. It’s not long until someone stumbles upon something new. A new level of interaction and immersion, a new and exciting way to tell a story that no one has done before. I for one, can’t wait for the experience.
Happy Little Guillotine Studios, an award-winning digital production house and creative agency, has created and produced everything from the Slurpee Unity Tour (winner of the PRO Campaign of the Year award) that garnered an unprecedented 2 billion media impressions — to Leap Year, a scripted Hulu series funded by Hiscox Insurance that received millions of views. Their mission statement is simple: use the digital genre to create compelling stories for fans and clients alike.