Transmedia – An entire forest instead of a sole tree?

I just installed the Drum Media app on my IPad. Why? Because last night whilst waiting for my washing to dry at the laundromat, I read an interesting story in The Drum Media Magazine that at the midpoint suggested ‘there’s more to this story on the Ipad’.

by Sam Duncan


Now I desperately want to know — but I’ll continue on — as not knowing actually provides a good foundation to start with an explanation of what is ‘Transmedia’.

If I opened the App and found material that expanded upon the article I was reading about the band The Jezabels, with new information and perhaps a new focal point, then this would be a good example of Transmedia. If I opened the App and found the same information simply replicated on a different platform, then this would not be.

Transmedia is essentially multi-platform storytelling.

That’s an easy concept; the complexity however is in the requirement that different story elements be told through different platforms. Therefore a novelisation of a film is not Transmedia, yet a comic book that tells a character backstory is.

Novelist and Screenwriter Chuck Wendig paints the perfect picture of the Transmedia World. He uses the metaphor of a Tree vs the Forest. Stories are generally a single tree, sometimes grown by a single practitioner.

However the Transmedia story-world is far more fertile and compelling when seen as an entire forest growing up together at the same time. Some trees find light and others fail, it’s all one big organic collision of life that thrives on organised chaos.

This is where the beauty of Transmedia lies.
The storyteller has a much bigger and better canvas to work with.

A standard duration feature film might be the perfect platform to tell a central story that you could consider the main story, but at the end maybe we are left craving more time with a particular character or more exploration of a particular story-world?

Perhaps we could explore that story-world further through an alternate reality game or get more time with our favourite character by watching online minisodes focused on character backstories or different goal oriented adventure tangents.

Television shows Breaking Bad and Lost are two good examples of narrative extension across different platforms. As Transmedia Commentator Jason Mittell suggests, Breaking Bad is Character-driven Transmedia, with videos and websites illuminating the amusing backgrounds of Hank, Marie, Badger and Saul whereas Lost prioritised story-world expansion.

For example Breaking Bad’s Walt in one minisode is painted in a more comedic light as he listens to future brother-in-law Hank’s pre-wedding sexual hijinks and in another carries out a bungled break-and- enter with a drugged out Badger. The Lost TV show built a mythological universe and then expanded on some of those mysteries through Transmedia extensions.

As brought to my attention by Mittell, Lost put out five alternate reality games, four novels, a PC/console video game, multiple tie-in websites, two series of online videos and an array DVD extras.

It is obvious how this approach to storytelling can achieve greater audience engagement. The more we explore the more we want to keep exploring thus engaging us more intensely and probably for a lot longer. So in financial terms, yes producers are much more likely to get good return on investment from their creations.

However there’s a risk too. If it’s Transmedia for the sake of Transmedia, and the story isn’t rich enough to warrant this approach, the audience is likely to immediately disengage as the marketing centric franchise will annoy us or we will simply lose interest with the lack of interesting content.

I rather look at what Transmedia can offer creatively to the storyteller.

Evolution of ReadersThere’s another element to Transmedia that’s particularly appealing. That is the ability for the audience to be interactive.

To use a loose analogy, it can be like a chose your own adventure novel, the viewer can in many Transmedia experiences interact with the storyteller to shape the journeys and destinations of the characters in the story. This feedback loop I think particularly satisfying as it is no longer simply a lie back on the couch disconnected from the story you are watching experience.

This side of Transmedia is yet to reach it’s full potential however in the future it’s likely that many stories will be shaped by what the audience majority wants to see happen.

So is Transmedia a ‘must embrace’ approach for storytellers to succeed in the age where an eight year old probably has six connected media devices?

Many argue yes – that the audience needs it and will demand it, not to mention the financial incentives for content creators to do so. The jury is still out however and I would suggest that there is still something to be said for the beauty of simplicity.

I love the movie Fear and Loathing Las Vegas yet I want it to be just the book and movie (essentially the same story). I watch the movie and feel l like I’ve been on an interesting journey. A journey that I loved but am finished with. I don’t then want to watch Hunter S. Vegas story tangents on my Iphone on the toilet.

The series Dexter however, I wouldn’t mind seeing some of his other adventures away from the central focus of his ethical code based killings.

So in sum, the approach – Transmedia or not – should be driven by the nature and intent of the story. Going Transmedia to achieve increased associated advertising profit or because in 2012 we feel we should is not a recipe for success. If the characters and the story-world are rich enough and suitable enough to warrant it, then a Transmedia approach will without doubt be great.

-Sam Duncan

Sam Duncan is a Sydney-based videographer, documentarian, writer and founder of Sambo Media.
He is interested in practical, technologically relevant approaches to content production and distribution.
Sam enjoys surfing, Cuban music and handstands.

Photo Credit: Vinoth Chandar via Compfight

3 thoughts on “Transmedia – An entire forest instead of a sole tree?”

Leave a Comment